A print magazine? About theatre? In this economy?
Obviously, this question hits close to home at American Theatre, which is an exclusively online operation for the moment (our last print issue was in May/June 2020, with plans to return to print when it’s feasible). But the folks behind Encore Monthly, a brand new magazine about theatre that just published its first issue and is selling subscriptions for the new year (at the “intermission rate” of $29.95), think the time is ripe to provide theatregoers, deprived as we are of theatre we can witness in person, to read about it, and they say they’re equipped to hang on until it comes raging back.
The co-publishers are Brantley Manderson, owner of Encore Atlanta, which produces performing arts programs in that market, and Louis Doucette, a publisher of lifestyle and trade magazines. The editor-in-chief is Robert Viagas, the founding editor of the popular theatre website Playbill.com, and editor of the Playbill for 24 years. I spoke via Zoom to the relentlessly upbeat and voluble Viagas last month about his plans for the magazine and his sanguine views of the field’s prospects and the tastes of its followers.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: We’ve both been in this business a while, but our paths have never crossed. It’s good to meet you. Are you from the New York area originally?
ROBERT VIAGAS: Yes. And I actually I started out as a copy boy at Newsday thousands of years ago. But even when I was a kid, I had this dream of starting an all-theatre newspaper. I even imagined having a sports section, and when I started Playbill.com, we covered the Broadway softball league.
How did you get involved with Encore Monthly?
I took early retirement from Playbill in 2018, and then about a year ago, these two wonderful people approached me and asked me if I would come out of retirement and be editor of a new national theatre magazine. I said no at first, because I had seen a lot of theatre magazines come and go over the years. But they said they wanted to do a magazine that wouldn’t be just all press-release stories; it wouldn’t be hard news, but I told them if we’re going to do features, they can’t just all be fluffy features. To me, theatre is the whole world. It’s the whole universe. It’s everything. It can be serious—it needs to be serious—but it can also be fun. And it’s not just what’s happening on the stage. I have a crackpot theory—I have many crackpot theories—I don’t believe that theatre happens on the stage. I believe that theatre happens in the audience, in the hearts and minds of the people sitting out in the house. That’s where theatre occurs. And that is much harder to write about and to cover and to explore than just writing stories about, you know, kooky things or serious things happening on the stage. How does it affect the people out in the audience? So I came back to Brantley Manderson and Louis Doucette, the co-publishers of this magazine, and I said, “This is the magazine I would like to write, because I’ve done every other approach to it.”
And you know something, Rob, it’s the 2020s. After COVID is over, it’s changing already. Theatre is going to be different. It’s not going to be the same. It’s going to be as different as the theatre of the 1920s was from Depression-era theatre. It’s going to be different, and we don’t necessarily know how it’s going to be different. A lot of people have theories, people we’ve been interviewing left and right, we asked them all, what is theatre going to be like in the ’20s? We’re going to find out, and as we find out, we’ll be covering it in Encore Monthly.
But a print magazine? That does seem to be going against the tide.
I have to tell you, starting this thing in the middle of COVID, most people thought this was an insane, suicidal mission. But you know what? I have been able to go out there and cherry pick a lot of the best writers in the business, because mighty engines are idling out there. They want to write. There’s nothing for them to write about. So I was able to get Ken Bloom and Peter Filichia and Eveline Chao, Cara Joy David, Jose Solís. Howard Sherman is writing for me, Seth Rudetsky is writing for me. Christine Pedi is writing for me. They were just like, “You’re starting a magazine in the middle of this? You’re insane!” I must be! My photo editor is Joan Marcus. Who’s doing our advertising? Michael Hartman of Serino Coyne. Who’s doing our PR? Adrian Bryan-Brown of Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Everybody wants to be part of theatre, even though even when there is no theatre; they want to stay connected. And the readers feel that way too.
It’s also going to be diverse. We are bringing in a wide variety of writers. I have written about the theatre of the ’80s and ’90s. I want Encore magazine to be the voice of theatre in the 2020s, the 2030s, the 2040s and beyond. Nothing would make me happier than the top theatre writer of the year 2045 saying, “I got my start on Encore Monthly.” So many people, they can’t look past the end of their nose. They’re all like, “Ooh, what’s going to happen in June”—that’s as far ahead as they can look. We’re trying to look 10 years ahead, 20 years ahead, 30 years ahead. That’s where theatre is going to be made. By the way, I do stop talking occasionally. I have big lungs.
I wanted to ask about the national aspect. The coverage you’ve talked about so far does seem very focused on New York and commercial theatre.
The way that we are promoting the magazine, we have gone to theatres all over the country; a lot of them have subscriber money and they’re not able to give their subscribers anything. So we said, if you will just push us out to your subscribers, and everybody who buys a subscription to the magazine, we kick back money to the local theatre. So it’s a revenue stream for these people that have no revenue stream. Theatres all over the country have jumped onto our bandwagon and are promoting us.
Once a month we have a Zoom roundtable with all of our associates all over the country, and we tell them, “Here are the stories that we’re working on; how do we localize this story for your market?” So every story that comes out, even if it’s about a New York subject, we include information from around the country. We did a story on “the theatrical heroes of COVID,” and it wasn’t just people in New York, it was New England, California, Detroit—people who kept theatre alive in all these markets around the country. I have hired a correspondent from Chicago, and I’m going to hire correspondents from the West Coast and some of the other places in between, so that we can have actual journalism from some of the best journalists in the country, many of whom are not in New York.
