Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Good is Not the Same as Quality

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on March 16, 2010

I believe that there are two basic ways to judge a show.  One scale is “bad to good.”  The other is “non-quality to quality.”  I cannot define what makes a show bad or good because the elements that make a show bad or good are very subjective.  For the ease of my argument, however, I will propose that a good show is a “hit show” that receives strong word of mouth praise and high marks from the critics in regard to the performance of the actors, director and author.  One thing I can do is to define a quality show.  Simply put, a quality show is a show that looks expensive. It is a show in which the producers have spent a good deal of money on the sets, costumes, lights and sound, and hired solid musicians (if it’s a musical).

Based on this distinction, it is important to note that “quality” does not imply “good.”  We can all think of scenarios in which a quality show is actually bad, and a non-quality show is actually good. Put another way, good theater doesn’t need expensive bells and whistles, and throwing money at a bad piece of theater will never make it good.

Here is another way to look at it:  All shows on Broadway are high quality.  When you buy a ticket to a Broadway show, you know that it is going to be a high quality show, because part of what makes Broadway “Broadway” is the use of material resources to make a show look fantastic. But I would venture to guess that we have all seen some really bad Broadway shows. Hence the idea that throwing glitzy sets and lights at a bad piece of theater can never make it good. On the other side of things, I would venture to say that all virtually Los Angeles 99-seat theater shows are low quality. Practically speaking, you simply can’t spend a lot of money to make these shows look like a million bucks. But we have all, of course, seen some amazingly good 99-seat theater shows.

Now, it is true (and important to point out) that the 99-seat theater scene in LA has a wide range of “quality” elements.  Most showcase productions and beginning theater companies are generally the lowest quality because they have very little money to spend on their productions.  And there are some 99-seat theater shows in LA that are higher quality; certainly not on par with the quality of the Ahmanson (which we can safely say is Broadway quality), but better than showcases.

Again, quality does not mean good and good does not mean quality.

If we were to graph these two scales, we would use an x-y graph with four quadrants.  The x-axis would be the Non-Quality to Quality scale, and the y-axis would be the Bad to Good scale. Drawn out, it would look like this:

On the graph above, I have plotted four different productions.  Point A is a good Broadway production.  Point B is a bad Broadway production.  Point C is a good 99-seat theater production and point D is a bad 99-seat theater production.

The problem with the above graph is that few patrons think in terms of the quality-versus-good paradigm.  It can be hard for an average patron to view two seemingly similar scales of judgment as two completely separate scales of judgment. The danger to us as theater-makers comes when a patron cannot tell the difference between quality and good. When this happens, he/she can be fooled into thinking that quality, in fact, equals good, because quality is so much easier to see. (“It was so amazing; the chandelier came down from the ceiling and crashed right onto the stage!” Etc.)  When quality overrides good, our complex four quadrant graph collapses to a simple line, on which one side is quality and the other side is non-quality.  Drawn out, it becomes this:

Now, point A (good Broadway production) and point B (bad Broadway production) are both seen more favorably to point C (good 99-seat theater production) and point D (bad 99-seat theater production).

The biggest problem for the LA 99-seat theater community is this: Even though a patron wants to see a good show, when it comes down to buying a ticket, they will likely be more willing to pay to see a quality show.

Now, before you get mad at me, think of this: some Broadway tours that come to the Pantages are bad shows, but they manage to sell out 2,700 seats, 8 times a week.  Whereas smash hit, great 99-seat theater shows often struggle to sell out their 396 seats each week.  Marketing (or lack thereof) has a lot to do with this problem–a big tour spends more on marketing that the most expensive 99-seat theater show’s entire budget. But there is another important element at play here that, in fact, determines the success of all marketing: The brand.

Broadway producers and marketers understand that an average patron doesn’t understand the difference between quality and good. The producers use this understanding to fool the average patron into thinking that quality does equal good (even though they in fact know that it doesn’t).  This is why Broadway in general has been able to brand itself as “Good” theater, because it really brands itself as “quality” theater. Since 99-seat theater has not branded itself at all, its default brand is one of low quality productions.  And, since the average patron can’t tell the difference between quality and good, then by the transitive property, Broadway ends up getting the brand of “good” and LA 99-seat theater gets the brand of “bad.”

IF Broadway = Quality AND Quality = Good THEN Broadway = Good.

