I saw 12 shows during my eight-day stint in New York last week, most of them with multi-million dollar budgets and massive casts. But the two shows that touched me most were both, interestingly, one-person shows.
This Sunday, Audra McDonald – whom regular readers will know I venerate above all other actors currently working on Broadway – opens in a one-woman play about Billie Holliday, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, at Broadway’s Circle in the Square, and I will report on it here next week.
But it was a downtown off-Broadway show The Junket that affected me most personally, written and performed by a journalist, playwright and performance artist called Mike Albo, who has turned his own journalistic experiences into a chastening, revelatory one-person show that exposes huge tensions in the ethics around how reporters work and (try to) fund themselves.
We’re always warned in life (as well as journalism) that there is no such thing as a free lunch, of course; so what happens when you accept a free holiday? In 2009, he accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to a mystery location that turned out to be Jamaica. As a freelance journalist, not tied to any single outlet, he ought to have been at liberty to do so. Besides, he needed a holiday.
Except that one of his freelance outlets was the New York Times, for whom he wrote a weekly column called the Critical Shopper. And even though he was not representing the ‘paper of record’ on the trip but going only as an individual, the paper has a strict policy against accepting hospitality – I’ve been with New York Times journalists myself who’ve not allowed press agents to pick up the lunch bill. (The paper does, however, accept complimentary tickets to review shows).
When a media blog jumped on his case, he was duly fired by the New York Times from his regular gig (one that had seen his pay cut by 10% before he lost it – even though, as he ruefully, notes, the paper’s CEO got a buy-out payment of $2 million when he left his post).
As his gripping but uneasy story unfolds, all sorts of questions arise; what journalist hasn’t accepted what Americans called ‘swag’, whether it be a free CD, book, hospitality, travel or hotel room? I’ve had press trips funded to Canada (twice), Australia (twice), Las Vegas and New York myself. Closer to home, I used to write for a national newspaper that didn’t pay any expenses, so in order to visit regional theatres, I would have to ask those venues to fund my hotel and travel expenses, or I couldn’t go. It was never done in exchange for a favourable review; just a review. What I said was up to me. So I never felt compromised.
In this case, Albo wasn’t even representing the New York Times in any way, and yet was summarily dismissed on the strength of what others had written about him on a blog.
When he first put this show on at a Lower East Side performance space earlier this year called Dixon Place, he told the New York Observer,
The irony is that to move forward we need to get a Times review. I find it interesting that the Times hasn’t come. I think it would be a challenge in a fun way to figure out how to write about it within the Times.
In fact they did end up going (or at least a freelance theatre critic did) when it moved to the Culture Project, where I saw it last Saturday, and enthusiastically declared,
Mr. Albo, a skillful performer and comedian as well as a keen journo-observer, has a way with words and line delivery. His likable persona balances the snark and the silliness, and it’s hard not to be sympathetic to his dilemma as “the Silkwood of Swag.”
I just hope that Frank Rizzo didn’t accept any swag himself on his way to fulfill his assignment. I, meanwhile, am wondering if I have a one-man show inside me waiting to burst out….