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Theater artistic directors defend the need for L.A. critics

January 16, 2009 | 11:16 am

Gilbert CatesSheldon Epps Michaelritchie_4

The recent reports of the elimination of theater critic, writer and editor positions at the Los Angeles Daily News, LA Weekly and the Daily Breeze came as a blow to Los Angeles' stage community.

Late Thursday, Culture Monster received a letter signed by the artistic directors of three major Los Angeles theaters -- Gilbert Cates of the Geffen Playhouse, Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group -- decrying the decline in voices and calling on the arts community to keep the conversation going.

"This will have a damaging effect on the theater community but it will also be detrimental to the soul and the cultural life of Los Angeles. In the most difficult of times or in the happiest of times, the live arts provide a human connection that is incomparable and irreplaceable. Theater helps sustain a meaningful dialogue that bonds citizens together. To understate the importance of theater in Los Angeles by marginalizing the voices of those who bring these discussions to the public arena is shortsighted and irresponsible."

While the artistic directors offer no solutions, their real purpose could serve as a call to the theater community to unite to find ways to draw attention to diverse offerings on L.A.'s many stages and to the city's arts and culture in general.

Read the full text of the letter on the jump.

-- Lisa Fung

Photos: From left, Gilbert Cates, Sheldon Epps, Michael Ritchie. Credits: Howard Wise, Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles TImes, Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

It may seem somewhat ironic that leaders of arts institutions would come out in favor of further criticism. It would be like fire hydrants getting together to come out in favor of more dogs. But, as artistic leaders who run three of the larger theater organizations in Los Angeles, we've recently become worried. Over the last few months there has been a conspicuous disappearance of arts writers and editors in our local papers.  Two more significant layoffs were confirmed this week. It's time for us to speak up.

Criticism is always difficult to hear, especially if it comes from friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, strangers, bystanders or casual observers. But it is even harder to bear when one realizes that criticism is being shared publicly with thousands of readers and may form the basis of their own opinion toward your work.

Yet we depend on the voices of critics and arts reporters to help create a conversation with our community.  If we let these voices slowly and quietly disappear, the consequences are simple and inevitable: fewer people will know about the productions, fewer people will purchase tickets, and eventually, fewer theaters will exist.

This will have a damaging effect on the theater community but it will also be detrimental to the soul and the cultural life of Los Angeles. In the most difficult of times or in the happiest of times, the live arts provide a human connection that is incomparable and irreplaceable. Theater helps sustain a meaningful dialogue that bonds citizens together. To understate the importance of theater in Los Angeles by marginalizing the voices of those who bring these discussions to the public arena is shortsighted and irresponsible.

Newspapers should understand this. They should also understand what studies have shown:  businesses are drawn to cities with a vibrant cultural life.  Arts coverage helps support this cultural life.

Our ever-growing theater community has received national recognition; our work is presented in cities across the nation, but how ironic and sad that some of our own publications are ill-equipped to recognize the work as it is being created and presented here in Los Angeles.

Theater will not die here in L.A. or anywhere else, with or without critics. Theater is, after all, the world's second oldest profession (and critics are most likely the third). While we three may occasionally have to pull the poisoned pens out of our own backs and hand them back over to their rightful owners, we do it with the knowledge that theater critics and criticism is more than a necessary evil. It is an essential and indispensible part of the larger conversation that must take place in any vibrant community.

Sincerely,

Gilbert Cates                 Sheldon Epps                    Michael Ritchie 
Geffen Playhouse           Pasadena Playhouse          Center Theatre Group

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