|The Fourth Estate
As all of us involved in the field know, and even casual fans are aware, St. Louis theatre – the number of groups, of shows, the height of ambitions, the intensity of competition – is exploding. Now, explode is not always a good word, and there are certainly downsides to this proliferation of stage activity. One is the real struggle for audiences. There are just not enough theatre-goers to theatre go around.
And at the precise time that St. Louis theatre groups are growing, both in terms of numbers and artistic self-challenges, there is a disturbing and contrasting dearth of theatre coverage in the St. Louis press – from reviews to commentary to calendar listings.
Shows are reviewed on a number of sites on-line – KDHX all the time, and when groups are lucky enough, you can find reviews at KWMU, Talkinbroadway.com, sometimes Playback or Vital Voice, with repeats of print reviews on the Post-Dispatch, Riverfront Times and Ladue News sites. But one has to think on-line reviews are mostly sought out by those being reviewed, and a very small and savvy group of buffs. (Though one must admit that radio reviews, especially those on KWMU, play a strong role in driving people to shows.)
Unfortunately, St. Louis theatre expansion is occurring simultaneously with the gutting of the Post-Dispatch. Word is that chief critic Judy Newmark has been stretched into an editorship role, cutting into her time, and returning critic Gerry Kowarsky's reviews have been doubled up, with two shows sharing one review space, and sometimes in an effort to accommodate two shows opening a week apart, appearing weeks after one show's opening, with only a final weekend's house able to benefit from the coverage.
The RFT has continued its policy of trying to review as many shows as possible, and that effort is to be commended.
But reviews are only part of the dialogue that can fuel a healthy theatre community. Another, vital part is commentary – perspective on the scene, on productions, on theatre companies. St. Louis audiences – and St. Louis theatre groups – need and deserve perspective that parses out what's really happening on our stages: which groups/plays are really good, which merely good, and which ones are trying to get better; why productions deserve to be supported, whether they're really or merely good; the growth of individuals and groups who challenge themselves with different roles or plays; and even issues such as whether the Rep can really be called the St. Louis Rep.
Reviews sometimes touch on that territory, but they are insanely uneven. A critic who seems brave and wise one week by challenging a group or their production, the next week appears to fluff over terrible direction or an embarrassing performance. And what pre-show coverage there is in the Post is inexplicable in its choices (other than personality and production profiles of our touring theatres – the Fox, the Muny and the Rep.)
So, more and better reviews are needed. So is commentary – perspective on the scene – but from what media vehicle and what individual, it's hard to say. We just have to have a playing field that's not unleveled by scattershot reviews, or by overblown PR people and amateur critics/sycophants on the Yahoo blog.
One area that the theatre community – probably through the Kevin Kliners – can influence is theatre listings. Again, you can find them on-line, but people need more; the RFT should list them in the paper, and the Post-Dispatch should list them on Sundays. (Thursday's GET OUT is not enough. Sunday Post readership is up, and that's where listings need to be.) The Kevin Klines have an ad every Thursday in GET OUT listing upcoming shows (that ad, by the way, should be black type on a white background, not reversed as it is; it's too hard to find and read), and should either find a way to get that ad in Sunday's paper or use that leverage to negotiate listings in Sunday's paper.
But, simply, more and better coverage is needed. St. Louis enjoys the most in-depth coverage of high school sports; an almost daily overview of highway construction; and, in the new Post, a new way to diet and exercise every day. But we need, and deserve, thoughtful and careful consideration of the adult theatre artists living and working everyday in our city.