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Jan. 15, 2020, 10:27 a.m.

Putting news on stage: Bringing journalism back to the theater as a public space

Audiences want proximity and, perhaps more than ever, humanity. Telling stories in a real physical space can be an antidote to the virtual epidemic.

The town crier is long gone. Every journalist is hardwired to seek out the largest possible audiences. Why would a reporter want to go out and tell their story to a bunch of actual people in a room when they could put it online for the whole world?

And yet that’s what’s happening. Newsrooms across Europe — from Finland to France, Spain to Romania, and more, inspired by Pop-Up Magazine in the United States — are experimenting with “live news” formats and filling their national theaters.

One of the best ways journalism can address its well-documented crisis in credibility is to meet its readers face-to-face. Newspapers have ceased to be properly rooted in their locality; their former presence has diminished and their communities of readers have disintegrated. We became infatuated with technology, stuck in the net, with all its powers to destabilize community and citizenship and to threaten freedom and democracy, as Monica Horten and Jamie Bartlett have shown.

The rising “techlash” has revealed a desire for experience and liveness. Audiences want proximity, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, and perhaps more than ever, humanity. Physical reality can serve as an antidote to the virtual epidemic.

Historically, interest in the theater rises in times of polarity in politics. And when the lights go down, the stage is the ultimate immersive and intimate space.

News and stage have been bedfellows since ancient Greece, where the Theatre of Dionysus was a meeting point for political assembly. Journalism has long been with us in the form of plays, satire, and cabaret, whether via 16th-century English pop-up theaters, Living Newspapers in the United States, Soviet agitprop, or Chinese huobaoju (“living newspaper“).

And it’s back with a vengeance. Journalism on stage can be found in South African performance journalism, Syrian news activism, storytelling tours, The Moth Radio Hour on stage, and “verbatim” theater productions. In the U.K., hacks are meeting crowds in marquees at events like the Byline Festival. There’s never been as much experiential, emotional, and immersive journalism.

Not all journalists are willing to kiss and tell before they publish. But my preliminary research into contemporary face-to-face journalism in the U.K. — presented recently at the Future of Journalism Conference 2019 in Cardiff — shows that the audience is ready to meet them. Hearing from journalists in the flesh humanizes both the stories and the writers and lifts the veil over newsroom practices. Attendees at these events were glad to have the chance to ask questions, participate in a discussion, and potentially influence editorial strategy.

“News on stage,” as I call it, has the potential to do more than parade a famous columnist and tell us what they had for breakfast. It can preview as-yet-unpublished stories to a live audience.

In Helsinki, the leading national daily, the Helsingin Sanomat, is putting on sold-out Musta Laatikko “black box” shows, while in Madrid, the new Diario Vivo offers “a unique night in which journalists tell true, intimate and universal stories for the first time.” They both request that the audience make no recordings of the event — and it works. People flock to hear the writers tell their stories to them in person and, in Musta Laatikko’s case, meet them for a drink afterward in the cafeteria. Audiences grow and income is generated.

What would “news on stage” look like? It can take place literally anywhere the public meets: a town hall, a pub, a festival, or a theater. And it can be done in any style, from commedia dell’arte to musical. Why not simply round up proceedings outside a city hall or a courtroom at the end of the day? Performances could appear at factories, football grounds, or open-air meetings, as they did in the days of the U.K.’s Ewan MacColl and the Red Megaphones.

The production would be a shared physical and sensory experience, offering the audience the excitement of being the first to hear stories through the drama of live performance. The content could include a range of stories in magazine format, from hard-news snippets to soft features and in-depth investigations.

A story can be realized in the form of a monologue or a scripted drama, using the whole panoply of theatrical devices, such as projected images, SFX, backdrops, props, or puppets. Journalists and interviewees could be on stage or have actors say their words verbatim. The audience could be encouraged to interact or contribute their own experiences, moving the story forward for followups in later editions. The event could generate debate, campaigning, or even activism, inside the auditorium or beyond.

There are many questions around defining a news-on-stage event and imagining its production. Successful shows are breaking even at the box office, but not making big profits. After all, they may have to hire dramatists as well as fund rehearsals and production costs.

Some events are using sponsors and “live ads” on stage to help fund them. If nothing else, these shows foster brand loyalty, as the FT found out, winning the Best Use of an Event to Build a News Brand prize at the 2018 INMA Global Media Awards for its Weekend Festival.

For some news and magazine outlets, all of this might not seem worth it. Journalists might be reluctant to expose themselves to the spotlight. But in the words of Finnish journalism professor Mikko Villi, “it is this very vulnerability shown by their reporters which most engages the audience.”

As journalists/scriptwriters/academics, my colleague Glenda Cooper and I are launching a practice-based research project in the U.K. and aim to put on a variety of productions of news on stage, both locally and nationally. We want to explore the relationship between journalism and audience, the usefulness of face-to-face performance and the viability of the modern stage as a public space. If you’re interested in what we’re doing or would like to be involved, please get in touch.

Let’s see whether this movement can play a part in bringing back the audience and community journalism needs. The curtain’s about to rise.

Catherine Adams is a senior lecturer in media, communications, and society at Nottingham Trent University and a former BBC journalist.

Photo of preparations for a Pop-Up Magazine live event in 2016 by Lam Thuy Vo used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 15, 2020, 10:27 a.m.
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