Journalists and newspapers usually try to report the news, not become the story. But when news broke in May 2012 that The Times-Picayune would cut back to publishing three days a week and reduce staff, it became one of the biggest subjects of conversation and outrage in New Orleans, the first major American city to go without daily news delivery.
It was a hell of a story, especially since it caught many of the paper's own reporters off guard, and that captured the imaginations of NOLA Project artistic director A.J. Allegra and playwright Jim Fitzmorris.
"I was in Italy at the time (of the announcement) on a vacation with my family, and as soon as I got back in New Orleans on June 1, I called Jim," Allegra says. "I said, 'I want to commission you to write a play about all the dramatic shit that's been going down at the newspaper. I think it'd be a great play to set on the day that the announcement is made, because it's so ridiculous and dramatic that the staffers had to find out in the pages of another newspaper.'"
Sixteen months after news of the changes was announced in other news outlets, A Truckload of Ink premieres at the University of New Orleans' Robert E. Nims Theatre. It captures a busy (technically unnamed) daily New Orleans newspaper's newsroom full of veteran and cub reporters and columnists as the paper is thrown abruptly into turmoil by corporate downsizing and technological change — on top of the usual personality conflicts and rivalries among competing reporters.
As the play begins, the newsroom is packed and veteran editor Fintan (Bob Edes Jr.) is regaling the crowd with war stories. Some staffers are sharing a drink from a bottle of whiskey to toast his retirement, and others are good-naturedly chiding him for his old-world ways, particularly the columnist Bevin (Allegra), who's contentious by nature and unafraid to step on toes. Other characters who come and go through the first act include a social columnist, an executive editor and an outside "efficiency consultant" brought in from Nashville.
Many characters bear striking resemblances to Times-Picayune staffers, and Fitzmorris says some are composites of multiple people. The paper's food critic Eugene is about to embark on a fellowship at a university, as The Times-Picayune's Brett Anderson did, but there are also many wholly invented plot points, and the story is not an insider account of what happened at the paper. Important news events cited in the play also are fictional, including frequent references to a 1977 mayoral election that was at the heart of Fitzmorris' recent play about post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, From a Long Way Off.
While some of the ongoing real-life drama about The Times-Picayune followed the erratic changes from reducing a daily paper to three-day publication to the hybrid publishing three-day-a-week home delivery and three days of the newsstand-only TP Street, Truckload takes place entirely on the day of the initial leaking of the news. There are entertainingly candid rivalries and personal conflicts, but it's a play about competing rational arguments and visions. It's not about heroes and villains or a story of loss and grief.
The set looks like an antiquated newsroom, with cluttered wooden desks and file cabinets stacked with papers and junk. There are barely any computers, and some in the newsroom take their lumps for not having embraced technology, sharing blame for the fictional paper's similarly cluttered and dismal-looking website.
The issues of technological change and corporate downsizing give the play a broader vision than a drama about a single newspaper, or even a single industry. Fitzmorris refers to comments made by former Baltimore Sun reporter and Treme creator David Simon about change in the newspaper industry. "It's not about whether we continue to slaughter trees," Fitzmorris says. "That's not the debate. It's about how we come up with a way to fund organizations to report these stories." As the efficiency consultant in the play reminds the editors, a newspaper has to pay attention to the bottom line like every other business.
Much of the drama is also about the deadlines of the paper on the day of the announcement. Several reporters scramble to get the scoop on a story crossing the beats of City Hall, education and state politics. Each reporter has his or her own career to worry about. Some characters voice the opinion that the paper is in the situation it's in because they have failed to report the news, settling instead for meaningless he-said/she-said balance and soft features like society coverage.
There's a level of cacophony to all that's going on in Act 1, and it's part of the Allegra and Fitzmorris' vision. The NOLA Project and Cripple Creek Theatre Company combined to present Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead in September 2012. That play is set in a diner in New York City in the late 1960s, and a cast of 25 swirls about in the bustle of hustlers, panhandlers, prostitutes, diner workers and other patrons looking for a cheap meal or cup of coffee. The number of characters and their many distractions can make the play unwieldy, but the production was an impressive success for the large cast and director Mark Routhier.
"I thought acting with 25 people in a play arguing and talking over each other is one of the most fun things I have done onstage," Allegra says.
The NOLA Project focuses on ensemble-driven theater, but Fitzmorris pushed the limits in Truckload. New American plays with more than six or seven characters are rare, and the company often does plays that don't go beyond nine or 10 characters. Truckload has 14 characters, and there are often more than 10 on stage at once. In much of the first act, there're all talking at once, jumping in and out of each other's conversations.
"There are so many moving pieces," Fitzmorris says. "It's a genuine ensemble piece. It's like jazz. There are three plots. ... Every single actor has a featured moment. Like Chekhov, you roll from scene to scene, the story moves forward but different people are in charge of different portions."
Fitzmorris also notes that reflects how newspapers work.
"It's like you see in All the President's Men," he says. "It's not the work of a single person working by themselves. There's a whole team of people who contribute to a story. There's a lot of collaboration."
Allegra tapped Beau Bratcher to direct the work. Bratcher has worked with the company before, assistant-directing Balm In Gilead and directing Mark Twain's Is He Dead?, which ran at Nims Theatre.
Fitzmorris adds one more connection with Balm In Gilead.
"Balm in Gilead put (Chicago's) Steppenwolf (Theatre Company) on the map," he says. "When I saw Balm, I thought both NOLA Project and Cripple Creek were ready for a big signature play."