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A Theatre Industry Brouhaha: Thank You "New York Times!"

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A mini donnybrook has erupted (among some theatre insiders) in response to the elimination of the free theatre listings—known as the "Guide"—that previously graced the pages of the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section. Those Sunday listings included, on a rotating basis, most New York City based-theatrical productions. In its place, a highly selected list of productions, representing preferred choices made by New York Times critics, is now appearing in Friday's "Weekend Arts" supplement, with abbreviated highlights in Arts & Leisure.

Cutting the free listing is part of a larger NYT revamping of arts coverage in general and theatre coverage in particular. There is no shortage of rumor regarding what will be done and how it will affect theatre in the short and long term. The immediate concern, among theatre insiders however, is the loss of the aforementioned guide.

To what degree it will impact ticket sales—and which theatres will bear the greatest brunt—remains to be seen; although, according to most theatre insiders Back Stage interviewed, the Off-Off-Broadway theatres will be most affected since for many companies the free listing was their only New York Times acknowledgement. There's no secret that Off-Off-Broadway is rarely covered by the Times, and if a downtown show is reviewed, it's often so late in the run it ends up serving no purpose (from a publicity-cum-ticket-selling-standpoint).

In addition, Back Stage was told, even if smaller Off-Off-Broadway productions are favorably reviewed in the Times—and/or elsewhere—the downtown theatres are in no position (financially speaking) to advertise in the Times or, indeed, even pay for a listing in the Times ABC column. Thus, the Off-Off-Broadway scene has been dependent on the free listings for promotion, however modest.

"There is a section of the theatre-going public that comes to productions because of those free listings," asserts Virginia Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (ART/NY). "For audiences that are interested in the classics, for example, the listings helped them determine what they wanted to see at the Mint, the Cocteau, Pearl, or Classical Repertory Company. And if the play interested them, they'd take a chance and buy a ticket on the basis of the listing."

Theatre publicist Brett Singer believes the guide was a major help in boosting ticket sales at Off-Off-Broadway shows if, for no other reason, it appeared in the Times and therefore gained a certain prestige. "For an Off-Off-Broadway show just to get a listing in the paper of record, especially if there was a photo alongside the listing, was a really good thing. It gave a lesser known company visibility and that did translate into ticket sales."

Adds theatre press agent Jonathan Slaff, who serves as chairman of DowntownNYC: "The loss of ticket sales will also have an impact on economic development of the whole downtown community, which is struggling to revitalize itself in this post nine-eleven era. We are very vulnerable to any loss of coverage, even if that's only a free listing in the Times."

Producer Mark Routh of Richard Frankel Productions, who is also president of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, concurs that Off-Off-Broadway will be most directly affected by the Times revamping—certainly more so than the Broadway or Off-Broadway worlds, "who can afford to be listed in the ABC's."

That said, he suggests that Off-Broadway and even Broadway will feel the reverberations down the road. "Many shows that end up Off-Broadway or even on Broadway began Off-Off-Broadway. Without the listing it'll be that much harder to get audiences to see the downtown show and then that much harder for producers to raise money for it. It'll become even more difficult than it is now to move an Off-Off-Broadway show uptown."

In the wake of the shift in Times policy, meetings have convened within the theatre community, and ART/NY's Louloudes is slated to meet with Times theatre editor Patti Cohen next week. A collective letter writing campaign to the Times may be orchestrated in the future, although a fair number of individual missives have already been sent (Back Stage has received copies). But as of press time, a wait-and-see (albeit none-too-jolly) attitude prevailed among the theatrefok interviewed.

It should be noted that not everyone thinks the new arts coverage policy at the Times is all that terrible for Off-Off-Broadway.

Downtown theatre publicist Ron Lasko (who represents the New York International Fringe Festival, among other events) acknowledges the loss of the Sunday guide may have an impact on theatre funding, although less so for Off-Broadway productions.

"In terms of attracting audiences, the disappearance of the Guide will have almost no impact for us. Our audiences are young and adventurous and generally the Times has fallen off the radar for them. They don't get their theatre information from the Times anyway."

