The aim of this webpage is to explore the development of and culture surrounding the theatre community that has come to exist online, specifically with reference to the website TalkinBroadway.com. This will be done by utilizing the Circuit of Culture, an approach to examine how media is culturally interacted with. The five aspects of the circuit— identity, production, consumption, regulation, and representation— are discussed in their relation to TalkinBroadway.com below.
John Gillespie found himself at a loss when Theatre Week magazine went out of business in 1996 (Cling 1998). For avid theatre fans, sources providing coverage of all things stagey were few and far between. Luckily for Gillespie, the dotcom boom of the late 1990s would not leave him completely deserted in terms of theatrical information sources. Web pages belonging to well established theatre organizations offered even more than just news— they enabled the creation of an online theatrical community, as website users could connect with each other via the message boards many sites offered. They could share opinions and reviews of shows on or off-Broadway and other theatre locales.
These sites did not, however, lend themselves to creating the kind of theatrical community Gillespie desired (Gillespie 2021). The American Theatre Wing’s website, for example, had a message board that was moderated from only from 9am – 5pm after which it became utterly inhospitable. Despite the negative potential of the chat forums, Gillespie had grown to like being able to share his thoughts. He enjoyed writing and was good at it, so he set out to build a website that would offer an amalgamation of theatre news and a moderated space for theatre lovers to talk— the intended consumers of the site. These precursor websites were heavily involved in shaping the identity of TalkinBroadway.com— or how it became what it is to the people who use it, as well as those who do not. Gillespie and other theatre fans sought a place in which they could engage civilly with each other online and also consume theatre news. Initially, identity was also closely tied to the presence of heightened regulation of the consumers compared to other similar websites at the time; a primary motivator for the creation of the website was a lack of regulating what users could say on the chat forums of other sites.
Gillespie partnered with Mark Bakalor to design and build the website. The two met on the Tonys’ website chat room (one now closed, as they encountered the same issues as the American Theatre wing). Together, they created TalkinBroadway.com, which debuted on January 31st, 1997 (Gillespie 2021). Gillespie is paramount to the production of the website, as he created and initially funded it. Not only did the person who conceived of the idea become the one to execute and fund it, but he is also a reasonable surrogate for all the people who would consume it— Gillespie created the site not as a commercial venture, but so that he could benefit from its use and function, like the other consumers.
The initial site offered theatre news, a chat forum— cleverly entitled “All that Chat”— and stories written by Gillespie (using his online persona “VJ”), among other things. Writers, editors, and moderators on the site were all (and still are) volunteers— once again linking the production and consumption of the website. In an article written for the Las Vegas Review Journal by Carol Cling in 1998 about TalkinBroadway.com and its growing success, everyone interviewed seemed to rave about the strong sense of community the website represented for theatre lovers. The chat forums are suggested to have been a particular draw of the website, with users discussing the joy of finding people with whom they could share their theatre experiences. One staff member stated “visitors are very friendly, down to earth and almost like family” —an obviously sharp contrast from what Gillespie experienced on other theatre forums, due to the increased regulation of posts preventing trolling and hate speech enforced by moderators. Regulation was also enforced by making users register with the website, providing their name and email address, though this did not have to be shown when posting to a forum. A group of 50 users who met on All that Chat even met up to see The Phantom of the Opera together. In addition to the hobbyist theatre-goer, the consumer base had also expanded to industry professionals. One playwright discussed the website as providing him the opportunity to connect with fans, as well as self-promote (Cling 1998).
The tone of the article seems to suggest the loving and vibrant community cultivated on TalkinBroadway.com should be attributed to the ardent intentions of both the users and creators. It’s only natural that Gillespie’s non-commercial website, for which he foots a monthly multi-thousand dollar bill and works all day just for the love of theatre, would harbor a group of nothing but supportive and friendly online users. It represents the early site to non-users as having been an amiable space for theatre lovers to connect with one another.
As the website grew into the early 2000s, production remained under Gillespie and the team of volunteer contributors. The appearance of the website remained largely unchanged until mid 2015. Its expansion to cover more regional theatre news is indicative of the increase in consumer base the site had come to acquire. Despite representing the same thing to its consumers, TalkinBroadway.com and the online theatrical sphere had come to be a bit more notorious to the outside world and professional theatre world.
