Stand up for each other:enough with the lay offs, the buyouts, the death
This morning we learned that Christopher Page, theater critic and editor at the East Valley Tribune in Phoenix, Arizona, died. His was a suicide.
Three weeks earlier he had been laid off from his job, which in January of this year had come with a promotion, placing him in charge of online features. Chris was one of the brightest, sharpest, kindest and most outrageous critics to participate as a Fellow in the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater its first year, 2005.
Then he was 23. We called him "our NEA baby." It helped that his overall impression was round. His eyelashes were long. You wanted to hug him on sight. Chris had this effect on all of us. By "us" I mean the 24 other Fellows (who had bonded instantaneously, sustained by wicked senses of humor that live to this day on an active Listserv where sardonic musicals, often inspired by Chris, are jointly created on a fairly regular basis) his writing instructor, Barbara Isenberg, our program coordinator, Rachel Uslan, and myself, director.
Chris is the first and, to date, the last Fellow on any program I have ever run in seven years who missed the bus. He missed the bus. And just like "Home Alone," we didn't realize it until we had arrived at A Noise Within theater in beautiful, downtown Glendale -- and had sat down. I think the uncustomary silence, or the sheer lack of Chris's ebullient presence, alerted us immediately: We had left him behind. Chris was missing!
I jumped into my minivan and performed a rescue. Chris was mortified, and so funny about it. From there on in, and for the rest of eternity, we had a Buddy System for the bus. Chris Page and Chris Blank, his fellow Fellow, called themselves "Blank Page." Apt for critics, and a testament to Page's wit and willingness to accept full blame, when he needn't have. "Our NEA baby" was our responsibility.
Who knows why people kill themselves. There is a readiness here to connect his fatal action with having been laid off. But we can't invent a reality like that. Yet, Chris's death is an additional heavy burden on our arts journalism souls. The worry mounts, and it's tempting to make him emblematic.
Here I am about to launch a new Master's program in arts journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication. This same day that I learned Chris died, I heard from another teacher at the NEA Institute. She's one of the lucky ones. A full-time theater critic in the Pacific Northwest. But, she's sitting in an arts newsroom that has 12 desks, eight of which are completely empty, unused, and with no expectation of ever being used again. Her colleagues were laid off or took the buyout. Ghost town -- maybe she is not so lucky.
Alan Rich, 83 years old, who has given his life to writing about music was let go by the L.A. Weekly and a week or so ago was told that "No, he would not receive severance pay," as he had been promised. Without a contract, he hasn't a leg to stand on.
But this is a human being. A life. A life dedicated fully and solidly to writing with surest integrity for us.
Today, I heard from a journalist questioning the intelligence of starting an MA program for arts journalists, when there are "no jobs." Her tone was hurt, pained, frantic, and it gave me pause -- as if I haven't paused enough to question the future myself.
What right does optimism have to exist? My eye is on the artists and the arts. Will they stop? Is art going to stop being made? Will we be able to stop being interested in the arts? Stop loving and obsessing over them not just for artistic reasons, but for moral ones? Can we help writing about them?
I take my cue from the artists. Writing chooses you, you do not choose it. Dancers move. We must move. Actors act. We must take action. Artists paint. We paint with words. Architects build. Let's build arts journalism programs together where there were none.
I see in this time the opportunity to redefine and shape journalism for the better for the arts and culture. Can I guarantee a salary and health benefits and a job as we know jobs to have been? No. But I honestly believe that we can do better than we have done.
One by one by one. And a place to begin is to call for humane action when writers who have given their lives, literally or figuratively, must be let go. Supply a net, counseling, severance, comfort, whatever it takes, but we must not accept the lack of respect.
Speak out. Ask publishers and editors-in-chief to lower the blade, if they must, with awareness that for some critics their work is their lives.