By PAM HARBAUGH
The so-called “Chinese Wall” in newspapers disappeared a long time ago, inviting advertising to mingle with editorial. Marketing was not far behind, prompting the push to make reporters all “rock stars” in their community, hence sought out by readers.
With that came an avalanche of first-person columns, videos and selfies galore, all crying out “Look at me!” Now it is Periscope (live streaming video), which brings viewers (readers) deeper into the every day lives of reporters.
This self-focus has always been difficult for me (as you can probably tell by the tone in the first two paragraphs). But now, I am faced with a similar discomfort: Continuing to write theater criticism while getting involved up to my elbows with play production.
For the past month I have been attending readings and rehearsals of my own play, “Snowfall,” which was selected in a blind submission process to be produced in the Henegar Center’s inaugural New Works Festival project.
When I heard it had been selected I was elated. I had already planned to leave my job at the newspaper, Florida Today, where I wrote arts stories and theater criticism for more than 25 years. During that time, I still involved myself in children’s theater and had written numerous plays and produced them, all for the kiddies, you see, not for my own artistic expression. There was never any worry about conflict of interest because it was children’s theater and children’s theater has always had that red-headed stepchild status — ignored, or even worse, endured.
But now, having “Snowfall” accepted was my chance to be a grown up, to be taken seriously as a member of the theater community, to engage in work-shopping and production of my own play, which I wrote years before.
I’ve had a blast listening to wonderful actors breathe life into the dialogue and characters. The director, Anthony Mowad, has given me priceless feedback, helping me hone “Snowfall” into something even better.Rehearsals have been so important, revealing some “dead” spots where characters have no reason to be in the scene and where some need more writer’s juice to be squeezed into dialogue. At the same time, I marvel at how these actors, all of whom I have reviewed frequently over the years, accept me with warmth and open arms.
Moreover, the Henegar’s artistic director, Hank Rion, has asked me to direct a couple of plays, a prospect which makes me delirious. But here’s the rub: A growing conflict of interest.
After leaving my newspaper job, I focused more heavily on my blog, BrevardCulture.com. That is where I file my reviews, put in bits and pieces about cultural offerings in the area, from Vero Beach to Brevard to Orlando and beyond.
I remain an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization that brings me shoulder to shoulder with theater luminaries all over the country. One of the most engaging activities for me is the acclaimed Harold & Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award project for which I read dozens of plays every year.
All this leads to the question: “Should someone involved in theater write theater criticism?”
Certainly, theater history bears the weight of such a dichotomy – George Bernard Shaw, Eric Bentley and even Tom Stoppard walked down both sides of the street at the same time. But…really…that’s Shaw, Bentley and Stoppard for crying out loud.
But I’d like to think that I would be objective. After all, I have maintained friendships in the community while writing both positive and negative reviews. Just ask Terrence Girard (who is in “Snowfall,” by the way), his wife, Melbourne Civic Theatre director Peg Girard or Cocoa Village Playhouse’s director Staci Hawkins-Smith. They have suffered plenty of my slings and arrows but we are all still friends.
Truth be told, my college degree is not in journalism, it’s in theater. I love theater. It’s important to me, so it’s impossible for me to be anything but honest.
However, that is not enough. There is that little thing called “public perception.” I have been struggling with the question: “Will the public accept my continuing as one of the voices here in theater criticism, or should I put down my quill?”
Regarding the Henegar, I’ll file less of a review and more of a story about its productions. Knowing myself, though, if I love something, I won’t be able to contain my enthusiasm; if I disagree, I’ll try to find a politic way of stating so. But I’ll leave the full-on Henegar reviews for others to write.
For the rest of the theaters I cover, I’ll continue reviewing because I don’t know how to stop. Not yet. But I don’t want to become some fossil, shouting opinion into a void. And it’s too late for me to adopt a pen name.
In the meantime….here we have it. A “SIDE O’ GRITS” for my own thing. Consider this a BrevardCulture selfie:
“Snowfall” opens Friday at the Henegar Center’s New Works Festival. It runs along with “Sell Out Crowd” by my friend and colleague, Rachel Bowen Wilkerson. Curtain is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through May 3. The Henegar is at 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne, FL. Tickets are $16 to $26. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.Henegar.org.