The Bitter Lemons Imperative Remains Open for Business

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The Torch and Pitchfork Crowd hunting down the BLI

In business 3 months. 40 reviews published so far. A couple more in the chute. All paid for by the companies making the theater. All the critics doing the work being paid a reasonable wage for the work. Steven Stanley being hailed as the bastion of Los Angeles Theater Criticism by the Torch and Pitchfork Crowd (if that just raised some hackles on the back of your neck then yes that’s you). International controversy. Armageddon.

So far so good.

As you may have heard, there’s been a lot of talk happening over the last month or so concerning an experimental business model for theater criticism that we launched here at the Lemon called the Bitter Lemons Imperative (BLI). A LOT of talk. More than I even expected. And I expected a lot. And a lot of that talk, okay let’s call it bile, was directed specifically at me. It had its moments of unpleasantness, I won’t feign imperviousness, but mostly it was just nice to be mentioned.

So thanks.

Oh. Just a quick warning. This is probably going to be long. Not because I want it to be, but because I have a lot to respond to and I’m only going to do it once. So if you’re not interested in reading something thoroughly written, then you should bail right now.

Still here? Good.

I decided it was best not to respond to all the talk until a good chunk of the actual work – work that had already been paid for – was published, so that we could all get a better feel as to whether or not it was, you know, working? This was a private business venture after all, we were beholden to no one except our customers. Things were already in motion, there was no reason to respond. So I didn’t. And haven’t. But will now. At least here on the site. I did so already, publicly, you know, face to face, in person, bodily, at our annual critics panel which you can listen to in its entirety here.

Unfortunately, those who had been speaking so righteously and vociferously from the safety of their chat rooms, some who even made reservations for the event, decided not to come out and publicly debate the issue, a point that was made so eloquently when a member of the audience sarcastically thanked all the outraged Pro99ers for coming out and backing up their bile. But that’s how it usually works with the overly outraged and offended, so I wasn’t surprised. And if you want to see some blatantly biased, mostly poor reporting on that event you can do so here. And here’s a response from one of our writers, Ernest Kearney, highlighting how poor that reporting really was.

But now the dust has settled a bit, like a fine volcanic ash wafting down on Pompeii, and the time seems right, or at least less wrong, because even though I might’ve been silent during the last month or so, that silence certainly didn’t stop a whole bunch of other people from opining loudly, from the East coast to the West coast and across the Pond, talking and debating and grumbling and occasionally asking some pretty good questions.

I find that to be a very healthy thing. 

If nothing else, the launch of the BLI has ripped the mask of pretense off the vocation of professional theater criticism in the Twenty First Century and brought three vitally important questions to the fore: 

Is serious professional theater criticism still relevant and valuable?

And if so, to whom is it most relevant and valuable?

And are those people who find it most relevant and valuable willing to pay to sustain it?

As one of our own writers Jonathan Ross said to me in the midst of the hullaballoo, “Never in my life have I seen so many people talking about theater criticism!” Exactly. And as far as the personal, mostly petty and vindictive stuff that was hurled at me specifically, it’s all good. It’s the nature of the business. I can take it, as can the Bitter Lemons brand, the people that write for the site can take it too, those who can’t usually go away, and have, because it’s that kind of tenacity that’s allowed us to build our reputation and grow our audience, that and extra helpings of innovation, provocation and confrontation, hell, we’ve been making online theater here for years, folks, just a bunch of Merry Pranksters spinning plates, we are more than happy to have you be a part of the performance, even if you don’t realize you’re a participant.

But now it’s time to see if y’all can take it too. Fair is fair, right? Cuz there’s enough work out there now to substantiate the effort, and guess what? There’s more coming in. Because whether you like it or not, the Bitter Lemons Imperative remains open for business.

For the still-as-yet-unlearned in the ways of this Frankenstein Monster known as the BLI, here’s a quick primer on how it works (and yes, this is doubling as a pitch):

If you want your show reviewed. You can get it reviewed. Guaranteed. It will cost you $150. $125 goes to the individual freelance theater critic, $25 goes to Bitter Lemons for administrative costs. You are not guaranteed a favorable review, but you are guaranteed an honest, fair, passionate and intelligently written review. Oh. And it will have an edge to it. A very sharp edge. So if you’re afraid of the sight of blood, most likely your own, go somewhere else. You do not get to choose which of our writers will cover your show, but you can always see who is a part of our talent pool and check their credentials. Your review will be published publicly and in perpetuity at Bitter Lemons within three days of attendance, a website that now boasts approximately 50,000 to 60,000 page views a month, the largest readership of any theater site in Los Angeles. And still growing. Go ahead and check.

Got it? Good. You can purchase your critique here.

So with all that background information out of the way, I will now try to address as many “themes” as I can that have been raised concerning the BLI, but bear in mind, I will only be addressing those concerns that actually merit a response, as I mentioned before, many if not most “opinions” on the matter lacked anything even approaching substance, or frankly, a coherent point. As usual, knee jerk subjectivism won the day, at least the early days, after this announcement, but that was expected, when it comes to the circle jerk echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, outrage and offense are the substance-less sustenance that keeps the trollish appetites whetted while providing nothing but empty calories and a false sense of nourishment. Never before has the adage been more fully supported that those who take the most offense at something are usually those who need to. These kinds of people need to be perpetually outraged and offended, if not over the BLI, then over something else, because without such a daily affront to their precious sensibilities, they simply cease to matter, mostly to themselves. 

