Theater

A Complementary Opinion

 Photo Credit: _ineedmydevice.Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
Photo Credit: _ineedmydevice.
Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

Over the past three years at the Star I’ve written about forty-six pieces on theater. Twenty four of them come from the Star’s first year. I’ve tailed off my output greatly, especially over the past year.

I have numerous reasons for this. One is that I have no interest in repeating myself needlessly unless there is something about which I feel so strong I cannot stay silent. These are matters of aesthetics and morals, and in a largely sterile theater scene that prefers not to risk offense, aesthetics and morals are rarely matters at hand. Another is that no one seems interested in such writing. Certainly there is no one paying to read it.

And then there is the issue of tickets.

I am an independent publisher of an online-only journal. I do not make $40,000 a year as a writer, or millions of dollars as a publisher. In fact, at the Seattle Star I make about $100 a year as a writer and rather less as a publisher, since I have to pay my staff and my internet service provider out of the sales, donations, and membership monies that we receive. As the Star is reader-supported and without advertisers on principle, all this money comes from readers who give in some combination of what they think the Star is worth and what they can be bothered to give.

This tells an insightful reader at least two things:

  1. I am not making any sort of living by writing; and
  2. Any money I spend on the theater is coming out of my own pocket and not as part of my salary as a journalist.

Tickets that I purchase, therefore, are few and far between.

Now, I imagine someone out there is thinking, “Why don’t you just ask for reviewer comps?” This is a reasonable question. The simple answer is that over the past year I’ve grown very uncomfortable with the entire phenomenon of comp tickets.

At the heart of my discomfort lies a growing sense of the brokenness of the system by which such tickets are given. The entire system needs to be rethought from scratch, particularly in reference to its assumed goals. I have heard many people refer to it as a quid pro quo setup. But what are the quid and quo exactly? On the surface it seems simple: theater gives reviewer a ticket in exchange for a review. A time-honored tradition.

In truth I do not think it is that simple at all. There is a tradition of compliments in all service. When an airline gives me complimentary drinks, they do not expect a Yelp review in return. When I go Christmas shopping and a department store offers complimentary gift wrapping, they do not demand a photograph of my gift’s recipient unwrapping her present. They may ask but they do not demand. Complimentary means exactly that: complimentary. The connotation is courtesy.

And that’s just it. Courtesy is given without expectation of return. Yet to hear all the recent discussions about complimentary tickets given to the press one would think that the belief is that the person being complimented therefore owes something to the theater. I suspect these same people expect something each time they compliment their wives on their new hairstyle, or their soccer friends whenever one displays a particularly apt bit of skill. (“Nice golazo, Leo. Don’t say thanks–go get me a brewski.”)

What exists is not compliments. What exists is a broken tradition so long unexamined I doubt anyone realizes its actual basis, which is economic. But that economy, too, is broken, in ways that go far beyond the simple exchange of money.

George Jean Nathan once quipped that dramatic criticism is “the theory that there is anything you can tell a theatrical manager. (Or an actor.)” In that sense I am hardly a critic. It’s neither my place nor my interest to tell PR and marketing people how to run their game, even when they are obviously clueless. So, to theater managers everywhere, my position on the matter is simple: Give away comps or free tickets or passes or whatever any way you damn well choose. Almost no policy is likely to make the theater any worse than it already is. If your complaints boil down to not getting your dollar value out of the press, then the glib response is: start your own press. Especially since it’s so easy. If all critics are to you are simply deadheads whose business it is to dress the house and write puff pieces, then write your own puffs. Nothing is stopping you.

Ultimately, the goings-on of your business are not what I care about. I care about my personal experience, and I will freely tell you my experience with comp tickets.

I rarely ask for comp tickets. I am uncomfortable with them. Not because I do not think they shouldn’t exist–they have existed in the theater at least as far back as Pompeii and I see no reason why they should not continue long after Mt. Rainier erupts. I am comfortable with their existence. I am uncomfortable with them because they are not complimentary. Each one comes with strings attached, implied or explicit, strings which invariably have something to do with my perceived ability to line the theater’s pockets.

I have no illusions about my place in this ecosystem. Your theater groups are so obsessed with “butts in seats” that you actually have a phrase as stupid-sounding as “butts in seats” to repeat among yourselves ad nauseam. You view my work as publicity and nothing more, a means to your rear ends. My writing is, however, seldom useful for publicity purposes. My writing proceeds by thick description, analysis, and argument. It is fundamentally written for intelligent readers, who because they are intelligent do not go to the theater, since the theater long ago abandoned them. If your rationale for giving away comp tickets is to promote your work, then your tickets are wasted on me. To that aim you would do much more effectively to give tickets to reviewers who show far more inclination to write pabulum, or better still, start your own gossip rag. Such pabulum should be vapid but rapid. Naturally when vapid pabulum does not appear in reasonable time you may feel aggrieved, and rightly so.

