By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
As the search dragged on, I became more and more curious as to how the LAT’s continuing lack of a drama critic was affecting the theater scene here. Recently, I sent my intern, Angela Lu, around town for several weeks to get a sense of the mood.
She reported that, in the more than three and half years that L.A.’s largest newspaper has been without a lead drama critic, tension has mounted throughout the L.A. theater community, to the point of enragement. Most saw it as “insulting” that the paper with one of the largest circuLATions in the country did not fill the slot in a timely fashion.
It was disillusioning even for those associated with the city’s landmark theaters, like Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. Retiring in September after 40 years as head of the prestigious venue, he tried but failed to use his position and power to get the paper to hurry its search and selection. “I’ve talked to the Times. They know my feelings. They know other people’s feelings. They say they’re working hard, but now it’s taken too long, and if I could rattle a few cages, I would.”
What the LAT failed to realize about its delay, according to éminence grise Davidson, is that a designated drama critic at the biggest local paper fills a unique role in a big city like Los Angeles. “There has to be a central person who is running the section,” Davidson said he also told the editors. “Someone who has a larger view of theater than simply the reviewing of a play, liking it or not liking it, but about context, history, and purpose, and that voice has been missing for much too long. We all pay a price, the artists and the audience, without having that.”
L.A. Weekly’s Morris notes that this paper stepped into the breach to become more integral to the theater community, even beyond its long-standing theater awards, a.k.a. the “Lawees.”
Sue Ellen Case, a UCLA theater department professor who holds a chair in critical studies, called the LAT on the carpet about its drama-critic void. “I think it’s an insult to the values of the community,” she declared. “There is an art community here, and it’s strong and it has, in spite of this, a number of really faithful audiences. There is this scene here, but what it looks like in the paper is that the scene here is cars. The Times has someone write about cars every week, but not about theater?”
“It doesn’t seem to be a major issue for the paper. If it was, they probably would have hired an ongoing critic prior to this time. I don’t think they’re looking to do a thing negative to the theater community, but it just seems like an obvious oversight.”
The greatest harm has been done to those lesser-known, smaller theaters, like Circle X and City Garage, that rely most on publications to inform the public for free about their productions.
For instance, Frederique Michel, artistic director of City Garage Theater, said a critic’s choice pick for her company used to foreshadow good things to come — a packed house and a long line running into the street each night. Not anymore, and she blamed it on the Times’ lack of a lead theater critic. “People reading the reviews don’t put as much faith in them as they once did. And I think that there’s a direct correlation between that and the fact that the paper doesn’t have a lead critic and doesn’t give the attention to the theater this town deserves.”
Tim Wright, artistic director of Circle X Theater Company, wondered whether not having a drama critic for so long was just a harbinger of less theater coverage because the paper finds it’s “not economically viable.”
Odyssey Theater artistic director Ron Sossi agreed that “it could be financial. They’ve cut back extremely on their theater coverage, and I think it finally comes down to a matter of dollars and cents. In the Calendar section, it’s the rock & roll ads and movie ads that really pay the bills. Theater is not a rich art form, but at the same time, I think that the major paper in a city also has an obligation to support the arts in general.”
In the end, the LAT’s lack of a theater critic may have permanently clouded its view of the drama community, or vice versa.
“We’re still under the onus of this being a film and TV town, and we’ve been fighting battles for a long time to get people on the outside to see this also as a theater town,” noted Sossi. “And it’s a little disappointing when the paper within the city doesn’t support that vision. I think it’s shortsighted, too.”
Good luck, McNulty. Your paper has made your job a heck of a lot harder.
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