But, as I said, amidst the clamor of the Torch and Pitchfork crowd there were many substantive concerns and, yes, even a few worthy bits of advice on how to refine the BLI and now that the work has been published and there is plenty of data to pull from, these more worthy criticisms deserve a more worthy response.

Clarity is and always has been my main goal with this particular venture, hell, with every venture here at the Lemon really. I begged off long ago trying to win arguments or to actually try and change people’s minds over anything, it is almost always a fruitless pursuit, clarity is almost all for me now, clarity of my position, clarity of your position, then let people decide for themselves which idea works best for them.

So here we go…

The Timing of it All

To be precise, the BLI was launched on April 24th, 2015, it coincided with the launch of our newly re-designed site. The first BLI review was published on May 4, 2015, a full month before the Hollywood Fringe Festival officially began. The pitch for the BLI WAS THE FIRST POST PUBLISHED ON THE NEW SITE. It has a January date on it not because that’s when it was actually published, but because THAT’S WHEN I WANTED TO PUBLISH IT. I started working on it in January, saved it, but had to put it on hold.

Guess what slowed us down?

Bitter Lemons exhaustively and tirelessly covering the Los Angeles AEA 99 Seat controversy.

Remember that? Of course you do. Because you were reading it at Bitter Lemons. Everyone was. Don’t believe that? Then check out this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this, to give yourself just a little taste of the kind of coverage we were supplying and the kind of traffic we were getting. Why so much readership? Because it was good coverage, it was personal and varied and insightful and provocative and had a myriad of interesting perspectives and some insider knowledge and some outsider knowledge and some naughty bits and some poignant bits, all the good stuff that makes for juicy, interesting and entertaining stories. And we covered that fucker thoroughly, right down to the bone. I did. Personally. As well as several of our writers, especially Jason Rohrer and Kevin Delin. I did it for Bitter Lemons, no doubt, wanted to grow the brand beyond LA, but I also did it for the Los Angeles Theater Community. No one paid me. Did advertising go up during that time? A little. Not much. Readership did. No doubt, but that’s because the coverage was good. That’s how it works in America. You excel at something, sometimes you get rewarded. It was good for us and it was good for LA Theater. It focused the lens on LA Theater at a time when it should have been focused on LA Theater. We helped do that. Bitter Lemons. And we were happy to do it. I’m not fishing for any slaps on the back, no “attaboys,” just stating the actual facts so everyone can get on the same page when it comes to how this timeline spooled out.

Another fact: the BLI idea has been in gestation for two years. Two years. I’ve been painstakingly talking to everyone I could about it, critics, artistic directors, actors, audience members, disinterested passerby, some of you reading this right now knew about it over a year ago, many of you who are now crying “bloody murder” and asking for my ass in effigy. We wanted to launch it last year, didn’t have the infrastructure and got slowed down by some house cleaning. Wanted to launch it at the beginning of this year, but we got waylaid by the Equity thing and didn’t want to shift the focus away from such an important story. It was an excursion, the Equity thing, and I was happy to take it, as I have with so many other relevant LA theater stories like this and this and this and this, all on our own dime; we were the right people to take the plunge with the AEA controversy and we tried to bring a little humor, passion and personality to what was and continues to be a real transformative crisis in this theater community.

So after the Equity Councillor vote went through and the dust had settled a bit and with the Hollywood Fringe Festival a couple months away, we decided the time was now right to launch the BLI and the newly re-designed site. And so we did on April 24th, 2015, the seventh anniversary of Bitter Lemons.

And yes, the Fringe market was a ripe one for something like this, our advertising and traffic has always gone up during the Fringe, we are sponsors of the event, we have very close ties with the people who run the Fringe and we share a similar audience. Some people call that a smart business decision. We’re not a charity organization, we’re not a non-profit, we don’t take handouts, we are a small grass roots media business, we offer excellent promotional services and unique coverage, some free, some not. It’s a symbiotic relationship. And yes, it was also the perfect time to continue to test the waters of the BLI a little more deeply. So we reduced the regular price of the BLI – a price which I personally think is already too low (more on that later) – to $75 and figured, let’s see what happens.

I honestly can say that I did not think we would get 36 orders. Actually we got 40 but had to do a few refunds because of a variety of factors. I thought maybe we’d get a dozen, and that would’ve been fine, but 40, that was a surprise. Clearly there remains an insatiable hunger for quality criticism that is as curious, challenging and honest as the work being presented. That’s what we’re after with the BLI, an ongoing, robust, respectful, hard-edged relationship between critic and artist. And it was a tremendous thing to see young artists (and some not so young and several most definitely well established here in LA, Jeremy Aldridge, Jim Hanna, Janet Miller, to name a few) defying the traditionalists and the stodgy academics and all the spittle spattle and just step into the waters. The waters turned out to be a bit rocky for some, including us, but overall, it was a most refreshing and invigorating dip.

Taking Advantage of the Poor Fringe Folk

I expect adults to act like adults. Apparently, some expect them to act like children that need to be protected from themselves. There were some grumblings about us “duping” the poor naive Fringe participants into buying this service. Horseshit. We cut the price of our regular BLI in half to help accommodate the smaller budgets and shorter runs of the people making shows at the Fringe. I know this audience very well and the pitch and presentation of the BLI was very clear in our emails as was the description of the BLI that remains on our front page for all to read anytime they want, a pitch and description so transparent that if I tried to make it any more transparent it would literally vanish in a shock of translucent light. It was also always clear, and remains so, that our advertising was separate from our reviews. There were no packages offered in that respect. Most of the people who bought reviews seemed to be able to grasp the concept of the BLI pretty easily, that some failed to do so, frankly, is not my problem. I already have a six year old son to take care of. Bottom line: the people who bought these informed opinions accepted the clearly described terms of the service.