IF LA 99-Seat = Non-Quality AND Non-Quality = Bad THEN LA 99-Seat = Bad.

Whether we like it our not, this is what is happening to us in LA.  Yes, it is true that in Los Angeles we may be able to sell out a show and get people to come see us in the 99-seat world (We sold over 5,000 tickets for Divorce! The Musical).  But we cannot ignore the fact that Wicked ran for over 800 performances in a 2,700 seat house  (The Pantages) here in LA.  If people understood that a particular production in a 99-seat theater house was as good as, or better than Wicked, then wouldn’t it make sense that the same number of people would go out and see the 99-seat theater show?  No! Because a good 99-seat theater show has to overcome the negative brand of, “LA 99-seat theater equals bad.”  And that is a tall order, given that most 99-seat theater shows spend less than $1,000 a week on marketing.

So how do we fix this?

The obvious solution is that all 99-seat theater producers should run out and spend as much money as possible on building better sets and costumes, right?  Well, no.  Because, unfortunately, 99-seat theater producers are locked into a system wherein we have to produce on the extreme cheap– a direct result of the price controls that Equity has forced upon us. The plain truth is that the current Equity 99-seat contract forces us to lose money on these productions.  So, even if a producer wanted to spend more money to increase the quality of his/her production, he/she couldn’t, unless he/she wanted to take a huge loss.  Who can afford to do that? 

So with the economic realities of LA theater being what they are, producers keep churning out low quality productions– both good and bad.  And this, of course, reinforces our “low quality” brand.

Surely, a producer could remedy this by producing on the HAT or LOA contract, right?  After all, if the 99-seat theater ticket price controls are the problem, then producing on a HAT or LOA contract would solve the problem since the HAT and LOA provide for higher ticket prices than the 99-seat contract.  Right? The answer here is, sorta, but not really.  It is possible that a producer can produce on the HAT or a LOA.  And some producers do.  Right now there are productions running in 99-seat theaters that are on a HAT or a LOA.  But the patrons don’t know that a producer is doing this.  And if the patron doesn’t know, then the LA-99 seat theater brand of Low-Quality will still apply Additionally, producers rarely use these contracts to increase the quality of their productions; they use them to increase the “good” elements of their productions– namely, to hire better actors.  And it is extremely rare that a producer actually charges more for a ticket than the 99-seat theater contract would have allowed in the first place.  While raising the “good” is good, it doesn’t do anything to change 99-seat theater’s overall “low quality” brand.

So really then… how do we fix this?

Well, it’s a loaded question.  Certainly, the answer is not to go out and produce Broadway shows in 99-seat houses.  But, we do need to take this issue of quality more seriously.  We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and say “Our shows are good, and audiences should know that,”  then turn around and complain that no one comes to the theater anymore.

The first step is for producers to accept the distinction between quality and good.  It’s hard for us producers to look in the mirror, but we have to.  And we have to do it as businesspeople, not just as artists. 

Once we accept this distinction, we then need to come together as producers.  We need to define the parameters of our work, and the goals of our community.  With those definitions in place, we can begin to control our brand, instead of having our brand control us.  We can fight to make the necessary changes to the Equity contracts that are hurting our productions.  Over time, with the correct strategy, a solid plan, and a defined brand, we will pull ourselves up and create a higher quality 199 seat theater scene, and then an even higher quality 299 seat theater scene.

It’s a long road and a hard road.  But if we really care about theater in Los Angeles (and I know that we do because most of us do it for little or no money), then we simply have to come together and start a producer’s organization.

But, in the meantime, if you are a producer, ask yourself if you would rather produce a good show, or a quality show?

This is a trick question. The answer, or course, is both.

Building Better Producers

Posted in Uncategorized by Rick Culbertson on March 8, 2010

There are many reasons why we need a producer’s organization.  They range from collective bargaining, a trade organization, someone to brand us, management of a better business bureau of theater, etc.  But there’s another important need here: the need for us to take care of our new producers.  Especially the producers who don’t really even want to be producers.

