Dan Rottenberg Interviewed by Tom Tirney of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center
April 21, 2010
You wear many hats running the Broad Street Review. How do you see yourself: author, journalist, critic, editor, businessman?
I would knock out businessman. It’s not a field that I’m terribly good at. I have throughout my career been a journalist and editor. I’ve written 10 books. I’ve done a lot of experimental journalism. I’ve edited seven different publications including the Broad Street Review. This is really my first venture into the Internet. I’m an old print person, so this has been a way to teach myself about the Internet. And having tried it, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. You can edit something, post it right away and have it read all over the world.
With practically no cost. With no incremental cost to a post.
That’s right. We don’t have to worry about printing, paper, distribution or anything like that. We can run music reviews and you will be able to click on the review and actually hear the music. You can’t do that in The Inquirer.
Tell us how this all got started. How many years have you been running the Broad Street Review?
Broad Street Review started at the end of 2005. It grew out of a magazine called Seven Arts magazine, which I started in 1993. That was aimed at a highbrow audience in Philadelphia that I had a hunch was not being served by any of the local media. These were the kind of people who read the New York Times but wouldn’t read the Inquirer.
Is there such a person?
Seven Arts was sent to the membership of Channel 12, which I thought was that audience. It turned out I was wrong. The Channel 12 audience was one-third highbrow and two-thirds middlebrow, and because of that there was a schizophrenic reaction to the magazine. On the one hand, people said, “I can’t believe there is such a sophisticated magazine in Philadelphia. I read it cover to cover.” And then we’d get something like, “This is over my head” and “I feel stupid when I read it” and “Why are you running nudes in the magazine? I don’t want my grandchildren seeing this.” At some point, I realized I was the wrong editor for it, and I left after a year. The magazine folded after three years.
But I cherished the idea of reviving it. I hit upon the idea of getting a university to sponsor it. One of the people I approached was Neil Kleinman, who was the Dean of the College of Media Communication at the University of the Arts. And he said, “We’re going to start a website. Why don’t you do this for our website, and then maybe somewhere down the line you could turn it into a print publication.”
The concept is Seven Arts on the web?
The concept was: start an arts magazine on the web.
Excluding the contributors, do you have a staff?
I’m 90% of the site. I do have somebody handling the business side. There is a technical advisor, but basically it’s a one-man show.
It’s amazing how much leverage you can get with electronic distribution.
That’s right. Broad Street Review is similar to a couple of other publications I edited previously: the Welcomat in 1981-1993; The Philadelphia Forum in 1996-1998, both of which consisted largely of unsolicited articles submitted from our readers. That’s what we’re doing here. There is no top-down management. I don’t assign anything to anybody. The whole idea of Broad Street Review is people sitting in my living room saying what they want to say but can’t say elsewhere.
You’ve been a journalist for some of the most venerated business newspapers: the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Crain’s, and Bloomberg. How does that experience inform what you do in this artistic milieu?
Probably not terribly much. I’ve worn many hats in my day, and being a financial and business writer was just one of them. I’ve written books on tracing Jewish ancestry; my last book was about a gunfighter in the old West.
I saw a biography of Drexel.
Anthony Drexel. He was a banker, that’s true. But I’ve written books on the history of Penn football, the coal industry, and one on inheritance. I’m all over the place.
That’s what I love about living in the city and availing myself of everything that’s there. Deep down, part of my motivation for editing an arts site is just to have a vehicle that lets me attend all these concerts, plays, operas, and whatever. Of course, the way things have turned out, I work so hard that I never have time to go to anything. But Broad Street Review is a part-time job with me. I do it two days a week, and the rest of the time I’m doing my other projects.
I’m astonished to hear that.
There are two days where I do nothing but edit and post articles. Every night I will rotate the articles so the site looks different every day. But I try very hard to discipline myself. The Internet is very seductive. Someone sends you an article and your initial reaction is to edit and post right away. But you only have so much psychic energy, and if you start down that road, well, your whole day is shot.
The portal gives the reader a sense of a much larger organization.
I just received an anguished letter yesterday from a local theater company saying, “What do I have to do to get reviewed by your people? I’ve been trying to get you to come to my productions for years now.”
He obviously thought we were some huge organization and I’m going to assign critics to go to it. I had to explain to him that I’m just one poor wretch here alone, trying to edit the site two days a week and support myself the other five days.
