Wm. F. “Bill” Hirschman is one South Florida’s best known theater critics and over the years has reviewed “hundreds upon hundreds” of theater shows since he started his career. His most reviewed? “Fiddler on the roof.” His favorite? “Anything” by Stephen Sondheim.
By: Jason Parsley
Currently Hirschman is the publisher, editor and chief critic of Florida Theater On Stage, a website he founded with his wife Oline Cogdill in August 2011 “as a home for the vetted, edited arts journalism diminishing in most print newspapers.”
Hirschman has been an award-winning reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines in New York, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Florida stretching back to the 1960s. Much of that time was spent covering crime and government with an investigative reporting focus. Hirschman has a national reputation as a champion on open records/open meetings issues. He co-founded the Sunshine State Coalition for public access, won SPJ’s national First Amendment Award and testified several times on legislation affecting access to the public’s business.
He is a past president of the Kansas Professional and South Florida chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. On a separate track, Hirschman has covered the arts as a news beat and worked as a book and theater critic for many years, notably for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. A former member of the American Theatre Critics Association’s executive committee, he currently serves as treasurer of its foundation as well as chairman of its new plays competition. Follow him on Twitter.
SPJ South Florida: What’s the biggest misconception about being a critic? Is actual journalism involved?
Bill Herschman: It’s a lot like being a sports reporter: It’s a joy immersing yourself in a field you love, but if it’s done correctly, it’s a lot of hard work. Also, while we bring our heightened judgment to the job, its demands are similar to those of an editorial writer or columnist: You have to do research, you have to have ethical standards and you are always pursuing truth for your readers. While there are many newcomers who don’t practice responsible journalism, my definition and that of most of my colleagues is that arts journalism, including criticism, only succeeds when it adheres to traditional values and techniques of journalism regardless of the platform used to deliver the information.
What makes a good theater review?
The best reviews are a kind of mirror. They provide a sense of what the artists were trying to do, how well they achieved it and only then discuss whether the critic thinks what they were aiming for had worth. A good review gives the reader a vivid sense of what exists on stage so that they can decide if that appeals to their taste regardless of the critic’s taste. It also places the work in context – of the artists’ previous work, the art form in general, and its place in the social, cultural and political world at large.
What’s one part of your job that most folks don’t realize you do?
First, doing legwork as if I was covering a school board meeting. And since almost no one is just a critic anymore, I work the arts as a beat, just like when I covered the cop house. Second, when the curtain goes down and everyone goes to the bar for a drink, my day is barely half over.
Most frustrating part of your job now? Most fun?
The fun is having a place in a world I have loved since childhood. I admit to loving the ego boost when people seek out my ravings. Especially, I love discovering a new work, a new playwright, a new actor or a new company of struggling young artists that I can share with other people. The frustrating parts are watching arts coverage devalued by the mass media, the proliferation of unprincipled bloggers calling themselves journalists and generally the immense amount of work involved in running a shop that is essentially myself, my wife and two freelancers.
The very reinvention of myself as a cyber-journalist, taking my destiny into my own hands. Additionally, there is an undeniable feeling of pride at the validation coming from theater professions and patrons who say we are filling a crucial role in the fabric of the arts community that many people feared was vanishing. It’s hard to beat the feeling when we hear that our three-part series last summer analyzing the present and future of theater in South Florida is being used as a blueprint by the community for charting answers to the problems the arts face locally. Lowlight? Feeling that the limited number of hours in the week make it impossible to be as comprehensive as we had hoped. That will have to wait several months for our reboot and expansion.
Give us your weirdest dues-paying job in your career.
Sitting through Mamma Mia? Or sitting a few feet away from two naked dancers covering each other with paint. Reminded me of a bachelor party at Pure Platinum. Oh, and being trapped in an after-show talkback of a misbegotten play called Pastrami On Rye with the alleged playwright’s adoring mother and girlfriend in the audience.
One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into college students and young professionals?
My advice, my plea is for the new wave of journalists not to invoke the lazy rationalized excuse that inescapable subjectivity makes the goal of responsible journalism a naïve anachronism. Although we do not live in an unattainable utopia, human beings continue to strive to make a better world. The same goes for journalism. We are a profession with ethics and standards. Only by redoubling our dedication to them can we make our calling something of worth to our friends, family and community. For 10,000 years or so, people have needed and been willing to pay for reliable information so they can make intelligent decisions about their lives. The only thing that has changed is simply the delivery mechanism and the increasing ease of access to it — from moveable type to photo-offset presses. But the need has always persisted, whether its news of where the best hunting grounds were for Og the Caveman, or investigative pieces warning us of global warming. The recent problem is that the industry has sabotaged itself by destroying its credibility and diluting its content – hastened in the last decade and a half by people claiming to be journalists but simply wanting to further their agenda and their ego by venting under the guise of informing readers. If the coming generations can succeed in the slow, Herculean task of repairing that credibility, the worth of the information that true journalists can provide will rescue the profession and even make it profitable again, likely in niche “publications” online.
How has technology changed your job?
Considering that I began working for a professional newspaper with hot type while still in high school, technology has revolutionized the job for the better. The two most crucial facets: It has made research infinitely easier and faster. Second, it has brought back the challenges of old time wire services: With the possibility and pressure of a deadline every minute, it is 20 times more difficult and 20 times more important to be accurate the first time you report something. The ability to go back and fix it later doesn’t help the people who only read it the first time you post it.
Many companies are getting rid of critics altogether and subsidiaries of large companies are relying more and more on their parent companies for these types of stories. What’s the future of theater critics as you see it?
No one knows, least of all me – and I have been very good at predicting the future, unfortunately. Theater critics were sidestepping the ax for a while because they are covering local events, while a film critic can be based anywhere (although they cannot reflect the community’s parochial taste). But now publishers and editors see theater as an elitist niche art form solely serving an aging, diminishing audience – none of which is true. Just go to a performance of Wicked. Theater will survive in some form and a need for edited, responsible, credible criticism. Obviously, there will continue to be a proliferation of people who call themselves critics but who have no training, no standards, no ethics, no editing, just an opinion to vent which they have the cyber-access to disseminate. But that increasing ease of access to a cyber-distribution also means that the responsible folks may succeed in what I’m doing.
Throughout March, April, May, June, and July, SPJ South Florida Pro will feature Q&As every Friday with South Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to join SPJ? Email us.
Jason Parsley is President of SPJ South Florida Pro. Follow him on Twitter.