Rewriting the art culture

Mike Allen is empathic. He spends his days off participating in the culture he spends his work days writing about. He doesn’t just make a living working at The Roanoke Times as a features writer covering the arts; he lives the arts.

Mike Allen from The Roanoke Times' blog, Arts & Extras. Photo from Creative Commons.

Mike Allen is a voice. He is someone members of the community look to to help them spread the word about their projects. Whether that project is a play they’re producing or the release of a novel, Allen is there.

Mike Allen is, above all things, a genius. A genius in the sense that he’s managed to make a career composed of the things he loves; a career in which every day he is able to experience the very things he gets joy out of. How many people can say that?

After graduating from Virginia Tech and eventually obtaining his masters from what was then Hollins College (now Hollins University), Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in creative writing. After spending three years unloading trucks after graduation, he began his livelihood at The Roanoke Times as an editorial assistant.

“I started at the very bottom,” he said.

After establishing himself at the paper, Allen eventually began to work as a police reporter. Allen had a county beat for a while and then worked for four years as a court reporter, which required him to drive to dozens of surrounding counties covering court cases.

“That was a great beat and was kind of an exhausting beat, too … there’s also a way in which I would say it was a little soul destroying because it involved being confronted every week with the absolute worst [things] one human being could do to another.”

After four years of court reporting, he was given the opportunity to cover the arts; a position he had applied for a few times in the past. This was something long awaited, for the arts was well-known territory for Allen.

Even though Allen writes for The Roanoke Times and has his own blog “Arts & Extras,” he also has a background in the field. He has participated in the local theater scene and enjoys writing fiction as well.

“I’m a writer, and I mean I don’t just write for the paper. I’m also somebody who writes fiction and poetry,” Allen said.

In 2009, Allen was a finalist for the Nebula Award from The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He also finished the second draft of his novel.

“An oversimplified way of putting it is that it’s kind of an Appalachian ghost story,” he said. He enjoys writing about science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Mike Allen reading from a book he edited, Clockwork Phoenix 2. Photo from Facebook.

Because of his involvement with the arts, he is able to write about them in a way that appeals to the people within the community. Allen works not as a critic of the arts, but more as an advocate.

“The thing about the arts beat of course is that, though I’m technically supposed to be a neutral party, there is an aspect to the job that is promoting what is here,” he said.

Allen often has people ask him to write about a show they’re putting on, a fundraiser they’re hosting or a musical piece they’ve composed. It’s his job to decide which of these he is going to include in his articles and blog.

“I tend to experience this beat as a cascade of press releases and story pitches that are dropped on me daily. There are some people that are more skilled at that than others. One of the challenges of the beat is to try to make sure that at least once in a while the quieter people get through.”

When asked if he had ever been bribed by someone to write about them on his blog, the room was silent. It seemed as though the question was one Allen had experience with.

“I don’t know if I would call it bribing, but I do get offered things that as a reporter I’m not supposed to accept on a frequent basis. I’m constantly having to tell people no, I can’t go have an expensive lunch with you or accept those front row tickets to a play.”

People see his coverage as an excellent source of getting seats filled for their play, or copies of their novel sold. Allen’s ability to filter out personal gain and focus solely on what he sees as art worth writing about shows a true passion for his work. It’s something Allen has been able to perfect.

After working in many different fields of journalism, Allen enjoys his days of covering the arts.

“I’m very lucky that I get to write about topics that, to me, are very personally interesting. There’s almost nothing not to like about this job.”

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