That said, we bent over backwards on numerous occasions to accommodate as many reasonable complaints and requests as we could. This was a new service and we were ready for a couple of speed bumps. After three of our writers wilted under the pressure from the mob and decided not to honor their commitments and leave us in the lurch, we had to scramble a bit, we gave some refunds, I had to cover some shows, hell, we even gave one company their money back and STILL reviewed their show. But overall, the response was excellent.

Here are some of those responses from the clients themselves, the good and the bad, some names have been redacted when necessary to protect the guilty:

When you’re small and low budget, you need to use every marketing outlet you can find. Bitter Lemons was very clear on the terms of their review service. I know what I’ve bought and why I bought it. I hardly think I’m being exploited by getting an opportunity to bring my show to the audience’s attention at a relatively low cost. And if the review helps more people find a show they will enjoy, the audience is not being exploited either. – Jaguar Bennett, responding to the LA Times Article of 6/21/15

And…

Thanks — I couldn’t be more pleased with the review, which I thought was very judicious. I’m glad you saw my comment on the Times article. I don’t think your critics are really thinking through the business challenges facing independent artists. But I am sure they are far too refined to think about vulgar questions like marketing. Thanks for your services and your well wishes to my show. Good luck in your current struggle. – Jaguar Bennett

Colin, I really appreciate the time and effort put into this. It’s an amazing opportunity that not many 22 year old’s get, being critiqued by a site as legitimate as yours. – Jack Myles

Colin -Thank you so much for providing an extremely professional reviewer. I really appreciated the constructive criticism, which ultimately helps me become a better writer…Thank you so much for the warm wishes on the run and thank you for all that you do to help and serve the theatre community. I’ve been actively following the site for quite some time now. – Benjamin Schwartz

Dear Colin, I am thrilled and overwhelmed. Delighted by Jason’s review and I’ve read enough Bitter Lemons reviews to know, you’re a tough team! …All good wishes and thanks for your Fringe sponsorship, as ever, Bella Merlin

Hey Colin! Thanks for having Jason out to our show!  After reading the review, he was a right “Bitter” dude!  lol  Seriously though… we are along for the ride man!!  We are a bunch of old dudes who wrote, produced, directed, and acted in a show at the Fringe!!! Who can’t have it all?!  We are blessed to be part of the theatre community… and we thank you and Bitter Lemons for being part of it!! – Bob Arnold

Thank you very much for coming to see the show and your thorough review. I wish you would have come a different night than the preview, as both the actress playing Jill and Ralph improved greatly since, as did my own stakes of losing my son. A live audience is the best coach for actors. I have been acting on stage for 14 years for Iranians in diaspora, and I have never once not sucked on opening night…Thank you again for your thoughtful and articulate review. - Shila Ommi (she invited me to her closing night party. CM)

Hey Colin, Just read the review. On my part as the ‘white hippie director.’ To be honest, I don’t really disagree. That was a rough performance and I’ve struggled at bringing a real life out of this guy I’m playing (probably a mixture of experience+time spent). It’s been a valuable learning experience and the article really gave me a note I needed. However, The article really lacks the concept of syntax in the English language. It’s kind of a circle jerk in an attempt to sound informed, full of the classic generic run on sentences that exposes lack of confidence. Clear, cut and concise is often the best route I’ve found. Other than that, thank you for coming to the show and look forward to one day winning your favor (because I am an actor and therefore want EVERYONE to like me)!

Wow!  That made my night. I wish my mother were still awake in NYC. Thanks. – Joshua Feinman

Thanks, Colin. A very interesting read. In my opinion, we’ve all had to “pay” to get reviews in the past because often you have to play advertising to get coverage from major outlets. I’ve been dealing with that situation for years. I’m glad youre giving these reviewers a home again, and an income. Makes sense to me.- you have my support- Hang in!

I appreciate Jason sharing his honest opinion, and I know we were not guaranteed a good review, but as the review was indeed quite negative, I was wondering if there is any way it can be taken down?  We’ve had an incredible response from our audiences and I’d prefer to advertise the highlights, rather than the shortcomings. Could we please have the review removed from the Bitter Lemons site? (as an act of oversight I took the time to attend the show and assess the professionalism of the review myself. Needless to say, the review is now the official opinion of Bitter Lemons and was not removed. CM)

Thank you so much for you well-thought and detailed review of Treya’s Last Dance. I found your comments extremely useful and consider, and above all, helpful to the development of the piece…We would love of for you to come and watch it again, as she and I would both appreciate your opinion on certain aspects. Just to be clear, I am not asking for another review – simply your personal opinion on whether it is moving in the right direction. I feel passionate about this piece, and want it to be in as good a shape as it possibly can, so constructive criticism from people like you is always wonderfully beneficial. -Ceri Berthan (the reviewer, Jonathan Ross, in fact did go see the show again. CM)

Thanks, Colin. That’s a great critique. All fair criticisms, in my mind. And not just because it’s kind to us. I don’t totally get all the controversy, frankly. I think you’ve proven there’s no real conflict of interest, and it solves a problem of getting critics and artists in conversation. – Samuel Hunter

Try and guess which of these people received favorable, mixed and/or unfavorable reviews? You’d be surprised how wrong you might be. Nevertheless, I was very satisfied with the response from our clients. While the T&P crowd continued to rage amongst themselves, people were getting their shows covered and critics were getting paid.

