Media and the Stage: A Partnership for the Arts

 

The transcript of a seminar given to the Maine State Music Theatre interns as part of their education series on July 27, 2016, at the MSMT studios in Brunswick. The remarks were followed by questions and answers and some interactive exercises in which the interns were asked to role play through some typical interview situations

internseminar

I am so delighted to be here today and very glad that Ray [Dumont] has asked me to share some thoughts with you. I love this company, and I love what you young artists bring to it.

I’m Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, and I have been an arts journalist for almost thirty years, first in NYC and now here in Maine (where I originally came to retire, but after a major sea change in my life, I decided that returning to doing what I loved was exacty what I needed). So I am currently the Maine editor for Broadway World, a regular contributor to Scene 4 Magazine and Fanfare; I do some freelance writing projects for MSMT, and I am a sometime novelist. Over the years I have written for a wide array of international publications about theatre, classical music, opera, visual arts, and I have also handled press from the artist’s side as well, in a decade long stint working for the operatic baritone Thomas Hampson. I have degrees in liberal arts with a theatre concentration and in English Literature and Journalism, and I have taught, worked as an arts administrator, and as a writer.

I’d like to talk to you today about what I do, the role press/media plays in any artist’s life and in the theatre community, what I think criticism and press should be, what you as theatre people will need to do with regard to the media as you build your careers.

I imagine many artists regard criticism as a one-dimensional, often negative phenomenon, and press useful only as publicity to help launch and bolster your careers. And, of course, that is part of it, but not its entirety, I believe. The word “criticism” implies both positive and negative and in its best sense it really means analysis – something to which we all need to submit our work from time to time. Horror stories of all-powerful critics like the NYT’s Frank Rich who was not so affectionately known as “the Butcher of Broadway” – these tend to prevail in our consciousness as we attribute a life and death power to a review. In the past after a Broadway opening, the cast and crew would head to Sardi’s to drink a fair amount while awaiting the verdict, and newspaper journalists were aware of the power they wielded over theatre folks.

And to some extent, especially in those days of almighty print journalism, this perception carried with it a certain truth, but I do believe all that has and continues to change- especially once you get out of NYC. There have been so many alterations in the way publications cover the arts in the 3 decades I have worked in this business. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe – a handful of print publications still largely adhere to their previous methods, but even they have to walk a precarious tightrope in a world where print media is rapidly vanishing. The ubiquitousness of digital media –online publications not to mention blogs, FaceBook, You Tube,make information and opinion available almost instantly and from every perspective. Not only does the journalist today have to be able to work in even quicker turnaround, but he/she has to become skilled in these new idioms. Moreover, the availability of so much digital media and the shrinking of print media pose their own sets of challenges for artists and arts companies, as well.

When I began to review and to write profiles and features in the late 1980s, I was responsible only to my editor and to that publication. We journalists maintained a distance from our subjects, and there were unwritten rules about how these interactions should take place. All that has changed, not only because of the accessibility of media pieces, but also because the arts are perhaps more challenged than ever today by economic and political realities. The battle to get the word out has increasingly become a collaboratve one between artists, arts entities, and writers, who all see ourselves as all being in this together, all fighting to make sure the arts we believe in and love – not to mention our jobs – get a fighting chance to survive. And in this once unthinkable alliance, there are many rewards, but also some slippery slopes to navigate.

From my own perspective I welcome this collaborative approach. Many years ago I published a journal article about the state of opera criticism in which I took to task – kind of rashly for someone new on the street – critics who saw their role as an obligation to tear down artists, to bandy acerbic remarks that made provocative headlines, and to place their own egos at the center of the article. One sees less and less of that today, thank goodness, but the underlying principles remain the same for me.

So let me tell you how I see my role in the theatre community and why I find it a fulfilling partnership to work with artists and administrators especially on the regional level where it all becomes ever so much more personal.