In Los Angeles it’s very common to find a person producing a show because he or she wrote, starred in, or directed it.  A few weeks ago I received a phone call from one such “producer by default” who was in the middle of an 8-performance run of a show that he wrote.  He called me looking for advice on how to fill his theater with paying patrons and get the word out about his play.  Unfortunately for him, he had spent little to nothing on marketing and PR.  Given his limited budget and where he was in the run, there wasn’t much I could tell him.  With so little time left, even if he managed to somehow come up with 10-20K for a marketing campaign, there would have been no way to make it back even if he sold out his remaining 4 performances.  I told him that all he could really do at this point would be to offer “pay-what-you-can” and discounted  tickets through facebook and similar channels. Maybe he could try buying one e-mail blast from a marketing agency.

Of course, if this producer had called me before he started his run my advice would have been very different.  I would have told him to budget for and hire a top quality PR company and to put aside money for a marketing campaign.  We could have talked about goals and the results he wanted to see come out of his production.  We could have tailored his budget and spending in order to achieve those goals, or change the goals to fit the parameters of what he could afford.

This story is so common in LA.  So many writers/actors/directors produce their own work simply so that they can work as a writer/actor/director.  But so often they don’t know how to produce. Worse yet, they don’t end up producing at all, but rather, begrudgingly managing the production. Producing is not easy, and neither is directing, acting, or writing.  And when you do two (or more!) at the same time it’s even harder.  Especially when you really only want to be directing, acting, writing– not producing.

One of the underlying problems this creates is that many shows, often referred to as showcases, are produced in the same theaters as bigger shows that are not showcases. When these showcases are produced poorly or mismanaged, they tend to reflect poorly on the quality of that particular rental theater (not to mention reflecting poorly LA theater as a whole). Unknowing patrons do not distinguish between a showcase and higher quality productions.  Because of this, for those of us who are not producing showcases, it is in our best interest to mentor, support and work with people who are producing showcases.  We need to help them produce smartly, efficiently, and realistically.  Because at the end of the day, their product reflects on our product.

A producer’s organization could help foster and nourish these types of relationships between producers. New producers could join the organization and gain access to resources, support and advice.  We could create databases, helpful guidebooks and producing templates.  We could explain the way budgets work, not to mention de-mystify ROI’s and recoupment schedules.  We could teach best practices for marketing and PR, and we could help new producers identify when they need a lawyer, accountant, and bookkeeper and when they don’t.  This collective knowledge base would be more than just a phone book of designers and rental theaters.  It would be a network of real people with real experiences who can really help.  And if a new producer needs further help, we could provide a list of producers for hire (or general manage).

It’s silly for every new producer in town to have to reinvent the wheel.  And its damaging to all of us. Why not help each other along the way and in so doing, raise the bar on theatre in Los Angeles as a whole?

The Actor-Critic Revisited…Revisited

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on March 4, 2010

So things seem to have gotten a bit heated between me and Steven Leigh Morris.  Here are the two posts (here and here) and his comments are in the comment section of each.

This will be my final post or comment on this subject because I feel that, by now, I have made my case.  I don’t want to go on and on repeating myself.  I do stand behind everything that I have said.  If people want to keep the debate going, I will continue to post the comments that come in, but I will not respond because I am not sure I have anything more to add.

So, without further ado, here is my response to Steven Leigh Morris’ last comment:

Steven says:

I don’t know from which of Stalin’s manuals you got your constipated definition of a “theater critic.”

Ok, the basis of my definition of criticism is the American Theater Critics Association.  Here is what they say:

ATCA understands “professional” to mean you are paid for your reviews and there is some editorial or other supervision of your criticism – e.g., it is not disseminated only on a personal, unsupervised website.

I would also expand that to include anyone that can demonstrate the ability to write a critique that is thorough and well supported while remaining free of conflicts, paid or unpaid.

But I have never actually said what my full criteria is nor have I said that only I should decide, I have suggested that we elect a committee to decide what the criteria is and that they would then make sure that all critics met that standard. 

Clearly, my suggestion of a committee to vet critics has struck a chord in many people.  Though I find it a bit shocking the number of people who are arguing the laissez-faire argument.  It’s a completely valid argument, but there are a lot of problems with laissez-faire, just look at our health care system and our financial markets.

I am glad that as a critic you want to provoke discussion of theater and how it fits into the fabric of our community.  That is a good thing, we can agree on that.  And I will agree that it takes the form of commentary, I misspoke there. 

And I don’t care if you aren’t worried about marketing, but trust me the producer sure is.  It’s a bit disingenuous to insinuate that critics are not aware that that is at least part of the game.