Betrayal of the Pro99

Most of the inane bullshit hurled my way from many of the Pro99 mob was so petty and clearly motivated by personal vendettas towards me, that it is barely worth my dignifying it with a response. However, as I mentioned earlier, even amidst the clamor of the T&P crowd there were actually some more reasoned and calm voices within that group that responded thoughtfully or spoke to me privately, and many of those people are folks that I respect and know personally and that merits at least something.

So here’s something.

Almost no one said a word about any of this (remember it was launched in April and our first BLI review was in May) until I published this post in early June declaring that we had over 30 reviews pre-ordered and pre-purchased for the Fringe. In other words, no one’s head exploded until they realized that this scandalous scheme with predatory predilections was actually WORKING. That’s when the fit hit the shan for most people.

This response from NYC’s Isaac Butler is one of my favorites and it came as a second post-script to his original entry:

UPDATE 2: I just wanted to note that there is some chance that Bitter Lemons’ proposed “Imperative” is actually an act of trollery. The above quote in the earlier update is just too perfectly aligned with the kind of pro-actor-pay that Colin Mitchell was so disdainful of, and I wouldn’t put it beyond them to set this kind of thing up to show the supposed hypocrisy of people who disagree with them.

The thought of this guy finishing his original post with a satisfying smirk and a proud punch of the key, then rising from his desk, then pausing for a moment as a disconcerting “although…” sneaks into his brain, then quickly sitting back down to write this epi-disclaimer-logue, still makes me laugh as I write this. Dude, you don’t need any help from me with the hypocrisy thing, you seem to have that well in hand.

The fact of the matter is, I have never, never ever, said that actors shouldn’t get paid. As a matter of fact since the beginning of this site back in 2008 I have been a staunch supporter and one of the earliest proponents for changing the 99 seat plan, because I feel it no longer reflects the actual eco-system of Los Angeles Theater. We have outgrown it. Though I certainly support and continue to support any professional artist volunteering his talents to subsidize whatever he wishes to subsidize, that’s the way it works in the rest of the world. You can read this if you feel you need a more detailed primer on where I stand and where I’ve always stood in regard to the 99 Seat plan. I wrote it in October of 2014.

Where my opinion and the opinion of the amorphous Pro99 Seat gang dovetailed was when I attempted to actively engage with Equity on this issue – I’ve been a member since 1991 – and Equity decided to lie to me and to its membership. That I could not brook, and didn’t. And if you think I’m making this up feel free to Google my name, it’s Colin Mitchell by the way, then add Bitter Lemons, AEA and the 99 Seat Plan and then peruse the hundreds of articles I’ve written on the subject this year and in the previous seven years of our existence.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Take your time.

Got it? Good.

The BLI and the Equity controversy are almost completely un-related. One is about actors, the other is about theater critics. Do they both involve money and being properly compensated for one’s work? Yes. But that’s where the similarities end. To try and conflate the two and then use that conflation to make a case against the BLI is like trying to argue that though a hamburger is not a hot dog it should be because both can be eaten with bread.

What seems to be twisting people into pretzel-like contortions in this respect is the fact that I actually have the ability to independently think and act for myself. I know, a truly novel idea altogether. Independent thought, independent action? Shivers. It makes no difference to me whether or not my opinions or actions happen to coincide with a larger group or not. My thinking has remained consistent throughout, what has changed is the subject.

That said, I can see how some people, mostly un-informed highly emotional people, might’ve seen my coverage of the AEA situation and the subsequent launch of the BLI shortly thereafter as some sort of insidiously devised power-hungry, money grab. Folks, I’m just not that smart and frankly, I don’t have the time nor the energy to be that devious.

I do find it a bit bizarre that so many people would trust me so implicitly to cover the 99 Seat Controversy, fairly and even-handedly, even going so far as to consistently feed me insider information privately, and then suddenly do an about face and call me “vile” and “boneheaded” and “appalling” and declare that the site had “lost its credibility” when I decide to launch a private business venture that employs qualified individuals within that artistic community, a private business venture where 83% of the generated income goes to those employees, while a mere 17% goes back to us. Yup. There’s a clear money maker right there…

The Insidiously Devised Power Hungry Money Grab

As I’ve already mentioned, we didn’t just pull this idea out of our asses a couple of months ago so that we could prey on the poor unsuspecting Fringe folk, it has been in process for two years, constantly evolving with each new piece of information I was able to gather by talking to people within the community and without.

So why $150?

Because it is the most sustainable number within the current climate. And again, $125 of that amount (83%) goes directly to the freelance theater critic, only $25 is going to Bitter Lemons (17%). That number was based on the varying amounts paid to the LA Times, LA Weekly and Stage Raw critics, whose fees range anywhere from $50 to $125. We wanted the BLI fee to be competitive, because we feel the BLI writers are as good as or better than anyone else making money for writing theater criticism and therefore should be compensated as such.

Frankly, I find $150 still to be too low of a number and if and when the demand increases and if and when our administrative costs increase, that number will definitely go up. Some. Always keeping in mind the sustainability within an artistic community that is still finding its financial footing.

