How producers can save the day

Australian theatre is facing a crisis that threatens to destroy the very future of commercial musicals, and it’s time to fight back – with full force.

Australian theatre is facing a crisis that threatens to destroy the very future of commercial musicals, and it’s time to fight back – with full force.

In recent times we have watched theatre coverage in the metropolitan media shrink, and over the past few weeks we have learned that Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper has dumped its arts editor and an arts journalist. That’s a whole lot of arts out the back door with very little coming back through the front.

I remember a few years ago, when I was living in the city, I’d love to pick up the Sunday papers late on Saturday night and browse through the arts coverage, particularly the reviews. At the time, Colin Rose and Diana Simmonds led the way in terms of Sunday reviews, and their words were much sought after.

Fast forward to 2010 and things are vastly different. It seems, to my eye anyway, that the focus on theatre in the daily and weekend newspapers has somewhat strayed. At some point in the last year or so, I stopped buying the Sunday papers religiously – there was just no need. Somewhere along the line, arts coverage lost its punch.

At a couple of recent opening nights, I have spoken to producers – both big and small – who were questioning the media’s coverage of the arts in general.

The debate took further steps forward when Floyd Collins producer Anne-Maree McDonald revealed some stunning facts about The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently declined a rather difficult to come by interview with Floyd Collins/Light In The Pizza composer Adam Guettel. Despite his numerous awards, (including Tony, Drama Desk, Lortel, Obie, Barrymore) the paper thought that a one off performance of Floyd Collins didn’t warrant any space at all on Guettel (the grandson of Richard Rodgers and much praised protégée of Stephen Sondheim),” she said.

“The same newspaper also sent along a reviewer more commonly asked to review pop or blues concerts. Floyd Collins is a complex piece of Music Theatre. Clearly he didn’t get it at all. Is there hope for us?”

Interesting, isn’t it. Newspapers, which in the main ‘chase’ stories, have the arts throwing stories at them and yet we can’t get a fair run.

When we do get a fair run, questions are seriously asked about the experience of the journalist penning the story or review. Theatre is, after all, complex, and requires a special person to get it right.

The biggest irony in all of this is that the arts keep throwing money at the very media organisations that are letting them down.

Full page ads, half page ads, television ads, radio ads, paid directly listings – the advertising budgets for major musicals are generally high.

Over a year, a producer like John Frost or Rodney Rigby would spend enough money in the media to be considered a serious client.

Which raises the question, why do we put up with the lack of theatre coverage? Why don’t the commercial theatre producers in this country band together, pull or reduce their advertising, and demand action.

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t fool ourselves by pretending that the media is all about reporting the facts. Most media organisations are commercial operations. Money talks, and in many cases advertising directs editorial (though finding an editor or who admits that would be a difficult task).

Producers need to toughen up, run the risk and lead the charge against dwindling arts coverage across the country.

It is simply not good enough that The Herald Sun can dump its arts editor and an arts journalist without so much as a reaction from a major producer.

As an industry, we need to get tough. Let’s fight back now whilst we still have something to fight for.

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