Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Better Business Bureau of Theater

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on February 22, 2010

It is no secret that there are plenty of people who make money in this town on the backs of producers. And while I have no issue with people making money, I do have issue with people who behave unethically in their pursuit of profit. I am sure that every producer in LA can tell a story of how this person or that company screwed him or her in some way. But all too often these companies/people get away with this behavior because no one stands up to them. During the run of a show, most producers don’t have the resources to engage a company or theater that is behaving unethically. And after the run, if a producer speaks negatively about a person or company, they are accused of sour grapes, or worse. All this happens while the rest of the community just goes about their business. The producer has nowhere to turn, and no one to help hold the unethical company/person accountable.

Well, what if we all worked together to hold unethical companies accountable? What if we had a Better Business Bureau of Theater that would take complaints? What if all the producers got together and started to rate companies/people based on producer feedback?

If we had a producer’s organization, we could set up a database that could track every company/person a producer hires. It could work like this: at the conclusion of each show, a producer could rate the various companies/people who were hired on the project. If there was a problem with a ticketing company or a theater, then you could give them a low score. If your PR Rep or Marketing Rep did a great job, you could give them a high score. Over time, we would be able to see a pattern emerge: companies who are behaving ethically would likely retain higher scores, while companies that aren’t would clearly show lower ratings. Producers could then look at the ratings and steer their hiring practices toward companies that are rated highly, thereby avoiding companies that are not delivering.

The more producers that participate, the better the data would be. And securing this data is exactly how we, as producers, can hold  companies, theaters, and people we contract with accountable.

When a company constantly receives a low rating then the Producer’s Organization would reach out to them and try to understand the cause. The Producer’s Organization could set some guidelines as to what we (the producers) expect from companies and people who we hire. If the company works to correct the issues, then great! The rating would naturally go up, allowing that company to start anew. If they refuse to change, however, then the members of the Producers Organization would likely avoid using that company in the future, thus limiting their business.

Let’s shine some light on the business side of theater. If we do it together, then we can illuminate a lot. In the end, I think we will find a large number of very reputable people providing excellent services in the LA theater scene– people who deserve our raving reviews, and who deserve to make a profit. We will probably see a few undeserving ones as well. And we can make sure that those companies are held accountable.

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The Critic-Actor Hyphenate-Problem

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on February 15, 2010

Last week I talked about how we need to organize a committee to vet critics and designate the official theater critics of Los Angles (Click Here). 

Today I am going to write something that I think many people agree with, but I doubt many would say publicly.  A few critics in LA are also actors.  In my opinion, this is a huge conflict of interest.  After all, what is a producer, director, or casting director supposed to do when they do not want to cast a critic that auditions for their show?  Certainly, the following thoughts must run through their mind: “If I don’t cast this person, will he/she write a bad review of my show?” Another question might be, “Do I have to attend a performance of a well-known critic when he/she performs on stage? And if I do see this person in a performance, am I expected to gush and fawn over their performance in hopes that they will do the same for me?”

Its time for our critics to be critics and only critics. 

Now, I am not saying that these conflicts happen every day.  Nor am I saying that a critic cannot objectively review others while also participating in the theater community in another capacity.  What I am saying however, is that when a critic is also an actor, director, designer, board member, or company member, there is a possibility of “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine,” and this possibility should completely invalidate anything the critic as to say.

As I was writing this blog, I was well aware of the backlash that could befall me by the critics in Los Angeles to whom I am referring, so I decided to reach out to the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) and find out what their opinion is on the matter.  I emailed Larry Bommer who is a member of the ATCA and sits on the ATCA’s ethics committee.  I asked him if the ATCA had any thoughts about critics who are also actors.  Here is his response:

It’s a good question because it’s a common conflict of interest (as in too much interest if you catch my drift).

Nobody can be taken seriously–what we call credibility and confidence–as a critic if he or she is also offering their services, whether as directors, actors, designers, publicists, or board members, to the same “market” that they critique for a living.