Now that the portal is up and you have all the categories you’re going to cover, is this it? Is there a grander vision for the BSR?
We don’t necessarily have all the categories that we’d like to have. I’d like to add architecture and books and movies. Right now those categories fall into a grab bag called Cross-Cultural. And it probably wouldn’t stop there, either. The main thing is this: The process is more important than the product. What we’ve done is establish a process, put it out there, so we can then sit back see where this is going to go. I provide a gatekeeper function. Broad Street Review is not a blog; it’s more like but a halfway house between blogs and conventional journalism. I’m the editor; I have some standards about what I’m going to accept. And if something doesn’t work for me, I won’t use it. But on the other hand, I’m totally at the mercy of what people want to send me. I can try to steer the contributions in one direction or another, but to a large extent, you have to let this thing go its own way.
This is taking on a life of its own?
Every publication and every site is really a kind of living organism. They go in directions that you can’t control.
Or can’t foresee.
In your profession also. My daughter is a playwright. She says to me, “I envy your control of your medium, whereas I’m at the mercy of directors and actors. They can do whatever they want with my material.”
My reaction is that I’m not in control. And my situation is like hers.
I believe a lot of PDC members would be interested in how writers can contribute to Broad Street Review since you have an open-source policy. There is a democracy to the site. How do you choose articles? How do you solicit them? How do they come in?
First of all, there is a place on our home page with a link to our guidelines: how to submit and what the rules are. You can either send an article cold or send a query. I’m looking for people who have a compelling point of view or something original to say; somebody who can tell me something I didn’t already know. Very selfishly, I see the website as a tool to educate myself.
You don’t see it as a business?
Down the road, yeah. We’re a not-for-profit corporation and have been supported by donations from our readers or grants. We have not aggressively tried to sell ads. Our audience is growing by leaps and bounds, but it’s an audience that won’t pay for the product. That’s a big problem with the Internet. My hope is that somebody is going to figure out a model that will make this work. Someone with a business head will come along and say: Let me give this a shot. I will say, “God bless you. I will do the editorial; you do the business side. Let’s get together.”
I started reading Broad Street Review last fall. When I saw that your site reviewed a play multiple times, I made a $25 donation immediately. I can’t get this in any newspaper. I’ll never get a print critic coming back and saying something else about the review. I find myself going to the site more and more for that. I don’t want to rely on just one critic, particularly if I don’t trust that critic. I saw three reviews for Language Rooms at the Wilma. There were three reviews for Red Hot Patriot: The Wit and Wisdom of Molly Ivins at the PTC…not that a play like that warrants three reviews, but it was helpful nonetheless. I think your theater reviews are the liveliest aspect of Broad Street Review. Why do you think that is?
This is one of those things where I didn’t anticipate that happening. My ideal was that this would be a Philadelphia version of the New York Review of Books. They don’t really do book reviews. They take a book and use it as a jumping-off point for the writer to write what he knows about it. I’m more interested in that. Many writers can’t grasp that concept. Writing a review is easy, and they like the free tickets to the show. So I’m inundated with reviews. I’d really like to have more essays than reviews.
You mean essays in general for other topics or essays for theater reviews?
You’re trying to pin down a definition, and that’s sort of what I resist. Ideally, I’ll go to a play and it will inspire some thought about something. Whether the show is good or bad— that’s not important to me. There’s a bigger issue.
But yet your recent review of Red Hot Patriot was more along the lines of a traditional review.
That’s true, but I’m not bound by that. And neither is anybody else, and that drives some playwrights and theatrical producers nuts. They’re accustomed to the model where you are serving the audience and telling them whether the show is good or bad. We’re just different. This is what happens when you do something just a little bit different than everybody else. It’s hard for people to understand. Not all media are the same. I’m trying to offer a slightly different model than everybody else.
Is that how you attract a star like Toby Zinman?
I think people write for us for a lot of different reasons. Robert Zaller, for example, is a professor of history at Drexel University. He is a very knowledgeable guy and has tremendous interest in art, theater, music and sees Broad Street Review as a wonderful opportunity to say all kinds of things and to explore all sorts of issues. That’s why he’s writing for us. Others are relatively new writers trying to break into the field, and this is a terrific showcase for them to get noticed. And then there are people like Toby Zinman, where the other media for which they are writing are cutting back on their arts budgets. The Inquirer recently stopped sending Toby to review Broadway shows, which I think is nutty. Just about everybody who goes to theater in Philadelphia goes to New York. Toby wants to keep her hand in the New York scene, so she called me up and asked, “Can I review New York shows for you?” And I said, sure!
