Writing this morning (since it’s already in print) to announce that my column in the current edition of Chelsea Now/ the Villager/ Downtown Express is my last one. Thus ends not just a chapter (a four year long one, I’m horrified to realize) but also, I believe, an entire book of the multi-volume edition entitled Trav S.D.
I never set out to be an arts journalist. In fact, even theatre has been a bit of a detour for me. While it’s always been a major activity of my life since I was about 11 years old, I was also a teenage film-maker, and a childhood television addict to the tune of six hours a day. I’ve always considered theatre important as the wellspring, an ancient art form that remains important as Research & Development for the modern media which it spawned — those ones that, thanks to technology, actually reach large numbers of people. Going forward, I intend to devote more time and energy to reaching people through those media (It’s what my new book is about, and it is what I majored in at college). I also intend to continue making theatre (perhaps more than ever) but with a vastly different methodology and orientation than I’ve used in the past.
I came to this town with a sort of inferiority complex about the small amount of theatre I’d seen, which was restricted primarily to a few dozen productions at my local regional theatre, Trinity Rep in Providence. So, when I moved here I was eager to see a large amount of live theatre. And now I have. I’m terrified to count how many shows I’ve seen. Hundreds and hundreds, certainly, although most of them have been far, far out of the mainstream. Thus, my experience has been in no way definitive; it would be the farthest thing from the truth to say that I’ve seen “everything,” as much as I’ve seen.
Frankly, I feel at once glutted and dissatisfied, as though I had been eating potato chips for 25 years. As a theatre-goer, I must tell you, I am in a bad way. My ideal experience of spectatorship these days is sitting on the sofa with my girlfriend in my underwear watching 6 back-to-back episodes of American Horror Story (as occurred last night). Any theatre experience I encounter has to compete with that, has to overcome the effort it takes for me to drag my ass to a theatre at the end of a work day at my day job, and then to kill time during the interval between work and the theatre. I assure you that that invariably puts me in a bad mood before I even walk in the door to your show. I don’t like lines, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like claustrophobic, uncomfortable seating that compares unfavorably with that of a Greyhound bus. I really don’t like feeling trapped, like I can’t come and go as I please. If the show happens to be a successful one (which I try to avoid), I can’t stand the sycophantic, false, reactions of the people around me. It used to be rare for me to flee a show at intermission. Recently, I have been leaving EVERY show I attend by that point…that is, if I can’t gracefully do so PRIOR to intermission.
It remains to be seen whether I absolutely hate the theatre period, or whether I am merely sick of it, and need a long vacation (a malady I believe common to critics). But it’s definitely not fair to artists (I suppose) to have such a tough audience. (Conversely, I think artists should be preparing to meet the standards of such a tough audience. But personally, as a member of that prospective audience, I can no longer handle the torture).
So, I’ve dropped the column. But that’s just part of the reason why. My editor suggested I keep writing it, and not bother reviewing any shows. Well, there are a few reasons why I don’t want to keep doing that.
One is, grinding the column out is itself a kind of torture. It’s very hard to think of new things to say about the same companies and artists over and over again, however much I may love them. And frankly, carrying the whole scene around in my head all the time is kind of exhausting. I literally do pay close attention to what is going on. I look at every press release, notice, invitation. I find that it takes up time and attention and focus away from stuff I would rather be (and ought to be) doing, namely my own art and career.
Now: if the pay were sufficient to incentivize me, that would be one thing. Initially (13 years ago, when I began free-lancing as an arts journalist professionally), it was. In recent years, the income has gone down to a pittance, so the main appeal (of the column, and in small part my blog) has been the perk of seeing lots of free shows. I think I have just expressed why that aspect is no longer a perk. So it is now just a lot of work I no longer like for very little money.
Little money and less opportunity (and thus dwindling hope, and that in a career that had been to me only a sideline to begin with). The past decade plus has seen work in print journalism evaporate. The gradual death of the field has actually been a lot like watching vaudeville die. I’m assuming my experience has been typical, maybe it’s not.
