By Asher Alt
DES MOINES, Iowa – Michael Morain, a long-time arts critic for The Des Moines Register, will be the guest mentor at the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Region V during the week of January 22.
Morain said he is excited for his role at KCACTF and hopes to offer encouragement to the students with whom he works.
“If I see promise, I hope I can give [the students] some encouragement to keep exploring their craft,” said Morain.
Morain remembers how he first got into arts criticism. After graduating from Graceland University with degrees in international studies and French, Morain went to Minnesota to teach French, while also working as a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver. While out for deliveries, he often took the longest route possible to listen to stories on National Public Radio, which meant he often delivered cold pizzas.
“I was the worst delivery driver ever,” he said with a laugh.
He was so inspired by the NPR stories that he decided to get a Master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. While working in Chicago, he covered everything the Windy City had to offer, including its many theatres, museums and music halls, and found he really loved covering the arts.
Morain began his job as Arts Reporter at The Des Moines Register in 2005 and worked there until April 2016, when he left the newspaper to work as the Communications Manager at the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, or Iowa Culture. At the Register, he covered events at museums, theaters, concerts and other arts venues. Morain said that this allowed him to get to know people all over the state, which also helps him with his job at Iowa Culture.
He also learned a lot about multimedia reporting at the Register. He shot videos on his iPhone, took pictures and wrote blog posts as more of his stories appeared online. This let him reach his readers more effectively; he could actually show what an art exhibit looked like, or what a singer sounded like, instead of simply describing it.
According to Morain, there were good things and bad things about being an arts critic. Some of the worst parts about being a critic were writing negative critiques and writing critiques for “B-plus” shows. Morain said it’s much easier to write about shows one loves or hates.
“You’ll shrug your shoulders and want to go get a slice of pie, but you have to write about it and think about how you’ll stretch it to five hundred words,” he said.
Some of the good things about arts criticism were being able to see a variety of interesting things and meeting a lot of interesting people. Morain even kept a notebook in which he kept all of his ticket stubs – he has hundreds.
While Morain loved his job as an arts reporter, he said that his transition from the Register to Iowa Culture was an “easy switch.”
“I wouldn’t have left journalism for many things, but what I do now is similar to what I did.”
Morain currently manages a four-person communications team at Iowa Culture. The team covers marketing and communication for three divisions: the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa Arts Council and Produce Iowa. Morain and his co-workers write press releases, manage social media accounts and design museum exhibits. Morain said that the goal ultimately is to show Iowans what their state has to offer.
But now, Morain is taking a quick break from his job so he can participate in KCACTF. As guest mentor for ITJA, he already has some advice for the Institute’s participants.
“Be curious. Push beyond your comfort and your understanding zone and ask questions,” said Morain. “It’s very clear, very early that there is always more to learn. There’s another layer, somebody else who knows more than you do, and I think that’s great.”
Participants in ITJA will attend all of the productions invited to the festival and write critiques, blog posts, interviews and other pieces. They will also discuss their work and interact with industry professionals in hopes of learning more about arts criticism.
For more information about the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy, please visit kcactf.org.