Joanne Ostrow: 'The Denver Post is committed to having a theatre beat'

Joanne Ostrow on covering live theatre: 'We are still doing this. We are invested in it. It's important to us.' Photo by John Moore.
Joanne Ostrow on covering live theatre: ‘We are still doing this. We are invested in it. It’s important to us.’ Photo by John Moore.

The Denver Post has a new voice covering theatre in Colorado, and it is a familiar one – 32-year veteran Joanne Ostrow, who has served as the paper’s longtime television analyst since arriving at the paper in 1983.

The Post recently offered buyout packages to long-term employees in a move to save about $1.5 million in annual payroll, Editor Greg Moore told the Denver Business Journal. There was great concern in the local theatre community when lead critic Lisa Kennedy and features writer Claire Martin, who also contributed regular theatre reviews, both accepted financial incentives to leave the paper.

Despite the continuing diminution of print, The Post is still the leading editorial voice in the Rocky Mountain region with a paid daily circulation of 391,182 and 610,188 on Sundays, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. That makes it the ninth-largest newspaper in America. Its web site attracts 6.6 million unique visitors and 60 million page views every month, making it Colorado’s most trafficked website by far.

But the sizes of both the physical newspaper and the staff that produces it have continued to shrink – the newsroom has about 145  journalists today, down from 200 in 2011.

“This is part of the new reality for American newspapers,” Ostrow told the DCPA’s NewsCenter. “It’s a really shrinking world, and we are trying to adjust to the landscape. But the good news is The Denver Post is committed to having a theatre beat. Some other beats will be getting less attention, but not theatre. We are still doing this. We are invested in it. It’s important to us.”  

That promise was echoed by Ostrow’s boss, Denver Post Entertainment Editor Dave Burdick. “I like local theater,” said Burdick, a former standup comedian the Boulder Weekly once compared favorably to Adam Cayton-Holland and Ben Roy. “I value what it brings to my city, and the broader metro area.”

Kennedy was a respected national film critic who took on theatre as an additional editorial responsibility in 2012. Similarly, Ostrow will now endeavor to cover television and theatre as split beats. While Ostrow is still settling into her new routine, she expects to produce an average of about two TV and two theatre stories per week. Ostrow is also active both as a blogger and on social media, so local theatre fans are now more likely to see news items such as season announcements find a home on her blog, Ostrow: Off the Record.

The X Factor in The Post’s recent theatre coverage, though, has been the extra contribution from Martin, an unapologetic theatre fan who last year jumped in to help Kennedy cover a bustling Colorado theatre scene that includes about 100 companies. But Martin, a features writer who founded The Denver Post’s statewide Ride the Rockies bicycle tour in 1985, is not being replaced.

Joanne Ostrow and Dave Burdick“My current prognostication is that it will be rare that we will have someone on staff back (Joanne) up. But I’m sure it will happen from time to time,” Burdick said. “I would guess that it would be less like the semi-permanent situation we had with Claire, and more a rotating cast that could include (staff writers) John Wenzel, Ray Rinaldi or a freelancer.” That freelancer, from time to time, will be Kennedy, who will continue to contribute larger theatre project pieces as a correspondent.

“We’ll adjust the dials here until we’ve got them set right,” said Burdick.

(Photo above: Joanne Ostrow and Denver Post Entertainment Editor Dave Burdick.)

Ostrow is both daunted by and excited about her new responsibilities.

“I see it as a huge challenge,” she said. “I love theatre. I grew up going to theatre. But I am very humble as I approach this because I know there are people out there with more theatre knowledge and connections. I respect that. My job is to do the best I can to let people know what I thought of an evening of theatre.”

As a multiple award-winning TV analyst, Ostrow has long been known for her intelligence and common-sense approach to her writing. Tribune Media TV critic Jay Bobbin says of Ostrow: “Clear reasoning has been a lifelong hallmark.”

And Ostrow says her years covering TV can’t help but inform how she approaches live theatre criticism.

“In the back of my mind, I am thinking, ‘Is this stageworthy? Did this move me? Did this transport me? Or would I rather be home watching television?’ ” she said. “If the answer is, ‘Give me my HBO,’ then that’s not good for the theatre.”

Ostrow grew up in the shadow of the Washington Monument and attended Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. She graduated from the journalism school at Syracuse University and was immediately hired by Broadcasting Magazine to cover TV in New York. She was lured away by The Washington Post, where, for a brief time, she was assigned to the metro desk.

“I hated it,” she said. “Cops and fires. Asking people, ‘How do you feel about your tragedy that just happened today?’ So I got back to the features world.”

