Philly.com’s Jack of All Trades

Since 1997, John Timpane has been a “Jack of all trades” at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He recently reviewed The Prisoner of Zenda, hailing a new genre of meta-pulp as “rollicking” and “expert[ly] done.” We sat down with Timpane and asked him a few questions about what he’s seen over his 24 years at The Inquirer.

“Humility before all,” says scholar, teacher, author, journalist, editor, consultant, writer, and reporter John Timpane when asked about lessons learned. His advice to anyone who wants to pursue these lines of work: “Welcome direction and correction. Strive to do better.”

Much like theatre, the life of a journalist is one of teamwork and conversation. It is a craft predicated on nuance and dialogue, be it between the subject and the interviewer or the audience and the medium.

Since January, Timpane has been the theatre critic and arts reporter for the Inquirer, working to develop an online presence for the newspaper’s reporting on the arts in Philadelphia as well as maintaining the print coverage of the performing arts. In an ever-evolving world of media and content, Timpane notes that the only constants are change and good writing.

“Our challenge,” said Timpane, “is to penetrate and pervade the Philly media space so everyone knows what we’re doing, how much we’re doing, and what good quality it represents. That’s the huge challenge before us. We have by far the best arts Web page in town, and we need to get famous for it.”

A Renaissance scholar with a concentration in Shakespeare, Timpane taught drama and Shakespeare from 1981 to 1997. During that time, he was also a writing coach for local newspapers and businesses, which led him to the Inquirer, where Timpane was offered a job as an op-ed editor in 1997. He held that position for a decade until he was moved to Features as a media writer, reporting on the explosive growth of social media and Web-based communication and its social impact. In 2016 he was made Fine Arts Editor.

Timpane has covered the arts in Philadelphia from every angle and is still a driving force behind the arts coverage in the city today. He has seen the paper change a lot as it moves from a traditional print-based medium to a news organization that combines print with an interactive online presence.

As for the online side of things, Timpane says, “I like its immediacy, and I like the value-added stuff (video, audio, art galleries, links) you can offer readers. In my perfect future, everyone in Philly would discover how great our arts coverage is on Philly.com and become addicted. I am.”

With freelance budgets severely slashed for Inquirer arts coverage, and an accelerated move toward the fast-paced world of the Web, more staff members are getting involved in covering the arts. Timpane points out, however, that print is not dead. At the moment, far more people read a given article in print than read its digital counterpart. But the future is the future, and there’s no use sitting around and waiting.

Print isn’t being abandoned; it’s just that the paper has to diversify what it offers, create services and products on a range of platforms to serve the community in a variety of ways. Gone are the days of the Grey Lady of monolithic newspapers; these are the days of the immediate, nimble, flexible, multi-platform news org.

“Theatergoers are still print consumers, by and large – but an increasing proportion are Web-focused. A small but very loyal contingent follows our reviews very faithfully. I have tried to reflect the impact of social media on journalistic writing in my own work, without being cheap,” said Timpane.

In a world in which people look for content on their phones every third second, people are hungry for substance. With more than 50 theaters in the immediate metropolitan area, Philadelphia has the potential to fill both tablets and cellphones, as well as the stage, with art.

Drama is Timpane’s personal favorite form of entertainment, as Timpane holds PhD’s in English and the humanities from Stanford. I like the crackle and tension of real, live, present people performing in concrete reality right before me. One of my chief joys is to attend a brand-new drama I know nothing about,” said Timpane. From classical theatre to cutting-edge experimental stagework, he thinks few cities better represent the diversity and richness of theater than Philadelphia.

It is the act of discovery that Timpane loves about Philly. Be it a world premiere from PlayPenn, an amazing production of King Lear from the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, or an experimental Life of Galileo at the Wilma, Philadelphia is good at giving you anything and everything you want, and it is always ready to surprise.

“Another big trend is toward political theater, theater on social issues,” Timpane says. “The plight of the refugee, gender identity, race relations, the nature of warfare, the male/female political divide, the ethics of drug development … so many vibrant, pressing contemporary issues have emerged from recent productions…. Of course you can always go see Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Camelot somewhere.”

All this diversity is what makes theater in Philly amazing. There is intense competition for the leisure time of the audience, from videogames to virtual reality, and the constant interchange of ideas is creating new ideas and exciting performances.

“As of about 2000, a lot of smaller companies, with lots of energy and talent, and very willing to experiment, started cropping up in Philly,” Timpane says. “That invigorated the community, and the plays were very good…. There are more theaters, and that makes for a more competitive, more diverse environment. I’m loving it.”

“Philly’s growth has begun to spur new modes of theatre,” says Timpane. He’s beginning to see an already experimental art city begin to push the envelope even more, incorporating debates, music, cabarets, and other forms of entertainment into their repertoire: “The borders are melting: lots of proto-theatrical genres, such as cabaret, monologue, storytelling, slam, and spoken word have arisen.… the U.S. arts audience showed at the turn of the millennium that they welcomed sophisticated storytelling on TV, and now TV is in a golden age … they also showed a taste for dark stories, challenging stories, controversial stories, the edgy, the ambiguous … all these things are emerging in today’s new plays.”

From the development of the Avenue for the Arts to women moving to the forefront of arts management in Philly, Timpane has seen the community evolve over the years and adapt to the changing climate. “The city is supporting the arts big time, and the arts will always be part of the Philly brand. And Philly’s reputation has skyrocketed, until now it’s a top 5 town for younger adults on their first or second jobs, and those are people looking for good value for their entertainment dollar.”

There is a dark side lurking on the horizon, however, as funding will become an issue.

“Funding is likely to take a big hit soon, and the mid-to-small venue, in which Philly abounds, is going to have to discover creative ways to prosper and persevere. Also, the elder philanthropic generation is stepping off, and you have to wonder how will the next folks, boomer and younger, behave as donors,” Timpane says. “That is a huge question that will really affect the arts.”

Whatever happens, Timpane wants to be part of the conversation. Since his early days as an editor to his current position as a writer, he has always searched for a sense of “rhythm and connection [in] human conversation.” A constant search for answers to the question, “Why?” Why is a play good? Why is a play bad? Why is this writing good? Why is this writing bad? — all the while maintaining a vivid style and precision in aesthetic discussion.

“I will always love how socially connected, how directly political, theater is: it always connects with what’s going on in the world, in the audience,” TImpane says. “That guarantees that when you attend a play, you will always be part of a dialogue, watch it played out in front of you, feel that delicious challenge to commit, to decide.”