A Few Things You May Not Know about Steven Leigh Morris

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Steven Leigh Morris

On Monday, grand old man of LA theater critics Steven Leigh Morris published a screed in the LA Weekly damning Bitter Lemons, one of the websites for which I write criticism. Steven Leigh Morris had some harsh words for our policy, known as the Bitter Lemons Imperative, of charging productions to review their work. It may be that Steven Leigh Morris found last week’s equivocal LA Times article insufficiently condemnatory, or it may be that Steven Leigh Morris is actually so incensed that he has to do his own condemning. It may also be that Steven Leigh Morris is an interested party, lacking the probity of the LA Times.

In his new Weekly article, Steven Leigh Morris, a journalist of over 30 years’ experience, gets several facts oddly wrong.

He states that Bitter Lemons’transparency has now 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 non-paid reviews, when the reviews get re-posted, or excerpts from reviews get quoted in advertisements, there’s no way for readers to know whether or not those critics were paid directly by the theaters for their words of praise.”

Everything in this paragraph is erroneous. Bitter Lemons runs only reviews that have been paid for. In Colin Mitchell’s signature Lemon Meter review-aggregate feature, critiques from lots of people, including Steven Leigh Morris, are taken into account. I doubt Steven Leigh Morris would claim to write for Bitter Lemons. I, like Steven Leigh Morris, have multiple critical outlets; and whenever I’ve been quoted on a poster, which is not as often as Steven Leigh Morris (partly because I am less famous; partly because I am less advocate than critic), the name of my outlet has run beside my own. I am unaware of any confusion on the part of the public.

Steven Leigh Morris also states in the new Weekly article that “Bitter Lemons’ leader, Colin Mitchell, launched his pay-for-play criticism wing for the Hollywood Fringe festival [sic]. 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.”

This, too, is wrong on multiple levels, showing at worst a bias, or at best a lack of reportorial diligence that amounts to unwillingness to read and process information publicly posted on our site. The first Bitter Lemons review was written and published on May 4, 2015, over a month before the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and did cost the production $150; I did receive $125. However, again as stated on our site, Fringe participants receive a half-off discount. For the benefit of Steven Leigh Morris: that’s $75. I, and Julio Martinez and Joel Beers et al., get $50.

In his article, Steven Leigh Morris suggests, bizarrely, that Bitter Lemons is providing “grist” for Actors’ Equity’s spurious minimum-wage initiative. I can’t address that point as anything but a desperate flail: to suggest that anybody making money in theater is somehow betraying the cause of 99 seat-ism is grotesque.

You may not know that a few months ago, when we were both writing a lot on behalf of the pro99 movement, Steven Leigh Morris sent me a little note: “We need you.” Well. Things change.

Steven Leigh Morris also makes noises in the article about Bitter Lemons’ victimizing “the art of criticism itself….[T]raditional 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?”

Good questions. The answers have something to do with the motives of a person in the position of Steven Leigh Morris.

Something else you may not know about Steven Leigh Morris is that he started the theater review website Stage Raw with an infusion of cash and marketing assistance from his friend David Elzer, a publicist who represents, incompetently, several theaters around the Southland. That David Elzer is incompetent I gather from the fact that although he doesn’t give me tickets, because I’m too harsh a critic, I have a couple of times been the only critic to review a show he’s repped. In fact I once got a call from an editor at American Theatre magazine, asking whether I could see and review a show that had paid David Elzer to attract press; the play by an established author at a venerable Los Angeles institution had, in its third week, still not received a single RSVP from a critic. Rest assured, though, that Stage Raw regularly reviews as many of David Elzer’s shows as it sees fit, and that Steven Leigh Morris has told me that he sees no potential conflict of interest in doing so.

Do you see a potential conflict of interest in a website, whose sole purpose is to generate theater criticism, taking money from a theater press rep and then reviewing his shows? You might, if you knew about it.