She was hired by The Denver Post in 1983. “I told everyone at the time I was going out west for a couple of years and coming back,” she said. “But, like a lot of people who came out to Colorado for a couple of years, she never went back. Here she is a wife and mother of a college freshman.


Now covering two major cultural beats, she wants both Post readers and the theatre community to have managed expectations when it comes to adequately covering the theatre beat in Colorado.

“It’s going to be impossible,” she said. “Let’s just get that out of the way.”

As a TV critic, a huge part of Ostrow’s job is carefully curating what to even bother trying to watch. “In the old days, you really could watch everything,” she said. “Now, that’s just not possible. People can find all those awful reality shows by themselves. So I won’t even bother with some of the really bad TV anymore – unless it says something amazing about what’s going on in the culture that needs to be written about.

“I think everyone understands that you have to pick and choose and write about a few shows that interest you instead of trying to do everything.”

Which sounds a little like trying covering local theatre.

“It is a lot like covering theatre,” she said. “I know I am going to have to say ‘no’ to a lot of things. There just isn’t the space in the paper, or the hours in the week to do it all.”   

Here are excerpted comments from the free-flowing conversation between one former Denver Post theatre critic (John Moore) and the new one (Joanne Ostrow).

John Moore: That must be a pretty sweet beat, covering television for a major daily newspaper for 32 years.

Joanne Ostrow: I wanted to be a features writer, but what The Denver Post needed was a TV critic. I kept thinking, “I don’t know if I am qualified to do this.” But it’s a lot more fun watching television, I have to say.

John Moore: How has covering television changed since 1983?

Joanne Ostrow: This was long before smart, adult drama took over television. We had cable, but we didn’t have as many good, original programs. This was way before The Sopranos and Mad Men and Jon Stewart. I’ve really witnessed a huge transition in the culture through TV.


John Moore: What have been some of your reporting highlights?

Joanne Ostrow: There have been so many fun interviews. Joan Rivers, who sat there with her little dog on her lap and regaled me with stories about being a comedian. Dinner at Bob Hope’s house. He had a par-3 golf course in the backyard. I was on the set for the final episode of Cheers. I can remember when they first introduced The Cosby Show. That was quite something. This was going to be the first middle-class African-American family on TV. I also remember when Friends debuted. I thought, “Wow, how come we have never seen a bunch of young adults all sharing an apartment before?”

John Moore: And how come we haven’t seen anything else on TV since?

Joanne Ostrow: We have seen a lot of that since Friends, haven’t we?

John Moore: Indeed. With all of the cable channels now, how does one even approach covering the TV beat? I imagine your bedroom having a wall of 42 TV screens and there you are lying on the bed going click, click, click.

A Joanne Ostrow Quote 2Joanne Ostrow: In the old, old days, they would mail the shows in advance on VHS tapes. Then it was DVDs. Now you just go online. A lot of it is streamed. And of course on Netflix now,  you get the whole season at once.

John Moore: So how many hours of TV do you watch a week?

Joanne Ostrow: I always say I am the only person I know who should really watch more television. If I do a couple hours a day, that’s enough. That doesn’t count the stuff I want to watch at home for my pleasure.

John Moore: What are your favorite TV shows right now? 

Joanne Ostrow: One that is just coming back for a second season is a comedy called You’re the Worst. on FX. It’s very different. It’s got this strange sensibility that I love. And it’s smart writing. The new Fargo looks good to me, too. It’s also on FX. It’s a new season and it has a different set-up, so it is like an anthology series.

John Moore: Joanne, this is an important question. Do you agree with me that The Shield was the greatest TV show in the history of the medium?

Joanne Ostrow: No.

John Moore: OK, that’s crushing.

Joanne Ostrow: I did love The Shield. I also loved Rescue Me. But those are both at a lower tier, I think, than, say, Breaking Bad.

John Moore: Heresy. So what is your all-time favorite show?

Joanne Ostrow: I think Breaking Bad was serious art. The Shield was just a really good, tough cop show.

John Moore: OK, you don’t have to pan The Shield in praising Breaking Bad.

Joanne Ostrow: Sorry. But Breaking Bad was brilliant.


John Moore: So, switching gears: I know that attending live theatre has always been a big part of your cultural life.

Joanne Ostrow: Absolutely.

John Moore: Did you ever do it?

Joanne Ostrow: Barely. I did camp in high school but no, not in a serious way. I am strictly a journalist.

John Moore: So now you are entering this new journalism chapter as the paper’s chief observer of local theatre. And because of The Denver Post’s huge distribution, you are essentially inheriting the loudest voice of anyone. That must be respected and taken seriously.

