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.

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.

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.

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)

Reevaluating Your Ticketing Company

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on November 25, 2009

 Let’s say you get hired for a new job. On your first day you head down to HR and they tell you that you will be paid every two weeks. But, your first check will not come until around your sixth week and they are going to hold some of your salary every week and pay it to you after you quit.

That sounds crazy right? So why would you accept these payment terms from your ticketing company?

I haven’t written in the past four weeks. During that time I have received several emails from people who are interested in producing theater, who haven’t done so before. One question that often came up was: what’s the best ticketing company? Since there are many theaters that currently use ticketing companies that pay on a schedule like the one described above, I figured we could all use a post about ticketing companies.

So… here is my list of things to think about when selecting (or re-evaluating) your ticketing company.

1)   The most important thing to remember when picking a ticketing company is: IT’S YOUR MONEY. Since it’s your money, you should get it as quickly as possible. You shouldn’t have to wait for any of it. Some companies will give you a song and dance about accounting schedules and “blah, blah, blah,” but the bottom line is– if they can’t pay you every week in a timely manner, you need to go elsewhere. 

2)   Don’t be fooled by bells and whistles. Be wary of any ticketing company that offers marketing services. Most companies that offer marketing services require you to give them a “special deal” to offer their email list subscribers. This means that YOU have to cut your price (usually by at least 50%). This is not in your best interest (Read this post for more on this topic). To make matters worse, if your ticketing company is making you sell tickets at 50% off, where are you possibly going to sell full price tickets?

3)   Who answers the phone sales calls? In the best scenario, a local person will answering your ticketing calls, someone who can answer specific questions for patrons. But often, ticketing companies leave nothing more than a recorded message that only frustrate and agitate patrons– and sometimes even drive them away. A live person who is out-of-state, reading from info that you provide is better than no person at all. Patrons don’t like to talk to robot operators, much less give their credit card numbers over to them. How many times do you curse the automated menu just to get to your cell phone support rep? Don’t make your patrons think of the phone company when they’re trying to buy a ticket to your show.

4)   Integrate your website. Many theater companies don’t spend the money to build a website and instead, just go with a generic page supplied by a ticketing company. Don’t. Spend the $1500 and build a web page. It’s important and it makes you look legitimate. Your patrons can then buy tickets directly from your website. They prefer it, and it feels safer.

5)   Be careful of theaters that make you use ticketing companies in which they have an ownership stake. It’s one thing for a theater to contract with a specific ticketing company. But it’s another thing when they own that company. You wouldn’t want your apartment’s landlord to get your paycheck, deduct the rent, and then send you what’s leftover, right? It’s none of your landlord’s business how much money you make, and it certainly isn’t their place to be taking that money directly from your employer. Don’t make that bad deal with a theater.

6)   Watch out for service charges. Your ticketing company is going to charge you a fee and your patron a fee. You want to find a company that has low fees on both sides. Your patron doesn’t like the fee any more than you do.

Finally, because it’s important, I will remind you: IT’S YOUR MONEY. Don’t let someone else make money on your money. If a ticket company holds your checks for longer than a week or two, they are making interest on your money. If a ticket company tells you that it takes more than a week to process your payment, its time to get a new ticketing company.

Don’t be bullied or fooled.

The “J” Curve of Los Angeles Theater

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on October 25, 2009

I have a friend.  She lives is a beautiful 600 square foot loft in downtown Los Angeles.  Her rent is about $500 a month.  The loft next door is a 700 square foot loft that rents for about $1500.  Why the price difference?  My friend’s loft is subsidized by the government.  Each year, her income has to be roughly between $18,000 and $24,000.  If she makes more than $24,000, she will have to move out of her apartment and into a market-rate apartment, which would cost about three times as much.  Because of this, she can not take a raise or get a better job, unless that job or raise will jump her salary up to around $40,000 – this is what she would need to afford to move into a market rate apartment.  Anything less, and she would have to move into an apartment that is not as nice as her current one, thus lowering her quality of life.  So, my friend hovers at $24,000 income each year.  Its not that she doesn’t want to earn more, it’s that it’s simply not in her best interest to earn more because doing so will prevent her from keeping her nice apartment.  

