Thursday, January 14, 2016

How'd she do it?
(Tying up loose ends, Part 2)

(This is the second of two commentaries in which the cranky critic catches up on shows he attended this past December, but for various reasons didn't get around to writing about till now. He hopes to do better in 2016.)

It was an unofficial team-up.

Its backstory was a long time in the making. Since its establishment in 1997, Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre has had a succession of artistic directors, each of whom had (or, currently, has) a unique vision for the popular venue. And since its founding in 2000, The Abreact has produced its shows in a handful of performance spaces throughout the Downtown, Greektown and Corktown neighborhoods of Detroit. Both, at times, shared similar visions, and it wasn't unusual to find some of the same artists working at both places.

So when the powers-that-be at The Abreact decided last year it was time to leave its most recent home and look for a new location, it made total sense that artistic director Chuck Reynolds would use his downtime to direct a show at Planet Ant. It also didn't surprise me that the show would feel equally at home at Planet Ant as it would have on the stage of The Abreact - and that many of the actors would be familiar to longtime patrons of each theater.

In short, "Orson's Shadow" had the vibe of an Abreact production and a Planet Ant production, and the result was one of my most favorite shows so far this season.

In his review of the play for, critic Frank Anthony Polito described "Orson’s Shadow" as "the behind-the-scene story of the time when Orson Welles took on the challenge of directing Sir Laurence Oliver and his soon-to-be bride Joan Plowright in a production of Ionesco’s 'Rhinoceros' in London’s West End in 1960. As one might imagine, the clashing of egos between Welles and Olivier is enough fodder to make for a compelling drama. Throw in Olivier’s fanatical actress wife, a chain-smoking theater reviewer, and a stoic stagehand and the most serious of scenarios becomes a laugh-riot."

He couldn't have summarized it better.

Such a script has plenty of pitfalls, however, since its main characters are - or were - familiar faces to the movie-going public. How do you get audiences to shake their memories of Welles and Olivier? Can any local actor believably fill their costumes?

Yes, and Reynolds pulled it off because of tight, intense directing and a team of skilled actors who fully invested themselves in their roles.

Few actors came to mind for the role of Welles when Chuck first told me about the show many, many months ago - and the one whom I first thought of indeed played the character. Joel Mitchell dominates whatever stage he crosses - as did Welles - so while little physical similarities exist between the two, Mitchell had no problem erasing the image of the larger-than-life Welles from my mind; the power of his performance left no doubt who he was.

I was a bit concerned about the choice for Olivier, however. While the other actors were age-appropriate for their roles, handsome Jonathan Davidson was much too young. But here's yet another case of a young actor stepping up to the challenge, as Davidson - with theatrical magic to add years to his look - kept up with Mitchell (which is not an easy task) and convinced me Reynold's choice was a solid one.

Fine performances were also given by the always excellent Dax Anderson as the theater critic, TM Rawlins as Vivian Leigh, and Bryan Spangler as the Irish stagehand.

In all honesty, though, much of my attention was focused on Kelly Rossi, whose Joan Plowright quietly, but strongly maintained control of the men around her. Most impressive was a segment in which she was sitting mere inches from - and looking stoically towards, but not directly at - the audience. From what I could tell - and I watched closely - her focus never wavered, never once accidentally making eye contact with anyone sitting near her. Nor did her eyes ever dart away, even for a second. How she did that, I'll never know.

What helped, I'm sure, was the blanket of quietness and calm that had descended upon the audience as they sat riveted to the action unfolding before them. The intimacy of the space and our desire to focus on the story brought us into the action as unseen participants. Rarely was a cough or a candy wrapper heard from the utterance of the first line to the very last.

That, my dear readers, is a sign of an excellent production!

CLICK HERE to read the review from

CLICK HERE to read John Monaghan's review in the Detroit Free Press

Sunday, January 10, 2016

And then there were none...

History was made last week with the downsizing of journalist Jenn McKee from her job at The Ann Arbor News. Part of the MLive media empire here in Michigan, Jenn was one of 29 content providers from across the state to lose their jobs - including, it's rumored, Jeffrey Kaczmarczak of The Grand Rapids Press. And that means - to the best of my knowledge - there are no longer any experienced staff journalists at a major city newspaper anywhere in the state covering live theater as their primary beat.

Think about that for minute.

If theater is to get any coverage at all from the state's daily newspapers (which, yes, is a misnomer these days due to publishing cutbacks, but you get the point), it will be by freelance writers. When space and budgets permit, of course.

And since theaters are not significant purchasers of advertising in these publications, guess what that means?

So why did Jenn get laid off, you might be wondering? Trust me: it's not because of the quality of her work.

In her time at the paper, Jenn grew into becoming a trusted voice and fearless arts advocate, whose work was appreciated - even by those who sometimes disagreed with her. (The sign of a good critic is one who says what she believes and doesn't back down for fear of a backlash from vocal opposition. And that certainly describes Jenn, who sometimes took a beating, but didn't allow it to intimidate her from doing her job to the best of her ability!)

