The Inexorable Passage of Time Out

“That magazine keeps getting smaller and smaller,” my barista said to me the other day as I ordered my tea, the most recent issue of Time Out New York curled in my hand. “Pretty soon there won’t be anything there at all.” While we haven’t reached that point yet, his bantering point was well taken – the issue I held was slender indeed, maybe a third the size of what an issue of the magazine would have been a decade ago, a state of affairs made more egregious by the fact that what was once a weekly periodical now comes out once every two weeks. Formerly the unofficial bible for every arts and entertainment event in this city – the entire city, all five sprawling boroughs of it, not just a narrow sliver of midtown Manhattan – the average issue of Time Out these days is barely more than a pamphlet, with only a smattering of actual listings among the puff pieces filling up its meager handful of pages.

Now, a large part of this is due to the changing nature of the publishing industry; most of Time Out’s content has moved online. And if you go to their website, you’ll find much of what used to be in the print version of the magazine. I’m mostly focusing on theater here; where the print copy only lists information for a handful of even Broadway productions, listings and reviews for all Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and a sizeable selection of Off-Off Broadway productions, are there on the website in easily scrollable format. It’s the reality of how we get this information nowadays, I suppose (it’s how you’re reading this, after all), and the change is inevitable.

Even so, when it comes to off-off Broadway theater, there’s a significant change that many readers might not realize. Go to the webpage with TONY’s off-off Broadway listings, and you’ll encounter the following text as a header: “Looking for the best Off-Off Broadway shows? Here are the most promising productions at NYC’s smaller venues right now.” As a consumer, you’re probably fine with this – you probably weren’t thinking of going to a show that didn’t look promising. But for those of us who actually create theater, this a sizable departure from the way Things Used To Be. Because once upon a time, Time Out would list just about everything.

I can think back to a wacky little production I did twenty years ago, one of those latter-day descendants of Sam Shepard with inscrutable symbolism and a stage that was trashed by the end of the performance, debris and feathers flying everywhere. (Yes, actual feathers. I forget why we needed them in the show, but I remember that doing laundry afterwards was a royal pain in the ass.) It ran for one weekend, in the doldrums of August, in a theater space that doesn’t exist anymore. It was one of those scrappy little non-union productions that come and go in the blink of an eye, held together by not much more than youthful idealism and duct tape. And even we were listed in Time Out New York that week.

Try and imagine such a thing happening now. You can’t, it isn’t possible. Hell, it’s been more than a decade since they made the editorial decision not to list shows that ran less than three weekends – which makes it impossible to list the bulk of what’s produced off-off Broadway. And as the festival model for off-off Broadway production has taken hold, and most of what gets produced gets a few days of shows over one week of some ongoing competition (not unlike the show I just closed), an even larger fraction of what gets produced goes unheralded and unpublicized – at least by Time Out.

There’s other resources, of course, other websites which devote their coverage towards small-scale independent theatre. But in most cases, you have to already know about this scene in order to find that coverage (or have it forwarded to you by a hustling actor or director who wants to make sure their work hasn’t gone for naught). Time Out used to be the place where you could come across coverage of remarkable work by accident, a common reference point where anything and everything could be found. Every change to their model, inevitable though it might be, causes that place to recede further and further into memory.

Of course, if your little off-off Broadway show made it into the pages of Time Out these days, there’s a chance my local barista would make fun of it. You take the bad with the good, I guess.

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