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11.23.11 | Comment?


CATEGORIES conferences, critics, ideas, journalism, rabble rousing, social media, theatrical ecosystem

Once upon a time, perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, I read a really fascinating article which posited that the arts would get more coverage in the media if they opened themselves up and provided greater access to the media. It suggested that the arts were working too hard to “control the story” at every possible turn and that as a result, we received only perfunctory coverage. Why, asked the article, which I believe had been presented as a speech at a conference of arts journalists, couldn’t the arts be more like sports, which gave the press access to practice sessions, to the locker rooms, in addition to the game itself?

Now I’m remembering this article (how I wish I still had it) at a temporal remove, so it would do no good to try to refute many of the points that made up its argument, which was perhaps hyperbolic, or even tongue in cheek, in the first place. But the issue of access remains with me, as someone who used to be one of the guardians who sought media coverage yet attempted to control every interaction between the artists at work in my theatre and those who would write about them.

I’m singing a somewhat different tune these days, although I’m no longer a publicist. While I never placed theatre in an ivory tower, I did respect that the artistic process shouldn’t be constantly opened up to scrutiny at every turn, and that to do so might well be detrimental. But I was doing my job in the very earliest days of the internet, and certainly before blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like transformed every individual in a given production, and on the staff, into a broadcaster of news, gossip and personal opinion, readily accessible to not just the press, but to audiences as well. Consequently, the issue of access has fundamentally changed, in both positive and negative ways.

Several weeks ago, my Twitter sparring partner Peter Marks took exception to the fact that Arena Stage was holding a summit of some three dozen industry leaders to explore the issue of new play production in America. Prompted by a press release announcing the event, which listed the theatre notables expected to attend, Peter sought to report on the two day “convening” but was rebuffed. After protracted discussions, he did not attend; he subsequently set down his thoughts about access in a piece for The Washington Post.

When first made aware of the situation, I stood squarely (but silently) with Peter, assuming that the November event mirrored Arena’s January convening, where the participants numbered over 100, the public was invited and panels were streamed live. But the recent event was by invitation only and, had it not been announced by press release, might have actually taken place unnoticed.

The January meeting, for which a summary report was just issued, became infamous forremarks about supply and demand in the theatre industry as voiced by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman. News of those comments came fast and furious onto my Twitter stream as he spoke and, I confess, I called the theatre desk at The New York Times to suggest they might want to read what I was seeing (of which they were unaware), fueling what became an industry furor. To the best of my knowledge, no such news came out of the more intimate November convening, perhaps because of a shared commitment to privacy among the participants, but more likely due to the lack of tweeters and bloggers amongst our artistic and management leaders

While trying to keep any conversation in this day and age from reaching the public is difficult, I do believe that there are some conversations which can be most productive when people can speak in complete candor, which public or press presence can immediately mitigate. No one should interpret every closed-door meeting to be nefarious, nor should they cease because of pressure for unfettered inclusion (I should note that I know of several in the non-profit community who resent not having been invited as well). I’m not advocating exclusion, but privacy has its merits. TDF new play study, Outrageous Fortune, was not discounted upon its publication because it emerged from private conversations and used unsourced quotes, after all.

On the other hand…

Recently, a theatre in New York held a public panel on the arts, an event to which the public was invited to attend for a moderate price. Although I am not a journalist, I inquired about whether I might attend and “live-blog” the discussion, in the interest of sharing the conversation with a wider audience. I was rebuffed by the press office, being told that the theatre wanted to keep its event intimate and quiet. Because I have many personal relationships at the organization and because I am not a journalist, I did not pursue this further.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked. After all, this was a public event and anyone there could have tweeted or written about what took place. If I hadn’t wanted to bring my laptop and access a wi-fi connection for contemporaneous reportage, surely nothing would have stopped me from reporting via iPhone tweets (save for an eagle-eyed usher, perhaps). If I did not consider myself part of the theatre community, if I didn’t have friends I might offend, I might well have barreled ahead and, having seen no reports of the event, maybe I should have. I do consider it disingenuous to label something as a public forum and then suggest that only those physically present should have any access to what occurs. A very different case than what transpired at Arena.

All of this brings me around to the buzzword “transparency.” In both of the examples cited, the events were not fully transparent; I agree with one company’s position, while I’m mildly resentful of the other’s. I think transparency is, overall, positive, but it isn’t necessarily an all-access pass. Indeed, some may question why in my latter example, I’m not naming names — in the interest of transparency. I do so because I know the company in question will see this, may well be prompted to consider their future approach and I don’t wish to embarrass them or reveal private communications; I name Arena because the incident is already part of the public discourse.

Let me share a third example, in which the media plays no role. At Hartford Stage in the late 80s, a benefit for donors of a certain level, which proved quite popular, was the opportunity to observe tech rehearsals. With as many as 75 donors at the back of the theatre, the rehearsals proceeded, but a flaw in the plan was quickly discovered: the attendees were bothered that they couldn’t clearly hear the director’s instructions to the actors, the designers and the crew. As a result, the director was fitted with a body mic, to be turned on and off at will, which would allow everyone to hear directives more clearly. While it may have saved on vocal strain, and was perhaps incidental, it did have the effect of transforming that rehearsal into a sort of performance, where with every booming pronouncement, the show’s production team and company were reminded of the patrons at the back, whose presence had impacted upon process, whether imperceptibly or fundamentally we’ll never know.

Smart phones, ever-smaller computers, social networks, the rise of the citizen reporter and critic, the persistence of the mainstream media all promise to insure that we are living in an ever more transparent world. We have seen the impact upon politics and governing (not always the same thing) and every day we see society evolving to address the new openness, whether cultivated or abhorred. While our dressing rooms may remain off limits, we may well be reaching a point where little else in the creative process can be protected, and where surely the field will benefit from broader, open conversation in so many instances.

Perhaps rehearsal rooms will be fitted with the one-way mirrors employed by police dramas (and presumably the actual police), so that rehearsals can be observed, but with those rehearsing none the wiser. Perhaps every pre-show and post-show discussion, every panel and forum, will be streamed or recorded for public consumption. Perhaps the inspiration of first rehearsals and the very first table read of a script will be opened up either live or through technology. Perhaps we can demystify the process of theatre so that more people can appreciate its magic (and no, that’s not an oxymoron).

Let’s face it: we’re heading in a direction where transparency is unavoidable. Would we do better to hold on to the shutters from the inside, waiting in fear for outside forces to rip them from our hands, or to open them (and the doors) as often as we can, perhaps supporting the argument for those times when a little privacy may be of value? The way may not be completely clear, but only with unobscured vision will we succeed in managing this transformation.

This post originally appeared on the hesherman.com website.

Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman has nearly three decades of both executive and staff experience at such companies as American Theatre Wing, O'Neill Theatre Center, Geva Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club and Westport Country Playhouse. He tweets as @hesherman.

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