Sunday, November 15, 2009

"It's Not In the P-I"

As community college productions of journalistic plays go, It's Not In the P-I is a major coup. As entertaining nights at the theater go, it's not too bad, either. The show tells the Post-Intelligencer's story in mostly humorous vignettes that span its entire 146-year life. We see reporters being noble, reporters being less than noble, and even one reporter who dances like a stripper during an interview out of boredom and tipsiness. (Admittedly, she's interviewing strippers, but still.)

It's Not In the P-I isn't an objective look at the paper's rise and fall, and it doesn't claim to be. Though some of its narrative threads resonate more effectively than others, it adds up to a relatively smart composite portrayal of newspaper life and culture, swearing and all. (Seriously, I haven't heard the word "fuck" in a play that many times outside of Mamet.)

The talented ensemble cast members (all North Seattle Community College theater students) hop from role to role in ways that mostly make sense, although one actor's switch from a determined veteran reporter to a mild-mannered night desk staffer was a little weird. The script is a collaboration between six local playwrights; though I can't be sure of it, I assume each wrote a separate vignette series, after which they figured out how best to thread all the stories together. The first act ends on a pretentious note, with an impressionistic piece that uses the Green River Killer case as an example of how reporters can give voice to crime victims whose own voices have been silenced.

It's Not In the P-I is much better off when it's going for laughs, and quite a few scenes have satisfying comic payoffs. One of my favorite stories was one of the play's most offbeat: A P-I writer and photographer are sent to Detroit to cover the Super Bowl's human-interest side and end up in a declining strip club. That setting leads to all sorts of risqué humor -- and ultimately prompts the female reporter to take a shot of something strong and gyrate to the beat of the music. (Predictably, she puts the club's actual strippers to shame.)

Tales like the strip-club saga are fun for two reasons. The first is that they're based on interviews with playwrights did with former P-I staffers about their experiences, so even if the show takes a few liberties, the core of each story is real. The second reason these acted-out anecdotes are a pleasure to watch is that they reveal something of journalism's allure, for the journalist as well as for the public, without putting too fine a point on it.

An early scene takes place in the busy P-I newsroom, where reporters field calls from eccentric old ladies and conspiracy theorists and people who use the paper's number like the TV Guide hotline. (One woman just wants to know when M.A.S.H. is on.) As annoying as these calls can be, they connect you with a subsection of humanity that's alternately fascinating, exasperating, and exhilarating. I know, because I used to field calls from eccentrics all the time at the Weekly.

When people called us as though we were the phone book and the public library rolled into one, I was duly amused. When, on the other hand, someone called to tell me about some crisis in his life, I listened for as long as I could. You can let someone know their story isn't right for your paper, but you can't ignore their humanness, their desperate desire for justice to be done, for someone to make other people aware of their plight. With the economic downturn still keeping folks out of work, food, and luck, I bet the phones are ringing off the hook at the Times these days.

Back to the stripper story, though. I enjoyed it because it demonstrated what an adventure journalism can be. You go in pursuit of one story and find another that's twice as interesting, or you stick with the original story and it takes you somewhere you couldn't have predicted. As a mere arts writer, I dined on a cruise ship and at the top of the Space Needle, hung out with loft-dwelling artists and a Russian hot-dog vendor, and even rode on the back of a motorcycle. Journalism at its best turns the journalist's life into a practicum in serendipity, which only makes her stories more engaging for the reader.

I loved how the play depicted the strip-club reporter's transition from nervous interloper to active participant, partly because I've had to make that transition many, many times. When I miss being a full-time journalist, what I miss is a lot of what It's Not In the P-I emphasizes: the inherent unpredictability and wildness of the journalist's life. And though the show addresses the very contemporary problem of print media's slow death at the hands of new media, it's also one of the best eulogies I've seen for classic print journalism: leaning on corrupt public servants until they crack, ending up in the oddest corners of the earth and asking their inhabitants to tell all, and reviewing theater on a full-time basis for decades.

The play also serves as a "living newspaper" that tells stories that haven't been told before. There's a decent bit of inside baseball about the P-I's move from print to online-only, including a sobering account of the process by which sitting staffers were allegedly recruited for the Web version. (If you believe the playwrights' source, someone from Hearst, the P-I's parent company, called editorial employees up to his office one by one and either offered them an ongoing job -- at reduced pay and without benefits -- or didn't. He also allegedly warned them not to tell their coworkers what they'd talked about.)

Another thread depicts a determined reporter who goes after a city councilman with such gusto that she won't leave him alone even after he's left office in a cloud of scandal. He accuses her, justifiably, of trafficking in sensationalism under the pretext that "the public has the right to know." It's a clever way of showing that journalistic doggedness can easily lapse into a power trip if it isn't kept in check.

One particularly effective scene combines interviews with three people who worked in the P-I building: a florist, a janitor, and a barista. The first has a starry-eyed and arguably naïve view of journalists; the second reveals a few messy truths about reporters' bathroom habits; and the third gives us a quick ethnography of the P-I's people based on their coffee-buying tendencies (arts writers vary their orders, newspeople stick to drip, and everybody tips poorly).

Which one is right? All three, of course. According to Paul Mullin, one of the playwrights, both former P-I employees and current Times staffers are upset with aspects of the play. This is one of those cases, I think, in which offending everyone equally is a sign of success.

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