Once again, we have arrived at the last column of March.
That means its the Critical Eye's birthday. We've been turning out one per week since 1980. If I remember correctly, we missed one week, back when the column used to appear in the tabloid magazine, called ''Tempo.'' One week, they put out a magazine which was entirely devoted to one topic, and it wasn't the arts, so there was no column that week.
Other than that, we've met the deadline every week for 31 years.
Our intrepid columnist prepares to lead a class of local students onto the campus of New York City’s Columbia University, in yet another campaign to get people to know arts-related things which can enrich their lives.
When we started the column, we promised that we would devote the anniversary column to helping readers to get better publicity, and to a self-evaluation of the year past, and the nature of the column in general.
So, it's that week, let's get to work.
In the final column of each month, nearly always, we print our little summary of how to get material into this column. Some people have read it so many times, they're ready to tear out their hair, and yet for every event we promote, we probably have to discard publicity releases from at least three or four different arts groups - usually more.
I understand, if someone doesn't have a news item to try and get into the newspaper, he doesn't care about how to do it, and when he is placed in charge of publicity for a club or a church group or whatever, he no longer has the instructions in front of him. So, I keep trying.
One of the main causes of confusion is the fact that I am a columnist, not a reporter. I almost never am in the newsroom during the work day. I do most of my duties for the newspaper at home, or out in theaters, galleries, etc. When I work here, I do so at night. I rarely get to see or speak with most of the regular staff.
If you send news by e-mail or by mail or by fax, or in person, to the Post-Journal, I probably will never see it, until it appears in print. If you want something to appear in my column, you must make sure that either my name or the name of the column is marked on your release, clearly.
In all the years past, I have written for a great many different editors. All are unique people, with unique values. If I have told some editors that a review was coming in, they have reserved space to put it into print. Others wait until they have the actual writing in hand and then, if there is an open space, they put it in. A few have buried copy for days on end. Some have nearly always used photos with reviews, if I turned them in, while others virtually never do. Some usually run my writing on prominent pages, and some usually put it below the fold, on inside pages.
Putting together the many elements which make up a newspaper is a huge job, and I have the greatest respect for those who do it. Thousands of decisions must be made, on a moment's notice, and no matter which choice is made, there are probably at least 30 readers out there who think their bowling banquet is vastly more important than someone else's business opening.
Hand-in-hand with that situation is deadline. I have to have every fact, every statistic, every photo, every interview which goes into my column, a full seven days before the day in which it appears in print. I know it confuses people because they see me at a performance, one evening, and there may be a review in the next morning's newspaper, but reviews are not the same as columns. They are submitted to different editors and are subject to different policies.
I can't tell you how many times I have to listen to angry readers who phone on a Wednesday or Thursday before publication, about something which they sent me for an upcoming performance, and who are outraged that I can't change the announced program from Beethoven to Brahms, or an actor's name from John Doe to Richard Roe. You're welcome to get angry, it goes with the territory, but there really is nothing I can do to help you, no matter how much I want to do so.
Also, I do tend to resent when readers try to double-team the newspaper's staff. So many organizations want to be publicized in our pages, it is rarely fair or appropriate that one group should receive multiple publications.
If you ask me for a piece about some arts-related person or event, please don't contact an editor or a reporter on the staff and ask them for the same coverage. I really hate it, when I've put a lot of time and effort into a piece about a particular event, and two days after my column has been submitted and is beyond my control, a large feature appears about the exact same event, written by someone who didn't know I was writing about it.
Most weeks, I have to tell at least one person or organization that I can't give them coverage because I have promised the space to another group,and when that second group gets a major feature from another writer as well as one from me, it's both cruel and unfair. Just to give you an idea, I currently have 134 possible ''Winks'' which I could attach to the bottom of this week's column, alone.
Because so much of our news now arrives by e-mail, it helps your cause very much if the subject line of your e-mail makes it clear why you are writing. A couple of weeks ago, I suggested a message such as ''Russian Dancers in Bradford, 3/15.'' I would estimate that about half the news releases which I receive say ''For Immediate Release'' in the subject line.
Most mornings, immediately after breakfast, I sit down at the computer and I read down the long list of new e-mails. Those which indicate that they need immediate attention get opened and, if they are appropriate for this column and if there is time to get them into print, before it's too late, I forward them to a different e-mail account, which I use only for things I hope to get into the column. Announcements of college classes which will be taught in tax preparation or in agriculture policies are not appropriate for an arts column, and are usually deleted, as are things which will be over before the next column goes to press. A local person who has written a book on tax preparation, on the other hand, is the business of this column. I hope the difference is evident.
When I have dealt with everything which I know is appropriate, I go back to the beginning of the remaining list and begin reading as many as I can, before I need to sign out and do something else. I have never deliberately eliminated an appropriate and timely announcement, but it sometimes happens, due to the physical reality of the situation.
Because this column appears on the back of the same sheet of paper as the community events calendar, I usually leave local events to the calendar, and print things which local readers might enjoy attending, within a reasonable drive of our community. To me, that seems far more sensible than writing about the same performance or exhibit on both sides of the page, while other things go unmentioned.
