LA Weekly Critic Steven Leigh Morris Responds to Bitter Lemons Editor Colin Mitchell

Yeah, I know, I just referred to myself in the third person in that headline. Trust me, it pains me to do so, but since nobody else is gonna write this sumbitch, I figure what the fuck. Plus, ya gotta admit, that’s a pretty attention-grabbing headline up there. Huh? Huh?

Anyhoosiers.

So Steven just published an article entitled Is LA Theater Criticism Dead? Not So Fast on the LA Weekly site as a response to my article The Question Nobody Asked at the LA Stage Talks Panel on Arts CriticismFirst off, as always, many thanks to Steven for even giving us a sniff over here at our wee dram of a site known as Bitter Lemons. His attention lends us a credence we rarely merit. Especially generous of him to offer this from the article:

Mitchell’s Bitter Lemons site has been around four years now, aggregating stage reviews from print and online sources, serving as a community bulletin board and serving up hefty portions of commentary in a fearless, funny and unabashedly vainglorious manner. Anybody who can prompt serious discussion with such personal animation as Mitchell does provides a valuable service.

Word!

And then of course Steven digs in with a couple of body blows. Well, sort of. The guy’s a gentlemen even when he’s stepping into the ring so they are more like harsh slaps from a well-perfumed glove.

First of all, before I respond to his response of my response, let me say, I never said LA Theater Criticism was dead. I said that there are signs of a growing irrelevancy in theatre criticism that amazingly was barely even touched on at a panel that was supposed to be discussing the relevancy of Arts Criticism. I found that odd. So I wrote the article.

Nevertheless, Steven says I made two mistakes: one, he says that I conclude that ” the decimation in the number of arts critics who make their living as critics is a sign that people have stopped caring about serious criticism.” I did allude to this, sorta, but fair enough, it’s a good point of reference. Steven offers this response to that sorta conclusion of mine:

This is like arguing that the decimation in the numbers of full-time professors at local public universities is a sign that people have stopped caring about higher education. The economics of print media have compelled the industry to broaden demographics and minimize costs. The casualties of those economics have been the kind of critics who appeal to what was always a limited demographic, but who were more financially viable before the onslaught of competing, alternative media.

Well, okay, but that’s kinda my point. In this transition period from print to online, the first people to go are the ones that the publications decide are less relevant to their economic stability, namely, theatre critics and arts critics of all types. Why? One, because the industry they speak to doesn’t exactly toss a lot of dollars their way, and two, because the great majority of people simply don’t read their columns anymore, if ever. Not necessarily because their opinions aren’t as important, but because most people, especially the younger generation, looks elsewhere for their advice on what to see: re: “social media”.

I’ve been in contact with a couple of the recently dismissed and highly respected critics and this is the question they are currently asking themselves: Now what?

Again, as I said in my article, it is crucial that they find a way to adapt because I think they are essential to the process.

Steven goes on to offer a second body blow with this statement:

Mitchell also concludes that arts commentary spread through social media has led to a growing decline in the influence of print critics. Not necessarily: Twenty years ago, when there were more newspapers and more full-time critics, an audience survey by L.A. Public Theatre pointed to “word-of-mouth” as the most compelling reason urging patrons to the theater. Reviews came in second. Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr are simply word-of-mouth for the 21st century. It’s not clear that this is actually a “decline.”

This is a fair point. Yes, professional theater criticism IS a form of word-of-mouth, but it’s supposed to be a higher form of word-of-mouth and if it happens that someone of Steven’s stature finds his opinions becoming relegated to the same level as some Yelp reviewer, well, that to me is tragic. In some respects Bitter Lemons is an accomplice in this tragedy because of our aggregate system known as the LemonMeter. But I will say this in our defense; our ultimate goal is to eventually delineate the “user review” from the “professional review” and the “top critics” from “all critics”. Theatre reviews, unfortunately, aren’t as numerous as say film reviews at the moment – making it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff –  and we here at the Lemon haven’t yet instituted the proper technology to achieve this goal. But we will. Soon.

Steven also goes on to reference a recent poll we’ve created – we call them BLIPS  (Bitter Lemons Interactive Polls) – concerning the ultimate factor that drives someone to go see a show. The results are still fluid, but the race seems to be between: “I know someone in the production” and “good reviews”. We’ll have to see how that turns out. Go here to vote if you want to add your voice to the mix.

Steven goes on in his article to quote some well respected publicists and artistic directors on the continued relevance of theatre critics and what really gets butts in seats. The results are mixed, in both directions. As I’ve suggested, the theatre critic, especially those connected with the larger print publications, still carry much influence, but that influence is waning, especially for the younger audiences.

So my point now, as it was in the article, is still that both are essential. BUT. I’m just wondering what the professional theatre critics are doing to adapt to the times?

When a panel of theatre critics never even broaches the subject, that is a problem.

The solution?

Marketing.

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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  1. Marketing is the answer to many problems in the LA Theatre Community.

    The first step of Marketing is making sure you have a product worth selling.

    Everyone should read “The Purple Cow”.

  2. STS says:

    Colin hit it pretty well, and Steven’s retort is lacking on counter points…

    One of the biggest problems is that print publications can no longer afford (or choose not to afford) to pay for qualified professional writers. They rely instead on cheap free-lancers who get paid by the column inch or a flat $25 per review…
    Most of these stringers (as they are known in the industry) are either want-to-be writers, failed theatre artists, or failed writers and want-to-be theatre artists.
    Most stringers either waste their print space on providing a review of the script (book report), rather than the production; or they spend most of their print trying to establish a name for themselves through using harsh $25 words they spent hours selecting from their thesaurus.
    General consumers barely care to read these reviews – focusing mainly on the headlines at best.
    The great majority of readers come from the theatre community itself. We all know who the writers are, where they come from, why they write how they do, and whether we should care about what they have written.
    Ultimately publishers know that people are not reading their publication for the theatre reviews, and the reviews truly have very little to do with box office success other than confirming that bad press is better than no press at all. Just give me a headline and a photo, and maybe I’ll spend $15 to see the show. Maybe I won’t. In the end, my decision will not be based on the written words of someone I cannot relate to on any level…