The reason for her departure, then, can be summed up in one word - a word that dominates discussions throughout the media here and elsewhere: clicks.

Before we chat about clicks, however, let's step into the WABAC Machine to get some historical perspective on the situation.

(Remember, though: What I'm about to lay out is a very basic description of the newspaper/media business as it existed in the 20th and early 21st centuries. As such, there are exceptions to every rule, and the devil is always in the details!)

How we got to where we are today

Back in the good ol' days before many of my readers were born, pretty much every major city in America had at least two daily newspapers - often more. (Detroit had three when I was young, and in earlier times, a few more. But I digress.) These papers were - more often than not in the beginning - locally owned and managed, with the owners having deep business and/or political roots within the communities they served.

They were also a highly competitive bunch, always looking for ways to build their circulation - which meant they offered their readers a wide variety of content in order to appeal to the broadest range of interests as possible. (The business of signing up comic strips was especially cutthroat, for example!)

As a result, covering arts and culture were very important to their publishing plans. So much so, that many papers had staff journalists who specialized in music, opera, fine arts and theater - often with multiple critics covering the same discipline. And many spent decades in their position, honing their craft and building solid reputations for their work. (Lawrence DeVine, for example, spent 30 years as a theater critic for the Detroit Free Press; he retired in 1998.)

But times and technologies change.

Although radio and television nibbled away at their circulation and advertising dollars - thanks in part to the expansion of  local and national TV newscasts from 15-minute shows to 30 and beyond -  the three media co-existed side by side rather peacefully for many years. (One reason for that was the limited number of broadcast outlets in each market. Up until the mid to late '60s, most markets had only three TV stations to choose from - not including an "educational station," which in the pre-PBS days was often affiliated with a school district . We in Detroit had four, thanks to Windsor's CKLW, plus the non-commercial WTVS, which early on was programmed by the Detroit Public Schools and the Archdiocese of Detroit.)

As such, the advertising "pie" remained fairly consistent for many years. That is, until the expansion of UHF and FM stations caused a shift to where advertising dollars were allocated.

But the biggest changes were yet to come.

Beginning with the rise of radio in the late 1920s and early '30s, much public debate centered around the concept of "public interest" - that is, what is the role of the broadcaster (and the media in general) when it comes to serving the best interests of the public. After much debate and lobbying - nothing changes much, you see - the newly instituted Federal Communications Commission declared in 1934 that "it would not be in the public’s interest for a single entity to hold more than one broadcast license in the same community." Why? Because "(t)he view was that the public would benefit from a diverse array of owners because it would lead to a diverse array of program and service viewpoints."

In the ensuing decades, ownership rules were modified multiple times - eventually limiting the number of broadcast stations an entity could own. And newspapers were prohibited from owning a broadcast station in its market. (That 1975 law forced The Detroit News to divest itself of what was then WWJ-TV, for example.)

As such, robust competition was the rule of the day. And that meant that by limiting ownership in major markets, a multitude of voices would be heard.

That all changed, however, beginning in 1985 when fervor over media deregulation hit Capitol Hill and, later that decade, with the introduction of the World Wide Web, which helped expand our access to faraway media resources. Add to the already volatile mix the rise of commercial cable television (which began in 1950 and slowly morphed into the behemoth it is today), and what was once a fairly stable and profitable industry was primed for a major shakeup - which happened in 1996, when new FCC ownership rules blew the doors and windows wide open, ultimately allowing a handful of mega-companies to scoop up media outlets across the country.

Now, few voices are heard. And the economic model that served the industry - and us - rather well was forever shattered.

Media basics in the twenty teens

So what's all this have to do with Jenn's job disappearing, you're likely wondering? Keep reading.

With more and more media outlets and online publications fighting for a limited pool of advertising dollars - and a younger generation that avoids newspapers like the plague - times are tough for newspaper publishers all over the country, including here in Michigan.

Today, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News operate under a federally approved Joint Operating Agreement, and both have seen their circulations plunge to unimaginable levels. According to a story by journalist and educator Jack Lessenberry, who once was national editor of The Detroit News, daily circulation of each paper once topped 600,000.  Today, the Free Press sells less than 200,000 copies, while The News has sunk below 100,000. Equally disastrous is the Sunday circulation.

Such is the story nationwide, as newspapers have gone out of business, merged with other publications, or cut the number of days they distribute to newsstands.

Equally disconcerting is the small number corporations that now own our media outlets.

The Free Press is now owned by Gannett, which also scooped up the Observer & Eccentric chain of local newspapers, along with the Lansing State Journal, the Battle Creek Enquirer, The Times Herald, and the Livingston Daily. (They also own USA Today.) The Detroit News is owned by Digital First Media, which also owns The Oakland Press, the Daily Tribune, The Macomb Daily and Heritage Newspapers, which publishes various weeklies in Metro Detroit.

Statewide, MLive has a presence in 10 cities throughout the state: The Ann Arbor News, The Bay City Times, The Flint Journal, The Grand Rapids Press, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Muskegon Chronicle, The Saginaw News, and online-only portals in Detroit and Lansing.

