Engine28.com, NEA fellows plan to cover L.A. theater scene like a house afire
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The intrepid crew will be operating out of an old fire company station in downtown Los Angeles. At practically all hours of the day and night, they’ll be rushing out to answer the call of duty.
Who knows -– some of them may even slide down the fire pole at the rear of the red-brick 1912 building.
But this team of roughly 40 arts journalists, working with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and ensconced in a second-floor office suite at Engine Co. No. 28, a converted firehouse-turned-restaurant on South Figueroa, won’t be battling blazes. They’ll be reporting on one of the largest concentrations of live theater ever to occur in Southern California.
Over the next two weeks, the nation’s premier organization of nonprofit theaters, Theatre Communications Group, as well as four separate theater festivals all will be taking place in an area stretching from downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood. For journalists trying to cover even a fraction of the dozens of performances, seminars and talks by high-profile artists such as Julie Taymor, this might seem like the equivalent of trying to subdue a three-alarmer in a 70-story skyscraper.
But to USC professor Sasha Anawalt, her Annenberg colleagues and the reporters, editors and support staff who’ll be contributing this week to engine28.com –- as the five-day “pop-up newsroom” website is being called –- the next few days will provide a kind of lab experiment, an opportunity for testing how best to cover theater and the performance arts in creative ways that take full advantage both of old-media craftsmanship and new digital multimedia storytelling strategies such as video, podcasts and live blogging. Not coincidentally, she said, the journalists also will be focusing some light (and perhaps a bit of heat too) on the state of the American theater, L.A. included.
“It always surprises me how many people still think that Los Angeles doesn’t have any culture, or that its theater is so tied up with Hollywood that it doesn’t have any traction,” said Anawalt, founding director of Annenberg’s graduate degree program in arts journalism and director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, the two groups that are spearheading the project. Engine28.com officially launches Wednesday and will operate through Monday.
The project’s core staff consists of 21 theater critics, reporters and arts journalists, all recipients of NEA fellowships, who represent 13 states and a cross section of daily and alternative newspapers large and small (the Arizona Republic, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Nashville Scene), magazines, websites and radio stations. Some are staff members, others are freelance contributors.
Working out of a section of the restored firehouse that serves as offices for LA Stage Alliance, the fellows will produce a steady stream of online written and visual content with Anawalt and the institute’s associate directors, Douglas McLennan, founding editor of Artsjournal.com, and Jeff Weinstein, an editor and critic formerly with the Village Voice and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
They’ll also be polishing their prose with a team of senior editors including Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune; Laurie Ochoa, co-founder of the L.A. literary magazine Slake; and Steven Leigh Morris, critic-at-large for the LA Weekly.
In a conference-call interview last week, Anawalt, McLennan and Weinstein said the idea behind engine28.com was for a journalistic enterprise that could combine the deadline urgency, high writing and reporting standards, close one-on-one reporter-editor relationships and multi-level content-vetting of an old-fashioned newsroom with the tech-savvy, 24/7, community-interactive features of a modern, digitally based media company.
In addition to covering activities at TCG’s conference, which runs Thursday through Saturday, the journalists also plan to report extensively on RADAR L.A., a six-day festival (starting Tuesday) of contemporary and experimental theater and performance based at REDCAT, in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
McLennan said that, in recent years, arts journalists, along with artists and journalism professors, have “spent a lot of time talking about covering the arts and where journalism is going and where the arts is going.” Instead of simply talking about new journalistic models, the NEA institute’s organizers decided to try and create some this year, he said.
The media swarm also will be an experiment for TCG, which represents and promotes non-profit professional theater across the United States and has more than 450 member theaters.
Teresa Eyring, executive director of TCG, said that her organization decided to open up its 50th-anniversary conference to greater media coverage this year, in part, because attendees at past conferences already were sending out tweets and blog posts. She said that the NEA fellows’ coverage would, among other things, allow theater professionals and aficionados around the world who can’t be physically present in L.A. to keep up the goings-on.
‘Obviously, arts journalists are part of our community, part of our ecosystem,’ Eyring said.
[For the record, 4:15 p.m. June 14: An earlier version of this post said the RADAR Festival is running for five days.]
-- Reed Johnson