Phindie, one of the youngest, yet most prolific arts and theater arts publications in Philadelphia, was created in March 2013 by Chris Munden, originally from England—another European immigrant who enriched the theatre arts world in one of America’s largest cities. He published more reviews of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, now Fringe Arts, than any other publication in the area. He also edited a series of books called Philly Fiction--short stories written by Philadelphia writers. A bright man in his 30s who works consistently and quietly, he is reaching an increasingly expanding audience through his Phindie.
Chris Munden: I began working as a writer and editor in 2000. I worked in magazine and book publishing
for most of the next decade. The first publishing project I started was Philly Fiction, a 2005 book that collected short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers. I’ve since co-published two more collections.
Henrik: When did you start writing about theater?
Chris: My parents did community theater and my mother took me to shows of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne [England]. I used to go see as many Shakespeare productions as I could, and gradually saw more and more plays by other writers.
When I was working as a copy editor for a Philadelphia magazine in 2009, InterAct Theatre sent in press tickets, so I asked another publication I was writing for if I could review a play. Soon, I realized I liked reviewing theater, not just for the free tickets, but because I wanted to analyze and say something about the work I saw.
Chris: I saw a shrinking of arts coverage in the city—especially that of independent theater. My immediate impetus was twofold: I wanted to write short 200-word (“60-second”) reviews and had no home for these, I wanted more editorial control over my writing and what I covered.
So I imported all my old theater writings, plus some articles by friends from other defunct sites. Right off the bat, I wanted [Phindie] to be seen as a serious arts publication with an extensive archive of articles.
Henrik: What response did you get from the theater community when you started?
Chris: I didn’t announce Phindie with any fanfare. I just started to post my own reviews on it, and the first one I wrote specifically for the new site was used by a theater in a promotional email: a pull-quote with the Phindie byline. Within a week or so, companies were writing to ask for coverage, and the site very quickly had 50 visits or so a day.
Henrik: Fantastic. What did you do to put Phindie firmly on the map?
Chris: I invited local critics to vote for their favorite publications, which attracted a lot of interest in a year without the Barrymore awards, and I decided to cover as many theater shows as possible in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
I almost abandoned that project, because I watched a close friend and roommate die of a heroin overdose a few weeks before the 2013 Fest began. But I transferred my grief into energy and recruited a number of writers and this (at the time) one-person operation beat every other publication in terms of Fringe coverage—which is cool, but kinda embarrassing, too.
Henrik: Right on. How did this year’s festival compare to the Fringe’s previous years?
Chris: I miss those years in the early 2000s when I worked in Old City and could see a bunch of weird shows in a few block radius at coffee shops and parks and then go see a great band at the Fringe bar, but I like what the festival has become. Nowadays, it’s so big that it’s really hard to compare festivals, as you only see a snapshot of the shows, but it’s interesting to try to pick out themes—from nudity to the Internet. Every few years at least twelve E.A. Poe shows crop up. I’m not sure I discovered any such theme this year.
Chris: The best show, for me, was PAC’s Rape of Lucrece. Dan Hodge made this 400-year-old Shakespeare poem incredibly accessible and moving. Around the same time, I saw a modern show about domestic violence, I Am Arethusa, and the pairing got me thinking about the individual perspectives of this age-old story.
Writing about the ballet Things I Learned in Outer Space was my first real attempt to review a dance piece. I’m a big fan of dance and contemporary movement arts, but I feel unqualified to write about them. I wrote the piece with the acknowledgment that I was not a student of the art, and, to my surprise, it got a good response.
Henrik: What is your process for soliciting and selecting the most qualified theatre reviewers for specific shows—aware that each article represents Phindie in a critical world?
Chris: Ha! A lot of it is just people reaching out to me and asking to write. I ask writers to select the shows they want to see, and assign based on preferences. For the Fringe, I had to do some added recruitment. I asked other editors, and I talked to friends and acquaintances who I thought would be suitable. This year, I asked Toby Zinman, a reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who also teaches at the University of the Arts, to refer some young writers, and she gave me some of the festival’s best reviewers. Thanks, Toby!
More recently, I asked Neal Zoren, a prolific theater reviewer who attends a lot of productions around the larger region, whether I could excerpt some of the reviews he posts on his site NealsPaper. He, too, agreed. Thanks, Neal!
I also spend a lot of time on activities for a non-profit, Kensington Soccer Club, which organizes teams and leagues for youth in North Philadelphia and around the city. I’m on the board, coach four days a week, and manage the other coaches.
Henrik: How have you changed and grown as a publisher, editor, and writer post-Fringe?
Chris: I’m not sure I have. I have some ideas for the site after the festival. Phindie’s theater editor resigned recently, so I’ve taken on more of the day to day operation of the site again, and I’m focused on that.
Henrik: Now that the dramatic, creative Fringe “orgy” has come to an end, what plans do you have before the next festival takes up all your energy?
Chris: I want to continue to be a prime source for theater coverage in the city and to attract more readers to the site. There are things I’d like to do: add more sections on other arts and increase feature article coverage. I’d like Phindie to be more than just a clearinghouse for theater reviews.
For example, the FringeArts management and Phindie already worked together to present two awesome theatre arts bike tours this year. For the next Fringe festival, I’d like to talk to FringeArts about even more collaboration and promotion through our Phindie’s festival coverage. If Phindie continues the way it is now until next year, I’ll be content, but if we get huge and buy out the Inquirer, that would be okay, too. [He grins.]
Chris: To readers everywhere--e-mail me and let me know what you’d like to see, what you like about the site, and what you don’t.
Henrik: Great. I'm sure you will attract even more theater artists, writers, and readers to support Phindie's work. As a result, more Philadelphians may attend some of the extraordinary performances in our area--despite America's tough economic times.
Chris: Thanks, Henrik!
If you liked this interview with Chris Munden and want to learn more about Phindie, take a look at these earlier interviews: "Phindie’s in Town: New Website Covers Philadelphia Independent Theater" by Said Johnson, and "Phindie, one year later: Interview with editor Christopher Munden" by Josh McIlvain.
This interview with Chris Munden, Phindie publisher and editor, was published by Drama Around The Globe on November 18, 2014.