The first preparation to become a journalist is your education. You must be a well-trained, talented writer, one who can use the English language correctly – and that means grammar, punctuation, usage – (what are we coming to when one routinely sees who and whom or pronouns misused in even the sacrosanct NYT?) And you must love words and believe in their power to move minds and hearts.

Then you must understand the disciplines you will write about. Just as you are studying musical theatre or stage craft or the other fields you will need to do your job well, I have academic training in theatre, art history, music history, and journalism. Then I have practical experience as well, teaching drama and English, directing in community theatre, writing a few professional media scripts, and designing one television set – not to mention, serving as a department chair and arts administrator – all of which eventually prepared me to take up my pen full time.

And this is important, I believe, because too many general publications today believe that anyone can write about the arts; they lump these stories with “community coverage,” and the subtext is really that they see theatre or music or visual art as less important, of less mainstream interest than – let us say sports. They mistakenly believe that writing about the arts does not require any special expertise – because “after all we all love entertainment!” Or there is the false notion born of our internet age, that everyone is a critic and one opinion carries as much weight as another. Well, of course, in a free society this is true in one sense, but in another it is self-deceiving because the sharing of personal tastes and opinions, while a perfectly valid thing, does not constitute the kind of analysis that helps make constructive contributions to the arts.

That said, I confess that I do see myself as someone knowledgeable about the arts. I am committed to the belief that as a society and as human beings, theatre, music, visual art – all enrich our lives; they shape our imaginations, creativity, and critical thinking, and they help us to plumb our deepest feelings and thoughts and to discover beauty and our human interconnectedness. And so I begin from a position of respect for anyone who has that creative flame within him. I try to come without any preconceived notions about a work or an artist or a production, and I try to evaluate what I experience based on technique, craft, artistry, and on how well the performance communicates its ideas and lives up to expected standards of that theatre.

For just as the writer has standards of preparation and education, so he/she must formulate his standards of measurement for the works he/she evaluates. For example, one cannot expect a theatre on a shoestring budget to produce what MSMT does here. But do they solve the realities of their situation creatively? Is the unlit spot on stage the result of a failing dimmer or simply poor design? Assessing why and how things happen is part of the process as well. This does not mean that a reviewer should countenance a shoddy production because the group is “only a community theatre,” but it does mean that he should assess what he sees based on a balance of the real and the ideal and evaluate accomplishments and failures within reasonable expectation parameters.

I believe every writer has the responsibility to speak the truth as he/she sees it, and as a matter of professionalism to set and maintain standards for excellence both in your own writing and in the plays, careers, works you are evaluating or describing. So this means if you are writing a review and the performance is simply subpar, you cannot, no matter how much you’d like to help the company, gild that lily. But there is no need to be cutting, sarcastic, or gleefully destructive; there is always a way to say something constructively rather than with blatant negativism. And if – and I have done this on occasion – something is so dreadful that it would be virtually impossible to find the bright spots, I have decided not to review it at all. This, of course, is the luxury of freelancing- but it has gotten me out of a bind a few times, especially when one lives in a small town like Brunswick, where thank goodness civility is still the norm in discourse. (unless you are our Governor!)

That said, those occasions are rare; you can usually find – with carefully chosen words – a way to convey that something needs improvement. Tact is often a vanishing art and tact does not have to mean glossing over. Listen to the mordantly cutting, yet always civil dialogue among the characters in Downton Abbey, for example, and you will understand how one can be assertive and polite at once! As a recent example, after I had languished through an almost three hour play with four women talking endlessly on a golf course and NOT DOING ANYTHNG!, I came out of the theatre wanting to explode: “Playwright X’s drama is as boring as eighteen holes of golf.” When you feel like that it’s time to take a deep breath and find what else in the evening balances that feeling. That’s why, whenever possible, I sleep on it and write first thing in the morning. In this case, what I eventually did write that was “Just as a game of golf takes patience, so too, does X’s play, but for those who endure, there are rewards at the end.” And in a certain sense that was true, though one had to resift through the experience very carefully to find them!

