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When A Theatre Critic Covers Politics

February 4, 2008

I'm all for journalists from different disciplines offering new perspectives on well-trodden subjects. Throwing an arts commentator into covering the political beat can make us see things in a new way. By making the familiar unfamiliar, we're forced to reexamine ingrained judgments about the way the world works.

But attempts to "cross genres" in this way can be challenging, as the Los Angeles Times decision to send theatre critic Charles McNulty to cover the January 31 debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at The Kodak Theatre in LA, proves.

The impulse behind having a theatre writer cover politics makes a lot of sense. Politics is showbiz, after all. And voters need reminding of that fact. But the arts writer encouraged to write about politics needs to bring something to the table beyond vacuous generalizations.

In order to write about politics successfully from a theatrical standpoint, the writer needs to be able to analyze the performances of the politicians in some kind of depth. And he/she also needs to extract conclusions about those performances and what they mean from a political standpoint. Arthur Miller is moderately successful at doing this in his slim volume On Politics and the Art of Acting, an expanded version of a speech he gave not long after the 2000 election. Miller goes into quite a bit of detail about the performative aspects of some politicians behavior -- Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in particular. And he speculates on the relationship between the performances given by these politicians and their policies. Though the book is slight, there's a lot of meat in it.

McNulty's article is of course much shorter than Miller's study. And it only covers one debate between two candidates. But the narrowness of the scope should give the writer an opportunity to focus and really zone in on what Obama and Clinton were doing up there on stage. Instead, however, we're given a lot of bland comments and little analysis:

"Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at the entertainment capital like starlets yearning for multi-picture deals," writes McNulty. "And as determined as they are magnetic, they shared the stage not just in any one of the city's cavernous concert halls but at the permanent home of the Oscars." And so on for 1000 words or so in the same vain.

Besides a few oblique references to Method acting, connecting with audiences and evidence of "crack comic timing", McNulty fails to describe the performances in any detail or capture what it is about the two candidates that captivates (or fails to captivate voters.) The journalist devotes most space comparing the debate to the annual Academy Awards ceremony. Why hire a theatre critic to write what essentially boils down to a politics-tinged Oscars story? Surely a reporter on the movie or general entertainment beat would have been better equipped to draw the comparison between this political debate and the Oscars than the theatre reviewer?

It's imperative for writers planning on covering terrain that's not naturally their own to offer something way beyond what someone on the regular beat could offer. This is true whether we're talking about a theatre critic covering a political debate, a sports writer covering fashion, an education reporter covering an environmental story or indeed any other crossover between specialties.

McNulty's article reminds me of a review that a rock music journalist friend wrote of a recent performance at San Francisco Symphony. The editor had suggested coverage of the concert to her, and she went along with the idea even though she felt she was out of her depth. The resulting story was fun to read (she applied a lot of pop music terminology to describing the sounds of the orchestra and the concert hall atmosphere) but in the end the piece was more gimmicky than revelatory.

McNulty's article falls prey to the same problem: It's amusing to apply the language of showbiz to politics, but unless it's backed up by serious analysis, it's just editorial theatrics.

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