The old adage, "you get what you pay for," has acquired new meaning on the Los Angeles theater scene, where a busy stage website, Bitter Lemons, is making this offer to theaters: Send us $150 and we'll send you a reviewer.
Bitter Lemons founder Colin Mitchell says he's responding to the dwindling number of reviews by professional critics amid upheaval in the media industry. Many traditional outlets have retrenched in the face of falling advertising revenues they'd relied on to fund coverage, including arts reviews. He's asking theater companies themselves to help fill the void.
But many are refusing, adamantly.
"I would be embarrassed if I paid for one of these reviews," said Brian Polak, marketing and communications chief at Pasadena's Theatre @Boston Court. "The majority of [theater] people are upset and think it's a bad idea."
"It sounds a little weird," said Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West Players in L.A. "`If you pay me I'll cover you.' That sounds a little criminal."
"This … arrangement … undermines the crucial credibility of not only Bitter Lemons' critics, but all critics," the American Theatre Critics Assn. said Friday in a written statement. "When our work is put out for sale to those we cover, we are concerned not just for the criticism itself, but for the bypassing of editorial judgment" as to what merits attention and what does not.
But some apparently see it as an opportunity: As of Friday afternoon, 16 shows in the Hollywood Fringe Festival had been reviewed under the new policy since it kicked in on June 6. Mitchell said 23 others are in the pipeline.
That will mean about $2,000 for reviewers, whom Mitchell says he has vetted for skill and experience, and about $1,000 for Bitter Lemons. Fringe Festival participants are getting a half price introductory break of $75 per review, with the critic earning $50 and Bitter Lemons taking the rest.
At the full price, Bitter Lemons' cut remains $25, and reviewers get $125. Another perk for the critics is all the space they want. Mitchell said four "regular" shows outside the Fringe Festival have booked future reviews.
"I trust these writers," Mitchell said Friday. "If the work's no good it's not going to fly."
In the first review under the new policy, veteran OC Weekly theater critic Joel Beers decided to confront the triple-barreled barking he anticipated from theater people, journalists and readers.
"Really, there's no way [of] winning," Beers wrote in a profanely sardonic preamble to what eventually became a negative review of "Sin: A Pop Opera."
A positive review, Beers said, would be seen as a craven sellout, and if he dared write a negative one, Bitter Lemons likely would lose a customer and his own paid assignments would dry up.
"So, since I'm only in this for the money, and the bloodthirsty mercenary in me trumps any pretense of integrity and balance, the rest of what follows in this review … will be a bunch of positive, compromised hokum."
Mitchell did not want to comment at length for this story, but explanations published on his website detail his motives and how the system works. If the theater community does not feed responsible theater criticism by paying for it, Mitchell reasoned, then it will go on wasting away, with consequent harm to the theater ecology.
"We will guarantee you [a] quality review," he promised his potential customers. "You don't get guaranteed a favorable review." They also don't have a say in who he sends.
Joe Saltzman, a professor of journalism and communications at USC, said that words such as "appalled" and "atrocity" flashed in his mind when he first heard what Bitter Lemons was up to.
Then he checked out the website, saw Mitchell's explanations, and read some of the reviews.
On further reflection, Saltzman said, "I think it's not that bad a deal. It's a fascinating way to try to solve a very difficult problem I thought was unsolvable. They don't have money to hire critics, so how else do they keep a pool of talented, freelance critics? As long as it's transparent, as long as the audience isn't being fooled, I don't have a problem with it. I wouldn't be happy paying $150 for a bad review, but if you had enough faith in the work, you could gamble."
Established theaters with a solid reputation can expect a number of professional reviews of each show without having to shell out cash for them, said Polak of Theatre @Boston Court. "But it puts the new and younger, smaller companies in a really difficult position. They're the ones who will be more desperate to pay for a critic, and less likely to have the infrastructure to pay for it."
Polak said he knows some of the critics on Bitter Lemons' roster and trusts them not to bend a review because of who's paying them. "But there's a possibility that there's a subconscious pressure to tailor a review so the invitation might be open for future [jobs]."
Dave Barton, artistic director of the Orange County theater companies Rude Guerrilla and Monkey Wrench Collective, is also a veteran theater and art reviewer for OC Weekly. He thinks Bitter Lemons' gambit is a step down "a slippery slope" that will devalue criticism regardless what the reviews might say.
"If you got covered and got a good review in the L.A. Times, it meant you were good," Barton said. "It bolsters the work, because you've got somebody raising the level of expectation for what the work should be."
A review loses its trustworthiness and cachet, Barton said, if it isn't generated by an editor who has decided a show merits coverage for which the publication is willing to pay.
"If I hadn't had [media] gatekeepers there's no way I would ever have grown" as a theater artist, Barton said. "Informed opinion is a vital thing, and it saddens me to see where things have gone."
Mitchell has had a wry and colorful style as a theater blogger dealing in news and commentary, but until now Bitter Lemons had not offered original theater criticism. The site's calling card has been its "LemonMeter," a ranking it issues by sifting through all the published reviews it can find and boiling streams of prose down to a single number that theatergoers can use as a guide. The best score is "100% Sweet" and the nadir is "100% Bitter."
Beers, who'd written four of the first 16 Bitter Lemons reviews, conceded in an interview that "I didn't think it would get off the ground because it's a very unorthodox model and one that has obvious inherent problems. But I love getting paid to write, that's what I do, and I'm not going to give it away for free."
He said his regular freelance gig at OC Weekly was cut from a weekly column of reviews to every other week; he cobbles together a living from other freelance pieces for a variety of publications on a variety of subjects, along with part-time bartending and teaching as an adjunct faculty member at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Paul Hodgins, longtime former theater and dance critic for the Orange County Register, was listed in a January Bitter Lemons post as part of the pool of reviewing talent available for $150 a pop. Hodgins recalled having discussed the idea with Mitchell, but said he never agreed to join the stable. In any case, Hodgins said, he stopped writing arts reviews about a year ago when the Register switched him to other assignments. It did not hire another staff theater critic. Because of budget cuts, the newspaper also no longer has a visual art critic.
What Bitter Lemons is doing, Hodgins said, "is an imperfect if earnest and well-meaning attempt to find a new revenue stream for serious criticism. Perhaps it will work with some fine-tuning. Perhaps it's not a good idea." He expressed no chagrin at having been listed incorrectly on its roster of reviewers.