You probably know that Steven Leigh Morris is able to pay his Stage Raw writers thanks to a crowdfunding donation model. You may not know that, when I asked him whether theater producers, actors, designers, directors, companies had ever contributed to the upkeep of Stage Raw, Steven Leigh Morris told me: “No. Well, maybe some. Not very many.” In light of the near-blackout of interest in theater outside theater circles, I asked who, then, would pay him to write criticism, besides interested parties? “Lots of people,” he told me. And that’s transparency according to Steven Leigh Morris.

Before they turned off the funds, the Weekly used to let Steven Leigh Morris award local theaters for their good works. City Garage Theatre has been a frequent recipient of LA Weekly Awards: 11 between 1999 and 2009. In 2013, City Garage produced Steven Leigh Morris’s play, Moskva, to mixed notices. Since then, the website owned and edited by Steven Leigh Morris, Stage Raw, has either written a feature piece about, or reviewed, or both, every show that City Garage has put up. So much for the separation of writer and theater that Steven Leigh Morris argues for in his hit piece about Bitter Lemons.

Pointing a dirty finger is a dirty practice.

I want to make clear that I do not see anything wrong with what Steven Leigh Morris is doing, beyond the base hypocrisy. Theater is a small world, and the history of critic/practitioners is the original history of theater. It’s silly to suggest that a critic sophisticated enough to know something about theater won’t know and even do business with some of the people he reviews. But Steven Leigh Morris, who has chaired the Pulitzer drama jury and certainly knows better, does suggest just that – when he’s talking about people other than Steven Leigh Morris.

I don’t like to ascribe motives, but it seems possible that, as a couple of years ago when his friend and benefactor David Elzer removed Stage and Cinema from his press lists, Stage Raw will get a leg up on the competition.

You see, “interest” is the point here. Steven Leigh Morris doesn’t like Bitter Lemons’ having an interest in the shows it reviews, as if it’s any of his business, because it IS his business: now that we’re selling reviews, we’re a rival outfit to Stage Raw. It is so much Steven Leigh Morris’s business that he has told his writers at the Weekly and Stage Raw to expect blacklisting from his editorial universe if they write reviews for Bitter Lemons. Three of our critics have so far quit, only one of them specifying having had a conversation with Steven Leigh Morris during the decisionmaking process, but the fact is that Steven Leigh Morris told me his policy himself. He doesn’t like the appearance of impropriety. Therefore I imagine he will not like this article.

That Steven Leigh Morris would be disingenuous about basic theater practices seems out of character, unless you’ve been on the other side of an issue from Steven Leigh Morris. At last year’s Bitter Lemons Critics Panel, a playwright in the audience asked how he could get a regional theater to look at his work. Steven Leigh Morris stated that merit will out, and used as an example a play that had recently transferred from Sacred Fools to the Pasadena Playhouse, according to Steven Leigh Morris solely on the excellence of the script. When I pointed out to Steven Leigh Morris that the play in question had been written by the wife of a television star, and had that star attached, and that these might constitute additional motives for artistic director Sheldon Epps to invite that particular play, Steven Leigh Morris snapped at me that I was being cynical. Therefore, I am now cynical when I listen to Steven Leigh Morris.

One more thing you might not know about Steven Leigh Morris: after the first two of our critics suddenly quit, abruptly handing back slates of assignments we had to scramble to cover, I called Steven Leigh Morris to ask whether he was telling his writers not to work for us. He told me that it was a longstanding policy of his not to employ writers who had taken money or favors from productions they’d reviewed.

Ahem.

I put to him many of the issues listed above, and he very politely asked whether I would like to write about the issue on Stage Raw. I suggested we run parallel position papers on the site in a couple of weeks, and Steven Leigh Morris said he thought that would be a lovely idea. And then he went right ahead and wrote this inaccurate editorial for the Weekly, which is of course another of the Steven Leigh Morris outlets threatened by the immediate success of the Bitter Lemons Imperative (we have so far been hired to review over 10% of the shows at Fringe, and several productions outside it). So I have written this. Service for service: that’s called quid pro quo.

I will address Bitter Lemons’ ethical position, regarding our soliciting payment for criticism, at the Critics Panel this coming Saturday, June 20, at 11:30 a.m. at Theatre Asylum, and on Stage Raw, unless Steven Leigh Morris decides that’s not in the interest of Steven Leigh Morris.