If this was a money grab, do you really think we’d give the lion’s share to the people we are employing?

Again, barely worth a response and that response is now over.

Pay to Praise

That some people instantly leapt to this particular conclusion when they heard about the BLI – if a critic is getting paid directly by the company making the theater it must follow that that critic must be getting paid to write a positive review for that company - says more about an embedded mentality here in Los Angeles, than anything else.

Because the truth is, most of the drivel that passes for criticism or even a basic review in this town IS nothing but boosterism and the gesticulations and genuflections of glorified publicists shaking their pom-poms on command while getting free tickets and free grub at opening night and pretending like they are actually adding something to the conversation, meanwhile those who are attempting to bring some nuance and some perspective and some actual hard-edged opinion to the table are dismissed as mean or elitist or arrogant.

The epitome of this irony came when I saw one of the most vocal and vicious opponents of the BLI then touting a rave from the Tolucan Times on Facebook as a reason to go see his show. It is and remains impossible to take people like this seriously.

But the moment that finally forced me to turn away completely from the miasmic Facebook and Twitter masturbation chambers, was when I read established and well-known Los Angeles theater-makers touting Steven Stanley as the embodiment of everything that was right about theater criticism in LA.

Sometimes you get what you ask for, folks, and if you’re looking to Mr. Stanley as your be all and end all of theater coverage, then you most definitely deserve what you get.

Ask the truly seasoned and longtime professional theater critics in this town how they really feel about Steven Stanley’s work and what he’s done to erode the standard and quality of their vocation. They’ll probably smirk and shake their heads and offer a pithy comment or an outright lie, but many of them have confessed to me in private and off the record that he and his like-minded brood of cheerleaders who write for such sites as Life In LA, Stagehappenings, LASplash, Tolucan Times and the NoHo Arts District, to name a few, are a scourge on LA Theater and they have done nothing but lower the expectations and the standard of theater criticism in this town.

Granted, we here at Bitter Lemons are not exactly innocent angels in this downward trend either. The LemonMeter has created a democratization of criticism that in many ways has put all of these people on the same level, inadvertently creating a monster here and there. But the difference is that the LM is a consumer service that offers a quick, easy to understand, multi-layered snapshot of a show’s critical consensus to the audience, and for better or for worse, it’s usually pretty accurate.

What the BLI is after, however, is something different. Our goal is to provide a sustainable platform for serious criticism, a safe home for the informed tastemakers, the curious historians of the ephemeral art and the cultural contextualists in this town who have more to say and more to offer. We feel that both the more populist LM consumer service and the more sophisticated and savvy writing of the BLI can exist side by side on the same site. And that site is Bitter Lemons. It is a natural extension of what we’ve already been doing. Hell, I’ve been asked since day one why we don’t have exclusive Bitter Lemons Critics writing reviews for us. My answer was always, I’m not a theater critic. Never have been, never will be. Don’t have the temperament for it. There are others who do it much better than I. And many of those “others” are now a part of the BLI. Bitter Lemons has always been an online open-air arts market, highlighting the distinctive voice within the eco-system of LA Theater. In the case of the BLI, those distinctive voices are the serious theater critics who have already been doing the work but not getting properly compensated. We wanted to change that.

But Why Ask the Theater-Makers to Pay?

This is a very valid query and I sincerely understand how difficult it is to wrap one’s head around this particular concept. It ties into the three questions I posed at the beginning of this article, so let’s look at those again:

Is serious professional theater criticism still relevant and valuable?

And if so, to whom is it most relevant and valuable?

And are those people who find it most relevant and valuable willing to pay to sustain it?

The answer to #1, at least for me, personally, is a resounding “yes”. But it’s the answer to #2 where things begin to go a little sideways.

Before I answer that question, however, I want to use something written by Steven Leigh Morris in the LA Weekly to emphasize a point. In the article he attempts to show how the BLI will be bad for LA Theater. Here’s a snippet:

Mitchell’s market-based initiative puts this all backwards: It places the primary relationship of the critic with the theater rather than the reader. It entails a contract by which the critic is paid by the theater to write something in public as an ostensibly neutral observer, while the theater is banking that the critic will entice audiences. Meanwhile, the critic becomes the servant of two masters — the theater-as-employer and the readers, who have a rightful expectation of candor. This is why traditional print media have always insisted on a separation between critics and the theaters they review.

There’s some truth to this, but not much. Steven is a friend of mine and I respect him greatly as a colleague and a critic and a LA Theater historian, hopefully he still considers me a friend, as I certainly do him, but frankly, this was a very weak response from him which surprised me greatly. I won’t go into specifics because both Jason Rohrer and Susan Tankersley already did here and here with great alacrity and detail and for me to do so as well would be overkill.

The critic is, or at least should be, a servant to only one master: the medium of Theater itself. The artists and the audience have always been secondary, or at least should be. Once a critic finds him or herself catering to the needs of either one of these other groups is the moment that their criticism begins to become less candid and more diluted. Not that the readership and the artists should be forgotten, they shouldn’t, they can’t, it’s impossible, but their feelings should always remain secondary to the criticism of the work itself. And this leads to the answer to question #2.

