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Is L.A. Theater Criticism Dead? Not So Fast

(Left to right) Terence McFarland, Alice Tuan, Steven Leigh Morris, Frances Baum Nicholson, Deidrie Henry and Don Shirley at L.A. Stage Alliance's recent arts criticism panel

Katie Gould(Left to right) Terence McFarland, Alice Tuan, Steven Leigh Morris, Frances Baum Nicholson, Deidrie Henry and Don Shirley at L.A. Stage Alliance's recent arts criticism panel

On the heels of a panel discussion on arts criticism at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum last week, hosted by Los Angeles Stage Alliance, blogger Colin Mitchell of the website Bitter Lemons critiqued the critics by posing "the question nobody asked: How are theater critics going to remain relevant in a climate where their opinions simply mean less and less?"

Mitchell did praise critics as being vital as historians and contextualizers. But to support his assertion about the growing irrelevance of educated critics to the larger culture, he alluded to so many newspapers' decisions to ax veteran critics, citing the recent, infuriating exit from Back Stage of two highly respected senior local critics and editors, Dany Margolies and Les Spindle. He also noted the ascent of blog critics to fill the void left by the diminishing ranks of print media critics. "All I'm saying is they, the [remaining print] critics, better find a way to remain relevant to an audience that is slowly but surely leaving them in the dust."

Mitchell's Bitter Lemons site has been around four years now, aggregating stage reviews from print and online sources, serving as a community bulletin board and serving up hefty portions of commentary in a fearless, funny and unabashedly vainglorious manner. Anybody who can prompt serious discussion with such personal animation as Mitchell does provides a valuable service.

In this post, however, he perpetuates two fallacies: First, that the decimation in the number of arts critics who make their living as critics is a sign that people have stopped caring about serious criticism. This is like arguing that the decimation in the numbers of full-time professors at local public universities is a sign that people have stopped caring about higher education. The economics of print media have compelled the industry to broaden demographics and minimize costs. The casualties of those economics have been the kind of critics who appeal to what was always a limited demographic, but who were more financially viable before the onslaught of competing, alternative media.

Mitchell also concludes that arts commentary spread through social media has led to a growing decline in the influence of print critics. Not necessarily: Twenty years ago, when there were more newspapers and more full-time critics, an audience survey by L.A. Public Theatre pointed to "word-of-mouth" as the most compelling reason urging patrons to the theater. Reviews came in second. Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr are simply word-of-mouth for the 21st century. It's not clear that this is actually a "decline."

Trying to demonstrate criticism's growing irrelevance, Mitchell's article cites "I know someone working on the production" as the No. 1 reason people now feel compelled to attend local theater, based on a survey on his blog. This may have been accurate when he posted his article last week, but this week, that same survey (now with 40 respondents) shows "good reviews" tied with "I know someone" at 30 percent.

Critics also can help word-of-mouth publicity. Veteran theater publicists David Elzer and Philip Sokoloff say their clients often grab quotes from established critics' reviews and post them on Facebook and Twitter. "There's nobody I work with on marketing who says, 'Help me, [but] I don't care if the critics come,' " Elzer says. "There's a nonnegotiable, eternal marriage between critics and the artists, who ache to be noticed and validated. Does that still help get butts in seats? Absolutely." Adds Sokoloff, "My clients still push hardest for the print reviews."

Jon Lawrence Rivera, artistic director of Playwrights Arena, a 20-year-old company that presents the works of local scribes, says older audiences still rely on print critics, while audiences 35 years old or younger tend to form opinions by aggregating opinions from bloggers and print critics whose writings appear online.

But box office draw is not the best measure of a critic's value, says Martha Demson, artistic director of Open Fist Theatre Company, established in 1990. "In fact, the less influential they are on the box office, the more valuable their role may be in the larger scheme of things."

She says there are too many voices, too many theaters, "Everyone's publishing, everyone's blogging. Art is about creating meaning. I think the road to its survival comes from clarity and focus -- in the making of the art and in the criticism of it."

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