Last spring American Theatre covered a controversial incident in the Chicago theatre scene. Chris Jones’s and Hedy Weiss’s reviews of This is Modern Art, a Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults premiere, spurred vocal responses from the theatre community on issues of identity and privilege. Lost in the controversy, though, was a fact that both sides of the argument seemed to take for granted: that not one but two top newspapers in a major American city had sent critics to cover a play for young audiences in the first place.
Washington, D.C., is another theatre-rich metropolis, claiming more than 90 professional theatres, several of which primarily produce theatre for young audiences (TYA). Unlike Chicago, D.C. has just one flagship newspaper, the Washington Post, and until about 18 months ago, it covered many of these theatres with the same approach it took to non-TYA theatres: regularly reviewing productions and periodically running feature stories on upcoming shows. However, the Post changed its policy a year and half ago, cutting reviews of the TYA companies’ productions and limiting feature articles to brief roundups of multiple shows.
If This is Modern Art had premiered in the D.C. metro area instead of Chicago, most American Theatre readers probably wouldn’t have heard about it.
The new policy has left leaders in the D.C. theatre world baffled and upset, especially considering the size and prestige of some of the affected theatres. Adventure Theatre MTC and Imagination Stage are two of the area’s largest TYA theatres, each bringing in more than 100,000 patrons annually.
“We approach the work like anyone producing for adult audiences approaches their work,” says Michael Bobbitt, artistic director of Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Md. “And if you look at any rubrics by which you call a theatre ‘large’—number of artists, number of patrons served, budget size—we would certainly appear in the top 10 or 15 in D.C.”
Both theatres routinely premiere new works, collaborate with noteworthy artists, and receive Helen Hayes Award nominations. “We all consistently win those awards across categories, so one would have thought that the city and its newspaper would see this as a source of pride,” says Janet Stanford, artistic director of Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md.
When asked to comment for this article, Washington Post senior arts editor Christine Ledbetter responded via email, “We have not reduced TYA coverage. We have changed the format to reported stories and previews.” But the fact remains that most TYA theatres have not been reviewed by the Post since 2014. And preview coverage is now limited to 500-word mentions in articles that list multiple upcoming TYA shows.
And Adventure Theatre and Imagination Stage say they’ve seen overall coverage in the Post decrease over the last two years. Despite the fact that smaller publications such as DC Theatre Scene and DC Metro Theatre Arts still review TYA shows, the loss of Post coverage and exposure to its large readership, the theatres say, has had a negative effect on their box office, with ticket sales dropping 20 percent since 2014, for a loss of nearly $500,000.
“We used to be able to look at our Google Analytics and see that people were coming to the theatre because they saw the Post article online, or it was reposted and they saw it on our Facebook page,” says Bobbitt. “Now that’s not happening, and ticket sales have dropped.” Imagination Stage used to have to hire additional box office staff to meet ticket sale demand on days a Post review was published. They no longer need that kind of additional support following an opening weekend.
Low ticket sales aren’t the only consequence of not being reviewed by the Post. Bobbitt points out that not getting reviewed hurts the careers of the actors involved. And Stanford is troubled by the lack of a credible, theatre-literate voice to comment publicly on her company’s work.
“We knew the reviews from the Post wouldn’t always be positive, but we would get criticism from someone who understood the basic rules of dramaturgy and could understand what we as artists were attempting to do,” she explains, “They garnered the respect of our audience, who would then take that review seriously.” Stanford also makes a distinction between a review written by an arts critic and one written by a parent blogger. “For mommy or daddy bloggers, it may be just as important to mention that there’s a convenient place to park your stroller as to talk about the show. I’m not denying that those logistics aren’t important to parents, but if somebody is talking about a show not as a piece of art, but on par with ‘let’s go play laser tag,’ it just becomes another commodity that our audience can consume, and compares us to things that we as theatres don’t feel we should be compared to.”