After two years of a feedback and fact-finding tour it became evident to me that the people who find serious professional theater criticism most relevant and valuable today are the people making the theater. Not the audience. Not the readership. Not that those two groups don’t find some relevancy and value in serious criticism, but it is not the priority to them when making their theater-going decisions. They look to their social networks, they look to word of mouth, to buzz, to familiarity with the artists or the companies, they look to big names, big events, they find something interesting in the subject matter; this is how the audience makes their decisions as to what kind of theater they will see in the Twenty First Century.

When I realized this truth I had to of course then ask myself the third question: are the theater makers then willing to pay to maintain and sustain the serious theater criticism which they so value? Because the audience isn’t going to do it, that’s become painfully obvious by the once reliable publications continuing to cut their theater coverage. Do you think they’re doing it to be mean? No, they’re doing it because people don’t read serious theater criticism anymore. No readership, no advertising dollars, so it goes.

And so, in the formation of the BLI I had to turn directly to those who still find relevancy and value in the product, those making the theater, and ask, would they pay? 

The answer for me, was yes, maybe. If one could assemble a group of already trusted writers and those writers were gathered under an already trusted brand, maybe, just maybe.

And so the BLI was born. And so we are where we are at this moment in time. But new models ask people to think differently, and so it is with the BLI.

The Appearance of Impropriety and the Conflict of Interest

This is truly the most baffling criticism of the BLI and in many ways the most insulting to the writers that have signed onto the BLI: the notion that these well respected extremely experienced writers would suddenly drop their integrity and standards at the door because they’re getting paid to do what they’ve already been doing.

When someone pays me to do something that I’m already doing and doing well, guess what happens? I end up trying to do it even better than I was before.

The bottom line is trust.

Here is something written by ex-LA Theatre Review critic, current LA Theater artist and current Brimmer Street Theatre co-leader, David Jette, back in 2010. He was an excellent theater critic but finally had a reversal of conscience when it came to the vocation and wrote about it when he decided to flee the post and concentrate on his work as an artist. I’ve always found his words to be very relevant to this whole business, then and now:

I have a horse in the race, is what I mean, and after a year of straddling the fence between critic and critiqued, I found the conflicts of interest to be too damning and difficult to navigate. So I quit, but not before I discovered the guilty thrill of panning an awful show, or the even guiltier shame of pandering to popular mediocrity. I was a willing participant in the great chicanery that is LA theater criticism, and for that I am sorry…

I want critics to be smarter than me, more experienced, and more involved. I want them to direct me through the marketing and the hype to pieces that are truly valuable. More than that, theater needs critics who can look past themselves and their need for entertainment and write with authority about the substance, context, and meaning of a particular piece without forcing themselves into the picture…

The answer, as Morris pointed out, is full disclosure. I am not going to stop writing about theater on the internet, and I probably won’t stop giving my opinion about the shows that I see. What I won’t do is ask for a free ticket, or write in a stilted third person that hides my self-interest or inexperience with the format. I am going to write as myself – an artist and an advocate, a voice among a thousand who only wants to see our scene get better and better. That’s all I’m really qualified to do…

Full disclosure. Experience. Trust.

Indeed.

Do you trust the BLI writers to deliver fair, honest and intelligent criticism and do you trust Bitter Lemons to broker that fair, honest and intelligent criticism? If you do not, then you should most definitely go somewhere else, there are other options. Not many, but some, LA Times, LA Weekly, Arts In LA, Stage Raw, some of the writers at these outlets are excellent critics and have been offering valuable coverage for years. If they happen to notice your production, you might get some of that valuable coverage, if they don’t, you won’t. That’s how the present and long standing business model of theater criticism stands. That said, the coverage on these sites – except perhaps for Stage Raw – continues to dwindle and I predict it will completely vanish in the not too distant future. And then what? Are we just going to have Stage Raw to turn to for our theater coverage? That and a few outlying blog sites? Is that situation satisfactory to everyone?

Well, it’s not satisfactory to me.

The BLI is simply ANOTHER option, not the ONLY option. But it is most definitely the ONLY option that GUARANTEES you will get that coverage, if you pay for it.

The American Theatre Critics Association chimed in on this very subject of “appearances” and “editorial oversight” concerning the BLI, with this official statement on their site:

The American Theatre Critics’ Association, the only national organization of professional theater critics, is concerned with the model started by Bitter Lemons. While it does not guarantee a favorable review or allow theater companies to choose the reviewer, this pay-for-play arrangement creates a clear appearance of a conflict of interest. That appearance, even if spurious, undermines the crucial credibility of not only the Bitter Lemons’ critics, but all critics. Our profession has fought for decades to preserve the image of independence. 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 in deciding what and what not to cover.

Sounds harsh, right? Well, that was their public statement. Here’s what the ATCA Executive Chairman, Bill Hirschman, told me on the phone in private:

We are in no way out to impugn or condemn you, your writers, your site, or this new model, as a matter of fact we will be watching with great interest to see how it develops.

One thing I learned during this controversy, what a critic tells you in private, is rarely what they will say in public. Another reason why I could never be a professional theater critic.

But let me very quickly touch on this phrase that continues to get bandied about over this subject, this “conflict of interest”. Is it a “conflict of interest” when Steven Stanley announces publicly that he rarely goes to a show that he knows he won’t like? Yes. Is it a “conflict of interest” when Steven Leigh Morris teams up with a publicist to start a site that then covers many of the shows that that publicist reps? Yes. Is it a “conflict of interest” when the LA Times covers shows that pay large amounts of money to advertise with their publication? Yes.

And guess what? I don’t give a shit.

