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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


 
Comments () | Archives (8)

Here, here. This contagious closing down of arts coverage reflects the same short-sighted thinking that has led the newspaper business to the precarious position where it now teeters. While I too have very often questioned the value of particular critics or particular critical agendas in the many voices of our local press, I have never wavered in my support of arts journalism’s crucial role in the cultural dialogue that defines a community.

Most of the film, music, and television offerings we get in LA are the same as the rest of the country gets, and I have my favorite film critics from afar whom I read regularly from a wide variety of sources. But most LA theater only LA gets, and the only opportunity to read and reflect on this form can be found in our local papers. And these critical responses can have a direct and immediate impact on the betterment of the cultural life of this city -- in promoting and legitimizing certain companies or pieces, in drawing the attention that can bring disparate communities together, and in celebrating that occasional transcendent artistic moment when our LA theater shows ‘the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’

I too urge these local papers not to remove their arts coverage, one of the few functions that they can always perform better than any of their outside competitors, and one of the few that can directly benefit the quality of life of the city, and one of the only that I actually buy the paper for. Thank you, Gil, Sheldon, and Michael for making a statement.

We create art to create dialogue...it's an essential part of the process, and critics help to foster this conversation. I agree wholeheartedly with Gil, Sheldon, and Michael!
Having worked at theaters in LA, both the big and the very small, I am so saddened to see the paper take these recent actions. Amazing theatre is produced in this city every week, and it's a shame that this vibrant part of Los Angeles is being "downgraded." Let's instead take pride in the rich art and culture in our city by empowering and deepening the conversations.

"Such bad food!"
"Yes, and such small portions!"

LA artists have never liked LA critics; quality or quantity. Some of the best work in town went uncovered even when there were more critics on the beat. And where did this 'dialogue' take place in the good old days? Audiences attend and except for moderated talkbacks, don't enter into any dialogue with the artists. Critics have always claimed there is some kind of wall between them and the companies they cover. Audiences couldn't 'enter into dialogue' with critics until relatively recently and then again only in heavily moderated blog comments like this one.

I'm not buying Cates, Epps, and Ritchie's concern for the community. Their theatres are for the moment anyway very well funded through direct and indirect subsidies. These guys are probably realizing that the Times may eventually clobber staff critics altogether and then how will they get ink, real or virtual, without buying even more ad space? Their careers depend on plays leaving LA for other cities, especially that big one in the east, and every bit of public relations helps.

"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."

Translation: There's no such thing as bad publicity.

By the way, it is "Hear, Hear!"

At the risk of extending your cynical diatribe, Mr. Worcester, I wanted to take a moment to thank you. I thank you for correcting my phrase “here, here”. (I thought I was writing the expression that way to emphasize my point that theater coverage focuses on the local.) I thank you also for explaining to me that I have never liked LA critics. (Being an LA artist for about 14 years now, I had actually thought I had appreciated many of them.) I thank you for letting me know that audiences don’t enter into dialogue with artists. (Standing in the lobby for all these years, listening to patrons’ comments and responding, reading letters and emails addressed to me from theatergoers and then answering those letters, even choosing to produce plays based on these relationships, I had actually considered this activity a form of dialogue.) And I especially would like to thank you for whisking the economic downturn away with a stroke of your pen. (I’m thrilled these theaters are now, as you say, “very well funded” despite all the reports to the contrary.)

Please consider this point, Burt: if there were more arts writers in our papers, perhaps you wouldn’t be so ill-informed and presumptuous. Our new technologies hold unfathomed resources to pursue this conversation between artists and audiences and critics. I notice that you’re very cynical about the nature of this dialogue, but wouldn’t it be a shame if all the arts writers were gone before we could even discover where this discourse might lead?

Mr. DeLorenzo, that post wasn't all about you.

I'm glad to hear that you were able to engage your audience in dialogue. Perhaps you and your theatre are the exception, at least based on my experiences during my time in LA.

A little searching shows that the houses run by the trio of letter writers are doing pretty well, given the general state of affairs. Nope - not whisking away the crisis with the stroke of my virtual pen/whisk thing. The point is that these same guys are concerned about themselves. They need to ensure that _their_ performances, programs, and public relations are covered. I doubt that any trickle-down to the large number of small houses is implied, intended, or even desired. In fact, all they state is "Our ever-growing theater community...". There's a vague expression of semi-solidarity for you.

I'm skeptical of your hope for some new technological revolution to save the day. The technology to have these 'dialogues' was spawned at your UCLA and USC nearly forty years ago. International dialogues have been taking place though an overlapping series of Internet communications tools for at least thirty years. Other newspapers have been doing for a decade what the LA Times has belatedly started. The Times has been late to realize that there is no other direction to turn. In that time, the dialogue has gone from multipage dissertations on threaded, public-domain news feeds to 100 character tweets on proprietary platforms. The arts writers will still be around. Like artists, they seem to have a fundamental need to do what they do. That's the saving energy you're seeking. The downside is that they, like artists, won't be able to make a career out of it.

A very slippery slope indeed and one in which no arts community is immune. This "quieting" is symptomatic of a larger picture that's been developing in this country with the downsizing of the arts.
Steven Leigh Morris has been a champion of Los Angeles Theatre for well over a decade and I'm sure he will continue to be albeit in a much more diminished capacity. The elimination of these positions is terribly unfortunate for ALL of our theaters and, more importantly, the community they serve.

Critics are to theatre as fleas are to a dog: They're always around and usually annoying. In earlier years the print media employed "name" critics who served as a way to reach the masses with info about particular shows. With the advent of the internet and cell phones, newspapers and magazines are often behind the curve.

The thrust of the Times article seems, to me, to lament the loss of these "names." There will never be a shortage of critics and the new media will create the new "names," but theatres will now have to reach out on their own. Perhaps we can return to an earlier, rowdier entertainment with cell phone toting groundlings throwing figurative tomatoes and theatres fighting back by playing directly to their audience instead of a newspaper.

Oh please. These are the artistic directors of our biggest theatres. They are the only theatres that get any serious theatre criticism anyway. Until Charles McNulty came along, you could've done away with all the LA Times theatre critics, and theatre would've been better for it. Now that Mr. McNulty is here, he gives an intelligent voice, but he only reviews plays from the major theatres, so it's not like the smaller 99-seat theatres benefit anyway. They're still stuck with a tiny one-column review written by wanna-be critics -- but it doesn't matter because no one can find them in the paper. All this talk about community dialogue and everything is awfully pretentious.


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