In a Variety article from 2000 entitled “All the world’s a posting on B’way,” Pamela Renner discusses the impact the new source of theatre communication has had on the industry, specifically mentioning TalkinBroadway.com as one of these new sources. It opens by talking about a review that was posted online for the musical The Full Monty the night before it opened, indicating the reviews by the site’s consumers represented real implications for the fate of a show. Renner’s tone suggests the theatrical blogosphere was something to be wary of, saying information “flits” about at a “quicker… and looser” pace than print news information. She also says other established theatre news sources, like Playbill, “insist upon confirming their leads with a reputable named source” (Renner 2000), demonstrating how TalkinBroadway.com represents to outsiders a disreputable source of theatre gossip.
By this point, the identity of TalkinBroadway.com to industry professionals and news sources can be seen to be something more formidable than just a place for like minded people to talk. Reviews being posted and discussions being had online were having a real bearing on the business of theatre. This is evident as Renner goes on to talk about the musical Seussical, and how it underwent many changes during its out-of-town tryouts in Boston. She establishes that these changes are not out of the ordinary for a show’s creative evolution as it makes its way to Broadway, but now “the process is cataloged by online chat group observers and by blind items posted anonymously on theater news sites” (Renner 2000). By this statement, Renner suggests the online theatre space is unfair to the theatrical creative process. In the past, it would have been normal for a show to undergo growing pains as it reaches its final iteration, but websites like TalkinBroadway.com allow everyone to be aware of how bad a play or musical may be at any given stage. It was for this reason the producers of Suessical canceled an out-of-town run in Chicago. The “chatterati,” as Renner calls the online theatre-chatters, now represent a financial threat to the theatre industry and an inhibitor of the creative process. Seeing the producers taking actual action due to their online buzz likely causes TalkinBroadway.com to represent empowerment and further engagement with an art form they love to the non-industry consumers.
A few years later, The New York Times published an article entitled “THEATER; Are the Toughest Crowds on Broadway Online?” by Zachary Pincus-Roth. This article, written in 2003, suggests TalkinBroadway.com and other websites to be having an even stronger hold of the industry than Renner suggested they did in 2000, even saying they have “become fixtures of Broadway culture” (Pincus-Roth 2003). He illustrates how virtually all industry professionals engage with theatre chats in some way, even talking to Micheal Reynolds (one of the first administrators and moderators of All That Chat), who asserts that a third of users are theatre workers (Pincus-Roth 2003), demonstrating the increase of this population in the site’s consumer base. Pincus-Roth goes on to discuss the potential implications of online chatter for the fate of a production, referencing the infamous Seussical production of 2000, which by 2003 was thought to indeed have been killed by its poor internet buzz. He says that theatre professionals likely would make changes to a show because of online forums, but would never admit this (Pincus-Roth 2003). For them, TalkinBroadway.com now represents to them a means of obtaining validation or criticism from theatre lovers— people who would likely make up their audience. Despite this seeming useful for producers and the like, the tone of the article suggests it represents more of a subjugation to the online opinions.
Not only do the professionals with whom Pincus-Roth talks seem annoyed by TalkinBroadway.com, but so does Pincus-Roth himself. The article has a snarky way of interacting with the website: it begins with a mock-post that is intended to mirror the way people chat on the website, ending with a faux performance critique that reads “You hear that, producers? Is anyone listening?” (Pincus-Roth 2003). By this, Pincus-Roth seems to suggest he thinks posters on the sites feel entitled to have the opinions they write heard and abided by. Perhaps this is because Pincus-Roth, a theatre reporter, also feels threatened by seeing the theatre industry swayed by online chatters. In his 2014 book, The Theatrical Public Sphere, Christopher Balme discusses the power theatre blogging had on democratizing the priorly illusive role of the theatre critic. Now, anyone can use websites like TalkinBroadway.com to share their opinion and re-establish critical criteria (Balme 2014). While internet spaces may be thought of as a place of less nuance, Balme writes about the ability of online posters to discuss things in more nuance than traditional critics, as there are much more diverse backgrounds and identities in the aggregate online than the traditional critical institution (Balme 2014). Pincus-Roth’s visible distaste for TalkinBroadway.com and its influence demonstrates its identity to him and the critical institution as a legitimate and verified alternative to his status in the industry.
