UPDATE (5 October): Former Inquirer theatre critic Howard Shapiro comments to Gail Shister about his reassignment from the drama desk to the South Jersey beat: “What does surprise Shapiro is that he won’t be replaced, leaving the region’s vibrant theater scene — which includes more than 50 professional stages — without a full-time critic. Freelancers will continue to fill the gap. Theater deserves full-time staff coverage ‘because it has an enormous audience here,’ Shapiro says. ‘The theater community is just bursting.’” More here.
When I was a part of the Philadelphia theatre community in the mid-1980s as a playwright and the managing producer of the now-defunct Theatre Center Philadelphia, the city was just emerging as a major center of regional theatre. Those were the early days of the Wilma Theatre and the Arden Theatre Company, which have now grown to become two of the most highly-respected regional theatres in the United States; the Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest continuously operating legitimate playhouse in the country, offered abundant seasons of both commercial and new plays, as it still does. Experimental companies abounded, as they still do. And the local press covered this scene regularly. The Philadelphia Inquirer had not just one but two full-time staffers assigned to the theatre desk, Desmond Ryan (who also reviewed films) and Douglas J. Keating; Nels Nelson provided full-time theatre coverage at the Inquirer‘s sister tabloid, the Daily News; and a host of smaller publications also regularly ran reviews and longer essays about the local theatre scene. It would be ten more years before Philadelphia really exploded as a theatre town, but in 1985, everything was in place for that explosion to occur.
I revisit this period, three decades ago, because of a small item that came across my desk yesterday. The full-time staffer at the theatre desk of the Inquirer, Howard Shapiro, was recently reassigned to cover South Jersey, and it appears to be an open question whether or not Shapiro will be replaced (though Wendy Rosenfield, who freelances on the theatre pages of the Inquirer, told me yesterday that Shapiro was “irreplaceable,” in at least a few senses of the word; Rosenfield and fellow freelancer Toby Zinman will continue to review for the paper). Unless I miss my guess, this is the first time in decades that neither the Inquirer nor the Daily News has a full-time staffer assigned to cover theatre in Philadelphia. Whether this is an attempt to “push out” Shapiro, as Victor Fiorillo suggests here, or whether it’s just a way of refocusing Inquirer news and culture coverage to be more economically sustainable in tough times, as a memo sent to Inquirer staffers on Tuesday suggests, is hard to tell. But it is a blow to the Philadelphia theatre and culture community no matter how you look at it.
I’m sorry — I mean it’s another blow to the Philadelphia theatre and culture community. It comes on the heels of the presentation of what is likely to be the final round of the annual Barrymore Awards, which for nearly twenty years have been given in a gala ceremony. The Barrymores were presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance, which closed its doors in June as a result of the economic downturn. (This year they couldn’t even afford to produce the ceremony, according to Martin Cohen, who was brought in to disassemble the alliance, in this Playbill story.) This leaves Philadelphia without an organization dedicated to serving and supporting the city’s dozens of theatres, and without any full-time print critic assigned to theatre.
It’s not just theatre that’s suffering in Philadelphia; last year the Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy, though it’s beginning its long road to economic recovery.
As a native Philadelphian, born in the Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce smack dab in midtown, I confess this is somewhat saddening in a nostalgic sense, but it should be mourned in another way as well. Any metropolitan theatre community like Philadelphia’s depends on service organizations and dedicated press coverage for its continued health; someone must speak and advocate for the discipline itself in hard economic times, rather than leaving it to dozens of individual voices which only produce a cacophony when it comes to community outreach and representation to funding bodies and the city government. If things like this can happen to a theatre community in the fifth-largest city in the United States, it can happen to the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth- — as well as the fourth-, third-, second-, and even first.
If I were still living in Philadelphia, I might well be tempted to raise a glass to Mr. Shapiro and the alliance at Dirty Frank’s — which is still open, I believe. I’ll catch you there after my next visit to the theatre in the City of Brotherly Love.