Kate Symes on her rookie reporter days and the creation of The Fourth Estate
Kate Symes is a veteran improviser who has performed with multiple WIT ensembles, coached countless teams, and appeared in several WIT projects. For her directorial debut, she targets the media and how the different forms of journalism shape the story. Her creation, The Fourth Estate, debuts Jan. 11 during the WIT Road Show at Atlas Performing Arts Center.
What inspired the idea for The Fourth Estate?
I worked as a newspaper reporter right out of college – it was my dream job. I thought I was gonna be Christiane Amanpour one day.
Instead I quit after two years because I was working 80 hour weeks and crying in the bathroom about having to write stories that were devastating (little girl killed by hit and run driver) or boring (local middle schooler joins traveling cast of Up With People) or just effed up (5th grade teacher busted with meth lab on her property). This was rural Oregon in the 90s, so meth labs were a big thing.
Cut to modern day, and the media mess we find ourselves in. Because I’m an improviser, I see a way for any familiar part of our lives to be put on stage and examined and laughed about. And honestly, that’s an annoying trait of improvisers to want to “improv” everything. But hey, that’s where the inspiration came from. Me being a reporter, and subsequently, annoying.
How has the show evolved since you cast the show and started rehearsals? Has the show’s evolution surprised you in any way?
Originally, I wanted us to deal with all types of press and really get into the nuanced tone and voice of each medium. What does it look and sound and feel like in a local TV news station versus a basement podcast recording studio? Versus a national newspaper editorial meeting? That’s still where we’ve ended up, but man there are TOO MANY different types of media, and we’ve had to settle in on a handful rather than the dozens I’d originally identified us playing with.
There was originally a segment set aside for an NPR This American Life-style radio show—which was pulling directly from the show that (former WIT ensemble) Commonwealth did a few years ago. In the end, we didn’t have time to practice and perfect that the way we did when it was its own discrete thing with Commonwealth, so that fell away. I always knew the show would grow and evolve, and I imagine it will even after we open and as we see how audiences respond.
You’ve said that this isn’t a satire of the media or a “skewering.” What are you trying to explore about the media?
We’re exploring how it’s gotten to where it is today, what that feels like for the people on the front lines, and what that means for us as consumers and drivers of the news. The term “fourth estate” refers to the press as a fourth branch of democracy (executive, legislative, and judicial being the first three—there are other origins and definitions of the term but that’s the one we’re playing off for this show).
So if we’re starting from that definition. where the press works to keep the government honest and transparent to its citizens, then how has television changed that? And the 24-hour news cycle? And the internet and social media? And competition from the entertainment industry? Now we as “news” consumers are accustomed to and demand something “new” every few seconds. And we don’t want to pay for it. And we have diminishing attention spans. Nothing is constant but change, least of all with news, but what are the consequences of these changes, and of the citizens and news consumers losing faith in an institution that once purported to guard against government tyranny?
Did I answer the question or just ask a buuuuuunch more questions? I guess the short answer is we’re trying to explore the changing nature of the press and its role in our lives. And create comedy from the parts of that that feel familiar and frustrating to all of us, rather than just making fun of an institution that a million people are already making fun of.
What is your favorite part of the show? What are you excited for audiences to see?
Honestly, the whole thing. It builds momentum and story and stakes from beginning to end, so it’s a pretty cohesive piece of theater. I hope. I don’t want to spoil it but we have a cool shout out to Twitter culture that I think will be fun for the audience to experience. Fun, or triggering.
How is the audience involved in the show?
We’ll ask someone from the audience about themselves and where they’re from, and that will inspire the news story that develops throughout the show. We might also go to the audience throughout the show for “field reporting,” but that’ll be on a show-by-show basis.
What can audiences expect from the show?
Total enlightenment. Cathartic laughter. Pure bliss. This show will make babies.