So you’re a theater having a hard time getting audiences. A new plan under way by the ever-tempestuous L.A.-based theater website Bitter Lemons allows you to pay the website directly for a published review, with the reviewer receiving the lion’s share of that payment — no guarantee of a good review, and you can’t select the reviewer, but it’s at least a guarantee of a review by “an experienced critic.” It’s something like when playwrights or screenwriters pay an expert to read their drafts, or a theater pays a dramaturg or script doctor — the major difference being that Bitter Lemons’ “initiative” is not just a private exchange, it’s a public one that involves readers and audiences. So what’s the problem?
There are many, but the primary one is that it rips up a long-standing covenant between critics and readers that the critics' public writings are financially independent of the subjects they’re covering. Regardless of any critic’s claim that payment by his subject won’t affect his independence, when the theaters become the critics’ employers, and if the practice becomes widespread as a “new financial model,” as it’s being described, there are two victims: the readers, and the art of criticism itself. The pollution spreads like an oil spill, rolling over the once-clear divide between criticism and marketing.
Bitter Lemons’ leader, Colin Mitchell, launched his pay-for-play criticism wing for the Hollywood Fringe festival. The theaters are invited to pay the site $150, and will be guaranteed a review by one of its critics, who takes a $125 cut. The remaining $25 supports the website’s administrative costs.
If theaters don’t like either the content or quality of Bitter Lemons’ review, or if there are no salvageable quotes for publicity purposes, producers are free to purchase a second review for another $150, and hope things go better on the next spin.
Mitchell’s reasons for this scheme include the dearth of theater criticism in Los Angeles, and the dearth of paying work for theater writers. A key, he says on his website, is transparency. As Mitchell explained to me early last year when he first conceived his program and asked me to be its editor (I declined), readers will fully understand that these reviews are paid for by their subjects, and Mitchell trusts his readers to be sufficiently discerning to make their own assessment of these reviews’ value. Mitchell sees this as an honest market approach to a compelling community need, encouraging theaters to cut out middlemen such as publicists, who nudge and pray for coverage of their clients, and to send those dollars instead to a website — his website.
Yet even this transparency has become murky, since some of Bitter Lemons’ reviews have been purchased, while others, written by the same critics, have not. Though the paid reviews are differentiated on the website from the nonpaid reviews, when the reviews get reposted, or excerpts from reviews are quoted in advertisements, there’s no way for readers to know whether those critics were paid directly by the theaters for their words of praise.
When in London last year, I ran this entire idea by Christopher Campbell, literary manager of the Royal Court Theatre. He drolly replied, “We have a entire department to ensure that such activity never occurs at this theater.”
Meanwhile, the American Theatre Critics Association, the national organization for drama critics, has issued a statement condemning the plan on conflict-of-interest grounds.
Not surprisingly, Mitchell’s plan has enraged a large portion of the L.A. theater community, with such words as “predatory” showing up in social media, because of the way the plan preys on the lesser-established, publicity-starved theaters. This is coupled with charges of hypocrisy, in light of Bitter Lemons’ support of the “Pro99” intimate-theater movement and its ongoing battle with the actors' and stage managers' union, Actors Equity Association. The union wants all theaters to pay its actors at least minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, while Pro99, and Bitter Lemons as one of its mouthpieces, has insisted that there simply isn’t the money in the theater community to support such a stark transition. And now Bitter Lemons offers this paid “service,” inviting theaters to pay its drama critics quid pro quo at about twice the minimum wage. Needless to say, this is grist for the union’s mill.
However, my core objections are more philosophical. Writes actress/community leader Frances Fisher in a Facebook response to the unveiling of Mitchell’s plan, “Fuck critics” — and she’s absolutely right, from an artist’s point of view. The critic should be the last person on any creator’s mind, just as the critics’ primary relationship needs to be with readers, not theaters.
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Mitchell’s market-based initiative puts this all backwards: It places the primary relationship of the critic with the theater rather than the reader. It entails a contract by which the critic is paid by the theater to write something in public as an ostensibly neutral observer, while the theater is banking that the critic will entice audiences. Meanwhile, the critic becomes the servant of two masters — the theater-as-employer and the readers, who have a rightful expectation of candor. This is why traditional print media have always insisted on a separation between critics and the theaters they review.
Where is the critics’ independence when their long-term employment, in a land where employment is already scarce, depends on positive notices? Conversely, where is the critics’ independence when they’re writing harshly to prove that they haven’t been bought, when in fact they have?
It’s been argued that the comp tickets traditionally offered to critics are a form of (in-kind) payment directly from the theaters to the critics, and that argument has some merit. But the difference between access to a service already rendered, with or without the critic, is quite a different matter from cash over the table. To say, “Let’s slide further down the slippery slope” doesn’t make it any less of a slide.
One incensed commentator wrote on Facebook that he’d like to hire one of Bitter Lemons’ critics for a performance with no other audience and then, as a performer, sit in silence for two hours with the critic, engaging in eye contact whenever possible. Since the critic would then be an actor receiving double minimum wage, the union would be happy. The only missing element would be an audience. Well, that’s where the whole mess starts, doesn’t it, with desperate theaters trying to get audiences in the door, and Bitter Lemons making its case that it has some fine critics for just that job.