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Phindie, one year later: Interview with editor Christopher Munden

Posted March 19th, 2014

“It’s pretty easy to create and maintain a basic site of arts journalism, or other small publishing project. There’s no reason why others couldn’t do what I’m doing and do it well. It’s cheap, it’s easy, they should.”

32468_390299683381_2276020_nIt’s been a little over a year that editor Christopher Munden, an avid theater-goer, created Phindie.com in order to provide  arts coverage to the independent theater scene. [You can read our interview with him from last year!] Since then, Phindie.com has become the place to go to read reviews and articles about the plays that are up and the artist who are making them. From a previous staff of one, he now has a number of writers covering the scene, and he is keeping tabs on multidisciplinary work as well as beginning some dance coverage. We caught up with Chris to find out what he’s learned from Year One, and what he’s looking forward to.

FringeArts: What is Phindie, as you see it now?

Munden: It’s a website people can visit to read about performing arts in Philadelphia. Mostly reviews, but also interviews and features. The focus is on “independent theater”—the type of theater which would be at home in the Fringe Festival—but there are articles on dance and other arts and on the city’s bigger budget theatrical performances.

FringeArts: You started Phindie a little over a year ago and since then the site has expanded dramatically in coverage and audience. Take us though a few of the decisions you made that helped grow Phindie.

Munden: Yeah, I soft-launched last March, so it’s been about a year. I had an idea to build audience when I started the site, one I haven’t fully implemented: giving away free theater tickets as a way to build the email list. I thought it was a really good idea, and I told it to my friend’s father, a successful business guy and theater fan. He told me, “Maybe it’s a good idea, but it’s only one idea. You need ten good ideas, because if you just have one it might not work.” So I went home and wrote a list of ten ideas for the site, and I’ve gone down the list picking ones which might make a difference.

A couple of them have really moved the needle in terms of impressions—the key metric for gauging website audiences. The first was the decision to run a “Critics Awards” for Philadelphia theater for the 2012/13 season, in the absence of a Barrymore Awards for that season. The second was my effort to cover as many shows as possible in last year’s Fringe Festival. I recruited a bunch of writers and managed to get reviews of seventy-eight shows, plus a bunch of preview pieces—more coverage of the festival than anywhere else. I think that’s what put the site on the radar for a lot of people, it definitely sparked a big and lasting jump in visits, so thanks Fringe. 

FringeArts: What do you think was the best decision you’ve made editorially?

Munden: My guiding principle is not to worry too much about where the site is going, but to make sure that I’m happy with it at every stage of growth. So it started as a venue for my writing on the arts, with my own independent theater, web-centric editorial focus, and that focus remains. It quickly grew to incorporate other writers, and we are now covering pretty much every theater show in Philadelphia. I have ideas for expansion, mostly into more arts fields, but I want Phindie to be good at whatever it does and not expand just for expansion sake.

One recent decision that has helped me out immensely was hiring a theater editor to take some of the posting and correspondence of my hands: Julius Ferraro, formerly an intern and writer at FringeArts.

FringeArts: What’s been the most difficult part of maintaining Phindie.com?

Munden: It’s time consuming. It’s not seriously time consuming, and I certainly think it’s pretty easy to create and maintain a basic site of arts journalism, or other small publishing project. There’s no reason why others couldn’t do what I’m doing and do it well. It’s cheap, it’s easy, they should. But it does take a several hours a week, every week, and my inbox is now completely overrun with messages from theaters and artists. I can’t, and don’t, reply to and cover everything, and I feel a little bad about that because I know people are emailing me about projects which are important to them.

FringeArts: Best show you’ve seen recently?

Munden: Not to shill, but one of the recent FringeArts shows was entrancingly intriguing: The Room Nobody Knows. It was an idiosyncratic Japanese piece. The title’s room was full of penis-shaped objects, but any shock value or weirdness felt completely earned—it wasn’t just crazy for crazy’s sake.

FringeArts: Sometimes you publish two reviews of the same production. Why?

Munden: This is something I’m conflicted about. If a second critic asks to submit something on a previously reviewed piece, I will accept it. Theaters and readers tell me they like the additional coverage and it can be good to have complementing or contradictory viewpoints. But part of me likes a Phindie review to be “this is what Phindie thinks about this play,” even if I don’t share the reviewer’s opinion. I always ask people what they think about this, I’d love to hear more feedback on the topic and how to make it work better.

58477_429728938381_5679363_nFringeArts: What would you like to see more of in Philly Theater and performing arts generally?

Munden: There’s a lot of room for cross-company collaboration, which I don’t see too much: joint productions between Philly companies and between Philadelphia companies and regional—suburban, DC, New York City—companies, mini-festivals which create a whole bigger than the sum of the parts, multidisciplinary nights like the FringeArts Scratch Night and like your [SmokeyScout Productions] company’s Nice and Fresh series in Northwest Philly, incubation projects where big companies help small companies and small companies help young theater start-ups—that type of thing. There’s some of all of that, but not much of any of it.

Also, I’d always like to see more original work and more year-round programming with the Fringe ethos—the festival proves there is an audience for such work, it just requires marketing and collaboration to reach the necessary audience. 

FringeArts: Any exciting new features that you will be rolling out on Phindie soon?

Munden: I put up a placeholder theater calendar, but I’d like to make a much more dynamic calendar, so that might happen soon. We’ve begun to expand into dance coverage, I hope to recruit more writers for this and to spread into other performance and arts fields. We’ve started to see more features and previews as well as reviews. There might be a redesign this summer.

And of course, I’m going to try to beat last year in terms of coverage of this year’s Fringe Festival. My aim is to have a review of every single production, at least in the theater discipline. See you in September, folks.

Thank Chris, see you soon. And we’ll make sure to keep reading Phindie.com!

–Josh McIlvain

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