Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

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.

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3 Responses

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  1. Gregory Franklin said, on March 4, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Mr. Culbertson reminds us that theatre is a business. Coming from the Chicago theatre community, this phrase is no surprise to me. Chicago has well-managed a solid blend of the art and business of theatre. This concept seems to be floundering in Los Angeles. This is one of the many serious problems with Los Angeles theatre which may have in part started in the early 70s with Los Angeles Equity allowing all performing union members to work for free with no protections or restrictions on actors, producers, theatre venues and ticketing. Although Equity Waiver was discontinued in 1989 and replaced with the 99-Seat Agreement, the waiver mentality continues today not only with many actors, but some producers, directors, theatre owners, ticketing agencies and, as it seems from the responses to this post, theatre critics. This has seriously affected our audience view of LA theatre and unwillingness to pay for a ticket for a show they are not sure about. As a result the LA theatre community struggles with an identity, much like the struggles in the dialogue over Mr. Culbertson’s post. If the community does not come together in a respectful manner on these serious issues, we will be left in the dust by a greater coalition of business-minded theatre professionals.

  2. Karen Kanter said, on March 4, 2010 at 11:26 am

    At the risk of beating the subject to death, nowhere–not New York, not Chicago and not London–do we see the vetting of critics that Mr. Culbertson is suggesting. Is “the” problem of the business side of LA theatre due to unvetted and unfettered critics or something else? From my cursory understanding, it is that Equity contract that is so problematic in terms of financial return.

    It seems to me that this entire subject has been a Trojan Horse, where the real purpose is to assure that more producers get either better reviews or more awards nominations. If we are going to vet critics, who is going to vet the vested financial interest of the committee doing the vetting?

    • Rick Culbertson said, on March 4, 2010 at 12:43 pm

      Karen, if you read the rest of my blog you will notice that I have expressed my thoughts on many issues that are causing problems, including theater rental contracts, ticketing agencies, the 99-seat vs. hat contracts, the lack of a producer’s org, etc. This thread has just been me moving to a new topic of critics and continuing my thoughts on how we can make things better.


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