Because as one of our writers Jason Rohrer has already put it so eloquently on a couple of occasions, that’s the way it has always worked with the business of theater criticism, hell, in most arts journalism. Does it mean I’m going to trust those critics any less because they are associated with an outlet that clearly has a “conflict of interest” with the show that’s being covered? No, it doesn’t. Because I trust the individual writers.

And herein lies one of the most fundamentally seismic shifts in serious professional theater criticism in the Twenty First Century that most people seem unable to grasp: it is the individual voice that is now the brand.

I’m going to pay more attention to a review written by Ernest Kearney than I am Pat Taylor, no matter which outlet they may be writing for. Certainly a good review from the LA Times still carries some influence, but not that much as you’d think. Even longtime LA publicist, Philip Sokoloff, attested to this at our critics’ panel, when he stated that two recent shows he repped got LA Times Critic’s Choice notices and those notices did nothing to bump up the ticket sales whatsoever. The time’s (and the Times) are a-changing. We are simply trying to get ahead of the curve and try something different.

People want a Charles McNulty review or a Steven Leigh Morris review or a Bob Verini review or a Bill Raden review or a Jason Rohrer review or a Tony Frankel review (well maybe not Tony) or a Myron Meisel review or a Katie Buenneke review or a Travis Michael Holder review or a Frances Baum Nicholson review, because they trust these people to deliver honest, consistent quality criticism. That is the essence of the BLI: creating a sustainable platform for these worthy but under-compensated individuals to thrive and be free.

My ultimate goal is to never have to edit a single word of the BLI reviews and just allow the original voice of each of these writers to shine through and become their own brand. The reader will find the voice that most closely aligns with their own sensibilities. Such is how it is and always will be in the world of “informed opinion”. If these writers go onto higher paying better read publications, more power to them, I will consider our work a success. If our readership continues to grow because people want to read the reviews being written by these individuals on our site, again, success, for them and for us and for our artistic community.

This “conflict of interest” and this “impropriety” are simply “appearances” left over from an old paradigm that is quickly eroding due to the changing means of gathering and disseminating information and opinions in the digital age, ethics and integrity are the values that remain, as they always will in this respect, because either you trust a writer or you don’t, the consistency and quality of the work will always be the final deciding factor and so it is and will remain with the BLI and those who write for the BLI.

I’ll finish this particular segment with an exchange between one of our writers, Julio Martinez and well-respected LA Theater artist, Pat Towne. This was grabbed from the Facebook wires before I unplugged from that brain drain:

Julio Martinez: I have a simple task for all you discerning folk who are “standing on the street and throwing rocks through Colin’s windows.” Look at my reviews. I wrote 9 of them for Colin and deservedly got paid for every one. Show me an instance where I was insincere, unprofessional or pandering. I look forrward to your clear and objective criticism. I just think I was doing the job I was paid for. Did you really believe you could set out to injure Colin without injuring the people who advocate and participate in his monumentally brave project?

Pat Towne: Hiya Julio! I assert your ire is misplaced in my direction, good sir. Indeed I am not one of Colin’s plan’s detractors. In fact I have talked with him personally at length a couple of times about his decision to give the plan a whirl.

And while I have told him that I would not use it (‘cause… I just don’t think I’d have to here in L.A. given my track record of doing theatre here – I ain’t braggin’, I’m just sayin’), I have found it an intriguing, out of the box idea, and well worth testing in the marketplace. I’m sure I do not need to tell you of the disappearing of ink given to theatre here, and therefore opportunities are disappearing for professional critics such as yourself to make a living. 

I find this fact EXTREMELY disturbing because it seems to me that more and more, productions are relying on bloggers to assess and promote their work, and I think your average ‘I just love the theatre’ bloggy person doesn’t have the gravitas or expertise or training or discernment to make a serious contribution to the conversation of analyzing the shows we do.

I want critics who know what they are talking about to review my shows, and I would also like for them to make a healthy living at it. That’s why I find Colin’s new paradigm compelling. 

Fuckin’ dude is trying to do SOMETHING to help, and if the market tells him ‘no’, he’s fine with moving on. The most important thing about his decision to do so, was the recognition that something needed to be done. So…let’s try this.

Additionally, I have been annoyed at the assertion that a critic ‘SIMPLY CANNOT BE OBJECTIVE’ in such a model. This assertion, I assert, is bullshit and a massive insult to the established theatre critics of this community. I grilled Colin about the safeguards that would be in place to eliminate conflict of interest – ie. random selection of reviewer, no promise of good (or bad) review. AND I HAVE NO REASONNONE – TO QUESTION HIS INTEGRITY OR THE INTEGRITY OF THOSE CRITICS WHO ARE A PART OF THE NEW PLAN

Meaning I think he’s going to deliver what he says he’s going to deliver – an honest assessment of a work based on the opinion of what the reviewer saw. In fact when I saw your name on the list of reviewers, my opinion of the plan went way up because it is my opinion that you are one of the best evaluators of theatre in the city. 

Colin’s been plenty ready for the heat, and as far as I can tell, he could give a fuck about the criticism of the plan, and good for him. I honestly think the dude is just trying maintain a living for people who devote themselves to this particular art form (criticism) as the old school ways are drying up.

At the same time I can appreciate Steven Leigh Morris’ (and the ATCA’s) overall criticism of this kind of paradigm in general terms that the ‘appearance’ of conflict of interest is enough to undermine the critic’s voice in such a paradigm, and the hard fought independence they’ve established is in jeopardy. I really do get that. That this kind of plan – while it may be an honest and earnest effort – may be abused by the less scrupulous organization.

