Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

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.

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  1. […] little tussle going on between producer Rick Culbertson and LA Weekly critic Steven Leigh Morris over at […]

  2. Gary Lamb said, on March 3, 2010 at 8:39 am

    It’s all very good… and in some ways makes sense because people read reviews and think that all reviewers know what they are talking about. However, in defense of anyone who wants to write a review and claim they are a reviewer… should every actor, producer etc. have to prove that they are worth reviewing? How many actors write their bio in so general a term that you have no idea what they’ve done? How many producers put up a show to showcase their own writing or acting because no one else will? I believe it is up to the theaters to communicate as to what critics are legit and stop posting or giving comps to every Tom, Dick and etc. who calls up to review your show. The problem lies in the legit papers who perhaps hire people based on writing samples and not knowledge. Two of the most famous or read critics in Chicago during it’s theater boom were food critics first… nothing like a well-seasoned performance… does it make their opinion less or more valid? I think if an actor reviews and they are not going in with a bitter attitude… at least they know what it takes to do theater… the same way that you have the right to write about producing… you now have a background in it. I, personally, have found that quoting anyone helps a show get audience. The general audience just wants to know that someone else found the show interesting. Even legit reviewers have their favorite companies and stay away from others… Steven… come see one of our shows. Rick… thanks for blogging… always interesting!

  3. Gregory Franklin said, on March 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Additional vetted groups include; Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Actors Equity Association, United Scenic Artists, … American Theatre Critics Association.

    The following is from ATCA website page, Perspectives in Criticism.

    “At our twice-annual meetings, we have always heard a great deal from theater artists. But lately we have seen the need to speak more directly to our own concerns, too. These are difficult times for theater critics, with space for theater coverage shrinking, papers relying more and more on part-time or freelance critics and, in many cities, papers folding. Reminders of the importance and even the high honor of our calling are more necessary than ever. And we are changing. Representing the rank and file of American theater critics, ATCA finds itself now with more academics, more former theater artists and many more freelance critics. If there ever were any cohesion or commonly shared standards and assumptions in the profession, they are not much in evidence today. The training and competence of American theater critics remain issues of concern. In other words, sobering reminders of the obligations of the critic are also necessary.”

    • Karen Kanter said, on March 3, 2010 at 3:26 pm

      Vetted groups? Isn’t it better to call them what they are: organizations and/or unions? Fine organizations and fine unions, but groups at the very least. In other words, I have to pass muster with a group or pay dues before my thoughts have any validity?

      • Rick Culbertson said, on March 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm

        I think what Greg is saying is that in order to be a “professional” artist in one of the disciplines above, you have to be part of a union. But there is no requirement to join the ATCA if you want to be a critic.

        And I have to pass muster with the LATA and pay dues as a producer if I want to be part of the LATA and win ovations.

      • Karen Kanter said, on March 3, 2010 at 4:29 pm

        I don’t think George Orwell would have supported your Point of View, Rick. Glad to see that I didn’t misunderstand what your position is.

      • Gregory Franklin said, on March 3, 2010 at 6:23 pm

        All other areas of the performing arts have organizations which require their membership to a set of standards and practices if the organization and its members are to be taken seriously in the professional arena.

        The ATCA requires a potential member to apply through a sponsoring member, submit eight recent reviews in which they were paid for their criticism and there was editorial supervision of their criticism. The ATCA is the American affiliate of International Theatre Critics Association.

        I would imagine that many reviewers in Southern California would already meet this kind of requirement so I don’t understand the resistance to a commonality of honor among the theatre critic community.

  4. D. Jette said, on March 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Both parties have excellent points, although Rick is arguing from an idealist standpoint and Steven is apologizing for reality. That reality? Los Angeles is still an outskirt colony of the theatre world. We’re like an old West town and our sheriffs are volunteers. I write reviews and I write and produce plays. Do I identify as a playwright on my site? Yes. Do I put a disclaimer before every review? No. Perhaps we ‘critical enthusiasts’ should be more forward about our illegitimacy, but the fact that amateur blog reviewers receive free tickets to shows does not bind them to some vow of chastity when it comes ot their own involvement in the arts. A good review is a good review, and as long as people are willing to write and publish for free, the business of cultural writing will be democratized and watered down. This is good news for those of us who do not believe in objectivity in art.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on March 3, 2010 at 3:22 pm

      An Excellent Comment. Thank you.