I will let you ask another question, I promise, but to go back to an earlier question: Don’t forget, I knew all the people who ran the magazines, and I took them out for beers after their magazines collapsed and found out what they did wrong. So I have a pretty good idea of what works. You and I work for the two theatre magazines that have kept going, Playbill and American Theatre, so not only do I know what makes magazines fail, I also feel I know what makes magazines succeed.
To me, it seems to boil down to readership and advertising money, both of which have largely moved away from print. Right?
Well, you’ve paraphrased what I think is part of the reason. Most magazines are either started by people who are primarily left brain or primarily right brain—people who either know theatre but don’t know how to run a business, or people who know how to run a business but really don’t understand what theatre lovers are curious about and what motivates them and keeps them engaged. And between myself and my two publishers, who’ve been publishing magazines for more than 20 years. He’s the one who actually came up with this idea; he said his job is to find niches and to create magazines in what he considers to be potentially profitable niches. He approached the other publisher, Brantley Manderson, who publishes theatre programs, which she has been doing for 20 years, so she knows that the business pretty well. I feel like we have a good team of left and right brain people who are going to run this thing right.
American Theatre’s revenue model includes membership fees and advertising. Are your main revenue sources going to be subscriptions and advertising for Broadway shows?
It’s gonna be tourism that’s will drive advertising, and that’s something Louis is in charge of the getting right. But they’ve tried to keep it a very pure process; they said, “You do the editorial, we’re going to do the selling of the ads.” I do know this: I was supposed to put out a 60-page issue in January, but they bumped me up another signature, so I think now the first issue is going to be 88 pages. So they must be selling ads.
Will Encore publish criticism?
You know, it’s hard to do reviews in a monthly magazine. Also, I’ve watched this happen since I started doing all this thousands of years ago. The New York Times once had all the power; there were three daily critics in New York, and everybody followed what they said and where they went. Since then, we’ve had something I call the democratization of criticism. A lot of people I’ve talked to recently, I said, “Oh, Ben Brantley’s leaving and they’re going to pick a new critic.” And people who work in the business have said to me, “Who?” That’s not where they find out what what shows are about. They asked their friends. It’s word of mouth, and now word of mouth has been technologized. Now people go to the websites where they can ask people who have actually coughed up hard-earned cash money for tickets. It’s sort of the Yelp-ization of theatre criticism.
So I think the value of reviews has kind of gone down. That’s not really what people want to read in a magazine. People want to learn things. They want to see pictures; they want to find out things they didn’t know before. They want to have fun. They want to test their knowledge. I mean, we have all of this in the magazine.
As someone who reads and writes and loves criticism, that’s depressing. But yeah, I’ve observed some of the same trends.
You know something, Rob, there’s a whole cadre of theatre fans who were raised on the Disney musicals in the 1990s, and as the years went on, there was High School Musical, then there was Glee, and then there was Smash. And then suddenly shows started being written for them, like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. And a lot of those people are the people who are going to have their hands on the controls of the American theatre. So, yes, there’s going to be plenty in my magazine for the older, long-term fans, but that younger cadre that is already at the wheel and driving American theatre—those are the people this magazine is for.
Another thing that’s happened during the pandemic has been a strong movement among theatre artists of color, including some in that generation you’re talking about, for a more equitable and just theatre. Do you feel that’s going to be part of the theatre that emerges in the ’20s?
I’m on the board of an organization called NAAP, Baayork Lee’s National Asian Artists Project, and they keep expanding what they do to promote Asian artists all over the place. And last summer, after the horrible police murders of Black people in this country, an organization of African American theatre artists got together and created a new organization that is going to be doing advocacy, outreach, and education, and I am working with them. Their activities are going to affect what we see in the next 20, 30 years. This is going to be what American theatre is going to be my friend. Though I may not sound like it, I’m actually a Latinx person myself; I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. It’s funny, all my life, I was trying to lose the accent and to de-emphasize that, but now, like they said in A Chorus Line, ethnic is in.
As a former Tony nominator yourself, you’re probably more hooked in than I am. Do you have any idea when the Tonys are going to happen?
I don’t know. I’ve called and called over there, to the point where they said, “Please don’t call us anymore. When we are ready to announce this, we will let the whole world know.” I’ll be interested to see. We’re not going to have a 2021 Tony Awards, because there are no shows. I’m prepared to run the magazine for a year with no Broadway.
Are you hopeful that it will come back this year?
You know, it’s going to be one of these things, like the restaurants and bars and stores. Yeah, people are afraid of getting COVID, but as soon as they open these things, they’re mobbed with crazy people coming in. And I think it’s going to be the same thing when theatre starts up again. I think there are people with so much pent-up desire to see shows, they are going to mob the theatres. Yes, they’ll wear their masks. I think masks are going to be a part of our lives, at least for a while. It’s going to be like people wearing tie-dyed shirts and bell bottoms; if you see that on the stage, you got ’60s. It’s gonna be the same thing, if you put on masks, people are going to say, “Oh, this is set in 2020, 2021. I remember that.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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