Karen Greco, another Off- and Off-Broadway press agent, goes so far as to say that the new developments at the Times make her happy. "I think what the Times has done is level the playing field for the first time." Talking about the Times list of recommended plays, which appeared in Friday's [Oct. 8, 2004] Weekend section, she notes "The Times cited only three Broadway plays. Most of the plays they recommended were Off-Broadway plays. That's a real jaw-dropper.

"I'm aware that all of those plays were reviewed and, clearly, Off-Off-Broadway is not Off-Broadway and still less likely to get reviewed," she continues. "I'm also aware that there will now be even more competition among Off-Off-Broadway productions to get a Times review. But since the Times is no longer committed to only Broadway, I do believe there will be greater opportunity for an Off-Off-Broadway production to be reviewed if it's really good. And if these Off-Off-Broadway productions do get reviewed favorably and are mentioned in the Weekend section, with little summaries attached, that's far more useful than simply a listing. I'm cautiously optimistic."

So, why did the NYT switch gears? Is it part of a larger plan? And how do the arts editors answer the anxieties of the theatre community?

Jonathan Landman, the Times' culture editor, feels it's premature to know what, if any, impact the elimination of the Guide will have on the theatre community. His primary concern, however, are the readers, whom he feels were not being well served.

"It did nothing to help them discriminate between one production and another," he observes. "Further, many of the plays were so obscure that listing them was meaningless to almost everyone, with perhaps the exception of the most knowledgeable, who can find out about these plays elsewhere." [In TimeOut New York, perhaps?]

In an email to Back Stage, Toby Usnick, director of public relations at the Times, adds: "Since the listings in the Sunday paper substantially duplicated what we were printing on Fridays, we have used the space to create smart and lively capsules of news and opinion. The Friday list will also become somewhat more selective, also to showcase the recommendations of our critics."

Equally non-responsive to the quandaries facing the theatre community was a self-promoting ad that appeared in the Times on Sun., Oct. 3. It reads: "Arts & Leisure introduces a fresher design, with added critical commentary, news reporting and other features…On Monday, in the daily Arts section, an enlarged reporting staff adds new emphasis on media, publishing, the music industry, television news and intellectual life."

The ad notwithstanding, Landman maintains that there is and will continue to be increasing theatre coverage on a daily basis, in addition to all the other enhanced arts coverage. "We now have more pages for theatre and more reporters covering it. And many of those reviews that have gone online when there wasn't space in the paper will now be able to appear in the paper as well."

Not everyone in the theatre community is convinced that that is—or will be—happening. Indeed, speculation about the changes at the Times abounds, with many theatre insiders suggesting that financial concerns have informed a broader philosophy. A number talked about the Times' loss of readers, specifically among those under 30 or even in their 30s, who get their news mostly on the Internet and a handful of papers like USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, with their shorter stories and softer coverage.

"Look, the Times has a mandate to exist," says Routh. "They have to find a way to broaden their appeal. In an effort to attract younger readers, they're decreasing theatre coverage while expanding and focusing on movies, TV, and pop culture." He adds, "The stories in the Times are shorter and have a certain edge that are designed to appeal to younger readers. Right now only the two main reviewers—Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood—are printed in the Times pages, while all other reviews appear online. I have no idea who goes online to get information about theatre."

Slaff contends that those who rely primarily on the Internet for their information—the Gen X crowd—are those readers who don't buy theatre tickets, at least not very often.

In contrast, Lasko feels that using the Internet for theatre coverage may succeed in reaching the market that he and other Off-Off-Broadway publicists are targeting. But equally important, although his audience does not read newspapers, "it may start reading the Times now, thanks to its new style and emphasis on popular culture," he says. "And that may be good news for theatre as well, especially if the Times continues to print its theatre recommendations on music or television pages. It's cross-marketing. Also, our audiences are far more likely to read short play recommendations than they are to read a listing."

Leonard Jacobs

contributed to this article.

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