The big question at the League of Chicago Theatres’ annual conference last Saturday went something like this: How come people like sports better than theater? It wasn’t the only thing on the communal mind at “Theater Town, USA Act II”–there were also worries about lack of money, lack of audiences, and lack of diversity–but it was major. In spite of League president Marj Halperin’s protest that more people attend arts events than sporting events in both Chicago and the nation, the perception that millions of Americans are streaming into ballparks and domes while most theaters struggle for every measly butt in a seat was a persistent theme. Even the day’s most compelling news story seemed to speak to it. “In Russia they storm a theater, because that’s where the action is,” observed Organic Theater artistic director Ina Marlowe during a question-and-answer session. “Can you imagine that happening here? Here it would be a sports stadium.”

Could the problem be, um, journalists’ fault? LCT staged its own sporting event around that possibility, a debate between San Diego Union-Tribune senior editor Chris Lavin and Chicago Tribune theater reporter and critic Chris Jones. Lavin got national attention in journalism circles recently when he suggested that arts coverage could take a lesson from the sports section. Now he came out swinging. “A dying friend told me, ‘If I had it to do all over again, I’d ignore sports,'” he said. “‘I spent too much time on it, but you get addicted.'” This confession started Lavin thinking about how good the “sports czars” have been at getting us all addicted and how sports coverage tells the full story, “warts and all, including heart monitors on some golfers.”

“Why have the arts become such a quiet backwater?” Lavin mused aloud. “Because the coverage is tradition-bound. Reviews are a painstaking search for perfection, and the advance/review cycle hasn’t changed much since the rise of the penny press.” According to him, reviews are read mainly by the already devoted and tend to give a “box score,” while sports coverage has richness and breadth: “I’m afraid in the future critics will be seen as the agents of diminishment of the very arts they love.” After he first espoused these ideas in an article posted on the Poynter Institute’s Web site last May, Lavin said, he was surprised to find that they set off a round of criticism directed at him. “Isn’t it ironic, that the people who make their living criticizing have such thin skin?”

It fell to Jones to defend the status quo. Thoughtful and objective criticism has “nothing to do with what you see on the sports pages,” he began. “Readers want reviews of shows, not featurettes or accounts of a journalist having lunch with someone.” He offered a lively parody of what Lavin was endorsing–a Steppenwolf review done as a sports page play-by-play. But at the next opportunity Lavin parried with a low blow, a threat to read from Jones’s review that very day of “the 850th production of Annie,” then followed up by seizing on Jones’s use of “objective,” arguing that a review is “a highly refined subjective assessment” and “you have to admit that subjectivity to come to the deep appreciation sportswriters have for their game.” Replied Jones, to palpable audience dismay: “I find boring the endless progression of stories about how theater was created.” When someone suggested they’d like to see more of a dialogue on the arts (like the New York Times series “Writers on Writing”), Jones said the Tribune surveyed readers of its book review section to “see if they wanted stories about the making of books and the answer was no, they want to know about books.”

The sluggers agreed on one point: the arts community wants publicity but likes its privacy. Lavin talked about the feathers ruffled when his paper ran an interview that had classical pianist Leon Fleischer referring to his piano as “Bitch” and dropping his pants to show off Spider-Man underwear. Jones concurred that “people in the arts are not necessarily good at knowing what kinds of stories will work, and it’s not necessarily the positive ones.” But to Lavin’s suggestion that the arts (and arts coverage) have “become too comfortable with an elite niche–a sort of ‘I’m here for people who get me’ attitude”–Jones replied: “Why should we dumb down what we do? Not everything is going to reach everybody. There’s a clear outcome in sports reporting. Much of the appeal is the clear sense of winners and losers. Arts don’t provide that clear delineation. [Tribune theater critic] Michael Phillips and I resist the thumbs-up or thumbs-down; we’ve resisted stars or ‘deeply recommended.’ People look to us for context.”

The winner of this little exercise was decided by an applause vote, and the outcome was clear as a Super Bowl victory. Lavin ruled; Jones shrugged off his defeat. But they weren’t done with him yet. Hours later, when master of ceremonies Ben Cameron of the national Theatre Communications Group was wrapping up the day’s proceedings for a crowd that had shrunk by 50 percent, he got in a few punches of his own. Jones, he said, demonstrated “the pretense in critical circles that an objective perspective is a possibility” and revealed that “the critical community is mired in the idea that what we’re doing is pursuing a perfect performance.” That may not be the best way to evaluate the theater, Cameron cautioned. “If only critics wrote as well as sportswriters, I would be thrilled,” he continued, taking his audience to task for not giving Jones more flak. Jones said he’s writing to tell people how to spend their money when they have 200 other choices, Cameron pointed out. “Are we reluctant to be candid with people who control our economic destinies?”

On the other hand, he spoke warmly of Lavin, describing his message as one of journalists “sitting in collaboration with what we are trying to do.” But Lavin might have been surprised by this spin. What journalist thinks “a deep appreciation for the game” means a collaborative effort with the subjects of their stories? What is sports about if not the pursuit of the perfect game? And isn’t there already a place where actors and directors get the hackneyed pack reporting and vacuous interviews afforded sports stars? Isn’t it just up the Santa Ana Freeway from Lavin’s post in San Diego?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Johnny Knight.