Scoop: Change of Art

Mark AthitakisMarch 20, 2020
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Kerry Lengel (middle) with Phoenix-area actors Toby Yatso and Katie McFadzen at a Stray Cat Theatre fundraiser, 2017; Photo by Brooke Unverferth
Kerry Lengel (middle) with Phoenix-area actors Toby Yatso and Katie McFadzen at a Stray Cat Theatre fundraiser, 2017; Photo by Brooke Unverferth

The retirement of The Arizona Republic’s theater reporter leaves a void in the Valley’s performing arts coverage.  

On January 3, Kerry Lengel ended his 25-year career at The Arizona Republic, most of it as the Valley’s most prominent writer on local theater. His absence frustrates many in the arts community. “The lack of critical writing right now about the performing arts in our community is really a shame,” says Matthew Wiener, former artistic director of the late Actors Theatre in Phoenix. Herbert Paine, who covers local productions for international theater news website BroadwayWorld, says Lengel’s leaving reflects “the press’ now unfulfilled obligation to its readers to do justice to the arts.”

Lengel himself is modest about his achievements: “I don’t think I had any impact at all as a critic except selling a few tickets to some shows that might’ve sold less if they hadn’t had me advocating for them.” He’s now eagerly attending to other goals, like writing a novel and getting involved in politics in ways that newsrooms typically forbid. The career shift was partly motivated by his struggle to get readers engaged in theater, he says, and he hopes a new reporter on the beat can meet the challenge.

“What I would like to see is someone young and hip enough to find new ways to write about theater, to make it interesting to younger audiences and make it something that you have to read about,” he says.

Will the paper replace Lengel? Becky Bartkowski, features director at the Republic, diplomatically responds that “we don’t have a job listing up at this time,” but adds that the paper is committed to exploring innovative ways to cover local theater. “We’re looking for stories that are going to be really compelling, that people are going to be excited to read and that our reporters are going to be excited to sink their teeth into.”

The Republic is – or perhaps was – the biggest platform in town for theater coverage, but not the only one: Phoenix New Times, BroadwayWorld, and Talkin’ Broadway regularly review local productions. Still, theater companies have adjusted to having less ink and look to social media and word of mouth to publicize theater happenings, says David J. Hemphill, executive director of Phoenix’s Black Theatre Troupe. What he’ll miss is Lengel’s deep dives into local productions. “His features and in-depth reporting were very valuable,” he says. “Much more valuable than reviews.”

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