On the other hand, if something is just impossibly awry, it probably does need to be mentioned – the orchestra that is so badly off-pitch, the singers can scarcely sing or a misguided bit of staging. Once again, it comes down to how you say it and what weight you give it in the article.

In addition to evaluation in writing critiques, I believe my responsibilities include supporting and helping to advance opportunities and coverage for arts organizations and artists, who, I believe, merit that kind of boost. If I see a performance or the work by someone or some group that is extraordinary, I WANT to share that. I want to create an audience as best I can; I want to make sure others sit up and take notice. I want to use my writing to validate the hard work and accomplishments of these people.

And that is where feature writing and interviews, as well as reviews, come into play. I currently work both as a freelancer where I get to suggest and build my own stories and on assignment, where my editor hands me a subject to cover. I infinitely prefer the first position because it guarantees that I bring your enthusiasm to the piece. When I get to write about something wonderful a theatre like MSMT has done, the energy I’ve inhaled from the performance or the person I’ve just interviewed just spills over on the page. That kind of article writes itself, and it becomes a very special way of my paying back the joy, the thrill their work has given me. If I come out of show like Ray Dumont’s production of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, as I did two months ago – completely blown away- then I can’t wait to put into words what I’ve experienced and hope that what I write brings in more people to experience it too.

If, however, one receives a feature assignment, as a freelancer, it becomes incumbent on you to refuse it if you do not approach the subject with understanding and respect. That doesn’t mean you can’t explore knotty issues in your questions or analysis, but if you, the writer, don’t believe in what you’re writing about, you are never going to make that piece of any true interest to your readers.

Once you’ve settled on the interview or the feature, what are the ethical guidelines? There is a huge divide between tabloid entertainment journalism and real artist profiles. No gossip, no hearsay, no juicy tidbits, no gratuitous personal information that has no bearing on the focus of the article – all that goes without saying if you are a serious journalist. But often a subject will say more than he should or speak less tactfully than he might, and there can be no purpose served in letting some information get into print just because someone is rambling. So, without changing actual quotes, one selects, one edits, one applies language filters, so that the intent is served without all the misguided details.

Along the same lines, accuracy of information is crucial. Today, very few publications have the luxury of a fact checker on staff, so you have to be your own fact checker—not really hard with all the online resources, but it is an essential part of good journalism. And checking information means not only after, but before in your research- finding out EVERYTHING you can about your subject. Deciding what information suits the focus of your piece and shaping knowledgeable questions that will elicit thoughtful answers. (The art of the question is a whole other subject, and to some degree it’s a skill you develop with experience.)

Then, too, there are some interviewees who make any writer’s job easy because they are so articulate and passionate about what they do and say that you only have to convey that essence. In the four years I have covered MSMT, I’ve interviewed Curt Dale Clark numerous times, and my editor is always pleased to get a story with him in it, because it sparkles; it jumps off the page. This kind of articulateness and enthusiasm are qualities you as artists need to cultivate as you move on with your careers.

On the other hand I have interviewed many a celebrated artist- the examples which come to mind are all from the world of opera – with whom the interview is like “pulling teeth.” The absolutely charismatic bass baritone Samuel Ramey sat with me for an hour, handing me monosyllabic answers to my prompts while his wife made faces and hand signals. At the end, he said with sincere charm, “I’ve enjoyed talking with you and please if you need more information, don’t hesitate to call me.” I remember thinking MORE INFORMATION- I barely have any information! It is my task as the interviewer to make the subject comfortable and draw them out; it is your task as the interviewee to be prepared with thoughtful replies and to learn to express your ideas cogently and not be afraid to be who you are – to be colorful and passionate – and YES, CAREFUL, too!

So, if these are some of my primary responsibilities as I see them, what must I NOT DO?

