100 Dallas Creatives: No. 81 Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner
Robert Hart Mark Lowry & Michael Warner
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Know an artistic mind who deserves a little bit of blog love? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the whos and whys.
When Mark Lowry was contemplating the launch of a website covering regional theater he didn't have a whole lot to go on. In 2009, when TheaterJones.com launched, blogs were still a relatively new phenomenon. Even more rare? A blog (or anything for that matter) dedicated to regional theater coverage.
But when you know, you know. Lowry and fellow Theater Jones founding partner Elaine Liner (you may knew her as the Dallas Observer theater critic) saw what was happening at newspapers around the country; they and fellow arts critics were the first round of writers to get the ax in the battle between print and online media. Lowry and Liner did not plan on going quietly.
They wanted a venue for smart, regional arts writing that wouldn't live or die at the whim of corporate ownership. And Theater Jones was born under the belief that consistent conversation about the arts is vital to a local scene (and maybe just a little bit out of a selfish, and perfectly understandable excuse to keep writing).
It's probably not surprising that for the first few years the website wasn't making much money, if any. But eventually they saw a return on a risky investment. Almost six years after the website went live, Lowry now makes enough money from the site to pay not only himself and business partner/developer Michael Warner, but also his writers and photographers (who used to work for free), and in the process has pioneered the creation of a sustainable online model for local arts coverage. No small feat in today's competitive online marketplace.
Lowry, ever modest, would probably downplay his role in the continued viability of the Dallas performing arts scene, but ask anyone involved in Dallas arts - they all read Theater Jones.
Get to know Michael and Mark, the duo giving the Dallas performing arts a foothold on the Internet.
Give us a little background on y'all.
Mark: I'm a native of Memphis, Tennessee, but when I was baby my family moved to Dallas, so I consider myself a North Texan. I became interested in theater in high school when I found a kinship with the "drama nerds." From there, I started off college as a theater major, but changed to journalism and received my degree in communications from the University of Texas at Arlington.
My first newspaper job was, as a kid, a paper route throwing the Dallas Times Herald. I had five streets and an apartment complex in Garland. My first real journalism job, though, outside of the college newspaper, was with FW Weekly when that alternative newsweekly started up in 1996. I was hired by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1998, and stayed with them as a theater critic and arts writer through 2008. I still freelance for them.
Michael: I was part of a wandering family that lived throughout the country. Although I was born in a small town in Oklahoma, I have considered Dallas to be my home for the past couple of decades. There is no place I would rather be.
What were you both doing before you started TheaterJones? How did you meet and what prompted the initial partnership?
Mark: When the print media world started tail-spinning, that's when we founded TheaterJones, initially an idea between myself and the, now Dallas Observer theater critic, Elaine Liner (who was involved for the first year and a half). I brought on Michael to be our designer. He and I have been best friends since the early '90s, and I knew his skills as a programmer and designer, and his ability to see a challenge from multiple angles, would work perfectly with the vision.
Michael: Over the years I have held many positions in the technical realm, server operations, application support and the like. Although very interesting and most provided excellent learning opportunities, there was little call for creativity and new ways of thinking. When the door opened for TheaterJones, I happily stepped through.
What or who were your biggest influences in starting to think about creating your own website? Maybe similar sites throughout the country?
Mark: When TheaterJones launched in January 2009, there weren't many models for theater blogs or websites covering regional theater. Most of them were New York-centric and Broadway-based. We were influenced by the readability of other sites, like Gawker; but for the most part, I think we've helped create the model for regional arts online coverage.
Michael: Strangely, my influences come from what to avoid rather than emulate. The design language of TheaterJones is to add usability to the work of the writers and photographers while staying out of the way and allowing that work to define our publication with intelligent, insightful writing and compelling, well-crafted imagery. We are always working to provide a framework for publishing arts journalism that is consistent yet flexible and unobtrusive yet rich.
What did you think was missing in the critical dialogue in Dallas? Why was TheaterJones an important addition to the city's conversation about art?
Mark: Coming from the daily newspaper world, Elaine and I knew what was happening to newspapers across the country. When the waves of layoffs began in 2006 and 2007 (and became really heavy in 2008 and 2009), local critics were among the first to be axed; they kept the film and TV critics, for which most of the coverage of national. Papers were losing their institutional knowledge of the local arts scene. We started by only covering theater, but I knew that dance, opera and classical music were going to hurting even more for coverage as dailies declined, so we soon added those disciplines. We've since added comedy; it truly is a performing arts online magazine.