      It’s true, I am arguing from an idealist standpoint. But it is because I would rather LA move toward the center of the theater world. Is it possible that the majority in LA would prefer us to remain an outskirt colony? In my view, remaining an outskirt colony prevents us from being more legitimate.

      • D. Jette said, on March 3, 2010 at 6:02 pm

        Bloggers don’t make us less legitimate, they make us MORE legitimate. Theater in LA can thrive but on the future of the art and its cultural relevance. We will never be New York, and even a robust LA Times critic’s desk will not make us into one. We will gain relevance through expanded audiences and new talent, and the message will be spread through the internet, not through newspapers.

      • Rick Culbertson said, on March 3, 2010 at 6:16 pm

        Seriously? When have I said that we should only allow critics that work for the LA Times? I haven’t. I have repeatedly said that I want as many people as possible writing about theater. I am saying that in the new world, one that doesn’t always have an editor’s desk, we should set up a committee to take over that roll to make sure that anyone writing reviews, no matter where they write them, is doing so responsibly. Then everyone else can be a blogger and write what ever they want AS A FAN, not as a critic.

        But if we don’t sort out who is who, then how do patrons know the critics from the fans?

        It’s discouraging to hear someone say that we will never be New York. Why not? What does NY have that LA doesn’t? It’s not talent, it’s not number of shows. It’s not audiences. So what is it? Why will we NEVER be NY?

  5. Steven Leigh Morris said, on March 3, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Rick,

    Sorry for the delayed response, but after reading your decree: “Critics do not write op-eds or commentaries,” I had to walk around the block a few hundred times, finally stopping off at my neighborhood bar to down a gallon of Chivas Regal. In the bar, I met a few actors who gave me an amazing review of my despondent performance. I’d hire them as critics if I had the money. They even promised they’d behave and not review shows they’d just auditioned for. And you know, I believed them, but I’d probably had too much to drink.

    So how do audiences know that the reviewers aren’t tainted by conflict-of-interest? If a theater is slammed by an influential critic, an actor who happened to have just auditioned for the production they’re reviewing, maybe the theater simply needs to say something about that unutterably stupid and unethical decision by said critic. The truth has a way of revealing itself.

    Still, I’m grateful to you for provoking more important issues about the varying conundrums of what we all do in L.A. theater. For years as a theater critic, and I guess a professional one — though now I’m not so sure — I’ve been writing commentaries on the profession as well as the larger society it mirrors. I’m almost sure Charles McNulty, Don Shirley, Chris Jones, Hedy Weiss, Charles Isherwood, Ben Brantley, Roger Ebert and countless others have been doing the same, or trying to. I dearly wish that someone had told us we were all breaking the rules. Who knew we weren’t allowed to write op-eds or commentary, according to the Book of Rick?

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

    I think it’s highly unlikely anyone is going take you up on your call for having all local “professional” critics vetted. I do applaud your courage in communicating so forcefully your viewpoint of where critics fit in. Wish I could agree on your premise. Well, no — full disclosure — I wish nothing of the sort. There obviously is very little agreement between us on who “professional” critics are, or what they’re supposed to do.

    I’m guessing that from your vantage as a producer, you see critics as the people who generate the PR squibs that can sell your shows, and that’s their most valuable asset. You write: “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.”

    Is that really the mutual understanding? I am not writing about “fair and honest critique of the production” part — I can accept that. I’m talking about the “mutual understanding” that our criticism is tethered to your interest in marketing your show. I think I can speak for, at least, the majority of critics I know: marketing is the least of our concerns — professionally speaking.

    Yet you, who has a vested interest in that concern, call for critics to be vetted against a set of standards based on a profound misunderstanding of what critics actually do, whether they’re writing for the “New York Times” or an upstart blog.

    For me, coming from the George Bernard Shaw school (who was a playwright-critic, as you probably know), the primary role of a critic is to provoke a conversation about a play, and the world beyond it. Part of that is called commentary, by the way, and has nothing to do with marketing. That is exactly why you, Rick, are now a producer-critic, despite your protests to the contrary. You’ve made yourself a critic-hyphenate by your self-presumed mantle of authority, online, in the 21st century. Your legitimacy will be determined by your peers, by the persuasiveness of your arguments. You can’t really squeeze out of this one by saying you don’t review plays, or by arguing that only a “professional” critic reviews plays, and ONLY reviews plays, and that therefore you are not a “professional” and therefore not a critic. These are now arbitrary definitions in an era where theater criticism may be a calling but it’s no longer a profession. Besides, you have reviewed plays, haven’t you?