[CORRECTION: a previous version of this article indicated that Steven Leigh Morris’s threats of unemployment were far more effective than appears to be the case. I apologize to those affected, and have amended the article to reflect information I should have found on my own in the first place.]

Comments (19)

U 50926 t 8092296

Almost every paragraph of Morris’s piece contains something remarkable, but for the moment my favorite part is his reference to ACTA’s statement on the matter, because he includes a helpful link. Not directly to the statement on ACTA’s website, no, but to Stage Raw, where he has posted a copy of ACTA’s statement. I was always taught to use primary sources if possible, but I’m not a journalist.

So, in a piece about how unethical Bitter Lemons is, he cites his own, now-competing site as a source, without feeling the need to disclose these facts to a casual reader. And this occurs in the same sentence as the words “conflict of interest.”

Some interesting issues have come up in the response to the Bitter Lemons Imperative, and I’d be interested in hearing a genuine discussion of them. It’s unfortunate that Morris seems incapable of having that discussion, but that means his absence from the critic’s panel won’t be much of a loss.

U 47851 t 6824318

I had really hoped to stay out of this and will still do my best to continue to do so, particularly because I have respect for you, Jason, and I know Colin’s heart was in the right place, but please don’t put words in my mouth. My decision not to be a part of BLI, which I might add never began, had nothing whatsoever to do with Steven Leigh Morris. I also have respect for him, but I have no ties to him and never have. I’ve never been much for ultimatums and one from him would have no effect for me or my decision making abilities whatsoever.

U 46928 t 1865969

It would be great if you had stayed out of it, Travis. So: your story is that after accepting a bunch of assignments, you spontaneously abandoned your responsibilities on the same day as Lyle?

U 35088 t 4659361

While I appreciate your restraint here, Travis – and I’ll let Jason respond on his own here if he wants – I just want to clarify one misnomer in your comment.

You say that your part in the BLI “never began”. Yes it did. It began when you committed to covering a number of shows at the Fringe and then decided to bail on those commitments – some on the very day that you were scheduled to do them – yes, you never wrote any actual reviews and were never paid, but you were relied upon to honor commitments that you agreed to and you didn’t. And it put us in a very difficult place. Luckily, we were able for the most part do sufficient damage control and make it right to the paying customers who were put in an awkward position.

While I absolutely understand your decision not to be a part of the BLI and I know part of your decision was in response to the first couple of reviews that I allowed to be published, Travis, it would have been a much more professional approach to perhaps give me a little lead time when you decided this enterprise wasn’t for you.

Okay, that’s it. Clarification done. Carry on my wayward sons.

U 55531 t 7728040

(just lost this page-trying again here): it seems the words are getting bitter here above- but have to admit Julio Martinez’s review of “Tree Talk”, posted under “Reviews”, made me want to see it! I think in the long run we will all have to figure out, collectively, whether this (BLI-critics getting paid by theatres/productions) was a good idea or not… I just worry about whether objectivity will be possible to maintain with money exchanged per review. I sure like the fearlessness of a lot of your writing, Colin, so will keep on reading both this and Stage Raw!!

U 35088 t 4659361

Good. I hope so, Virginia. The more the merrier. We’re not trying to put anybody out of business just trying to offer another option. Appreciate you keeping an open mind.

U 48170 t 5294524

I’ll posit a simple question, based on a blog post that is ruminating in my head. Major public corporations are required to get independent auditors to report on their financial status to shareholders. Yet the major corporations are the ones that pay the auditors. What mechanisms are in place to ensure the work that the auditors do is independent, and not tainted by their funding source?