First and foremost, in addition to the cardinal rule of NOT PLAGIARIZING (which again is a whole subject in itself), I must NEVER LIE, MANUFACTURE QUOTES, or FUDGE the facts. The most cautionary tale in this regard goes back to NYT classical music critic, who in the 1980s tired of a long opera, left the performance, wrote his review and filed it the next day. The problem was that he praised the tenor’s third act, and the tenor in question actually never sang the third act. He became ill and was replaced at intermission by his understudy, who finished the performance! Needless to say the critic was fired, but his egregious behavior probably hinted at a practice more common than it should ever have been.

Secondly, as a reviewer, I am NOT there to retell the story. Why should anyone come see a play that has been already recounted to them in minute detail ahead of time – sometimes even giving away spoilers? Discussing themes and playwright’s messages is an entirely different thing.

I am NOT there to apply personal taste and opinion UNLESS I can back that up with solid rationale for why something works or doesn’t. If I decide I don’t like Shakespeare in modern dress, that is my personal prerogative, but it is my obligation to write that opinion only if I can back up my statement with reasons why the modern dress doesn’t work in this specific production. Or maybe it does after all? Keeping an open mind is a primary imperative!

I am NOT engaged as a theatre’s or an artist’s publicist…though there are quote a few who seem to think that’s what the reviewer is there for. I cannot tell you how many times one will receive a call from a theatre press office demanding coverage of events – increasingly difficult in a state like Maine with far-flung companies and few resources to report them – or a press representative will try to get you to digest and regurgitate his press releases. That’s why theatres have press offices, and it is not the journalist’s job to do their work, though they may both share a desire to focus a spotlight on something that is special.

I am NOT required to get my subject’s approval of a piece I have written before it is published. I am responsible only to my editor, and the subjects will have to trust me and my publication’s intelligence and ethics. That said, once something is published, it is only courtesy to provide the copy or link to the press office or individual who facilitated the article, and in the case of pieces where I am bubbling with enthusiasm, I am delighted to let them use my words in any way that will help them.

But enough about me. What role will press and media play in your artistic lives as you go forward? Whether you like it or not media is a fact of modern life and modern theatre. I cannot tell you how many artists there are – especially opera singers I worked with – who would declare “I never read my press!” I worked for a decade for a famous baritone who would constantly assert that in his interviews, but the minute something came out in the newspaper or a magazine, he would read it and then he would rant about the slightest criticism or detail that he didn’t like. It got to the point where, when he was in his NY office, as his assistant, I would get to the New YorkTimes or World Street Journal first and literally clip out and toss in the trash any reviews I knew he would find offending. It was a dubious practice but it did have the advantage of my NOT having to listen to an obsessive rant for the rest of the day! Tom Hampson, like so many artists, was never able to distance himself from the printed page or separate his own sense of self-accomplishment from someone else’s view of that. And alas, that is an all too common trait.

So here’s my advice to you as you bare your inner self in your work. Cultivate as much distance as you can, but do not try to ignore the written word. Rather develop a positive relationship with media- both external sources and those you yourself or your publicist creates.

It starts with confidence in your self, your own gifts and with the knowledge that whatever you put out there is your best effort and the truth as you are currently experiencing it. Sound like a tall order? Yes, perhaps, but you are already well on your way.. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have something special and you hadn’t worked hard. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have something important to say and to share. Believe in that and keep it as your center. And when you are having difficulty doing that, turn to a few close confidants or mentors, whose opinion and advice and honesty you know to be unfailing- people whose eyes and ears you trust and will tell you the truth, even if they do so with love.

If you think reading something negative is going to hurt too much, give it a day or two before you tackle it. Put some literal distance between that moment of vulnerability when you’ve just put everything you have out there, to a more self-analytical place. Whatever you do, cardinal rule in Journalism 101- DO not reply to any media criticism, no matter how angry it may make you – (just as the journalist should never reply to an angry response to his/her work.) Accept it as another opinion – even it is one you do not like – let it go and move on. It’s one of the founding principles of free speech to express negative remarks in print – unless, of course, they are libelous. But, if a journalist does show support, especially in an interview or feature, DO thank him or her. Not only does this go a long way to building bonds, but that journalist becomes a future resource for you in coimmunicating about your work.