Your desire for quick pull quotes means that you will excerpt the coruscating, heady prose of Misha Berson long before me, even if my review is in your own estimation the most positive review ever received. If only I’d just do as you all say and write shorter paragraphs and treat readers like morons the way most theater productions do, I, too, might find my way into the hallowed papers of your grant applications and Encore Magazine ads.

Alas, I’m not a shill. I have no desire to be known as Seattle theater’s version of Walter Monheitâ„¢ The Movie Publicist’s Friend. I am also far, far more cynical about the ostensible power of the press than any of you. The press holds no power, except at moments of pure fluke, to paper your auditoriums. It has far less power and far more competition now than it ever did, just as the theater itself has far less reach and far more competition. If you are relying upon the press to spread word of your show, you are a damned fool.

In my early days as the theater critic at KCMU radio, I felt much differently about all this. I saw 250+ plays a year and wrote about 200 reviews. I accepted a lot of complimentary tickets, some of which were actually given to me by people who just wanted to see me there, whether I wrote about it immediately or not. But at the time I was working for a non-profit college radio station where I was unpaid. I was also twenty. Seattle theaters were much more affordable, and theatrical companies much less mercenary. It was so long ago that Cornish, SPU and Seattle U let me review their productions. There was no World Wide Web and there was sure as hell nothing called a “blog.” There wasn’t even a paper called The Stranger. In that environment, I viewed my duty as a member of the press as covering all the things Wayne Johnson and Joe Adcock could not be bothered with, which was almost everything, at a time when Seattle theater was exploding with talent and ideas. It was a boom cycle, to be sure.

Not now. Now it is a bust cycle. Old media are no longer the only game in town. Theater no longer holds its prestige among people under 70. The new wave of techies have little interest in the classical arts, theater and dance least of all, and they are certainly not a civic-minded about art as our first wave of technomillionaires. Consequently everyone is running scared–a perfectly sensible reaction. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, as the witticism goes, and theater is not being talked about. Or, more accurately, it’s not being talked about the way that theater companies want it.

This is an issue of control, and it’s very much what lurks beneath the current system of so-called comps. There is a tacit agreement–or so theaters think–that complimentary tickets are not to be given away freely to the press. If they aren’t free–meaning I am not free to do with them as I will–they aren’t complimentary. So long as that “tacit agreement” remains in place without question, I refuse to enter into it. It is not an agreement. It is an enforced debt.

It is a different thing if I’m invited personally by someone at the theater. This makes my decision easy and unequivocal. If they reach out to me with a personally addressed communication either verbally or textually and offer me tickets, then I go, unless I absolutely cannot. Honor requires it and duty approves it. But rarely am I invited.

More often I am the recipient of that all-too-typical press release that is written generally and intended to go on a calendar somewhere. Some take this as an invitation. But unlike many of my fellows, I do not take the largesse of theater publicists for granted. Very few of them have a personal relationship with me. Many of them haven’t the faintest idea who I am. Every time I receive one of these I have to ask myself if I can afford to attend. If not, I generally thank the publicist and explain my poverty, which, since I am a writer, I explain a lot. If I can afford it, I ask myself if it’s essential that I see it. If not, I don’t go. If it is, I pay for it myself.

This might sound like I am asking for special treatment, to which my response is that it isn’t special. It’s complimentary. Before the days of e-mail press releases, every theater PR person knew every critic in town, and vice versa. It was part of the job. This is no longer the case. It’s not because there are more theater groups now. There are fewer. I can make the point that there are more people writing now about theater than ever before, but that would be only a partial truth. In fact, arts departments at the local papers have shrunk greatly since I started writing four years before the birth of the World Wide Web. Furthermore if the belief is that there are more people writing locally about theater now than ever before, how is that a problem for press agents? And if those people do not write to the satisfaction of press agents, part of the reason is that it is not the business of press agents to tell them how or when or what or how frequently to write.

It is fundamentally a matter of trust, and trust is very much a personal decision by both critics and press agents. Part of the weakness in this trust rests on the shoulders of the reviewers. They have various reasons for writing or not writing as they do, from editorial interference on down to a touch of the flu or simply to the inability to say anything. But much of this, too, rests squarely on the shoulders of the press agents. They do not know know which writers are trustworthy because they have not bothered to do their research. Even on the internet, theater bloggers have readable work that would take all of ten minutes to assess–in many cases quite a bit less. Until publicists can be bothered to grow familiar with the work of the writers, any complaint they make about the quality of theatrical writing, or indeed about the behavior of writers, can only seem petulant.


Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net