It is a problem of appearance as much as reality.  How can you trust someone’s praise or blame of another actor or theater when you can’t be 100% sure that their own self-interested concerns aren’t entering into the judgment call? They may be currying favor or intent on payback. Their resume may be the real motivation for their pans or praise.

The core problem is that the reader should be told about this conflict–which instantly invalidates anything the writer can say–which is why he or she should not be writing reviews in the first place.  It’s just too easy to conceal corruption under the guise of criticism.

So there you have it.  If the ATCA thinks this situation presents the theater community with a conflict of interest, then why don’t we? 

Last week, when I called for the LA Stage Alliance to create a committee to vet the critics I received some emails asking how we could ever agree on criteria to judge a critic.  I say that rule number one has to be that a critic is only a critic.  Perhaps rule number two should be that a critic must be a member of the ATCA.  Or at the very least, the LA Stage Alliance committee should work with the ATCA to help vet the critics. 

Some people emailed me and thought that the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) should be responsible for vetting our critics.  But the LADCC doesn’t uphold my “rule number one” when some of its current and former members are simultaneously critics and actors, critics and performers, or critics and members of a local theater.  Since the ATCA is clearly against this conflict of interest, shouldn’t we hold the LADCC to the same standards?  Shouldn’t the LADCC set the highest standard for professional theatrical criticism?  By allowing this conflict of interest to remain in play within the LA theater community, the LADCC is casting a shadow of doubt on their own legitimacy and the LADCC awards. How are we to believe that these nominations aren’t chosen based on one of the critics’ hopes that a director will cast them?  Or even worse, how can we trust that a critic who hasn’t been cast in a show they wanted to be in isn’t turning around and squelching nominations?  Again, I am not saying this is happening; I am saying that it could happen.  

None of us should accept a theater community that perpetuates this conflict of interest.  It is imperative that we work to change this situation.  Again, I call on the LA Stage Alliance to create a committee to vet our critics.  We must have clear criteria as to what constitutes a professional critic. Part of this criteria must be that our critics are not, under any circumstances, performers, press reps, directors, designers, board members, or hold any other position within the theater community that is in direct conflict with their ability to fairly and independently critique.

Furthermore, I call on the LADCC to institute a policy that any member must only work within the LA Theater community as a critic and/or journalist.

After all, you would not want an employee of Exxon in charge of regulating oil companies.

Organizing the Bloggers

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League, Uncategorized by Rick Culbertson on February 8, 2010

(This is part 3 of a 3 part blog. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2

It used to be that you knew you could trust an arts journalist/critic because he or she worked for an accredited newspaper.  It was safe to assume that a newspaper would hire a competent, educated, knowledgeable writer to write theater reviews.  But in the new world, as newspapers fight for their lives, theater critics are being let go left and right.  Most of them are turning up on blogs or on theater websites.  Some disappear forever.  Meanwhile, while we lament the death of the newspaper and arts journalism, a completely new crop of internet bloggers is popping up online.  If we stop and take stock, we will see that there are now more people writing about theater than ever before. 

While it’s great that we have so many people writing about theater, what we end up hearing is a smorgasbord of different voices and no clear way to tell them apart.  On one hand, we are still blessed with the educated opinions of reviewers who used to work for reputable newspapers. On the other hand, we have become bombarded by a group of bloggers– for the most part ordinary people who see at lot of theater and have their own web presence. There is certainly nothing wrong with citizen journalism. In fact, it’s an exciting new trend that is opening many doors for great writers.  The problem is that bloggers are just another form of word of mouth– a kind of public platform for targeted gossip. 

I want to be clear that we absolutely must support these bloggers. Their passion and desire to write publicly about shows they like is one of the main forces keeping theater in Los Angeles alive.  We should engage with them, nourish them, and support them.  After all, good word of mouth is what we all strive for with our shows.   