As TalkinBroadway.com moved into the 2010s, the website maintained the same functionality and presence in the theatre community. News sources no longer reported on the effect of the “chatterati,” as growth of social media and other online platforms likely made the voices of people on the internet affecting artistic industries less sensational. The website did seem to maintain its generally negative— or at least mockable— identity to non-users however. In his 2008 off-Broadway musical Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, Gerard Alessandrini parodied major musicals while lovingly making fun of Broadway culture at the time. His song “All That Chat” joshes the users of TalkinBroadway.com’s forum by the same name. Lyrics include “Check out the gossip mill and rumors made to kill on All That Chat” (Alessandrini 2008). This illustrates both that TalkinBroadway.com was prolific enough within the community for this song to be entertaining, and also that it represented something to be made fun of and not taken seriously.
Production of the website also seemed to become a difficult burden for Gillespie to continue shouldering alone. A 2013 article from the Las Vegas Review Journal entitled “Message Board Owner Considers Shutting Down Vegas Section” reveals that not all regional branches of the website were picking up enough traction to justify their continued support by Gillespie. “‘(But) if people don’t read it, why write it?’” Gillespie asks the author (Staff 2013). The consumers of the website were not profuse enough to warrant production of the website in all areas, even ones that had a reasonable theatre scene.
As theatre bloggers sharing their opinions became somewhat old news, the only ones who seem to comment specifically on the sites in more recent years have been individuals who feel personally attacked by what is said about them. For example, Broadway actress Patti Murin became particularly upset when she noticed a large amount of negative posts and gossip regarding a production she was in on theatre websites in 2016, and took to posting on her own blog about how it made her feel. In her post entitled “The One Where Patti Takes On the Chat Boards,” Murin says that while the other functional aspects of TalkinBroadway.com or comparable sites are wonderful, their chat boards say nasty and offensive things (and “as an actor… [she’s] always cared about what others think”) (Murin 2016). She then goes on to copy specific comments from the chat boards of a site similar to TalkinBroadway.com and respond to them. Murin suggests that the boards should have tighter regulations on what can be posted to avoid bullying and harassing, also suggesting that the chat feature of the sites be less centralized on their homepages. Murin’s response to the chat forums reveal TalkinBroadway.com as representing the malicious opinion of only a few of its consumers, and being something that is overall negative for the theatre community.
To Murin’s point, it does seem that All That Chat has been the main function of TalkinBroadway.com since its inception. It was produced with a main goal of serving as a place where users could discuss their theatrical love with each other. Despite Murin’s gripes, the site is indeed well regulated, offering users a comprehensive list of prohibited chat on the forums (TalkinBroadway 2019). The chat pages also have remained largely unchanged in design since the site’s inception, suggesting users have always been satisfied with the overt functionality of this feature, rather than needed enhancements. This of course, is also suggestive of the site’s stagnation. After other social media platforms grew, theatre goers likely began utilizing other means to share their thoughts on a production or communicate with other like minded people. The site being non-commercial limits the motivation to expand the consumer base or functions of the website. For those who wish to chat about theatre, TalkinBroadway.com still offers them a space to do so, and represents a sense of community and connection regarding something they love— even if this connection is reached through “snarky” comments about Broadway stars.
“Talkin’ Broadway Terms of Service.” talkinbroadway.com., last modified Jan 1, accessed Nov 17, 2021, https://www.talkinbroadway.com/tos/.
“TalkinBroadway.Com.” talkinbroadway.com., accessed Nov 2, 2021, https://www.talkinbroadway.com/.
Alessandrini, Gerard. 2008. All that Chat. Forbidden Broadway.
Balme, Christopher B. 2014. The Theatrical Public Sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139051668.
Cling, Carol. 1998. “Web Site Creator Shines Light on Broadway News: [Final Edition].” Las Vegas Review – Journal, 1.E-1E. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/web-site-creator-shines-light-on-broadway-news/docview/260068279/se-2?accountid=11752.
Gillespie, John. “We’Re 20 Years Old… Warn the Duke!” talkinbroadway.com., last modified Jan. 29, accessed Nov. 2, 2021, https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/rialto/past/2017/012917.html.
Murin, Patty. 2016. The One Where Patti Takes on the Chat Boards. Literally Patti Murin. Word Press.
Pincus-Roth, Zachary. 2003. “THEATER; are the Toughest Crowds on Broadway Online?” New York Times, Oct 5,. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/05/theater/theater-are-the-toughest-crowds-on-broadway-online.html.
Renner, Pamela. 2000. “All the World’s a Posting on B’way.” Variety, Dec 14,.
Staff. 2013. “Message Board Owner Considers Shutting Down Vegas Section.” Las Vegas Review-Journal. https://www.reviewjournal.com/entertainment/message-board-owner-considers-shutting-down-vegas-section/amp/.