Sunday, April 26, 2009

#Spotlight: David Cote, Isaac Butler & Steve Loucks (originally titled "Part of it All.")

I started this blog about two years and some-odd months ago, attempting to chronicle my (then) new life as a college student in New York City. At the time, I had been in the pre-nursing program, sulking because I didn't get into art school like I'd hoped, and therefore having no outlet for my more artistic temperaments. I had just re-discovered my love for theatre a couple of years prior to that, having been involved in my high school drama club, with a background in performance at that (a former dancer from the age of 8, I'd later quit at 13; it remains one of my biggest regrets). In my senior year of high school, my (now retired) AP English teacher, Robert Croonquist (who helms Youth Arts New York and encouraged a love for the theatre in his students) took our class to see the United States Theatre Project and PJ Paparelli's production of columbinus (based upon the Columbine High School shootings – which recently marked its 10th anniversary on April the 21st) at the New York Theatre Workshop. The production – not to mention the performances of the cast, particularly actor and fellow blogger Karl Miller – blew me away, and I knew I just had to be involved in theatre somehow.

Flash forward a few months later, and I'm stuck at Hunter College with a prospective major that had pretty much been chosen for me. I was unhappy with where I was going – there I stood, a former art student and theatre lover…not doing art or theatre? It just didn't make sense. Then one day, in the Freon-pumped depths of the abyss known as the Hunter computer labs --10th floor, North building, natch – I'd randomly decided to see if Karl Miller – who is heavily a part of the DC theatre scene – was still in the city working on a show. What I found instead (okay, I'll admit it – I googled) was a blog on the top of the list of search results. Thinking that maybe it was a link to a review some theatergoer wrote on columbinus, I clicked on it. As I read on, however, I began to realize that the mystery blogger was not talking about seeing the show, but performing in the show.

I ended up finding out later that it was Miller himself, and after reading his entries and clicking around at his blogroll, I became hooked. Through his blog, I was able to find others', and I saw that there were others that were just as passionate about theatre as I was, and they were having in-depth debates and discussions. Suddenly, I thought: Aha, this could be my way in!

I ended up feeling inspired – by both Miller's blog, as well as the lack of creativity my life had at that point – to start my own blog. Like I said, I started blogging thinking that it would be about my college life in the city, but at the time, it was so unfocused. Eventually, I soon came to find that I was blogging less about my life and found more enjoyment in blogging about the goings-on about theatre. So, pretty soon, around this time last year to be exact, I stopped writing really bad emo entries (ha!) about how I hated my intended major and started focusing my love of art and the theatre (though it isn't specifically limited to just that).

The rest, as they say, is history.

And history is what leads me to the point of my post: when did theatre blogging begin, and what drove many to it? I asked a couple of the main players in the Theatre Blogosphere (and in actual Theatre World) the same question – David Cote (current Theatre Editor of Time Out New York), Isaac Butler (Featured Writer of Buzzine.com's The Enthusiast column and Contributing Writer to Theatre Today; director ) and Steve Loucks (public relations extraordinaire, also known as Steve on Broadway) give their take on theatre and how the blogosphere has helped change it. Here were my questions and their responses:

WHY DID YOU START BLOGGING?
ISAAC BUTLER: I started blogging because I was feeling depressed and disconnected from the world around me. This was in early 2004, I had directed a couple of shows, was about to direct another one, there was a kind of post-9/11 hangover and things like that, I was living in a very small apartment in Clinton Hill... I just felt pent up in all these different ways. So I started a blog. At first it was anonymous. That lasted for about five minutes, when I realized self-promoting would be next to impossible.
At this point, there were a lot of blogs, but very very few theatre blogs, almost none, really. I found maybe five other theatre blogs at the time, Terry Teachout [About Last Night], George Hunka [Superfluities], Laura Axelrod [Gasp!], Dan Trujillo [Venal Scene] and one or two others. Of that list, Laura doesn't really write about theatre anymore (although her blog is great) and Dan doesn't blog anymore. Terry's blog is almost never about theatre either (although it's a good read). I've kept chugging along by never being only about theatre in the first place. I blog about Battlestar Galactica and my hair and politics. I've always wanted to marry conversations about politics with conversations about theatre... it's why I chose that name for my blog [Parabasis].

Anyway, I started writing it, and about nine months later I wrote this post called "So, What Was The Lab Like?" about the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and the State of American Theatre. That was the post that put me on the map.


