Backstage Magazine Cutting Theater Reviews? NYC Stage Community Reacts To Yet Another Blow For Professional Criticism

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Backstage magazine, the trade publication that has been helping actors break into show business since 1960, will reportedly no longer critique those actors once they’ve broken in.  

On Friday, Colin Mitchell, of the Los Angeles theater blog Bitter Lemons, reported that Backstage is axing its theater and film reviews for Los Angeles and New York City. The reviews, Mitchell writes, will be cut in the weekly print edition of Backstage as well as its online version. Mitchell writes that he obtained an email about the decision sent to Backstage staffers from Daniel Holloway, the magazine’s executive editor:

“An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news and features content.”

Holloway did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did a publicist for John Amato, the chairman and chief executive of Backstage LLC.

The decision to cut the reviews is perhaps not surprising given the current state of the trade-magazine industry, which has been struggling to reinvent itself in the digital age. In September 2012, Backstage underwent a substantial redesign, transforming from a tabloid-sized newspaper into a slicker, glossy magazine. The publication’s website was also revamped. At that time, Amato told International Business Times that he was hoping to create a greater synergy between the online and print versions of Backstage.

Film and theater criticism was never central to Backstage’s editorial mission. The company’s primary directive is to help performers find opportunities in the entertainment industry, mainly through audition and casting notices, and sources tell IBTimes that Backstage had already been dedicating fewer resources to theater and film reviews. Amato, who has a background selling advertising for taxicabs, took over as CEO of Backstage in 2011 after the publication was spun off from Prometheus Global Media, parent company of the Hollywood Reporter.

Whatever Backstage’s reason for axing the reviews, the loss of yet another reviewing outlet is coming as a blow to the theater world, particularly among actors, writers and directors who work at smaller venues.

“I think it’s a shame,” said Jesse Berger, artistic director of New York’s Red Bull Theater Company.  

Berger, who founded Red Bull 10 years ago, said reviews in Backstage were essential to his theater company during its early years, when larger outlets like the New York Times and the Village Voice were harder to attract. He said less established theaters are going to feel the loss of the Backstage reviews.

“That’s who it’s going to affect the most,” he said, “the people coming up.”

The hierarchy of New York theater reviews is not exactly a straight line. From Lincoln Center to scrappy off-off-Broadway theaters, a review in the New York Times remains the gold standard. Other legacy publications -- Time Out New York, the Village Voice and New York magazine -- might be called second or third tier, but the amount of space they dedicate to theater criticism is limited. That leaves Backstage, and prominent theater websites like NYTheatre.com and Offoffonline.com, to pick up the slack.

But for such outlets, generating a dedicated readership for theater reviews outside of the people who are directly involved with the shows remains a challenge. Karen Greco, a longtime theatrical publicist in New York, said it didn’t surprise her to learn that Backstage readers weren’t very engaged with its reviews, as Holloway’s email indicated. In an email to IBTimes, she said there is a general lack of interest in theater criticism that doesn’t appear under a byline by Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood.

“Part of me certainly feels like we brought this on ourselves,” Greco said. “When the community doesn’t share or click through anything except for the New York Times, what do we expect?”

One theater press rep, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing dealings with Backstage staffers, told IBTimes that the worst part about losing Backstage reviews is that Backstage was the last trade publication to run an extensive number of theater reviews in print. The rep acknowledged and appreciated the tireless work of websites like NYTheatre, but added that, for marketing purposes, reviews in legacy publications still matter.  

“I love, love, love reading blogs, but they’re not there yet in terms of credibility,” the rep said. “For small theaters, it still helps to have that print review, especially when people are seeking funding or applying for grants.”

Reactions to Backstage’s reported decision have been mixed among theater professionals writing on blogs and social media. Some, like American Theatre magazine’s Rob Weinert-Kendt, saw it as yet another sign of the perceived diminishing prowess of professional arts criticism.

Jason Zinoman, who covers theater for the Times, had a slightly more cynical take: “Have trouble relating to colleagues gnashing of teeth over Backstage stopping reviews,” he tweeted on Monday. “It sucks, but did any of you read them?”

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