    Assessing the quality of productions is just the subjective and attention-grabbing part of what a critic does because it has become so attached to marketing, by producers like you. But to insist as you do that a “professional” critic’s role extends no further than reviewing productions is painfully constricted and incomplete.

    Add to that your battle cry that such “professionals” should be vetted because there are just so many bloggers, and audiences are too stupid to discern for themselves which of them can be trusted, based on your very limited definition of a critic, you’re actually sounding the clarion call for a field of consumer-reports to take the place of a kind of arts criticism that resonates beyond one particular production.

    Your comparison of critics to doctors and lawyers and other professionals requiring licenses is even more nutty: The professional acts of doctors, lawyers, building contractors and beauticians, etc. can actually kill people, accidentally of course, and they also stand to make considerable money from their clients. If you can show me where drama critics, as a “profession,” can making a killing, or even a living, I’ll be in your debt.

    I just can’t quite get behind the idea that anybody who wants to lead a public discussion, or aims to belong to the upper tier of that discussion, should require a “vetting” or, far more chilling, a “license” to do so. That’s what the Soviets did, and theirs wasn’t exactly a Golden Age for the arts.

    Legitimacy starts with opportunity, opportunity now starts with blogging. Legitimacy for a writer is earned over time, not from the vetting of some committee, but from the accrued respect of a following of readers, based on the talent and the quality of thought. It’s called an open marketplace of ideas, which your proposal would restrict by having a committee confer legitimacy on some writers, and not on others – no matter how blue in the face you get screaming about how much you love bloggers. Perhaps you do love them, but your proposal sends them to the gulag nonetheless.

    It’s all kind of silly because in the past, when there was less confusion over the authenticity of theater critics, there were a couple of critics at the “L.A. Times” — that pinnacle of legitimacy — who earned very little respect in the theater community and beyond, because they weren’t particularly insightful critics. Today, a really sharp blogger is going to blow such critics off the map, regardless of whether or not they’ve been vetted under your proposed system.

    We’re well into the 21st century now. If you need to know any of our credentials, you can Google us.

    Oh yes, my underwear analogy was a stab at humor. Some people got the point. Sorry you didn’t.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on March 3, 2010 at 5:20 pm

      wow. thats a mouth full. I guess I will now take my walk around the block before I fully respond to this. I will agree that I misspoke when I said that critics do not write commentary. What I meant was that when you write a review, you serve a diferent function than I do when I write a blog.

  6. D. Jette said, on March 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Ad Satlin attacks aside, Steven is right. If actors want to give out good reviews for plays on the internet, I don’t see how that degrades the quality of arts in Los Angeles. And if an artist wants to write about another person’s work with an air of authority (as you have) I would greet that as a good sign that something meaningful is happening in our scene. To suppress that would be criminal.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on March 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm

      Where have I sugested suppressing anyone? I haven’t. I am saying we need to sort out who is who.

  7. Colin Mitchell said, on March 15, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    In answer to your question, Rick, “Why will we NEVER be NY?”
    Cuz we’re LA.

  8. Colin Mitchell said, on March 31, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Oddly, you find my comment to be a negative thing. I think we should embrace who we are, or at least work hard to find out who we are and what our identity is, rather than trying to emulate another city’s identity. Certainly we pick and choose and borrow the best they have to offer, but ultimately it should all be refracted through the prism of the Los Angeles Theatre Community. Not New York’s. We will always have a different bent, a different style, a different taste, and that’s a good thing.

  9. […] of you may remember the series of blogs by Rick Culbertson, Colin Mitchell and others that flew around the tubes for a few weeks, all addressing the issue of […]

  10. […] of you may remember the series of blogs by Rick Culbertson, Colin Mitchell and others that flew around the tubes for a few weeks in the spring, all addressing […]

  11. […] of you may remember the series of blogs by Rick Culbertson, Colin Mitchell and others that flew around the tubes for a few weeks in the spring, all addressing […]


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