What we should not do, however, is call bloggers critics.  Our audiences deserve to know the difference between a blogger who is spreading word of mouth and a professionally trained theater critic. 

In the current state of LA Theater the LA Stage Alliance is the defacto leader of the theater community. In light of this, I propose that the LA Stage Alliance form a committee, voted on by its members, whose task would be to evaluate arts journalists who review theater in LA.  

Here’s how it would work:  Any writer who wants to be designated as an official Los Angeles Arts Journalist/Critic would submit a selection of their work for review.  The committee would then evaluate and score their work.  Writers who receive a high score, would receive accreditation from the LA Stage Alliance and be designated as a LA Stage Alliance approved Arts Journalist/Critic. They could publicize their accreditation, and put an official logo on their website/blog.  Basically, this approval process should be similar to the process of being hired at a newspaper. 

Meanwhile, the LA Stage Alliance would need to work with the theater community to promote and market its Arts Journalist designation and to make sure that the public knows the difference between a designated Arts Journalist/Critic and a word-of-mouth blogger. Once the general patrons know the difference they will have a better understanding of how to evaluate online content.  The LA Stage Alliance will also help the accredited journalist by promoting all websites by categorizing them as official Critics or blogger.  

In addition, the LA Stage Alliance can put together journalistic seminars to help bloggers wishing to become accredited Arts Journalists receive the designation. We could implement partnerships with USC’s Annenberg School of Communication program, facilitating ways for journalism professors to run such seminars.  Bloggers could attend and submit their work to the committee to be reviewed.  With the help of these seminars, casual bloggers could soon become credible arts journalist. 

It will also be necessary for theater companies and producers to use press quotes from designated journalists only. When a producer uses a quote from a random blogger on their press materials, it reflects poorly on both the show and the blogger. Additionally, it delegitimizes the entire theater community.  By only using designated journalists we will help to promote them, thereby increasing the importance of the designation. 

Let me be clear: the purpose of implementing this type of structure is not meant to create an elite group of writers.  We should continue to encourage bloggers to get out there and make their voices heard and spread word of mouth.  After all, the more publicity they help generate for our shows, the better! We have to have ways, however, of distinguishing between the many voices we hear.  Treating a blogger as being the same as a professionally trained critic will only delegitimize our professional critics.   

If indeed newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur, and will soon no longer be around to vet arts journalists, then its time for us to do it ourselves.

Patron Review (It’s a Good Thing)

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on February 8, 2010

(This is part 2 of a 3 part blog. Click here for Part 1)

We have a communication void in theater. This communication void is between artists and patrons.  It’s always been there, only now with the new world of blogs, social media, chat forums, etc, the silence has become deafening. It’s time for a paradigm shift in how the theater community as a whole interacts with our patrons.  In the old world, we might have a talk-back now and then, and ask our patrons to fill out marketing questionnaires.  We would measure our success in ticket sales (profit success), and in the number of good reviews and awards won (artistic success).  But, in the new world, we have to do more. We have to engage our audience.  We have to discuss why we chose/wrote the play, what we hope to accomplish, and what it means to us. Then, we need to invite our audience to tell us what they think. And we have to respond. And we have to do it publicly, on our websites, on chat forums, on facebook, etc.  Because in the new world, if we want theater to be relevant, then we must measure our success by the conversations we inspire.

We spend a lot of money in the arts trying to understand our patrons.  We research every demographic possible to find out how much money they make, what zip code they live in, what shows they like to see.  We hire companies to compile all this info and break it down for us so we can better market our shows. And it is true that this info is helpful when we market shows.  But it doesn’t really help us understand our patrons. What questionnaires don’t offer, is a forum for us to listen. 