However, I am starting to see that there might be a dramatic difference in how we each look at theater in general.  First and foremost, to me it is a business.  An artistic business, but a business nonetheless.  I think maybe you look at it in more of a pure art form, separate from business.  There is nothing wrong with either view.

But as a businessperson, I look at the current landscape and I say, huh, this isn’t working for me.  I can’t make money here.  And since 99% of the shows that run in this town are run by non-profits, I would assume that I am not the only one that feels that way.  So when I approach producing in LA I am looking at it solely as a place to develop a show, before I take it to a town where I can turn a profit. 

How many shows run in LA and then go on to bigger and better, profitable productions in other cities?  There are good handful. 

But wouldn’t it be better if shows could be profitable in LA the same as they can in Chicago or NY?  Wouldn’t that benefit everyone?

So as I look at this landscape of critics I see so many places where we could improve.  At the top we have some wonderful critics, you among them.  But then as we go down it start to get murky, because you can see a scale that goes all the way from the top down to the goldstar review.  And right in the middle there is this murky area, some people are writing quality reviews that aren’t getting read at all, and some are low quality reviews that are being read by a lot.  This doesn’t serve anyone. 

We need quality criticism, because the quality critics hold us, the theater creators, accountable for what we create.  We should be praised when we succeed and questioned/called out when we fail.

I want you to be a critic.  I want everyone that wants to be a critic, to be a critic.  I just want them to be the best critic they can be and free of conflicts.  And then we can create the best theater we can.  And then, slowly, we can rise above what this town has become.  We can challenge NY and Chicago for theatrical legitimacy. (And don’t tell me we can’t because of Hollywood.  London does it.  Case closed.)  We have the writers.  We have the actors.  We have the directors. We have the designers.  The talent is here. 

And you know what?  Some people are just not going to be able to participate because they just don’t have the talent.  And that is called life.

We award awards to people who achieve excellence in theater.  We have the Ovations, the LADCCs and the LA Weeklys.  We award them because we want to recognize them as the best.  Why can’t we also recognize the critics that are the best?

And with that, I will sign off on this topic.

The Actor-Critic Revisited

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on March 2, 2010

I wrote a blog ready to go for yesterday, but then I received a comment on my blog from Steven Leigh Morris at the LA Weekly.  He disagrees with my post about critics not being actors.  So I thought, instead of answering his comment with a comment of my own, why not make it the subject of another post?

Here is the original blog and Steven’s comment is in the comment section.

In his comments, Steven first says:

You’re writing criticism 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.

This does not make sense and I think it is a rather weak argument. 

 Yes, it is true that I am being critical, but unlike a critic, my job is not to affect the audiences who are seeing a particular show.  My writing a critical blog post about theater in general is not remotely the same as professionally critiquing a performance.

 A theater critic has a responsibility to write thoughtful and thorough critiques about particular productions.  Critics do not write op-eds or commentaries.  Critics accept free tickets to performances, which implies a mutual understanding as to what the critic will do– namely write a fair and honest critique of the production. The show’s producer then uses the critique to market the show. When a review is a rave, it is meant to be a stamp of excellence.  It is something that patrons rely on to make a decision as to whether or not to buy a ticket.  Most importantly, critics must adhere to ethical standards.

 In contrast to this, I simply write commentary. I have no responsibility to anyone but myself.  I have no ethical code that dictates what I post and what I write.  Sure, my perspective is that of a Los Angeles theater producer. And my goal is to highlight an issue that I feel is a problem and then offer a solution.  But I have no direct effect on any productions.

 Now with that out-of-the-way, lets move on to the rest of Steven’s comment.

 He states:

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.

 I’m not sure exactly what the point is here.  I will come back to this later, but for now… I will just move on…

 Steven continues:

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.

 Let me reiterate what I have already expressed.  I don’t have any issues with bloggers writing anything they want.  I am saying that unless you understand the role of a critic and are willing to abide by the ethical standards of a critic, you should not call yourself a critic.  Write whatever you want on your blog.  Make a list of your top ten shows; make a list of your favorite theater companies.  Stand on a roof and shout that you love a particular production.  I don’t care.  Just don’t call yourself a critic!