Whatever you do, do not take the esoteric pose that you have nothing to learn from reading your press. One of the most talented and sought-after directors on this planet, Marc Robin told me a few weeks ago in an interview, that when he goes to do a revival of something he has previously directed, he pulls out his files in which he has saved, among so many other things, his press. And he reads the reviews again to see if there has been a thread of consensus throughout the previous productions, and then he weighs those comments against his own extensive experience and asks himself what has worked best and what needs to be changed! It’s not a question of ego; it is a question of learning and keeping things dynamic.

But in this media driven age, there is another aspect to press, and increasingly you as artists will be called upon to create your own publicity, your own media buzz, your own image, and you need to be savvy and skilled and VERY CAREFUL.

Some basics: you will need a website – a PROFESSIONAL website – separate from any social media. Depending on how technically adroit you are, you can create one yourself- there are lots of tools out there to do that – or you can pay to have one created (and maintained) for you. High quality visuals are essential – professional headshots, performance/production images, and audio and video are crucial. And be sure you have gotten permission to use them on your site! This becomes a resource for your agent, your auditions, your networking, your media contacts; this is a chance to acquaint people with the BEST of your accomplishments. The more complete the site- resume, bio, press clippings – the more helpful it will prove for you and those wishing to get to know you. And, for heavens sake, make sure it is well-written, well-proofread, and get help with that if you need it. (If any of you are ready to do this this summer and you need help with content, I would be happy to work with you pro bono. Ray knows how to contact me.)

Keep this website separate from any personal use of social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. There is no need for your professional contacts to know the daily details of your personal life. Which brings us to how you use social media….

Social media is inescapable today, and in many instances it can be a great tool for promotion and sharing. No harm in touting a major accomplishment or sharing news of something you are involved in. And if you get to the point where you have a fan base, no harm in using the page as a friendly way to reciprocate their interest.

HOW you share information, however, is paramount. NEVER put up pictures you will regret or write postings that are indiscreet about yourself or your friends. Discriminate carefully between information you want only a select few to see and that which is public.

And the same cautions apply to any spoken interviews you give. One needn’t be inscrutable like Greta Garbo, but one need not tell the entire world the gory details of his/her intimate life. Being accessible has its boundaries, and some information clearly has no bearing on your work as an artist, though that will not stop some journalists from asking. Think through very clearly what and how much about your private life you are willing to share before you embark on interviews. You are all intelligent people; talk about substance, about your work, about ideas you care about. And never speak negatively about a colleague. That kind of rhetoric always come back to haunt you. Avoid gossip and rumors and try not to give rise to that kind of conversation about yourself. But should ludicrous rumors attach themselves to you – and the most celebrated you might become, the greater possibility there is – always think twice, thrice, ten times before denying them publically. Because often that kind of denial is just the fodder needed to keep the story alive. Take a most recent example of arguably today’s most famous opera singer, Jonas Kaufmann, who cancelled several months of engagements due to an “unspecified illness” and then when rumors were printed in a South American paper that his upcoming tour was likely to be cancelled because he was gravely ill, the stories went viral. These were compounded by his normally terse management issuing a public statement on EASTER Day that ‘All this is untrue!’ It took a very long time for the chatter to die down.

Well, I imagine that by now, I’ve probably terrified you—you’re thinking there is some kind of land mine in every press encounter. I assure you for the most part that is not true. The most dedicated of us are your colleagues, your collaborators, your supporters. We are honored to be able to get from you some insight into the creative process we value so much, to have you share the inspirations that inform your work. When we can, we want to use our gifts- in this case writing- to communicate the magic of what you as artists create. We want to build audiences and get the message out there that theatre – or music or visual art – is a great and transforming gift that makes everyone’s lives richer.

Or listen here to the audio of there session and the Q & A and interview exercise: