LOU'S VIEWS: ‘How do you pick what you review?’

Lou Harry
November 9, 2013
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Lou Harry

This week, I would have reviewed the Patti LuPone concert at the Palladium, Actors Theatre of Indiana’s “The Odd Couple,” or a batch of Spirit & Place Festival events. Alas, my stubborn daughter refused to change the date of her wedding to accommodate my schedule (“Come on, it’s Patti Lu Pone,” I pleaded, to no avail.)

But in lieu of skipping a column—something I’ve refused to do since joining IBJ (you can see where my daughter gets her stubbornness), I thought it would be a good time to answer some frequently asked questions about IBJ A&E.

How do you pick what you are going to review each week?

For the print edition, I lean toward productions and exhibitions that will still be running by the time the paper hits the stands. I lean toward the professional over the avocational—although the line in Indy can be fuzzy. And I lean toward the local over the touring. Of course, I break all those self-imposed rules on a regular basis. One rule I do stick to, though, is that I cover only productions and exhibitions that I can walk into with an open heart and mind. For online reviews on my blog at ibj.com/arts, just about anything goes.

Why don’t you give star ratings or thumbs-up/thumbs-down?

Because I think those trivialize the work and are more misleading than helpful. An ambitious, risk-taking production of a challenging new work may justify only 2-1/2 stars, while a safe revival of tried-and-true material may earn 3-1/2. The star system encourages comparison of the two that isn’t valid.

Why even review something if it’s gone by the time the review appears?

You wouldn’t want sports commentators to ignore last week’s Colts game, would you?

Besides, I don’t see arts journalism as a kind of Consumer Reports, telling readers what they should and shouldn’t spend their time and money on. That might happen, but it’s not my prime directive. Instead, I prefer to try to articulate what I’ve seen in an honest, engaging, informed way and, in the process, encourage excellence and discussion. I hope that leads more people to attend more arts events, not necessarily the one I’m writing about this time.

How do you feel about people who disagree with you?

When a reader writes in or corners me to sing the praises of a show that didn’t work for me, I usually respond, sincerely, “I’m glad you liked it more than I did.” Interesting discussions often follow.

How does a performance or exhibition make your weekly emailed Priority List?

That email list (which I also discuss on WXIN-TV Channel 59 Thursday mornings, on WIBC-FM 93.1 Fridays, and monthly on WZPL-FM 99.5) consists of offerings I truly have high hopes for—ones that I would encourage friends and family to sample. It differs from my reviews, though, because the priority list is speculative based on experience and what I know about the talent involved. Arts groups wanting to have an event considered should keep me updated via email at lharry@ibj.com. If you don’t already get the IBJ A&E eblast, subscribe for free at www.ibj.com.

Aren’t you putting arts groups at risk by writing negatively about them?

It’s not my job to help stabilize a company. It’s my job to write intelligently and passionately about my arts experiences. Those who complain about a single column should consider stepping back and seeing the big picture. You’d be hard-pressed to find another local business publication in the country that devotes as much coverage to the arts as IBJ. That coverage sends the message that the arts here are worth paying attention to, worth critical discussion, and strong enough to withstand a weak production and/or a bad review.

What’s your favorite arts group in central Indiana?

I’m not being political when I say I don’t have a favorite. One of the things I love about the arts here is that so many organizations, large and small, are capable of excellence. I’ve seen terrific work at just about all of them—which keeps my job interesting.

You also write plays and do some producing. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?

I try to keep my playwriting and producing work out of the IBJ pages. I will mention pro bono projects such as the Indy Actors’ Playground, the monthly reading series I co-created at Indy Reads Books, because there’s no monetary gain for anyone, and I don’t dictate the play selection.

The presence of someone I’ve worked with in a show doesn’t mean I’m more likely to be impressed with the result. Longtime readers (or even those who saw my column last week) will note that my reviews tend to focus more on the overall impact of the production and the material rather than rattling off who I thought was good and who wasn’t.

Aren’t you glad the Indianapolis Star has cut back on arts reviews?

Absolutely not. I believe the general-interest newspaper of record should have arts criticism included in its mix of strong local coverage, and I hope the powers that be bring it back.

What’s with the IBJ A&E Road Trips?

These are out-of-town trips arranged with tour companies to see work that isn’t available in Indy. They usually include discussions en route and value-added elements, such as actor chats and behind-the-scenes tours. Look for announcements of more trips soon. To be on our early notice list, email me at lharry@ibj.com with Road Trips in the subject line.

Are you available for speaking gigs, panel hosting, etc?

When schedules permit. Shoot me a note and let me know what you have in mind.

How do I find more IBJ arts coverage?

Frequently visit www.ibj.com/arts.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.


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