After a Fringe binge, the postmortem begins

Overheard Sunday night at the Hollywood Fringe: “We had about 12 (in the audience). Not bad!”

And everything being relative, it wasn’t bad. An even dozen was my count at Theatre Asylum earlier in the evening when I started my Fringe binge with Sam Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth – although three of us were from Engine28.com.

I didn’t take a survey, but I would be surprised if there was anyone in the audience who wasn’t either a theater writer or a theater artist, other than friends and family of the cast and director. Fifteen minutes into the performance, all I was thinking was, “Who are they doing this for?”

After all, this particular Shepard one-act – an absurdist rock-and-roll shouting match about a pair of crazed vagrants that features a Lobster Man dressed in a red tux and oven-mitt “claws” – would be a tough sell even if you weren’t choosing among 100-plus shows at the Fringe. And, more to the point, even if it were a good performance.

Not that I haven’t seen worse. Actors Justin O’Neill and Claire Kaplan (the two non-crustaceans) have some chops, but it takes extraordinary talent to make such a confrontational piece of theater connect with an audience. This production, the debut of the startup Hungry River Theatre Company, looks more like acting-school scene work – although if it were, I’m sure it would get an A.

Yet, while it is all too easy for a jaded theater critic to pooh-pooh some of the fringier shows at the Fringe, I have to remind myself the audience question cuts more ways than one.

To put it bluntly: I almost didn’t bother to write up this blog post, because I’m pretty sure it, too, will have an audience of about 12, if you don’t count colleagues, friends and family.

As a reporter for a major metro daily, The Arizona Republic, I have thousands of readers every week in the Sunday arts section. But as everyone knows, the newspaper business is on life support – it has been a terminal patient ever since Craigslist took away our top source of revenue, classified ads. So for the past decade, my industry has been scrambling to figure out how to remain relevant and solvent in the digital age. And out here on the Internet frontier, it’s a lot harder to find readers and connect with them.

That is what Engine28, a one-week experiment in “pop-up” journalism has been all about. We haven’t had time yet to decide what worked, what didn’t and what lessons we all will take from it. But the experience has certainly heightened my focus on the No. 1 question: Who am I doing this for?

Comments

  1. Online people go out and find their readers, they don’t inherit them. That’s what makes them far more intimate with their readers. And that’s how they’re able to draw readers away from print.

    I think some of you who came from out of town to this conference this week expected Engine28 to be a frame like a newspaper, that would have at least hundreds of readers. While you had a natural draw from the twitterverse of people attending the conference, in the online environment you still are obliged to go out and find your readers, and be more intimate with them than you might be in print.

    There are three prongs to successful writing online: readership, linkage, and influence. Engine28 was given decent readership, maybe a few hundred people daily–although, as something paid for by the NEA, it would have been nice if it had made its stats public. As far as linkage, that comes from other people online, and I didn’t see many making overtures to other online theater writers. As for influence, this was another inherently weak link, as influence is the one prong that it cultivated in an environment over time, through honing a dependable voice, so the experiment was at odds with that.

    Much appreciated here was your honesty in this post. You might still ask an online writer who covers theater who they do this for, and seen how their motivations match up with your own.

    • Kerry Lengel says:

      Joseph, I very much appreciate your input.

      Just a couple of responses.

      First, speaking only for myself, I had zero expectations of Engine28. Past NEA journalism fellowships have been very different. Critics met, saw performances, and discussed what they saw and what they wrote about it. This year’s event, the last funded by the NEA, was very different, and I embraced it as an experiment without a lot of preconceptions.

      We did have hundreds of readers … 4,000 visitors or so on our first day (although we didn’t match that again during the “live” phase. It helps to have a big USC mailing list. But we produced a LOT of content in a short time … I am not surprised that an individual blog post for a “pop-up newsroom” might not attract a ton of readers.

      Your thoughts on online readership are insightful and appreciated. They will be at the top of my mind as I return to my newspaper and think about how to reach out to readers online, as opposed to in the traditional printed product.

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  1. […] BITTER After all, this particular Shepard one-act – an absurdist rock-and-roll shouting match about a pair of crazed vagrants that features a Lobster Man dressed in a red tux and oven-mitt “claws” – would be a tough sell even if you weren’t choosing among 100-plus shows at the Fringe. And, more to the point, even if it were a good performance. Kerry Lengel – Engine 28 […]