Joe Adcock, theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 26 years, is retiring this week. Critics aren't anybody's favorite people. Last weekend, standing outside a theater during intermission, I mentioned Adcock's departure to a prominent artistic director. He replied in song: "Ding-dong, the witch is dead!" Then I told him the P-I hadn't just lost Adcock. They'd also eliminated his job, and won't hire another full-time theater critic, due to a hiring freeze. The artistic director's face fell: "Oh. That's terrible."
In just a few years, Seattle has gone from four full-time theater critics (one for each of the dailies and each of the weeklies) to two: Misha Berson at the Seattle Times and me. "Does that mean theater in Seattle is shriveling up and dying?" my editor asked when I told him about Adcock.
Uh, no. It's a sign that newspapers are shriveling up and dying. Seattle still has its Tony Awards, its growing reputation as the best place to premiere pre-Broadway musicals, and its habit of hemorrhaging talent to other cities (congratulations, by the way, to former Seattle actress Heidi Schreck, who moved to New York and just won an Obie Award). But the newspapers—with their hiring freezes, layoffs, and forced early retirements—are fucked. If Berson were to retire next week, would the Times replace her? "I expect so, but it's really hard to say," said Times managing editor David Boardman.
Eventually, you all may have nobody but me.
Just a few papers that have axed or split longstanding criticism jobs in the past year: Chicago Tribune (theater), the Village Voice (dance), Los Angeles Times (dance), Minneapolis Star-Tribune (theater), Atlanta Journal-Constitution (theater), Philadelphia Inquirer (theater), Charlotte Observer (theater), and the Baltimore Sun (theater). In Seattle, the Times, the P-I, and Seattle Weekly have all cut jobs in arts criticism.
So newspapers have to lean on free-lancers, who are great and all—but I'll let my friend Wendy Rosenfield, a freelance critic at the Inquirer, say it: "We're not just itinerant, we're mercenaries. My schedule is dictated by my needs, not the needs of the paper. It lends itself to way too much turnover and uneven arts coverage." (Philadelphia has three times as many people as Seattle, and only one full-time theater critic.)
Last February, at a theater critics' seminar in Los Angeles, I met Judy Rousuck, a deadpan, corvine-haired, and deeply intelligent woman who had just left the Baltimore Sun. She had been the theater critic for 23 years, but nobody told her she'd be taking her job with her when she left: "I don't know if I would have had the heart—or nerve—to leave if I'd known I wouldn't be replaced."
It's just you and me now, Misha. So don't take any buyouts. Or candy from strangers. And look both ways when you cross the street.