When Backstage “let go” Los Angeles theater writer Dany Margolies last January for “restructuring” reasons we knew it was a bad omen of darker times to come for the 53-year-old theater industry trade publication. Now, more bad news arrives: As of the April 11th print edition, Backstage will stop printing theater reviews, online or in print. Any of them. All of them. Gone. Done. Period.
Last week, The Executive Editor Daniel Holloway of Backstage sent the following memo:
An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.
Got that? No more critical analysis of the art itself. No more artistic assessment or creative survey of what is actually happening on stage. Who wants to read that? Apparently, no one. Instead, we want “advice, news and features”. The dumbing-down of American culture continues.
To Halloway and Backstage, “metric data” and investment resources appear to be more important than remembering that the name of their publication includes the word “stage”.
Ironically, the announcement from Backstage on Friday came after HowlRound — committed to modeling a commons-based approach to advancing the health and impact of the not-for-profit theater — devoted the week on a discussion of theater criticism.
In the ether of our online reality, are “User Comments” and Yelp reviews written by “people like us” holding more sway than a studied critique by an arts journalist? Do we now trust home-written blogs more than art experts? In the lightning-fast instantaneous tech-world of Tweeting and texting and Instant Messaging, are critical reviews being left behind and lost in the dust like relics from another era?
Or is the evil of Corporate Thinking overtaking and poisoning our art form? Are CEO’s of Arts Organizations — and Arts Publications — focused only on the bottom-line and not enhancing the art form they are meant to serve?
Or does the problem lie at the feet of the quality of dramatic criticism itself? Without question, the time has come to take a fresh look at and, perhaps, reinvent a new form of dramatic criticism that can respond in new ways to what happens on stage. What is that fresh approach? What will it look like? Which journalists have the skill, intelligence and artistic sensibility to lead the way?
The arts community has been complaining about the quality of dramatic criticism almost as long as it’s moaned about the dying of theater as an art form itself. As both art form and journalist run the risk of becoming more and more marginalized in today’s Info-Age, the more vital and essential both are revealed to be.
Intelligent and insightful arts journalism and dramatic criticism is essential for a healthy dialogue between the journalist, the audience and the art form we all love. The sad announcement last week from Backstage is another stab in the heart of the theatre community and a further silencing of the critical voice. Let’s not forget that the word critical not only means “to judge, find fault or criticize”. It also means “crucial, indispensable, and urgently needed”.