Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

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.

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16 Responses

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  1. Douglas Clayton said, on February 15, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I would like to make one note for you Rick, and make one supposition.

    The note is that the vast majority of all the LA ‘critics’ are or have been theatre artists as well. Even Mr. McNulty at the Times was a literary manager and other things in his past days, and may be again. Steven Leigh Morris at the Weekly is a playwright, etc etc. Those institutions do have policies regarding conflict of interest, however.

    The supposition is that you can only require certain behaviors from critics if you pay them a living wage. Otherwise, they’re basically writing criticism because they desire to do so, and someone is giving them a platform.

    There is only one critic in Los Angeles being paid a living wage, and that is Charles McNulty. Most reviews in most publications, and virtually all online blogs, are written for nothing or for a very small fee (like $25 – $100 per article). This includes reviews for the Weekly, Backstage, etc.

    If we’re not willing to pay for dedicated critics, who can focus their time and energy in learning about theatre and writing about it, then we’ll be stuck having to make do with critic-actor-writer-copy-editor-hyphenates, and it isn’t reasonable to expect them to cut off all their hyphenate limbs for the sake of legitimacy.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on February 15, 2010 at 5:05 pm

      I am not saying you can’t have a background in something else, I am saying you can’t currently pursue a conflicting position in the LA Theater community if you also want to critique it. If money is the issue for the critic, then certainly auditioning for 99-seat theater productions is not the answer.

      I also do not have any issue with anyone writing reviews on their blog for any reason at any time. The more people writing about theater the better. Just don’t call yourself a professional critic if you are also pursuing a conflicting position.

      And the fact that only one critic is being paid a full wage is not relevant to my issue. There are plenty of critics in LA that are not actors or hold any conflicting role. Even a lot of the simple bloggers don’t have conflicts.

      And at the end of the day, if the ATCA has a problem with this conflict of interest, then I don’t think I am out of school for suggesting that we should have the same standards.

  2. Gregory Franklin said, on February 16, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    This issue is one of the many challenges of the LA theatre community. In order to stay on an upward track, we must acknowledge that this is a business, not a hobby. And we must continue to remind ourselves; how can our audiences take us seriously if we as a theatre community don’t take ourselves seriously.

  3. Don Shirley said, on February 21, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Interesting posts, Mr. Culbertson, and thanks to Colin Mitchell at Bitter Lemons for making me aware of them.

    However, I’m wondering who you’re talking about when you mention LADCC members who are also actors or performers. I just looked at the list of LADCC members at http://www.ladramacriticscircle.com/members.htm, and I don’t see any who are recognizable to me as actors working within L.A. theaters. I don’t know all of them as well as I know some of them, so maybe I’m unaware of some conflicts of interest. But if you’re going to start mentioning LADCC members as having conflicts, you should name names, because otherwise those who lack conflicts might be unfairly tainted.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on February 21, 2010 at 5:39 pm

      If there are members of the LADCC who feel they have been unfairly tainted by my blog, perhaps the LADCC should post their membership criteria on their website. I continue to call upon the LADCC to set the standards of theatrical criticism for Los Angeles, and to ensure their membership is free of all conflicts of interest.

  4. Kat said, on February 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    As an actor-critic (for my blog and a small LA Theatre website), I found your concerns to be the furthest thing from my mind when considering the problems with being a hyphenate! Of course, I would never review a show I auditioned for, or even knew someone involved in. But just because I’m pursuing multiple aspects of theatre within one market doesn’t mean I should be working exclusively as one or the other. Your argument leads with ego, and assumes that no one knows how to leave it at the door.
    I would love to make money to write about theatre. I would love to make money acting in the theatre. But what I would love most of all is a lively theatre scene in which dialogue is heavy and impassioned, and artists are so incensed they jump into every aspect of production and performance just to be a part of it. Wouldn’t that be nice?

    • Rick Culbertson said, on February 23, 2010 at 8:19 pm

      First, I am not saying that people do not know how to “leave it at the door” what I am saying is that when there is a conflict, there is no way to know if you “left it at the door.”

      You say that you would never review a play if someone you know was involved. But does that also mean that you will never act at a theater company that you reviewed? Or work with a director that you reviewed? If you give a director or a theater company a positive review and then end up in a show at that company, how do we know that it wasn’t quid-pro-quo?

      We don’t know. That is why Larry Bommer states, “It is a problem of appearance as much as reality.” There is no way for a patron reading your review to know what’s behind your review.

      Patron’s have to assume that when a critic writes a review, he/she has nothing to gain from his/her open and honest critique.

      If you want to write about theater that’s great! I am not saying that you shouldn’t have the right to voice your opinion on shows you like or don’t like. I am saying that if you want to be a critic, you need to be a critic that is free of any conflict, perceived or otherwise.

      Do you think that the American Theatre Critics Association is also wrong to state that actors should not be critics?

  5. Steven Leigh Morris said, on March 1, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Rick,
    You’re writing crtiticism on your own blog — commentary or not, you’re taking on the tone of a critic — while being a producer in the field you’re writing about! By the merits of your own argument, you shouldn’t be writing your blog. Does that make any sense? I’m actually interested in what you have to say, but you’re arguing against yourself.
    I think everybody should wear clean underwear while being in public. It’s good for public health and personal hygiene, and it legitimates the public sphere. But if you eliminate all the people who aren’t wearing clean underwear from the public sphere, there will be nobody left in public.
    Can we please get real about this issue for a moment? People who write about our theater do so because they care, a caring that has little to do with financial incentives. They often care because they are involved in the field. There’s a gaping hole in Larry Bommer’s argument — “the reader should be told about this conflict–which instantly invalidates anything the writer can say.” That’s nonsense. Your being a producer, which you’ve made abundantly clear, doesn’t necessarily invalidate “anything you have to say,” it puts it in a context that I can process and draw my own assessment from.
    Full disclosure is the key to this argument — then let the readers decide. That’s what they do in the literary world where authors are the main critics in book reviews. It does NOT invalidate the writer’s view, it exposes the tangled webs of our profession and thereby presents the writer’s argument in a glow of honesty, and thereby, credibility.

  6. […] started here, went over here, and ended up […]

  7. […] full disclosure (per recent discussions on Rick Culbertson’s blog and Bitter Lemons), I have just composed a children’s musical for the Morgan-Wixson Theatre […]

  8. […] prompted Primeau to bring up theatre producer Rick Culbertson’s blog post about the critic-actor hyphenate-problem. (It’s an interesting read, especially the sparring between Culbertson and Steven Leigh […]

  9. […] prompted Primeau to bring up theatre producer Rick Culbertson’s blog post about the critic-actor hyphenate-problem. (It’s an interesting read, especially the sparring between Culbertson and Steven Leigh […]

  10. […] answer, as Morris pointed out, is full disclosure.  I am not going to stop writing about theater on the internet, and I probably […]

  11. […] answer, as Morris pointed out, is full disclosure. I am not going to stop writing about theater on the internet, and I probably […]

  12. […] answer, as Morris pointed out, is full disclosure. I am not going to stop writing about theater on the internet, and I probably […]


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