Also, we were adamant from the beginning that we cover as wide a range of work as possible, making sure to cover the small-budget companies that have rarely, if ever, been mentioned in the mainstream media. They are as vital to an arts scene as the large- and medium-budget guys.
Michael: It has always been my goal to use the democratizing power of new media make the arts accessible and eliminate the perceived elitism inherent to many performing arts. We bring the arts conversation to people wherever they are listening, the web, social media and public events.
What challenges did you have to overcome in launching the site (or maybe are still having)? It could be lack of community support, lack of resources, etc.
Mark: The biggest issue has been funding. We started with everyone working for nothing, and then we slowly started making money through advertising, which is our model. For the past three years, we have paid our writers and photographers (and ourselves), which was a goal of ours from the beginning. I'm very proud of that. It's still a constant struggle, but we are confident that it will keep better and better. We're constantly exploring options for making this a model for doing what we do well--and making money while doing it.
Michael: Our biggest challenge, at first, was being taken seriously by the arts community. Several sites have come and gone because so they believed that journalism, business development and arts advocacy only required a server account and a few WordPress plugins. It is actually much, much harder. Our consistency, perseverance and drive for quality have set us apart and shown the arts community we are here to thrive.
Tell us about the name.
Mark: Elaine and I played with different names, and knew we wanted to tribute Margo Jones, the resident theater pioneer who opened an influential theater in Fair Park in 1947; the space is still there and being used by local companies. Elaine actually came up with TheaterJones. It also speaks to the idea of being addicted to theater and the arts.
How do you think the critical dialogue in Dallas has evolved as a result, direct or indirect, of the website?
Mark: When we launched, the only reviews and stories about the local theater scene were happening through the mainstream media. There are lots of theater bloggers out there now, but no one that is covering the performing arts scene as extensively as we are. I think other media outlets have responded and upped their game; even the Observer, which had been mostly focused on theater where the performing arts is concerned, is paying more attention to dance and classical music now. And several of our writers that we helped nurture have gone on to jobs at more mainstream media companies. (Ahem.) [Editor's note: Lauren Smart wrote for TheaterJones.com from 2009 until she joined the Dallas Observer full-time in 2014]
Who inspires you? Either in Dallas or elsewhere?
Mark: Now my inspiration comes from sites like HowlRound, a national theater site that has really opened up the national conversation on theater, beyond reviews. Of the many performing arts sites around the country, there are a few that I think are covering regional arts well, and I'd put us in that company. National critics that really understand the bigger picture, like Julius Novick, Deborah Jowitt, Arlene Croce and Michael Feingold have been inspirations for me.
Michael: I am inspired by the late physicist Carl Sagan. Often times, when I am working, I fantasize a reader out there, perhaps riding the train home from a long day's work, that had a spark of insight from our publication, and their lives were from then on better for it. Much the same way Carl Sagan gave insight to an entire generation that watched his series, Cosmos.
What inspires you? In other words, what do you do in your 'free time?'
Mark: What is this "free time" you speak of? I keep my theater and arts-going schedule pretty busy, but in my time off, it's about spending time with my partner, Jack, our two lab-mixes and two cats. And reading books, magazines and websites about theater and the arts. Oh, and I do a mean two-step; you might find me country and western dancing around town.
Michael: When I am away from the publication, I enjoy working with my hands and building things. Often times I am covered from head to toe in paint, sawdust and sweat...and couldn't be happier.
What's next for y'all and the website?
Mark: Expansion in various ways; I'll leave it at that.
What do you think the Dallas theater community is lacking? What can the city do to help or what can people in the city do to move us in the right direction?
Mark: We are doing our part to get the word out about what's happening here in the scene, but I'm constantly surprised when I hear about people who have been in the area don't know there is a thriving arts scene here. I was at the Kalita Humphreys Theater recently, for an Uptown Players show, and a man in front of me brought his parents. I heard the father say, "we've been in Dallas for a long time and I never knew there was a Frank Lloyd Wright building here."
In the local theater scene, there has been tremendous grown in quantity and quality, but there's still so much that could happen in an area with this large of a population. One thing we lack is a professional theater devoted to the classics--we had one for a few years in the 2000s, Classical Acting Company, which I miss. Most pro theaters include a classic work in their seasons, and lots of amateur theaters do them, but every major arts scene needs a professional theater devoted to work from Greeks to the mid-20th century theater writers. That kind of theater would not only be beneficial for actors, directors and designers, but also for audiences.
Although there have been positive steps from the city and philanthropists for supporting arts here -- the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fun has been an exciting addition -- it needs to be ramped up several times more. I think the conversations are happening, though. We're thrilled to be part of them.
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88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele
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