A Few Things You May Not Know about 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.
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.]