DAVID COTE: I started my blog Histriomastix in August 2006 because all the cool kids were doing it! Actually that's almost true. I started reading the Playgoer, Parabasis and Superfluities around that time and was very impressed by the depth and passion with which these bloggers addressed aesthetics, politics, media and so forth. Being a magazine editor and writer, I'm rather constrained by short word counts and deadlines, and the blog seemed an ideal forum for any "run-off" of thoughts that lingered after you'd filed that 300-word review. Also, after six years chasing deadlines for Time Out New York, I was feeling the need to renew a sense of purpose in the theater: re-discover what I loved about theater and what I believed about it. Still looking. I've had the chance to write longer thought pieces, engage in rather heated debates about theatricality and religion, and offer criticism of other media outlets. Also, naturally, the blog is a place where you can tell people what you're doing in the way of work and freelance.

STEVE LOUCKS: My reason for starting to blog came about three years ago when I needed to teach franchisees in the travel business how to blog. Since I wanted to speak from a position of actual knowledge rather than what I had gleaned from elsewhere, I decided to start my own blog. But I didn't want to write about their space, so I deliberately chose a topic about which I was very passionate. I love live theatre and thought I would channel that passion into writing about it.

HOW HAS THE CLIMATE FOR THEATRE JOURNALISM CHANGED BECAUSE OF THE RISE OF THEATRE BLOGS?
IB: I think this conversation is impossible without a look at the broader spectrum of what's going on with journalism and blogs in general. And that's something we'll only really understand in probably a decade or so, when we can look through our 20/20 hindsight machine. What the blogosphere has done in general has allowed a multiplicity of voices to emerge providing content free of charge. Some of that content is bullshit, some of it covers the same territory as what's in newspapers and does it better. Some of it does stuff you don't find in newspapers.

Many of the theatre blogs out there provide things you don't find in newspapers. Playgoer has in-depth business commentary. I've got longer discussions about the goings on in institutional theatres as well as what I guess you could call Arts Op-Eds. What Blows is hilarious, and represents a sense of humor you'd never see in a newspaper. And Culturebot! Oy vey, Culturebot, the one stop shop for everything experimental.
Newspapers due to limited space largely print only reviews and profiles. Anyway, as to the effect on journalism […] how it's impacting the publishing world... it's given this group of writers access, I think. Many of the reviewers for Time Out now started as bloggers, etc. It gives you a platform to showcase your work.

DC: Every magazine and newspaper has a blog now, in order to rapidly respond to news and to keep a constant flow of opinion, humor, information etc., for the reader. Also the unspoken goal for most print publications is to maximize the value and importance of the online presence, maybe with the eventual plan of phasing out print and going totally digital. But who knows if that will ever happen or is even really feasible. Personally, I stopped being a weekly writer/editor a couple of years ago. Now, with my personal blog and the TONY theater blog, Upstaged, I am responsible for writing or editing about five blog posts a day, in addition to all my print and website duties. It adds a lot of busy work but it creates a lot more energy around the TONY brand and gives you a lot of different modes to write in: not just the critical voice.

SL: I find it very exciting that the theatre blogosphere gets bigger by the day, and certainly, those of us who continue to write over a protracted period of time have seen many come and go, but those of us continuing to write do so from a variety of perspectives. I find it extremely encouraging that so many longtime theatre critics are adding their learned voices to the blogosphere as well. It keeps everyone honest about their work, and for theatre journalism as a whole, there is so much that can be gleaned by reading a healthy dose of theatre blogs everyday. In some cases, the blogosphere has been ahead of the curve in scooping mainstream media. That keeps everyone on their toes.

HOW HAS IT ENHANCED THE THEATRE EXPERIENCE, AND HOW HAS IT DETRACTED FROM IT?
DC: In terms of sitting in a (usually) darkened space watching a play, blogging hasn't dramatically changed how I see a play. When I'm reviewing, I'm still paying attention to all the usual production aspects that will feed into a review. But I suppose there may be an added corner of my brain that files away details that might be recycled into a blog post. If the show has a strong and unique visual element, that could be featured in a video segment for the website or blog. When a show that you know will be interesting is in rehearsal, you can see if the creators will allow a film crew to shoot a bit. That's one thing I love about blogging and the enhanced role of online content: it allows viewers and readers to go backstage sometimes and learn more about the art of making theater. That's a far cry from a person who is nothing more than a critic, who sees a single performance and then strives to make an absolute pronouncement on the production from a vantage point of extreme remove and ignorance. At the same time, I'd be lying if I didn't say that blogging and being responsible for generating content didn't detract somewhat from the exalted position of the critic who is paid to do nothing more than observe and pontificate. But as I consider myself a critic-advocate, I am ultimately happy to spotlight writers, actors, directors, companies and shows that perhaps don't get enough media attention.

Thanks to those who participated in this interview!  

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