In the theater community, we often like to think of ourselves as more than just “entertainment.”  We like to think we are making a difference in some capacity.  It’s why most of the people involved in the 99-seat theater scene aren’t paid, or are only paid very little.  “We sacrifice our income for our art” is a common refrain heard in dressing rooms around town.  For more proof, you don’t have to look much farther than the mission statements of most of our theater companies. Often, they go something like this: “Our mission is to begin a dialogue with our community by contributing a vital voice on the relevant topics of today.” If we are to stay true to our stated missions, we should be measuring our effectiveness not by box office receipts and awards, but based on our mission.  If our mission is to begin a dialogue, create social change, or raise awareness of whatever issues our particular show is dealing with, then shouldn’t we be talking and more importantly listening to our patrons? After all, they sit through an entire show listening to us.

This new world of internet communication and social media will soon render the old communication models outmoded.  In the old world, communication processes occurred one-way: from theater creators to the patron.  But things have changed. Communication is now, across almost all industries, a two-way street: from theater creators to patrons, then from patrons back to theater creators.

Sadly, I think many people involved in creating theater in Los Angeles don’t yet understand this.  All too often around Los Angeles you can hear the theater community lament the rise of the “Uneducated Los Angeles Theater Patron.” And more often than not, our creative community shuns patron feedback and patron reviews on sites like Goldstar or Theater Mania.  This type of response is short-sighted and detrimental.

People want to be able to take part in something.  They want to be in the know.  If people are talking about a specific film or television show, then they will go see it.  They want to have discussions.  Our job is to not only encourage these discussions, but to start them and take part in them. We can do this by encouraging our audiences to talk to us publicly on our websites, in theater forums, on facebook, and best of all start blogs.  We can find creative new ways to open up these discussions online. We need our patrons to tell us what they think, what we are doing right, and– yes– what we are doing wrong. 

Most importantly, once we’ve invited our patrons to talk to us, we have to respond.  We have to explain our choices, educate our audiences and allow them to educate us.

It’s no longer enough to “let art speak for itself.” It’s time for art to listen, and respond.

(Click here to go back to part 1) or (Click here to go to part 3)

Comunication Breakdown

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on February 8, 2010

It is certainly not news to point out that the theater community in Los Angeles (and around the country, if not the world) has bemoaned the anticipated death of the printed newspaper, because of the implications this death will have on our theater critics. Soon, experienced theater critics will be out of jobs, and arts journalism as we’ve known it will be a thing of the past. 

In addition, it is not earth-shattering news that bloggers are cropping up to fill the void.  The result, as we know, is that we are losing our educated critics– journalists who are trained in the art of reviewing theater, and replacing them with theater enthusiasts who think that if they see enough shows and buy themselves a web domain, it makes them experts.  I think most of us agree that this is an unfortunate turn of events.

In all the discussions that I have read about this issue, however, we as a theater community seem to only focus on that which we can’t control: that the papers are laying off critics, that bloggers will review theater, and that the opinions of these less trained bloggers will dominate the critical landscape of Los Angeles theater, whether we like it or not.  Well, instead of throwing my hands up in the air, I propose two ideas that, in combination with many of my other ideas, could potentially create a much-needed solution.  I will roll out these ideas in my next two blogs:

Idea 1)

We, the artists, producers, creators, etc., need to speak to and listen to our patrons. Directly. Without a blogging middle-man or a self-made critic. By engaging in this dialogue, we will, in fact, be encouraging reviews by bloggers and self-made critics– only the dialogue will be from a place of integrity and education– NOT a free for all for anyone who thinks they know something about theater to adopt an authoritative voice. This dialogue is essential to the life-blood of our theater community. We must not be silent in the face of patron reviews. Rather, we must engage, and talk openly about what makes good theater good and bad theater bad.  (Click here to read this post)

Idea 2)

 The LA Stage Alliance must set up a Professional Theater Panel to classify professional critics as professional critics and bloggers as bloggers.  Combined with a marketing effort directed at theater patrons, a critic with an authorized critic designation from the LA Stage Alliance will be understood by our patrons  as someone who has been vetted by the theatre community. (Click here to read this post)