Theaters decry cutback in newspaper reviews

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Local theater leaders are sounding the alarm about a drop in coverage by The Indianapolis Star, saying the lack of ink is hurting attendance and the city's ability to lure new productions to town.

"In a city our size, it just doesn't make any sense," said Bryan Fonseca, producing director at the Phoenix Theatre, which specializes in new, issue-oriented plays. "And it's very detrimental to the health of the theaters."

Others say that's not good for the community as a whole–especially when city boosters have spent millions trying to foster Indianapolis' reputation as a hub of arts and culture.

Companies and professionals alike look at a city's arts community as a key quality-of-life indicator, said Brian Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation and a member of Indianapolis' Cultural Development Commission. And media coverage factors into that.

"A newspaper is a reflection of its community. If there's little serious discussion of theater, then it appears that the community isn't serious about it," he said. "That's the wrong message for Indianapolis to send."

Phoenix leaders issued a call to arms late last month, urging actors, writers, designers and audiences alike to contact the Star to protest a year-long decline in theater coverage that got worse when full-time critic Nick Crews left the paper in May.

Star reporters used to write about most shows before and after they opened, Fonseca said. Now, coverage is harder to come by.

"When we get no preview and no review, when nobody knows that a show is even going on here, we are essentially doing a secret show," he said.

As a result, he said, attendance and revenue have suffered.

Star Editor Dennis Ryerson concedes that coverage has declined and said the paper is working on a solution. He fielded questions on the topic during a recent online forum and said he's open to talking more with theaters about the issue.

But he said he didn't get any negative feedback until the Phoenix launched its write-in campaign and since then has heard from only "a couple dozen" readers.

"I'm the first person to say that I'm disappointed with our coverage," he said. "We'll be doing some reorganization in the newsroom that will hopefully get us back to where we need to be."

He stopped short of promising to fill the theater critic position, saying only that some staff reshuffling should be expected.

Other options

Even fully staffed, Ryerson said, the Star likely couldn't send reporters to every play. Instead, he hopes to start using readers' reviews to plug the gaps–especially online. That ties in with the Star's plans to use more reader-submitted material throughout the paper. But Ryerson insisted that reader reviews would supplement, not replace, staff coverage.

Ryerson met Nov. 20 with the League of Indianapolis Theaters, a coalition of venues with professional staffs, to discuss their concerns. There, he outlined the best format for theaters to submit their own play previews, Fonseca said.

After the meeting, theater officials better understood "the way we need to get information to the Star so that they can turn it over with less hands-on work," Fonseca said.

He brought one idea to the table that makes the Star's former theater critic bristle–letting the theaters decide which plays get coverage and whether it's a preview or review.

"That's absolutely ridiculous," Crews said. "The reporter does not exist to do public relations for the theater. You exist for the reader."

But Ryerson said he's open to suggestions and hinted that the new focus might lean more toward play previews. He said the Star is starting discussions internally about how to determine what gets covered.

"If we don't review something, we want to be able to tell people why," he said.

While the Star ponders whether to feature the public's reviews online, other local Web sites already are filling the coverage void.

One such site––hasfor three years offered a place for theater-goers to write their own reviews. When the Star began cutting back its theater coverage, the site added "staff reviews" from a handful of volunteers who cover local productions.

This fall, partnered with the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival to cover the 10-day bonanza of small, edgy productions.

Site founder and local actor Joe Urban said the site has grown as a result, with as many as 1,100 registered users and 2.4 million hits per month. The site boasted only about 50 registered users in 2004.

"We get e-mails quite often from theaters requesting reviews," Urban said. "People are looking for validation and information."

Theaters are getting in on the action, too. Indiana Repertory Theatre's Web site features a comment section where patrons can write their own reviews, which may be one reason its single-ticket sales are up for the year.

Marketing Manager Megan McKinney said sales are running about 14 percent ahead of targets.

"We've worked to try to compensate for any lack of coverage," she said.

Impact on theaters

The Phoenix hasn't been so lucky.

It has produced two shows that got no Star coverage at all, Fonseca said: last year's "I Am My Own Wife" and "Callie's Tally," a new mom's humorous look at the emotional and financial cost of a new baby. "Callie's Tally" closed Nov. 25.

Attendance for the Indiana premiere of "I Am My Own Wife," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an East German transvestite, totaled 900-1,000 over the 39-day small-stage run–about half of what Fonseca expected.

He wouldn't disclose specific results, but said the theater expects its shows to cover their own production costs and contribute to the theater's overall overhead. "I Am My Own Wife" didn't do the latter, Fonseca said.

By sounding the alarm, he was hoping to avoid a similar fate for future plays.

"If we don't speak up and let the paper know how critical coverage is, then we risk waiting until it's too late," he said.

Others say theaters need to take the lead and make their case to the Star by pitching relevant stories and interesting angles to make a case for play coverage.

Indianapolis Civic Theatre sold the newspaper on the importance of the Indiana premiere of "Little Women: The Musical," for example, earning a pre-production package of stories–with photographs–on how the play worked as a musical and how a 17-year-old girl won the lead role.

Marketing Director Ulrike Steinert said the articles were well-researched and delved into the context and background of the play.

"This is more [information] than you can tell in an ad," she said.

And the coverage paid off.

"The response was immediate," Steinert said. "The box office didn't stand still."

Attendance ran at 90 percent of the theater's 500-seat capacity throughout the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 run, including a final night sellout.

Though the Civic play was covered, Steinert still hopes the Star hires a full-time theater critic.

"People are concerned that theater will [not] receive adequate representation on their staff," she said.

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