A little over a year ago, a friend of mine put me in contact with a reporter from the New York Times, who was preparing a piece on the New York Fringe Festival. I emailed the gentleman, received a questionnaire, filled it out, and went back about my business. A few days later, I awoke to a swarm of emails and Facebook messages from friends, saying I was famous. My emailed answers were featured in a one-year retrospective of shows from the preceding Fringe festival, investigating what the experience was like, what we’d learned, and whether we’d do it all again. (The curious may find the article here.)
Flattered though I was to be featured (especially since, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, I do love to ramble on about things in print), the whole enterprise struck me as a little odd. The Times was acknowledging the start of the 2015 Fringe with a piece about four shows from the 2014 festival. While welcome, this coverage did not make it possible to extend the runs of any of the four featured shows – indeed, there was something infuriating about such marvelous publicity for shows that no longer existed. Meanwhile, there were two hundred or so 2015 Fringe shows about to open, all of whom had spent months getting their productions into shape, all which could have benefited from recognition from the Paper of Record, all of whom must have been perplexed that such valuable column space was being lavished on Fringe shows long since closed.
This year, the Times’ start-of-Fringe think piece can at least provide material support to current shows. Four shows, to be precise. The Times has run an article detailing these productions’ efforts to secure free rehearsal space leading up to the Fringe. (You can read it here.) Having produced on the Fringe and knowing how expensive rehearsal space can be, I do find this a fascinating topic. However, this information comes a little late for the other Fringe shows, all of which have presumably finished their rehearsals by now. And since the secret turns out to be “know somebody who can do you a favor,” it’s not necessarily advice you can act upon; and as a criteria for which shows get included in the article, it’s more than a little arbitrary. Nonetheless, these are four current shows, so if the article piques your interest, you can actually go and see the productions in question. It’s a step in the right direction.
But you know what would be an even bigger step? Actually reviewing the shows. To the best of my recollection, none of the Fringe shows in my year were reviewed by the Times, nor were any of last years’ productions. It’s not unrealistic to think that they could be reviewed; I have friends whose Fringe shows in previous years did receive reviews from the Times, which had a significant impact on their ability to mount future productions. Clearly, not every one of the two hundred shows can be covered. And it clearly won’t be Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood doing the reviewing – indeed, they’re usually out of town in August, posting dispatches from London or the like. But there are so many third-stringers on the payroll who’d be happy for the byline, and so many shows desperate for the attention, so you’d think they’d be able to arrange at least a few pieces in the next few weeks. And yet, if the past two years are any indication, they probably won’t. The Fringe shows will be covered by bloggers and online reviewers, while the Paper of Record concerns itself with other, presumably loftier fare.
I respectfully suggest this is a mistake. With other newspapers severely curtailing their arts coverage, the Times will soon find itself alone in terms of providing in-depth arts coverage of any kind. Since the hunger for the arts hasn’t been driven out of our society quite yet, I maintain that the Times would do well to cover more shows, not less, and extend its coverage to the off-off-Broadway and “Indie” world (at least to a greater degree than it does now). None of these shows exist in a vacuum; the health of these Fringe productions affect the health of commercial theater even if they don’t follow the path of shows like Urinetown and transfer to Broadway. The Times is fast becoming the only outlet with the power to keep this fractured community healthy, and as a noted New York cultural figure once remarked, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
In the meantime, I should point out that since last week’s blog post, I’ve learned that three other Fringe shows this summer feature former colleagues and co-stars of mine. These include the fantastical The Troubador Struck by Lightning, the drag extravaganza Brandonna Summer Lives, Live, and the energetic show-biz farce Walken on Sunshine. By all means, try and seek these shows out during these few short weeks of the festival. And if you do, feel free to post a review somewhere.
Posted on August 15, 2016
by Michael C. O'Day