Detroit's TV network affiliates are owned by Fox, CBS, Scripps and Graham - all national entities. Ownership of our radio stations are dominated by Cumulus, Birach, Clear Channel and CBS.

Fewer owners, fewer voices, fewer choices.

The biggest change, however, is the industry's move to a digital world, as a greater emphasis is now placed on the web-based portals every media outlet maintains. That's especially true of the newspaper industry, which - after we dinosaurs become extinct - will one day cease publishing print editions and exist only in the online world.

One obstacle is in the way, however: Absolutely none of the publishers have figured out how to make money in this newfangled environment.

Why? With so much free content available to anyone with a computer, potential subscribers have been hesitant to pay for content behind a firewall - especially at prices they feel are too high for the quality and perceived value of the content. And readers are frustrated by poorly designed web portals, pop-up ads and other visual and content distractions that make the reading experience somewhat painful.

Plus - still - available advertising dollars remain limited. And advertisers are demanding high volumes of eyeballs on their ads before they'll commit to a contract.

And therein lies the problem - and the reason Jenn is now unemployed.

About those damn clicks

Clicks, you see, is the metric by which every story posted on a media website is judged.

In the pre-internet days, a financially successful newspaper was one in which the daily and Sunday circulations were high enough to turn a profit for the owner. All the number-crunchers knew were the total circulation figures; without any additional research, they had no clue what parts of their newspapers their patrons were actually reading. (Feedback is generally not helpful, as editors and publishers are more likely to hear complaints than compliments.) As such, it was deemed just as likely that theater reviews were as popular as anything else that appeared in print.

Plus - remember - in the old days, publishers wanted to be as all-encompassing as possible in their coverage to attract the broadest readership possible. So as long as they made a profit, there was no reason to discontinue coverage of any particular segment of the paper.

Unfortunately, that world doesn't exist any longer.

Today, technology has been both a boon and a curse. Now, editors and publishers can see with exact precision how many readers have "clicked" on a story. Or to put it another way, every single story now has its own circulation number.

No longer is there any guessing involved regarding which stories are of interest to the readers and which aren't. Now we know.

And it's apparently not good news for the theater industry. (The metrics include additional information about the readers that advertisers cherish, but we won't go into that for now.)

The realization that theater coverage was going the way of the dodo was becoming apparent these past several years, as newspapers throughout the state began downsizing their staffs and several noted critics accepted retirement offers or left via other options - and weren't replaced except by freelancers. (Martin F. Kohn and Sue Merrill are two examples.)

Ongoing discussions within the industry itself further revealed that metrics were becoming more and more important to editors and journalists alike, as number crunchers were having far more pull in the newsroom than ever before.

And what did we begin seeing less and less of as the current decade marched onward? You got it: theater coverage.

The importance of metrics became clear to me in my previous position as editorial director of, a web-based media company I co-created to fill the gap created by the ever-decreasing coverage of professional theater by the news media. (I tracked them faithfully as well!)

One day an idea occurred to me. One way to expose our brand to a wide range of potential readers, I thought, was to become a content provider to other publishers. Two signed on: CBS Detroit and MLive. (We also shared content with our then-owner, Pride Source Media Group.) As such, we'd provide them with our reviews and the occasional preview free of charge in exchange for links directing traffic back to our site.

The result was of benefit to all involved: CBS Detroit and MLive got free content (which meant they didn't have to pay staff or freelancers to do the work), we got some extra traffic, and readers of MLive and CBS Detroit were provided with stories they otherwise would have missed. And, of course, our theaters were also winners, as they obtained additional exposure that otherwise wouldn't have happened.

Our relationships were strong and cordial, and all of my contacts seemed pleased with our arrangement. We had, I thought, a win-win-win-win situation for all involved!

But highers-up in their food chains - the number crunchers - seemingly prevailed, and our services were no longer required.

So was I surprised when Jenn McKee was laid off last week? Nope; actually, I was surprised it took them so long to let her go.

The future

With Jenn's departure from The Ann Arbor News, theater coverage from our mainstream media is at its lowest point in decades. What coverage there is will be primarily by freelance writers - and it will be at the whim of editors who are under the gun to generate the highest number of clicks possible.

In other words, unless they advertise with them or generate clicks above a certain threshold, theaters shouldn't count on getting much coverage for their shows. (I hope I'm wrong with this; but only time will tell.)

And Jenn? She'll bounce back quickly, I suspect. As one of her former editors, I can attest to the quality of her work. Plus, her reputation is strong, and she'll add immediate value to whichever employer is smart enough to sign her up.

In short, her future is bright.

But this discussion isn't over. Coming soon - once I finish up some unfinished business - we'll chat about the future of Michigan's professional theater industry. It's a subject that launched recently as an argument on Facebook, and it's one that merits some in-depth examination.

* * * * * * * * * *
For more on the subject of clicks:

From The New York Times

From the BBC

From the Columbia Journalism Review

From the Royal Economic Society

From Wharton University of Pennsylvania