Friday, August 26, 2011

How to write about the arts, for the Schubert Club's new Theoroi group

Last night, I spoke to the members of Theoroi, a group of young Twin Cities professionals ages 21–35 who have committed to attending a series of arts events over the coming season and spreading the word through interactive social media outlets.

Theoroi is a new initiative of the Schubert Club, Minnesota's first performing arts organization and the place you go when you want to see recitals by people like Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, and Alison Balsam.

We met in the Schubert Club Museum at the Landmark Center in St. Paul (where there's a piano signed by Liszt and a letter signed by Mozart), drank wine, and sat in Ghost Louis chairs. I was asked to speak on "how to write about the arts" and came prepared with a few suggestions. I thought it might be helpful to post them here, with light embellishments.

Thanks to Tessa Rettarath and Paul Olson of the Schubert Club, Matt Zumwalt of the board, and everyone at Theoroi for making me feel so welcome. I look forward to reading what you Theoroi-ists have to say about Cosi and Phantom, plays and ballets and recitals.


Learn a little something before you go to an event. Find out about the play, the dance, the choreographer, the performers. Read the play, if you can, or the story of the opera. (Trust me, enjoying opera does not depend on being surprised by plot twists.) Watch some clips of a singer on YouTube. Check the venue’s website and visit the links included there. Even a little knowledge can give you confidence and help you feel prepared for what you're about to experience.

I know you are all enormously skilled at finding information on the internet, but if I were going to Cosi fan tutte in September, I’d start hereNPR is a great resource for information about all kinds of music.

Membership in a group/organization like Theoroi, backed by the clout of the Schubert Club and its relationship with other major arts organizations in the cities, can gain you access to a lot of people, places, and opportunities. You might call a venue’s publicist and ask for a press release. If there’s a performance in which you’re very interested (and for which you have done some some preparation), you might ask to interview a performer, the composer, a choreographer, or someone else involved with the show.

Take notes. You might think you’ll remember everything you see and hear, but you won’t. Don’t rely on your memory alone. Because many performances happen in the dark, get a lighted pen, then prepare to explain to an usher that you are not taking pictures, and sometimes to an audience member seated nearby that you are not texting on your phone instead of paying attention to the performance.

Get your facts straight. Include the what, where, when, and who, and please don’t guess how performers spell their names or how names of works are spelled. Check your facts. You can usually do that on the venue’s website. Or pick up the phone.

Check your spelling. If you’re unsure about your spelling/grammar/writing skills, ask someone else to read what you’ve written before you post it.

Remember that it’s not all about you. If you find yourself writing “me me me me I I I,” take a breath and start editing. Which sounds more authoritative? “I thought this was a powerful performance because…” or “This was a powerful performance because….”

Actually, it’s all about me. As in me, your humble reader. Your readers might also include other Theoroi members, your friends, Mom and Dad, other arts writers, and (we hope) lots of total strangers. Tell us all something interesting. Make us smarter and more informed.

Be honest. Be humble. Don’t pretend to know something you don’t. Let other people teach you. Ask questions. Other people love being treated like experts, and they will want to help. Don’t use technical/arts-specific vocabulary or terminology with which you are not familiar. Most of the people you’re writing for won’t be familiar with it, either.

Don’t be mean. It’s fun to be mean, but meanness doesn't honor the mission of Theoroi. When you don’t love something, you can say so without being mean. My personal rule: Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to the person’s face.

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