There is no financial arrangement with any of your writers?
We pay a token…a small token to our writers. I always tell them that the compensation is non-monetary. You get a professional editor, a great showcase, you get a very good audience. Look at the Huffington Post. They have an $8M budget, they have a huge audience and they don’t pay their writers anything. But then they don’t edit their writers. You will be amazed to read some famous writers who don’t know how to form a declarative sentence.
I make writers look good. That’s one of the benefits.
It’s not about the money.
I think folks are impressed with the writers who contribute regularly. I didn’t even ask Toby this when interviewing her, but I just naturally assumed she was being paid. It sounds to me that there isn’t that kind of arrangement. In effect, your writers get compensated by writing what they want to write, when they want to write it.
Right, and I don’t feel I can ask them or direct them what to write. The reason I do pay something (which Huffington Post does not) is to establish the principle that this is worth paying for. Second, that I am a customer, and there are demands I can make as a customer. But it’s really a token thing.
I want to characterize Broad Street Review as an edited free-for-all, but it’s not a free-for-all. There is discipline, and that’s instilled by you. At the same time, it’s not exclusive.
I would characterize it as the equivalent of a salon in my living room, except that it’s on the Internet. I’m trying to gather a group of intelligent people in my “Internet living room” to talk to me. It’s very much that candid conversation that you have in a one-on-one. And the readers are listening over my shoulder. Instead of having that high priest up on a mountain top— writing for the Inquirer and delivering pronunciations— it’s basically as if people are writing me a letter. I’m looking to break down that wall between the formal critic and having that private conversation. A few years ago Peter Dobrin spoke at the Franklin Inn Club talking about the Philadelphia Orchestra. And he had some remarkable insights. I wrote to him afterward asking why he wasn’t sharing them with the Inquirer readers, and he wrote back, “I’m not at liberty to tell you what I can and cannot put in the Inquirer.” You know, here is an opening for a “publication” like ours.
A big opening.
Now, you’re not an infrequent contributor to the theater review section. How do you approach criticism when you go to see a show?
I have been a critic in the past. I was a movie critic between 1971-1983 for a number of city magazines around the country, but I always did it part time.
Seeing movies for work is work. It ain’t glamorous. I’m amazed at the workload of those Inquirer and City Paper critics. I don’t believe playwrights fully appreciate that.
No question about that. But if your perspective is narrow and all you know is the theater, that’s kind of limiting.
So back to that question. You don’t always have it in your mind that you’re going to do a review when you see a show?
Can you tell me how you come to reviewing a play, then?
I attend as many arts events in Philadelphia as I can. But I always tell the theaters or the institution that I may not review this. I’m only going to write something if I feel inspired. Very often I end up writing something. The point I make to my writers is that if you don’t have something to say, save it. I don’t need it. Just saying this play is good or bad is not enough.
Give us an idea, then. What forces you to your desk for a review? I’ve seen you give lukewarm reviews, good reviews and bad reviews. I don’t quite get what makes you write something after you see a play.
I don’t know that I can tell you. There is no formula. Basically, it’s how something grabs me. More important, what value do I have to pass on to others?
The reason I ask is that you don’t have to write a review. That’s not your job.
Well, I have lots of things to say, and I’ll usually write about these things sooner or later. When I go to the theater, it will almost always stimulate a response.
Do you ever prepare for theater?
When I think I’m going to review something, I try to read nothing about it beforehand, because I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas.
Why did you do the Red Hot Patriot review, the Molly Ivins play, for instance?
First of all it’s at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. It’s two blocks from my house. Because I’m so busy, I take the path of least resistance. As the real estate brokers say, the key element is location, location, location. I hardly ever get to the Arden because, for me, it’s like going to Wyoming. In the case of Red Hot Patriot, I’ve spent half of my career in alternative journalism, and so did Molly Ivins. I had some dealings with her when she was at the Texas Observer, and she’s even quoted me. So there was a natural affinity, and I was curious to see how a playwright would handle her career.