 And, again, if you are an actor writing reviews, this poses a conflict of interest– pure and simple.  There is no possible way to argue against this conflict.  If a person tries to argue that “people can leave it at the door” or that “an actor-critic won’t review a show at a theater company where he/she has worked,” etc, this person would be admitting that, at its core, a conflict of interest exists between these two professions.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have to use these qualifiers as part of their argument. 

Steven goes on:

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.

 Larry Bommer is talking about critics. He is not talking about me, since I am a producer and not a critic.  If I was writing actual reviews, then my being a producer would, indeed, invalidate what I have to say.  After all, if I was writing reviews, and another producer was writing reviews, couldn’t we make a deal to give each other mutual raves? No one would be able to prove that this was our motive because reviews are so subjective.  You can’t disprove a review. But isn’t it clear how easily this could happen?

 If we want to be a professional town, we need to have theater criticism that is a true barometer of achievement.  And we need to know who our professional critics truly are. When actor-critics and bloggers are treated on equal par with professional critics, it drowns out the professional critic’s voices. This, in turn, causes several things to happen: First, professional critics lose their jobs.  (Why should a newspaper, which is losing money, employ a critic when there are people out there just blogging reviews for free?)  Second, when the professional critics lose their jobs, the only way they can continue to review shows is to start blogging themselves. This causes them to get lost in a sea of blogs, rendering their voices obsolete.  Slowly, patrons stop being able to tell who is who. This confusion will lead to a point, if it hasn’t already, where people write reviews that highlight the “good efforts” of theater-makers, rather than honestly critiquing their performances.

 When the public has no way to tell the professional critics from the non-professional critics then we should just call the whole thing off and stop giving out press comps.  It would be easier and safer for a producer to make up fake reviews on his/her own.  Indeed, “criticism” would descend into nothing more than a collection of goldstar patron reviews. 

 And don’t tell me this isn’t happening.  I have had far too many conversations with people who constantly complain about the downturn in quality theater reviews. This might not be a popular thing to say in public, since no one wants to anger the critics… but it needs to be said.

 Finally, Steven’s comment ends with:

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.

 It looks like Steven is actually saying that we should have full disclosure as to who is who– professional, amateur, etc.  But where is his bio on the LA Weekly site?  I can’t find it.  For that matter, I can’t find a bio for any critic posted on the LA Times’ site.  Or Variety’s.  If Steven agrees that full disclosure is the answer, then let’s put those bios up online, and make sure they are complete. Let’s know who we’re dealing with– both at our papers and in the blogosphere.

 I’d like to address the issue of professionalism from another perspective. Let’s look at it this way:

 If you have a problem with your landlord, you can call up a random person– say, me– and I can probably tell you what to do.  The reason I can probably give you advice is because I have had rented apartments before and know what it’s like to have a problem with a landlord. I have first-hand experience. In addition, I have read the California Landlord Tenant Handbook a bunch of times, cover to cover. But, I am not a lawyer.  I have no right to practice law.  And it’s possible that I might very well screw up your situation simply because I’m not a lawyer, and therefore, my advice is not legal.  That is why we have the Bar Association.  The Bar Association decides who practices law because California has decided that it is in the best interest for the general public to have a qualified group vetting lawyers. 

 It’s not just people in the legal profession who are vetted. Here are a few other professions that require an authoritative body or experts to decide whether or not they’re qualified to do their jobs: 

  • Police
  • Firefighters
  • Doctors
  • Real Estate People (Salesman and Appraisers)
  • Plumbers, Electricians, Contractors, etc
  • Teachers
  • Beauticians (Hair Stylists, Manicurists, etc)
  • Accountants

 All these professionals need a license, because somewhere along the way, the community at large decided that we want these professionals to abide by certain rules obligating them to provide certain standards of service.  That is what I am asking for.  I ask that we set up a committee, voted on by the members of the LA Stage Alliance, that will set up guidelines outlining the standards we wish critics to employ– including remaining free from having conflicts of interest.  Thereafter, we can set up a seminar to help train anyone who wants to be a critic,  who doesn’t yet meet these standards.  Here is an example of just such a class.

I promised I would get back to the dirty underwear quote.  I guess I will simply say that I don’t really care if people walk around wearing dirty underwear.  But if you take off your pants and tell me that you have the authority to discuss professional laundering techniques, then your underwear had better well be clean.