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‘What I am is a reporter’

An interview with the Tulsa World’s Jim Watts

Tulsa World Scene writer James D. Watts, Jr.

Michelle Pollard

If you’ve been to any Tulsa theatre productions, symphony, or Tulsa Ballet, you’ve likely been in the company of Jim Watts, aka James D. Watts, Jr., reporter on the arts for the Tulsa World. He’s sort of Dickensian: bearded and ample with a puckish smile. If you haven’t noticed him, that’s part of his mission: to be the reporter, not the story, even if he is the major arts critic in town.

For three decades, Watts has reported on, as he puts it, “everything cultural except yogurt.” He began with the Broken Arrow Ledger as a general reporter, then served as editor for the Tulsa PAC’s Intermission magazine. His first job as a critic was for the Tulsa Tribune; he eventually joined the World in October, 1992, after the Tribune went under. 

JIM WATTS: The very first thing the Tribune had me doing was a [review of a] Heller Theatre production of a play called “Modigliani.” They were using freelance reviewers for classical music and dance, and for various reasons those people stopped working for the Tribune; they just had me do it. It was by attrition and the job needed to be done and I was handy.

THE TULSA VOICE: Of the things you were reviewing at first for the Tribune, where were you the least comfortable? 

JW: I’m uncomfortable with all of it. I’m not an expert in anything but I’m willing to learn. Probably classical music is the one I have to prepare myself more for. 

TTV: Do you research the things you have to review?

JW: Oh yeah. I try to. Sometimes it’s just not possible.

TTV: And you review even when there may not be space in the paper for it. 

JW: The philosophy—and this is not unique to the Tulsa World—is that everything you write goes on the web first. You write for the web and not for print. The only reviews of mine I know will appear in the paper regularly are of the Broadway touring shows. They run for a week, they attract large crowds and attention. Sometimes a theatre review, if the show will run a second weekend and space permits, will appear in the paper. 

TTV: How has your aesthetic evolved over the three decades? 

JW: What I am is a reporter. My “aesthetic”—that’s a word I would never use.

TTV: Well, I’m an academic. 

JW: That’s okay. 

TTV: You’re very forgiving. (Laughter)

JW: What I do is I report on what is in front of me. That is highlighted by an opinion that is as informed as possible. Whether I succeed in that is debatable, but that’s what I try. I try not to go in with any preconceived notion.

TTV: I don’t remember what show it was but some people took you to task because you didn’t like a particular production.

JW: That has happened, yes.

TTV: I always wonder about what happens if there’s some kind of pushback against a review.

JW: My wife gets very angry at a lot of people. (Laughter) What happens is nothing, usually. The people involved in a show that gets a bad review are understandably upset even if they think to themselves “Yeah, we didn’t do well.” I tried not to pay too much attention to the brouhaha that arose out of that particular show because I knew it would get me upset; it would sour things. And I did not go back to see the show afterwards so if they corrected what I saw as the problems, then great. People would say, “You didn’t see the show that I saw,” and I would say, “Well, good for you, nobody ever does.” I have learned after 30 years not to take anything personal.

TTV: Do you ever get a chance to have a dialogue with the theatre community, not just about reviewing but how they interface? 

JW: I don’t know that that is my role. The thing about the arts community in Tulsa is that we’re seeing in the last decade or so an incredible amount of collaboration that wasn’t there for much of the time that I’ve been here. There’s still some cliquish personality conflict, but actors that you would think you’d only see with Company A are showing up at Company B or C and that’s a good thing. 

TTV: How do you see the impact of TATE (Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence, an annual competition among participating community theatres)? Positive, negative?

JW: It’s been a bit of both. I was part of the group that put it together. One of the proposals that I had was that the company that wins the top prize, $10,000, that it would come with a stipulation that half of that money would go to creating and producing an original play that would be presented in conjunction with the following year’s award ceremony. But that didn’t get out of committee, as they say. When they were talking about revamping after last year I brought that up again and it wasn’t immediately dismissed out of hand but it’s probably still going to be a long time coming. 

TATE has caused some fractiousness because it always seems that certain groups consistently win it; that it has become this kind of winner-take-all thing, which means that everybody else are losers—which isn’t the case. But at the same time it has upped the game of some of the companies in town to put on more ambitious shows and to show a finer attention to detail in things. In that case it’s become a positive thing because theatre in this town—in the eyes of everyone outside of the theatre community, and maybe some within the theatre community, is that theatre is a hobby.

What the TATE awards do and needs to do a better job of is making people take community theatre more seriously. If one of the richest men in the world is willing to pay out 20 grand a year to recognize the community theatres in his home town, that’s a statement. That says something. It’s a substantial amount of money to the people who are receiving it and a substantial amount of elevation. 

TTV: Is there interest in original work here?

JW: I think that companies would like to, but there’s also the desire to get people in seats. Because of the nature of the Tulsa community there are a lot of things that to theatre lovers would be old-hat but to most audiences here would be brand new.

TTV: What’s your sense of what’s coming down the pike? What do you hope for?

JW: I would like to see companies do more original work, do Oklahoma work. Take full advantage of all the talents that we have here. About four or five years ago there was a Canadian company that commissioned a series of plays that centered around a local landmark. The plays went from the time of settlement and into the future and that was the season. It was five original plays by five Canadian playwrights—I think it was in Toronto—but it sounded fascinating. What crossed my mind was the Brady Theatre: plays about aspects of the history of the Brady Theatre. Something that would create a larger-than-theatre-community interest in a project. That would be something I’d love to see. 

TTV: Do you see the possibility of a regional professional theatre here in Tulsa? Is it still about subscriber support?

JW: That and the feasibility. Because if people are going to be paid a professional wage, you have to make sure that they have work. When Tulsa Project Theatre tried to set themselves up as an Equity company it was hard to find people here in Tulsa to work on their shows because people need to eat and pay their bills and there’s more work elsewhere. I think it could happen but it’s going to be a ways down the line. We have to get past the idea of theatre as a hobby.

TTV: How does Tulsa do that?

JW: It’s going to need some outside impetus. It’s going to take somebody from the outside before it’s going to be taken seriously. This is not that difficult to do: it just needs X amount of money. At the start, theatre has to be more than theatre to attract the outside interest and then once the outside interest shows an interest the theatre being done had better be very good—because unfortunately you’re only going to get one chance.

For more from Michael, read his piece on “Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party.”