U 47851 t 6824318

Sigh. Yes, Jason, since you posed your response as a question, I guess I need to answer again. I CAN say I “spontaneously abandoned [my] responsibilities” with no help or prodding whatsoever from Mr. Morris, for whom I have never written, either at LA Weekly or Stage Raw. Nor do I know Lyle, have ever met or even heard of him before this, so his withdrawal was also something that had nothing to do with me. The major reason for my decision to not be a part of BLI, aside from the tremendous backlash from many, many people I respected, was due to one particular sticking point: that I had been promised I would be a part of a “brigade” of highly professional writers. The first reviews posted that same day I left showed clearly that promise was not in any way met, which is when I pulled my own personal plug. I have told Colin and stated in print for anyone to see that I was sorry I felt I had to withdraw so abruptly and leave him in the lurch, but as far as “bailing on those commitments” and to avoid “sufficient damage control to make it right to the paying customers who were put in an awkward position,” I went to each producer personally and have since reviewed every show (and it was ONE the day I withdrew, not “some”) to which I was originally assigned, without remuneration — and, I might add, without in any way bashing Bitter Lemons, only saying that my regular outlet had relented, with my insistence over this mess, in letting me cover Fringe shows. Before this, by policy, this was not the case, so something good has come of all this after all. And Jason, if you thought it would have been “great” if I stayed out of this, perhaps you should have considered not mentioning my name in the first place, especially in the context of a statement that was all assumption and patently false.

U 46928 t 1865969

Okay, thank you for the correction. My apologies. Your motives are noted. Did Steven not contact you about it at all?

U 47851 t 6824318

I have not seen or talked to Steven Leigh Morris in well over a year. Maybe two. I heard about his warning to critics potentially writing for BLI, that they would never be allowed to contribute to Stage Raw, AFTER I’d made my own decision — but since I have no plans or aspirations to write for the site, that would not have been an issue for me if I had heard about it first.

U 46928 t 1865969

Well I apologize again for my poor reportage. That we are none of us perfect seems the story of the day.

Default user

Bitter Lemons has really jumped the shark, first with sleazy payola and now with these vicious character assassinations. Steven Leigh Morris and David Elzer are among the most thoughtful, stalwart, and ethical figures in the Los Angeles theatre landscape. They have represented the community as critic, playwright and publicist with honor and dignity for decades. These despicable personal attacks should convince any sane, creative and considerate theatre artist to steer very, very clear of Bitter Lemons.

U 46928 t 1865969

Cathy, if you can address the facts in the article, please do. Generalizations aren’t helpful in this case.

U 47851 t 6824318

Your apology is gracious, Jason, and I thank you… although now that you’ve altered your original post to reflect the error, it does make my answers look like maybe I’m a little bit bonkers. But then again, you are the one trying to make a serious point next to a photo of yourself wearing nothing but an apron reading: “Don’t Fuck with the Cook,” right? Peace, my brothers.

Default user

This may be out of place, but I’ve said it on BL, as well. The BLI is SO not our problem, right now. Intimate theatre in Los Angeles is under attack from AEA, and kvetching about the BLI is just so much re-arranging of the proverbial deck chairs. Lets make sure we get to KEEP our intimate theatre; then, we can discuss who discusses it, and for how much.

U 57282 t 7425610

I have only gradually become aware of Bitter Lemons, most notably through some excellent articles during the recent 99-Seat Plan brouhaha. But this article, along with the Bitter Lemons Initiative itself (which I regard as a really terrible and ethically flawed idea, and which I hope will not survive the summer), make me seriously question this site. This article is rife with so many factual errors (its account of the transfer of “Stoneface” to Pasadena Playhouse alone is so seriously flawed that I cannot even begin to address it point by point), as well as so much venomous personal animosity, that I am loathe to continue to put any stock at all in the integrity of Bitter Lemons as a source of information, much less of legitimate opinion.

Default user

Guys, take the bitch-fest offline and work it out. You make yourselves look ridiculous posting on this site. And, BTW, from a publicity point of view, names that are mentioned most (never mind the content) win by virtue of mentions alone. Steven Leigh Morris wins by a

landslide. 44 Mentions.
U 46928 t 1865969

William: no shit, right?
Wendy: if you can correct any of my reporting, please be as specific as Travis.
Frances: thanks for counting, and: yup. If anybody Googles Steven Leigh Morris, they’ll be likely to find these facts here, which I haven’t seen anybody else report.

U 46928 t 1865969

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your kind words. In fact, both Stage Raw and the Weekly have covered ZJU for years. If they haven’t got around to the Underground Fringe, it’s not really fair to say they’ve got their eyes shut to the whole operation.


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