An additional frustration comes from the fact that the Post’s policy appears to be inconsistent. “A production of Peter Pan 360 toured here and was reviewed by the Post,” says Bobbitt. “That’s clearly a TYA show. The policy seems to target local TYA theatres and people producing solely TYA work.”
Amy Austin, president of theatreWashington—the organization that administers the Helen Hayes Awards—also questions the logic of the Post’s policy.
“It seems arbitrary and odd to me that the Post is covering TYA in some theatres, but not those where TYA is specific to the mission of the theatre,” she says. “Why would they cover a production of Cinderella if it was done at the National Theatre but not at Imagination Stage, when you see the same quality of work at both institutions?”
After a year without any substantial coverage and repeated attempts to contact the Post, Stanford and Bobbitt finally got a meeting last November with members of the Post’s editorial team: Ledbetter, executive features editor Liz Seymour, theatre critic Nelson Pressley, and weekend and GoingOutGuide editor Camille Kilgore. They were told that the Post was making cuts across all arts disciplines in the paper, reviewing fewer theatre productions overall as well as fewer books, movies, operas, and dance pieces.
“I think what they’ve been truthful about is that the D.C. theatre scene has grown massively,” says Bobbitt. “So I can understand how difficult it can be to do pre-show features and reviews on all the theatres that are producing in the D.C. area.”
Still, if the cuts are meant to be universal, he questions why non-TYA theatre companies are getting a disproportionate amount of coverage. “We’re seeing other theatres get multiple pre-show articles, so there seems to be something not quite transparent there,” he says.
At the meeting, the Post staff encouraged the artistic directors to start a letter-writing campaign to give the paper a sense of how much the community values the lost TYA coverage. Bobbitt and Stanford have since mobilized their boards, audiences, colleagues, and local politicians—including county executive Isiah Leggett and councilperson David Grosso. “By removing the TYA feature from its viewership, the Post is sending a negative message to residents that these companies are not important to the editorial leadership,” wrote Grosso in his letter.
Bobbitt and Stanford also collaborated with Austin, who wrote an open letter to the theatre community encouraging readers to contact the Post about the issue, providing a template for what to include. “Obviously, [the Post‘s] decision has an impact on TYA, but I think it has a rippling effect in the community,” Austin explains. “These are the theatres that are creating the next generation of theatregoers.”
Other supporters include Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith, well-known children’s book author Judith Viorst (whose work has been adapted into plays for younger audiences), and playwright and former Post editor Peggy Engle. “Writing off metro productions because their audience includes children can’t really be defended on journalistic grounds,” wrote Engle in her letter.
Stanford and Bobbitt estimate that the Post has received over 500 letters so far. “We’ve written to the whole artistic community of Washington, D.C.,” Stanford says. “But there’s been no response from the Post and no evidence of any change in their position.”
Stanford is disappointed in the lack of response, but most of all she worries that the paper’s policy is a symptom of a larger cultural issue. “Like so many things in our society, it’s dismissive of children,” she says. “It says that the work that’s created for them is not as worthy of space in the newspaper or serious thought.”
The largest issue, she feels, is the lack of respect and the undertone that work done for children is less valuable than work done for adults. “It’s another example of how society is acting as though we don’t owe young people anything. They are abnegating what was once considered a journalistic responsibility,” Stanford says.
In the meantime, TYA leaders aren’t letting up. To them, there’s a lot of potential for what robust TYA criticism could do. “I think there’s tremendous room for some leadership in the journalistic community,” says Stanford. “If there were a more national examination of our field, we would get the critiques that would help us all improve our work.”
TheatreWashington’s Austin observes that covering TYA theatre by companies that specialize in that work could have some tangible benefits for the Post in the long run, since habitual theatregoers tend to read theatre reviews. “They’re going to need future readers,” she says. “If kids are finding out about children’s theatre from their local publications, they’re more likely to grow up knowledgeable theatregoers, but also to be readers of the Post.”
Emma Halpern is the co-artistic director of New York City Children’s Theater.
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