Monday, April 8, 2013

On Backstage's plan to end reviews, and why it matters

Backstage has announced to its reviewers that after April, there will be no more reviews printed. The reason given, by Executive Editor Daniel Halloway, is the following:
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.”
This is why it matters:

Let us put aside the hollow thinking that is behind this “metric data.” Clearly, Backstage is struggling. It did not anticipate the internet age, and as a casting tool, it has been overtaken by Actor’s Access. Few people rely on Backstage for theater news.

It had, in fact, one remaining unique aspect. Its reviews. As a print publication, the breadth of its reviews was unmatched. The only two publications the came close in terms of breadth were The New York Times and Time Out, and even they were not able to cover the number of independent theater productions that Backstage covered. True, there are blogs that cover theater as well. One,, does an incredible job in its breadth, which no other website or publication matches. But blogs and unpaid reviewers are still not given the same respect that a publication which pays its reviewers, like Backstage, receives.

Who was its audience? Theater people, almost exclusively. Other actors, writers, and directors. Perhaps a grantor or an agent who received a clipping. Other reviewers.  It could be quoted and the quote would be recognized and respected, not as much as the Times but more than a random blog, just because of the brand recognition.

But those reviews meant something. They could be sent to potential audience members, posted on Facebook, on Twitter, linked to on a website or in an email. They could help you a grant, or maybe help to get an agent. They could encourage other reviewers could come. And frankly, they meant something to those in the show. Somebody saw the show, thought about the show, wrote some words, and cared.

Theater may be thrown out like a curse word by in congress, it may be disrespected and underpaid, but at least we cared about ourselves. We were paying attention, we knew we were valuable and this publication, a publication made to be read by those in the industry, cared about the industry

Unlike other theater towns, we have only a few theater publications. The reason the Times is considered so powerful is there is so little competition. When I put up a show, when I am lucky at least, I expect to be in three print publications. The New York Times, Time Out, and Backstage. Once there was the Village Voice, but ironically the publication that still hosts the Obies gave up on reviewing independent theater years ago.

And when shows aren't reviewed, it isn't just artists who suffer, it's the community as a whole.  An artist who practices good work in obscurity is a loss to the art form.  And the documentation of our theater is something not to be taken for granted.  With an ephemeral art form, we need more than any art to be written about in order to be preserved,

I talk about reviews sometimes as if they a toss of the dice. I believe that good shows, that take risks, are not always loved by everyone. They have their adherents, they have their detractors. This is normal, it is that way with good movies and good books. The difference is, the gambling is so much more acute, when there are fewer times to throw the dice. Backstage, gone. Time Out—reviewer got ill, no replacement available. The New York Times—snake eyes.

Three months, six months, a year of work, done.

Next roller.

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