I started out scribbling for David Cote in the late 90s for his ‘zine Off and the early editions of the Fringe publication Propaganda.
In 1999, I got my first professional credit as an arts journalist writing about Hourglass Group’s production of Mae West’s Sex for American Theatre. This led to a fellowship at the magazine in 2001, where I lived the dream on several exciting assignments, covering stories in Nashville and San Francisco, interviewing Jules Feiffer, and covering the biggest local story of the day, September 11. (You think there’s not a theatre angle to 9-11? Ask the people at 3LD). Some of my American Theatre clips are here.
In 2000, I got my first assignment for the Village Voice. The check was so large that when I heard the amount I had to put my head down on my desk and couldn’t talk to anyone for half an hour. I was hyperventilating. It was nearly a week’s salary at my day job. I wrote 30 pieces for the Voice, many of which I’m proud of, in particular one about protest theatre surrounding the 2004 Republican National Convention, and an interview with Judith Malina and the late Hanon Raznikov, and several pieces on the changing (dying) theatre scene on the Lower East Side (most, but not all, of my Voice clips are here).
In 2001, thanks to David Cote, I also started to write regular reviews for Time Out New York (he’s been the theatre editor there for many years). I wrote close to 100 pieces for them during the oughts. Some of them are archived at timeout.com
For a brief while, at the beginning of the last decade, the internet was a bonanza of work for writers, and I got lots of assignments writing for Theatremania and Citysearch and lots of now defunct entities. Then the internet crashed as a paying proposition, a harbinger of things to come.
Also starting in 2000, I wrote several pieces for Reason magazine, which led to a piece about me in the New Yorker, which then led to my book No Applause, which came out in 2005. No Applause got glowing reviews in the New York Times (three times), the New Yorker, The Washington Post on and on and on…which you might think would lead to greater money and opportunity as a free-lancer. But you’d be wrong.
There were some bright spots after that (e.g., a few pieces for the New York Sun), but mostly what happened was the word count and the pay kept going down at my reliable magazines, and then the opportunities to wind up in the print edition at all kept dwindling, and then long about 2008-2009 the responses to my pitches kept coming back negative.
To pick up the slack there were other consolations. In 2000, I had become the first person (besides Martin Denton of course) to write for nytheatre.com. This would lead eventually to my hosting the Indie Theatre Now podcast, where I interviewed over 250 indie theatre artists between 2006 and 2009. In 2009 we even produced two television specials. This was a wonderful experience.
In 2008, I launched Travalanche. And in January 2009 thanks to the Villager’s arts editor Scott Stiffler, I realized a long-standing dream by getting my own column. Since that paper’s other main theatre writer was the Voice’s former theatre critic Jerry Tallmer (the man who coined the phrase “off-off Broadway”) I was very pleased to be there. Nothing but thanks to the folks at the Community Media family of papers. They are not the source of my ennui.
Ironically, the peak of my career as a scribbler came this year. THIS YEAR, friends, in case you missed it (and I’m afraid many of you did), I cracked the New York Times, and that has got to be the high point. Having that on my resume permanently going forward no doubt puts a spring in my step. But NOTE WELL. That piece arose from the writing on my blog, and it’s about theatre history. And if you follow this blog at all, you’re aware that my true love is the wider world of show business. I love the freedom of the blog so I’ll keep that up. If future magazine or blog writing assignments result as an outgrowth, fine. And I’m not saying I’ll never ever cover indie theatre again; I’m supposed to see something tonight, in fact. But I don’t see it being my focus anymore, unless they start equipping the critic’s section with Roman couches and mini-bars, and for that matter, move the theatre into my actual living room.
For those remaining few we haven’t grievously wounded with our rejection: don’t worry, we’re not hanging up our rock and roll shoes by any stretch. We have BIG PLANS for next year…bigger than ever, in fact. So we hope you’ll stay tuned. And most importantly now:
THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO’S BEEN READING. I REALLY DO LOVE YOU