By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Although the Los Angeles Times seems to be the only media outlet that prohibits its reviewing critics from attending opening-night receptions, most critics do not attend as a matter of habit. (Personally, I don't stay for parties. The L.A. Weekly doesn't have a policy about them, but for me, lingering in the lobby after a play is over — even with the tang of chicken satay in the air — is a little like hanging out in the parking lot after a Fourth of July fireworks show has finished.) The reasons so many critics do attend range from suffering near-diabetic shock after sitting through a long play on an empty stomach to the opportunity to socialize with fellow critics.
But there's another reason that touches upon the unspoken class divide in theater criticism: Hardly any local theater critic can make a living by reviewing alone, and some, particularly online writers, receive no pay at all. These are theater criticism's orphans, who, like Oliver Twist, have no problem saying, at the opening-night party, "Please, sir, I want some more."
Stuck at the bottom of what is literally a journalistic food chain are the writers whom publicists routinely describe as B-list or "second-tier" critics — reviewers for a vast, unincorporated territory of neighborhood broadsheets, ethnic tabloids, ad-for-review papers, student newspapers, public-access TV and radio programs, vanity zines, theater Web sites, and blogger-critics. This "B-list" has dramatically expanded its theater clout with the Internet, and, while the World Wide Web has democratized such formerly elite realms as political journalism, it has paradoxically reinforced the authority (some would say tyranny) of theater critics by increasing their numbers. The proliferation of reviewers has started a conversation in theater circles (as it has in film) as to who, exactly, is a legitimate critic and whether this proliferation weakens critical credibility.
"It's usually people from the very small papers and the Web sites who only come for the party and to feel important," says a longtime L.A. publicist. "They will call and talk to me for half an hour. These are very lonely, needy people who want compliments on their reviews. [Name withheld] is a reception crasher — that woman is frankly mentally ill. She even takes her parents to the parties!"
"It makes me sad," says one publicist who represents a large venue. "They're only here to eat." Pointed comments or raised eyebrows, he says, have no effect on chowhound critics. "They'll say to you, 'Do you know how much we get paid for reviewing?'"
The practical reality for theaters, however, is that getting one or two critics on opening weekend can be a life-and-death matter, and their reps are only too happy to invite virtually anyone who promises to write a blurb about a play or mention it on his or her blog or Internet radio program.
"I had a classic message on my machine when I was representing a free holiday celebration," says one longtime publicist. "This somebody asked for backstage passes so he could go into the greenroom, where the refreshments were. And for this, he'd write 300 words on his Web site. He used the word 'refreshments' three times."
Such critics seem to fit into several categories, which, for our purposes, I'll call Fressers, Tipplers, Willie Lomans and Angries. Fressers (Yiddish for gluttons) are the reviewers who begin a 50-yard dash to the buffet table just as the cast takes its bow, the Fressers' trained ears having pricked up moments earlier at the distant sound of clattering plates.
"Ninety-nine-seat houses won't wait for the cast before starting their receptions," explains one publicist. "You'll definitely see press people first — and they know just where to stand as the trays go by."
"We have one critic," says an experienced publicist quoted earlier, "who beats it out the side emergency exit instead of the lobby when the show's over, because our receptions are outdoors. It becomes like a feeding trough for critics — I don't think some of these people eat dinner!"
Another longtime publicist recalls the time he helped prepare a reception at a restaurant for a Valley theater as the show was going on.
"We'd finished setting up," he remembers, "and I sat down to take a break, figuring we had another half-hour or so before the audience started arriving. All of a sudden, I looked up and saw [name withheld] — he'd talked his way into the restaurant and was waiting for the food to be served."
Fressers can also be the woman critics who are known to shove food into their handbags after watching, say, The Diary of Anne Frank. (One has reportedly been spotted with a purse full of Baggies, brought for that purpose.) Or they can be men celebrated for their ability to balance multiple plates — before leaving to write scathing reviews. Receptions widely vary in budgets; what astounds publicists is that critics flock to even the skimpiest buffets.
"It's an inducement," says a small-theater publicist, of first-night parties, "because we need opening-weekend coverage — the promise of a glass of wine is a small price."