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The L.A. Times’ Drama-Critic Drama

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There's been a presidential election, two Olympics, a NASA tragedy and a war. That’s how long the Los Angeles Times has been without a designated drama critic.

For the record, this pathetic situation has dragged on since December 2001, when Michael Phillips left Spring Street after two years for the Chicago Tribune. It’s been such an embarrassment that the subject arose several times at the National Critics Conference, held at USC May 25-28, including during a panel discussion on employment in arts journalism. That’s when an obviously sheepish Lisa Fung, the Times arts editor, assured the audience that the newspaper was actively looking but wouldn’t make a hire until it found the right person. According to conference attendee and Curtainup.com reviewer Laura Hitchcock, incredulous laughter spread throughout the room — as well as murmurs of “Three years? Three years!”

Finally, the paper on Tuesday announced the selection of its new point person on the theater beat: Charles McNulty, a Yale University School of Drama Ph.D., head of the MFA program in Dramaturgy and Theater Criticism at Brooklyn College, and a senior editor at our sister paper, The Village Voice.

Even in its own announcement, the Times couldn’t help but acknowledge its “exhaustive search.” I say it was just exhausting, period.

“It’s been very frustrating that it has taken us this long to fill this job,” Sunday Calendar editor Bret Israel told me Tuesday. “But really, the actual reason is that the paper places such a high premium on its critics. I’m very confident that Charlie will distinguish himself to the same extent as our other cultural critics. I know his criticism of theater will be penetrating, intelligent and amusing.”

Editors John Carroll, Dean Baquet and John Montorio were searching far and wide, hard and long, long, long for a “star.” In the words of one Times source, they were “looking to hire a god and holding out for a great hope.” They especially wanted someone known in worldwide theater circles with an already impressive reputation.

Just one problem: A star wasn’t looking for them. The Times truly combed the globe, considering Charles Isherwood, a New York Times theater critic, and Matt Wolf, Variety’s veteran London theater critic. But LAT brass found it next to impossible to pry any established theater critic from the neon lights of New York or London to come to what was obviously regarded as a quaint theatrical outpost where musicals like Wicked come only after premiering on the Great White Way.

“Good people were reluctant to move to Los Angeles,” an LAT insider tells me.

So why not look for someone within L.A.? Nah. Times editors are nothing if not dismissive of local talent, even on their own editorial roster. For instance, LAT theater critic Don Shirley has been with the paper for more than 10 years. But he was deemed not enough of a star to be given the lead job. The LAT also had within its ranks one of the country’s best theater critics, Sean Mitchell — the first non–New York drama critic to win the prestigious George Jean Nathan Award when he was the critic for the old Dallas Times Herald — but chose to ignore him. Even at several of the paper’s notorious editor-staff discussion groups, writers who told Montorio they were interested in being the drama critic received perfunctory nods from the editor, but no interview or follow-up.

Because Montorio is a NYT renegade and a close pal of famed former NYT drama critic Frank Rich, who is now one of the paper’s op-ed political columnists, the editor by all accounts was feeling even more pressure than usual to make this hire stellar. Too bad he dismissed any attempt to build a star of his own, like he did when he took a chance on up-and-coming film reviewer Manohla Dargis (then at L.A. Weekly, now at the New York Times), or when he chose TV reviewer Carina Chocano (previously at Salon) to be her replacement.

Close to home, L.A. Weekly’s own theater editor and critic, Steven Leigh Morris, discussed the job with Israel and Fung, who told him back in August 2004 he was on “the shortlist.” However, he wasn’t contacted again, nor was Steven Mikulan, L.A. Weekly’s other theater critic, who won the Nathan award for this paper.

But was the vast delay worth it?

Certainly not for L.A.’s frustrated theater community.


For starters, the consensus is that McNulty is no household name like Rich. Still he’s considered capable enough. Those in the know tell me McNulty is a safe but pretty uninspired choice. The star of the Village Voice theater department for many years has been chief critic Michael Feingold, a brilliant, contentious, yet also entertaining contrarian. When McNulty writes reviews or features, they bespeak his academic background and read like term papers, which can be death for a newspaper critic. By contrast, the LAT’s previous drama critic, Michael Phillips, was a good combination of studious yet passionate writing. McNulty needs to blossom.

 

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 athing 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.


Email at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com

 

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