Joanne Ostrow: Oh, I take it very seriously.

John Moore: I meant more that the artistic community will have to take what you say seriously.

Joanne Ostrow: Well, time will tell on that.

John Moore: What constitutes a satisfying theatregoing experience to you?

Joanne Ostrow: It has to do something different than what television does. Theatre really can have that special power. When it’s on, it’s different than television – in a great way.

John Moore: But as someone who has been keenly observing TV all these years, can you still walk into a theatre and realize the unique power of a live performance?

Joanne Ostrow: Absolutely. It is so different. You have to respect the separate power of each one. There are great things television can do that theatre can’t. If you want fantastic landscapes and epics, then watch TV. But theatre can also move you and perform magic in a way that television can’t. There is something about the connection between the actor and the live audience. The imagination is set loose in a different way.

John Moore: And all theatre companies are exploring this idea that the live experience should really begin long before you walk into the lobby, and extend long after the final bows. The lobby experience is an example. Or talkbacks. Or having access to engaging information on the company’s web site. At the theatre, you can usually walk up to the actor after the show and say, “You moved me.”

Joanne Ostrow: Television is trying to do that now with all kinds of interactive stuff – even sending actors out around the country to make that personal connection. That’s what people want. That’s why celebrities are so active on Twitter.

John Moore: So you can’t possibly see everything by every theatre company. Are you likely to choose to see those plays and musicals that the greatest number of your Denver Post readers will be attending?

Joanne Ostrow: In conjunction with what my editors want. Let’s have them on the hook for this, too, hah. But yes, I think the goal would be to find those shows that are going to be seen by the most readers, which means starting with the larger venues like the Denver Center, obviously. But also, I want to see as many things I can that are really interesting and pushing the line.

John Moore: Do you think your job is to speak directly to the readers of The Denver Post in your reviews – or to the artistic community that is creating the art? Or both?

Joanne Ostrow: I have to be writing for the readers. My job is to answer the question, ‘Would I advise you to try this for a night of entertainment? Is it worth the money? Is it worth your time?’ I think that is important.


John Moore: So … what do you think of the four-star rating system?

Joanne Ostrow: I hate the star system. Doesn’t everybody?

John Moore: You might be surprised. I found that many readers and artists take the star rating very … very seriously.

Joanne Ostrow: I guess it’s good shorthand, but it is so clumsy and imprecise and forced. It’s annoying, but it’s not up to me – and it’s not going away.

John Moore: Just so people know what to expect: What does, say, three stars mean to you?

A Joanne Ostrow Quote 3Joanne Ostrow: Three, I would say, had some really strong points, but either the writing or the production wasn’t stellar. Two stars is good. Two is competent. Three is solid in a more profound way. For 3½ stars, it really had to have moved you. Four stars can’t come around very often, or it doesn’t mean anything. Now keep in mind, this is based on my having done this for five minutes.

John Moore: So … can there be a four-star review of a play that you don’t think is a four-star script?

Joanne Ostrow: I don’t think so. It’s all intertwined. I think it’s fair to say something about the playwright’s intention that is separate from what you feel was conveyed by the acting and the direction. But if you think the script is lacking, or if you don’t like the ending, then maybe that knocks it down a half star. But you know what? Everyone should still go see a 3½-star show.

John Moore: You have been doing this for about a month now. What trends are you noticing at our local theatres?

Joanne Ostrow: I’m a little concerned by the average age of the audiences I am seeing. I’m not seeing any young people. Is it too expensive? Is it just not interesting to them? I am interested in what kind of outreach is going on in terms of trying to attract younger audiences.

John Moore: The NEA just issued a report that said more people per capita attend live theatre in Colorado than in any other state. But we both know that’s still only a fraction of the number of people who watch TV, or go to the movies, or go to a concert. So why do you think live theatre should be considered an important value for a newspaper, a person, a city?

Joanne Ostrow: Because live theatre is important to the cultural life of a city, and it needs to be nurtured. As a theatre critic, you can’t coddle it – but you have to pay attention. The people who go really care about it. And that’s why we take it very seriously at The Denver Post.

John Moore: Concluding thoughts?

Joanne Ostrow: Yeah: Let’s do this again after I have been doing it for a few years.

John Moore was theatre critic at The Denver Post for 12 years and was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Additional reading:
From 2012: John Moore and Mark Collins: Two ex-theater critics, sitting around having coffee
Joanne Ostrow’s 10 best fall TV shows
Joanne Ostrow’s six worst fall TV shows

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