“I actually think one of the reasons why the theatrosphere essentially died is that things got better on our big issue (new play development),” someone wrote on a Twitter account yesterday, “and then crazy trolls started taking up a lot of the oxygen.” Now among the other things that are dead (politics, theatre, the book, newspapers), we have the theatre blogosphere. Is it time to write its obituary after all?
I do not mention the name of the person who wrote this because Twitter and Facebook, unlike the blogosphere, are essentially private. People who use these social media can now control who sees their tweets, status updates, and what have you, and unlike the blogs living on the World Wide Web membership is required. But if, as I maintain, the theatre blogosphere is not at all dead, it’s because Twitter and Facebook are no substitutes for it. The theatre has always had self-promotion and gossip as two of its most robust extracurricular activities, and Facebook and Twitter are excellent for these. But what appears under the heading of drama criticism in the mainstream media is still no substitute for the more contemplative and theoretical kinds of drama and theatre criticism necessary to the health of the form itself.
New play development in the United States has been a theme of many blogs in the past, as well as this one, but it was never “The Big Issue” to the exclusion of others. The theatre blogosphere has investigated the same issues as drama criticism always has, to a depth rarely found in the mainstream media these days. It was this — the need for an outlet for extended critical expression of the art form — that led to the rise of the medium, and that need remains.
In the past year or so that theatre blogosphere has had good and bad news. Alison Croggon’s departure from the scene and the suspension of the “Noises Off” weekly aggregation of blog posts at the Guardian have been regrettable, to be sure. But on the other hand, the George Jean Nathan Award recognized the theatre blogosphere for the first time as a source of important criticism when it honored Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator earlier this year; collectively-authored outlets like Howlround and 2amt are robust second-generation theatre blogs which are flourishing; and, from my own standpoint, there are just as many readers of Superfluities Redux as there ever were, and the number is growing. Indeed, I experienced my most successful post ever in terms of number of pageviews with this post yesterday, for a story entirely unreported either in the mainstream media or on Twitter and Facebook.
That said, enthusiasm is always best curbed. Three out of the five most recent posts at The Feminist Spectator are about films, not plays or theatrical performances. This is not at all a bad thing, generally speaking — the perspectives of critics as well as artists are broadened and informed by art and reading outside their specific disciplines. But it does tend to dissipate the concentration of these blogs on these disciplines themselves and leads to some diffusion of attention. Howlround and 2amt are primarily addressed by theatre practitioners and administrators to other practitioners and administrators. And in the not-too-recent past, a post like yesterday’s would have generated a very long string of comments and argument below the post itself — which are, I suspect, now appearing on Facebook and Twitter instead. But I, for whatever reason, don’t see them; a shame, really, because I am interested, but remain shut out.
As to the argument that “crazy trolls started taking up a lot of the oxygen” — well, the same can be said for the blogosphere generally, and there’s no lack of crazy trolls on Facebook or Twitter either. Crazy trolls will always be with us, online or off; that’s no reason, though, to start piling dirt on the corpse of a medium.
Times change, of course, and if the theatre blogosphere does not seem as vital as it once did, there are a number of reasons for this entirely unrelated to the theatre blogosphere itself: the rise of Twitter and Facebook, waning enthusiasm for what was once a novel undertaking; and disappointment that the critics and writers for the mainstream media remain fairly oblivious or dismissive after ten years. But what I described as “the need for an outlet for extended critical expression of the art form” addressed to a general, unrestricted readership remains urgent, as it always will for any art form. Culturebot is doing this for performance; others are doing so for text-based theatre. And that big issue is never going away.