The reporters are getting nervous. "My whole career, I've just expected that people should talk to me so I can write stories about them," says Tom Paulson, former science reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He lost his job this March when the P-I became one of over 130 American newspapers to cease printing in 2009. "But being interviewed by playwrights is nerve-wracking. It's role reversal."
Paulson took his turn on the other side of the tape recorder as part of a theater project called It's Not in the P-I: A Living Newspaper about a Dying Newspaper. In the past few months, six Seattle playwrights—Dawson Nichols, Paul Mullin, Scot Augustson, Kelleen Conway Blanchard, Bryan Willis, and Pam Carter—banded together to interview people affiliated with the P-I, from reporters to janitors, and write short scripts based on what they heard. Mullin and Nichols, acting as editors, stitched those scripts together into a full-length "living newspaper," some of it documentary and some of it fictionalized, about the 146-year-old daily. The irony of one mortally wounded industry (theater) reporting on the death of another (journalism) isn't lost on anyone.
The project was born in a bar, where Mullin (who won last year's Stranger Genius Award for theater) and Paulson were holding a two-man pity party. "Paul and I were drinking beer one night," Paulson says. "And I was complaining about the death of the P-I. And Paul said: 'Fuck you, man. You think you've got it tough? I'm a playwright.'" They talked about their dire vocations and the idea—half comic, half tragic—of people turning to theater to learn about current events.
The play is a eulogy (one of the deeper, more nuanced eulogies of the P-I yet), but it doesn't romanticize the paper or the journalists who worked there. "As I told Paul, don't make us look like heroes," Paulson says. "We were a goofy bunch and we did some things wrong, but we were still important to the community." In one scene, people who worked around the P-I offices talk about the reporters they knew. "They were cheap," a barista says. "They were principled," a florist counters. "The third-floor bathroom was a pain," a custodian offers. "Someone up there had... issues."
The scenes range from the crude cacophony of the newsroom to a reporter interviewing the mothers of victims of the Green River Killer to the sad absurdity of a resume-building workshop after the P-I closed. ("I have no clue how I fulfilled the 'corporate mission,'" one reporter says to the workshop instructor. "I guess I sort of hope I didn't.") The play is structured like a daily newspaper, with scenes jumping into one another like stories on a page, and it maintains a tense, journalistic energy: tragedy running hand in hand with absurdity; the struggle to hammer chaos into narrative order; public-interest stories interpolated with intimate, human-interest anecdotes; and a callous, bittersweet humor that helps the medicine go down.
One of the funnier recurring bits, written by Nichols, is called "How to Press a Politician":
Cheryl: Hi, this is Cheryl Gilcrest from the P-I. I have a polite request for some information that should be publicly available.
Tim: Oh, hello, Ms. Gilcrest. Listen, I have an excuse to delay answering your polite request. I have some evasive answers as well, but I'd like to hold off on those until later. Can I get back to you?
Cheryl: That's fine. I'll continue with the polite line and be respectful for a little while longer. But Tim, you should know that I do have a flask of resolve that I'll be sipping at as I wait.
The conversation intensifies over several phone calls:
Cheryl: Direct question.
Tim: Insincere confusion about the point of the question.
Cheryl: Restatement of question.
Tim: Off-topic comment.
Cheryl: Same question.
Tim: Deep rumination and troubled contemplation.
Cheryl: Same question.
Tim: Complicated reasons that the question itself can't be addressed as posed.
Cheryl: Carefully. Rephrased. Question.
Tim: Counter question about the future of the P-I with the suggestion that the Pacific Northwest would be better off without so many questions.
Questions don't give just politicians hives. In another scene based on an interview, a reporter named Greg tries to find out the true mission of Hearst's corporate emissaries and their plans for the online-only P-I. Reporters—colleagues—start telling Greg, "No comment," and an editor tries to kill the story with the same clumsy, evasive tactics of the politician. Greg turns to the audience: "I used to be a journalist. Now I'm in a play. Look at me. I'm trying to get my story out by being in a play. How desperate is that?"
The play traces some structural weaknesses of the newspaper business; putting the play together revealed some weaknesses in the theater business.
The fateful drinking session between Paulson (the science reporter) and Mullin (the playwright) happened on March 26, 2009, about a week after the P-I closed. Mullin and Nichols quickly assembled their team of playwright-reporters and hoped to cover the story, in Mullin's words, "with something approaching the speed of journalism."
Five days after having the idea, Mullin began approaching the bigger theaters around town, asking if they were interested. "This project is the best kind of local theater," he says (in another bar, as it happens). "Theater for, by, and about the people of Seattle." But nobody could commit to turning the production around fast enough, not even on their smaller secondary or tertiary stages. "The big houses will never say no," Mullin says. "They'll take meetings with everyone and say yes to everything—they're fucking Hollywood now—but then they'll let a project die the death of a rag doll. I'd love to premiere this show with the same professional talent the show was written by. Of course, nobody's getting paid. But we're playwrights—we're used to working on stupid passion and alcohol."
Mullin and Nichols decided to stage It's Not in the P-I as a student production at North Seattle Community College (through Nov 22), where Nichols teaches. Mullin wrote an unusually impassioned press release for the show, accusing Seattle's bigger theaters of being slow and inept.
"The big houses were very gracious and unequivocally praised the piece, but unfortunately as institutions they are piloted like supertankers," he wrote. "They can't make a turn unless they plan to do so a year ahead. We were determined to treat this project like journalism, not history. It's sad that Seattle's biggest and best-known theaters cannot respond to what's happening in the community."
Friends who work at some of those bigger theaters warned Mullin to tone down his criticism, saying his stridency was going to "make enemies in this business."
"Excuse me—what business?" Mullin scoffs. "The theater business? What are they gonna do? Send out the chorus line to kick my ass?"
Mullin is getting angry. He sounds more and more like Greg, the character trying to report on Hearst's shuttering of the P-I. In the scene, Greg's editor tries to pull him off the story, saying he's "just angry."
"You're damn right," Greg shoots back. "What do you think motivates reporters? What else but anger? We write about people who steal money, people who commit crimes. Legislators who talk one way and vote another. Toxic waste, global warming. Workers who get shafted by management. You're not mad about these things? Anger is what makes us reporters. All a reporter is, is someone who's pissed off enough to dig into something and try to let other people know."
Reporters, yes. And playwrights.