LA's Art Deserves Great Criticism

Camille SchenkkanWithin a week, the LA Weekly got rid of Steven Leigh Morris' position as Theatre Editor and the Daily Breeze laid off Jim Farber, their arts & theater critic. These are huge losses for the Los Angeles cultural community; however, like many others on the LACN & BCT listservs and commenting on the Times coverage of the layoffs, I'm feeling powerless to do anything about it. The LA Weekly is a free publication and I don't get the Daily Breeze, so I can't cancel my subscription to either publication. There's a movement for arts organizations to cancel their advertising in the LA Weekly, which seems to be pretty much our only recourse for this devastating loss of two longtime patrons & friends to the arts community.

When I'm not working for Arts for LA, I'm working for Circle X Theatre Company, one of the 99-seaters that owes much of its continued success to Morris' intelligent reviews. He was one of the few critics who approached each of our shows with knowledge of the company's production history and mission. Throughout the years, he critiqued us when we strayed from our mission and applauded our successes, all with tremendous wit and understanding of the 99-seat community and contemporary theatre in general.

Who will critique our work? Who will guide people to the good stuff and point out the differences between showcase theatre and artistically substantive offerings? Who will keep us honest, give us feedback, know & appreciate the differences among Open Fist, Sacred Fools, Theatre of NOTE, Circle X, Evidence Room and all of the other small theatre companies, and write with the 20 years of knowledge that Steven has? We know a lot depends on how a play is reviewed: good reviews = get audiences and break even, bad reviews = no audiences, no money. It's a simple formula that will become even more tenuous as we lose our best reviewers to the poor economy.

Last May, I posted the following article about the need for a strong, educated group of arts critics in Los Angeles. It's still getting daily hits, so I thought I'd re-post it here-- especially as it seems sadly relevant given the loss of Morris and Farber.

I end the article with this sentence: "Educated critics result in educated patrons. When Los Angeleans and visitors can trust our art critics to give an intelligent, informed opinion, guiding us to the good and weeding out the bad, we can begin building LA's reputation as a nationally recognized center for arts and culture." It didn't cross my mind that less than a year later we'd be losing two of the city's best critics, with more layoffs imminent. As an arts advocate and a theatre administrator, I'm wondering what we can do as an arts community to speak out against these cuts and/or find an alternative venue for arts criticism. If anyone has ideas or suggestions, please leave them in the comments.



Theatre Criticism in Los Angeles

May 2008

Camille Schenkkan

The elimination of the full-time dance coverage position at the LA Times generated healthy discussion within the LA theatre community about the inconsistency of our own coverage. Big Cheap Theatre, a Yahoo! Group for theatres in the 99-Seat Equity Waiver community, became the forum for lively debate about local critics and their reviews. Some members bemoaned reviewers' tendencies to indulge in snarkfests for first-run shows at small theatres, arguing criticism should take into account the size of the company and whether or not the play is a work-in-progress. However--as others were quick to point out--quality is not proportional to budget. As theatre producers, we can't expect an audience member to think, "This is excruciatingly boring, plotless, and aesthetically insipid, and these folding chairs are really physically uncomfortable; however, this company clearly has no money, so I'll forgive them." A bad play is a bad play. A small theatre producing trash shouldn't be producing anything at all.

A more legitimate complaint addressed in the BCT forum was the general inconsistency of review quality among the LA publications. Although LA is home to a handful of outstanding critics such as Charles McNulty, Terry Morgan and Steven Leigh Morris, the overall quality of local criticism is offset by the many amateur, inept or petty reviewers writing for both large and small publications throughout the city. As theatre managers, we pray we'll be assigned a "good critic" instead of someone who will either write a plot outline resembling an eighth-grade book report or an indecisive, poorly informed article betraying their limited understanding of theatre as an art form separate from television and film. While critics like Morris, McNulty and Morgan ground their reviews in a deep understanding of the theatre field, connecting each review to a larger discussion of contemporary performance on a citywide and national scale, many local critics seem to lack a basic knowledge of contemporary theatre. According to one BCT member, a reviewer commented on his company's decision to mount a play as a musical when the play was written to be a musical and did not exist in any other form. While this anecdote represents an extreme example of critical ignorance, the theatre community cited countless reviews betraying critics' insufficient knowledge of theatre on the local and national levels.

One blogger remarked that he often reads a review, sees the show and then wonders if perhaps there were two shows with the same name running in LA. Indeed, many arts patrons have seen a show based on a critical recommendation and wondered if they'd attended the wrong production. Seasoned LA patrons know a production receiving glowing reviews from certain publications and/or critics may in reality be a trite, uninspired showcase production with the sole aim of making money or attracting agents for aspiring television stars. LA's problem with showcase theatre seems to be lost on many reviewers, who fail to recognize yet another production of Closer, Proof or Burn This as a self-serving vanity project that should be judged with a different critical vocabulary than artistically substantive "theatre for theatre's sake." New LA theatre patrons directed to sub-par productions by glowing and uninformed reviews could feel reluctant to attend future theatre events in the city, mistrusting even the most complimentary reviews because of their negative past experiences.

Unfortunately, there is little opportunity for the theatre community to blacklist bad reviewers and encourage potential audiences to trust only the handful of educated critics without sounding (or being) overtly self-serving. In truth, specific negative reviews probably inspired many of the BCTers' complaints about critics, and one has to assume many of those reviews were justifiable given the abundance of bad theatre in the city. We all experience failure, whether it's a single performance gone wrong, a poor choice of play or an entire season of mistakes. It's a critic's job to explain what went wrong and why, with respect and honesty. It is not appropriate, however, to call a production "crapola," as one critic from a small local newspaper did according to a BCT member.

The Los Angeles theatre scene, like the city itself, is decentralized: there are a multitude of companies and venues stretched out over miles of fragmented neighborhoods. A company producing in Hollywood might as well be in a different time zone from a company in Long Beach. In recent years, many companies have moved from their original locations or chosen to become nomadic due to rising space costs, contributing to the difficulty of keeping track of who is producing what and where. The small army of critics needed to cover so much ground and the widespread itinerancy of theatre groups results in a lack of sequential criticism: a company's artistic track record isn't taken into account by the majority of reviewers, who treat each production as an isolated event instead of the next step in a company's creative growth. This results in a lack of recognition for small companies consistently producing challenging, high-quality work, and enables artistically poor showcase companies to continue taking audiences' money year after year. LA theatre thus lacks natural selection, the sheep-from-the-goats quality control that comes from a critical body educated about companies instead of individual productions.

Where could we send our critics to receive specialized training in writing and editing for theatre journalists? Los Angeles. Since 2005, LA has hosted the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theatre and Musical Theatre at the USC Annenberg School of Communication, a ten-day workshop for journalists. Although several of Los Angeles' seasoned critics have participated as guest faculty and lecturers, none of the 100 participants have come from LA. Starting this August, arts journalists will have the opportunity to receive more in-depth training: according to a May 1st press release, USC Annenberg is developing the workshop into a 9-month master's program in Arts Journalism. Program Director Sasha Anawalt says, "USC Annenberg offers this new degree out of a conviction that quality arts and culture journalism today requires subject matter expertise, advanced reporting skills and knowledge of how new communication technologies are changing the ways that people learn, think and behave." Perhaps Los Angeles-based journalists could receive tuition breaks or scholarships to help develop these essential critical skills in USC Annenberg's home city.

Educated critics result in educated patrons. When Los Angeleans and visitors can trust our art critics to give an intelligent, informed opinion, guiding us to the good and weeding out the bad, we can begin building LA's reputation as a nationally recognized center for arts and culture.