 LA Theater is stuck in this same situation.  In Los Angeles, a huge gap exists between the maximum budget one can use to produce a 99 seat production, and the minimum budget one can employ for a HAT production.  I call this the J-Curve of Los Angeles Theater.  Using a graph to measure the maximum profit potential (week potential minus week cost) on the y axis and our budget (from small to large) on the x axis, we will see a curve that looks like a “J”.  Here is our graph:

 LA Theater J Curve

 

As our graph illustrates, low budget 99-seat productions offer a small profit potential, while high budget HAT contracts offer larger potential.  Many theater companies start out with low budget 99-seat productions.  However, these types of productions have many limitations.  For one thing, musicals on this level are unable to include live musicians (unless they are all volunteers). Additionally, most of the participants including directors and designers are volunteers, which means that the production will have very little potential for high quality production values and, quite frankly, talent.  This is why most theater companies that are successful try to raise their production budgets. Eventually they hit point A on our graph– which is the realm in which high budget 99-seat theater productions must stay if they want to have a reasonable chance of breaking even from week to week.  But many limitations with high budget 99-seat theater productions still abound.  Those who work on this level never see true livable wages, and rarely do shows on this level boast great production values.  And, of course, no 99-seat theater production can run longer than 80 performances. 

 Once a theater company does get to point A, therefore, they have to make a choice.  Either stay forever at point A, or make the enormous and risky leap to point B.  If they stay forever at point A (which almost all of our theater companies in Los Angeles have chosen to do) it means that actors will never be paid higher wages, and productions will never see high production values.  If they try to make the jump to point B, then this decision will come with the huge risk of the theater company falling short and landing in the bottom of our “J,” somewhere between Points A and B.  Since this is the most likely outcome, a theater company would need to have stored a tremendous amount of reserve capital in order to bridge the years that it will invariably take to reach point B.  With very few theaters able to amass the required capital, this transition is an extremely rare occurrence.

 For independent producers like myself, in order to produce at point B or higer, we would need a show to be an extreme crowd pleaser in order to guarantee that we will be able to sell the 300-400 tickets every week needed just to break even with our weekly expenses.  To keep expenses down, we use tracks instead of live musicians and look for shows with very small casts.  Recouping our capitalization would require us to sell even more tickets, and for a long period of time.  Add to this the fact that we don’t have a middle theater zone in which to produce—a circumstance that forces us into 99-seat theaters and limits the number of tickets we can sell on a given weekend. Because of this, the independent producer must look at LA simply as a place to develop their production—not as a money making production. It follows, that if a producer is just looking to develop, he or she would want to produce on the easiest level possible—the 99-seat contract– in order to loose as little money as possible.

 How do we change this situation, and raise the level of theater in Los Angeles?

 Well, in my opinion, we have to have a coordinated approach:

 Step One (1) We have to allow producers to recoup some capital (if not turn a small profit) on the current 99-seat plan.  Perhaps we need to look at profit sharing ideas with our actors so that they become stake holders in the 99-seat production.  This would prevent a producer making money on the back of very low paid actors.

 Step Two (2) We need to rework a new contract that sits somewhere in between 99-seat and HAT.  A contract that will bridge the gap so that theater companies that want to expand or spend more money on productions can do so without risking total failure (by falling into the bottom of the “J”).  This new contract must allow for shows to run open-ended.  This will help build long running shows that will promote our theater community by allowing more people to see our better shows.

 Step Three (3) With steps (1) and (2) in place, a new need will be created for theatres at the 199 seat level.  Theater owners will start to build them. 

 Step Four (4) Successful theatre companies will start to produce in the bigger houses, and with 199 seat houses popping up, commercial producers will be able to work in venues where profit numbers make sense to investors, thereby allowing them to produce better shows and experiment with bigger shows. All of this will mean higher salaries for actors.  (And sure it’s not going to be enough to live on, but $25 or $40 a show is better than $11, right?  And it’s better to be in a show that has good production values, as opposed to a show that doesn’t, right? and maybe there is a way to add in 1/4 health care shares where 4 weeks on this contract equals one on a full contract.  Then you would have 2 weeks toward your equity health care from an 8 week run.)

 Step Five (5) will be to start it all over again to work up to the 299 level.  It will be at this point that will we have a viable Off-Broadway theater scene in Los Angeles … With real money and real salaries.

 The thing that we need to understand is, we are not facing an audience problem.  Our audience is here.  People go to the theater.  The tourists are here.  They will go to the theater (especially when we work with solid and well-funded marketing plans like this).  The only thing preventing this new level of theater growth from occurring is, quite simply: the theater community.  If we don’t fight to change our situation, then it won’t change.  I think if we we’re smart as a community, and if we really work together with all of our best interests’ in mind, then we could put in place a 20-year Plan to make this vision a reality.

 Of course, we can simply keep going along as we are now.  But, just like my friend with the subsidized apartment, we will never have a reason to better ourselves.  And a successful, happy, nationally respected future will always be out of our reach.