Then you don’t have an approach to criticism so much as an approach to having a conversation or beginning a dialogue about an idea spawned by the play?
I write for two reasons: education and immortality— not for fame and fortune. It’s nice to think that something you’ve done will last.
Is there immortality on the Internet?
That’s a very good question. It’s one of the inducements to write for Broad Street Review: to have your work up there forever and ever.
As long as your server doesn’t crash.
Are there playwrights that you will try to see all the time?
Tom Stoppard, certainly, because of the way he uses language. But I don’t believe I see enough theater to answer that question.
Tell me about arts in Philadelphia. How would you rate Philadelphia nationally, particularly in theater?
We have a very vibrant arts and theater scene. Increasingly, you see actors and theater people moving here from New York because they can make a living, get work, have health benefits, and obtain affordable housing. You have a certain amount of creativity and originality here. You have it in New York too, of course. But when you think about it, in Center City Philadelphia all of this is within walking distance and the living cost is affordable too. That’s not the case in New York.
There are a lot of opportunities here for artists. Sure, it’s a smaller scene. But playwrights can get their stuff up rather quickly. It’s worth being a part of.
I will say this about Broad Street Review: We’re a Philadelphia site, but we’re not limited to writing about Philadelphia. We have contributors from California and other far-flung places. We’d like to develop the ability to write about anything anywhere, but with a Philadelphia sensibility. Think of the old Saturday Evening Post. This was a national magazine published in Philadelphia. Ultimately, we could evolve into something like that. It all depends upon who wants to contribute and who wants to read us. We’ve had visitors from 70 countries and 6 continents.
How many unique visitors do you have per month?
About 25,000 a month. The first year was roughly 150 per day. The second year was 300, the third year was 450, and this year it’s about 850 per day.
That’s good to hear.
Unfortunately, all these visitors don’t want to pay. It’s exponential growth but it’s unpaid growth. There’s much more we should be doing, though. We have a good board of directors now. We should be selling ads. We should be fund-raising more aggressively, creating a Friends of Broad Street Review, holding special events— panel discussions and stuff that people would be willing to pay for. I have to find the right person to do this. Maybe you.
Well, it’s not difficult to understand what you’re doing and how exciting it is. You just don’t know when it’s going to catch fire.
Every now and then some issue comes along and we become the forum to have a conversation. The issue with the Wilma Theatre and play readings, for example. Or the people who don’t want the Barnes Foundation’s collection to be moved. And this is where the level of conversation can be elevated. There is a fascinating larger question about the Barnes: Not just whether it should be moved, but what is more important: the artist or the collector?
The moderating function an editor performs…you won’t get that on too many websites. Maybe in something like Salon or Slate, but those places aren’t exactly the same kind of portal as yours.
That’s right. We have a moderator and many, many contributors. In terms of the Internet, we’re not at the end of history but the beginning. We’re experimenting, and nobody knows where this thing is going. It’s like riding a raft on a fast-moving river: If you know how to navigate, it will take you effortlessly to all sorts of stimulating adventures. If you don’t know, you drown. I enjoy the ride.
What would I say to playwrights and theaters who want to participate? Think about the burning issues of your life as a writer. Put it down on paper and maybe I’ll post it. Don’t tell me you’re a great playwright or some self-serving stuff like that. What is the process you’re going through like? What are the problems you encounter— the way your work is perceived or reviewed? I’m interested in that stuff.
What do you think is the future of the newspapers?
Ultimately, there is no future. Technology has found a better way to communicate and disseminate information. I still subscribe to three daily newspapers, but mainly because I’m staring at a computer screen all day long and the newspapers provide me a break from that. But this current generation doesn’t like, doesn’t want, doesn’t read newspapers. Anybody under 30 is not accustomed to it. The only way newspapers survive is to provide a value or service the screen can’t. They may find some. And if you want something that’s permanent, you’ll still need paper. That’s the issue with technology: obsolescence. Print has lasted for 500 years, so we may yet see print publications in some other form. But they will be much more expensive and much more exclusive.
Are we coming full circle to illuminated manuscripts? A text as a work of art?
Look at my latest book. [Picks it up]. This weighs two pounds. Do you really want to carry this thing around when you can carry a Kindle? I like having this to feel it and hold it and touch it. But most people will make some other judgment.