Finally, if I promise you a column, far in advance, it's just a good idea to check back with me, as the deadline approaches. Over 31 years, I haven't forgotten many things, but there have been some, and I would rather that I didn't start doing it now.
I don't know about you, but I hate to be sold things. I'm far happier when I get to choose them, and that's especially true when I get a sense that the person doing the selling is being slick. When I need a new car, I appreciate hearing the good points of car ''A,'' knowing the complete cost of the purchase and the terms of purchase, and then being able to compare those facts in my own mind, with the same facts about cars ''B'' and ''C.''
On the other hand, an impressive analysis of the facts is very influential. I always feel a little sorry for the salesman who truly doesn't think this is the best purchase for me, but whose family's income is dependent upon my making the unwise purchase. I would make a terrible salesman, because all those years of training as an actor means my thoughts and feelings are usually written all over my face.
On the other hand, every week, I'm trying to sell you on the importance of attending a concert, supporting a theater's fund drive, respecting the creative process of a writer, etc. I hope I'm falling into the category which I respect myself, presenting the facts and true circumstances and hoping you'll make the decision I want, but it has never struck me that I'm perfect in any way, so I'm sure I've overdone it - or underdone it - from time to time.
In a political and economic system such as ours, we are all in competition for the resources necessary to exist. I believe that we have a responsibility to step up and do some selling, of the things which we love and value.
Right now, our nation's resources are stretched to the breaking point. There are always some people who say that such situations are good, because the most important things will survive, and the things which are lost are the least important, so we're better without them.
I wish I could believe that is true. It isn't.
In my observation, often, the things which survive are the things which have the most gifted salesmen working for them. Sometimes the most important things are destroyed, because nobody stepped forward and made a sales pitch for them. We have arts organizations in our area, whose inner circles seem to believe that they're so important that they will receive support and advancement automatically, with no effort needed. In my experience, that is utterly untrue.
I have a number of people with whom I work regularly, who are doing a brilliant job. For example, when I get news releases from Deb Wanecski, at Buffalo's Irish Classical Theatre, I want to go to those plays, both to give them the publicity they deserve, and because I'm truly interested. I want to make sure I tell you about those plays. I can't always do it, and it breaks my heart, how many of that company's productions which I have missed, but I do all I possibly can for them.
Another such person is Odette Yazbeck, at the Shaw Festival. Closer to home, Robert Chelimsky does a truly impressive job for the Chautauqua Theatre Company. Obviously, there are many more such.
The heart is a vital organ, but so are the liver, the kidneys, and more. All are necessary for life. Not every gifted conductor or stage director or choreographer is a talented publicist. If they aren't, they need to find someone who is. If they don't, they're like a patient who has a strong heart but a failing liver. The body may die all the same.
I'm not looking for gift bags, nor free trips, nor invitations to parties. I'm looking for help and encouragement in getting organizations publicized. Especially if an organization is struggling, I'm looking for someone trying to get the message out about why they should win the struggle. You would be astonished how often wonderful programs go under, even those with long and successful histories, because they don't think they should have to struggle, or they think it's someone else's job.
I have spent the past year, trying to give an honest opinion about the approximately 200 performances and exhibits which I have seen. It's not a critic's job to know everything and to always evaluate flawlessly. If it were, nobody in the world could do it.
I try to write for a specific audience - the people of Chautauqua County, N.Y. When I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts, to attend a critics' symposium in New York City, one of the things I noted was that a healthy percentage of the people who write criticism for national publications are people who attended the finest universities and conservatories in the nation, surprisingly often at the expense of their very large trust funds, which continued to support them while they worked their way up to their present positions.
On ''Saturday Night Live,'' recently, they did a joke about a student at Harvard who was found to have falsely reported his high school record on his application, in order to be accepted. His punishment, they said, was to spend four years studying at Cornell.
The vast majority of our readers did not have Leonard Bernstein dropping by to discuss composing with their fathers, nor did Mary McCarthy offer views of the literary situation with their mothers at lunch.
Contrary to that experience, the arts aren't just for people who have that kind of power and experience. One of the reasons the arts have slipped from the position of respect which they deserve, is the number of people who are in control of the arts, who think that anyone who hasn't had their advantages, has no right to enjoy or discuss the orchestra or the play or the opera. The frequency with which those opinions have been accompanied by a sneer is the major problem.
I can remember taking a great many classes of students to New York City on field trips. One of the things which always surprised them the most was that when we went to operas or ballets or other educational experiences, there were often people outside the theater offering them double, triple or even more than they paid for them, for the tickets they were about to use. They had been raised in our area's culture to believe that nobody wanted to go to such things, they only went to attract customers or to impress wealthy women or some self-seeking purpose.
I believe I've told you what I saw and heard, and how I thought and felt about those things. You can agree or disagree with the thoughts and feelings. There is no absolute right or wrong about it. No matter what the sneerers think - both those who think they own the arts, and those who think that the arts don't matter.
I hope I've planted some seeds that there are other opinions about the arts that are commonly expressed in our area. If so, it's all been worth it.