But then again – I will point to an example of what is happening now in the bloggisphere. I have heard tell that there are bloggers out there who, knowing that a pull quote is what a production seeks for promotion, will write one specifically usable (even if the overall review is bad) in order that a link to THEIR website will be embedded in the on line promotion of the show, in order to drive traffic to THEIR website because – in the words of one blogger – “that’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

And I’m sure that THAT kind of paradigm is going to blossom more and more. I mean, just look at what has happened to criticism of the movies: media companies who produce movies and own newspapers can guarantee any movies under the collective banner will receive some kind of good review, regardless of the movie’s quality – or at least a good pull quote with a tiny tiny by-line – cause they just need the word ‘TREMENDOUS’ for their movies to sell, even if the next word in the review was ‘disaster’.

So… whither criticism? I dunno. Neither does Colin, really. I think he’s just trying something in an environment that is obviously changing.

As I mentioned, there were a few reasoned, thoughtful and calm voices out there willing to give the work a chance. Pat is and remains one of them.

The Quality of the BLI Reviews

And speaking of “the work”, lets focus on that for a moment, shall we? Because the work is and always will be open for any and all criticism, because that ultimately is the “product”. It is what we are trying to improve and sustain with the BLI.

Notable arts administrator, producer and blogger, Howard Sherman, offered this in response to our original launch:

Bitter Lemons became almost compulsory reading for me this year as the site was a central disseminator of information, inquiry and invective during the heated debate over Actors Equity Association’s promulgation of new guidelines for the 99 seat and under plan that had been used in Los Angeles over the past 25 years. In passionate and at times exhaustive detail, Bitter Lemons has been a champion of retaining the 99-seat plan as is, and I fully expect the site to continue to fight for that cause so long as supporters in the Los Angeles AEA community seek to make their case.

That’s why I bring up the optics: here is a theatre site, arguing for the right of union actors to work for notably less than AEA actors elsewhere in the country, that is saying their theatre coverage is dependent on being paid to cover that same community. To be sure, there are some apples to oranges issues in this comparison, but as I say, I’m referring simply to how it looks, not the particulars.

Yes, by all means, let’s not actually look at “the particulars”. That would be far too…relevant.

Here are a few of those “particulars”:

Of the 40 reviews published so far, 15 have been unfavorable, 11 have been mixed and 14 have been favorable. That’s about par for the course, or else should be. As I mentioned, 2 more orders are in the chute and should be published in the next couple weeks, so the data continues to come in.

Many tried to focus all of their bile on the first couple of reviews published by Joel Beers (especially Joel’s) and Katie Buenneke, highlighting them as clear examples of the fraud we were perpetrating, sputtering, “Is this the kind of work you want to pay $150 for?”

Here’s the opening from Joel’s first review:

I don’t know about the rest of you people, but if someone pays me to write about them, I suck them off with such vigor that their ejaculate explodes into the back of my skull with such force that I feel like the bells of Notre Dame pounded by Quasimodo on a Keith Moon bender.

After getting that mostly out of his system, Joel eventually went on to write over 600 words specifically about the show that he saw, still almost three times as much word count coverage as anything you’ll see at any other outlet or publication in Los Angeles.

Sherman wasn’t impressed by this particular “particular” and said so in the same article as an update:

Perhaps this is merely showing off in the wake of comments and blog posts about the new policy, or perhaps as Isaac Butler posited in his post “Startling Chutzpah In The 99-Seat Arena,” we’re all just being punked. But regardless of Bitter Lemons’s motivation and intent, I think they’re doing serious damage to their credibility. I would really urge all makers of theatre in Los Angeles to put their money back in their pockets and, if they paid by check, they might want to stop payment now.

Katie’s review also started with a passionate and personal diatribe, though not quite as eloquently put as Joel’s. Here’s a little taste from that:

Well, golly gee whillikers, you might be thinking to yourself. There’s absolutely no way Katie could write an honest, unbiased review of R&J, a gender-reversed Romeo and Juliet. After all, you think, she has 50 mutual friends on Facebook with someone in the cast!

Oh no! You got me. That’s right. I went to college for theater (I know—what a surprise, I love theater so much I wanted to study it in an academic environment). A college in L.A., in fact. A college whose graduates often perform in the Los Angeles theater scene. And someone who went to the same school as me is in this very play that I’m about to review.

Shock! Horror! Pearl-clutching! There’s absolutely no way I can keep a level head about this, right? I mean, gosh, what if she reads my review and dislikes what I have to say? I could never live with the guilt of knowing that someone with whom I share 50 mutual friends on Facebook might dislike what I have to say!

Or, you know, not, because I’m a mother-loving (hey mom, ’sup, I love you) adult and a professional.

So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, can I write the rest of this review? Great.

Where I made a mistake in this case, however, was in publicly expressing on the site that Katie’s review might not be quite up to the snuff I’d like from the BLI reviews, i.e. if you’re going to try and be glib at least make it witty. I told Katie this in private and she actually agreed this wasn’t her best work. But I should not have mentioned that in public and I apologized to Katie for doing so and am doing so again publicly now. Hey, I’m learning too! Katie, unfortunately, later bowed to the pressure in the early days of the blowback and has since departed.

But here’s the thing, not only did I support the substance and tenor of these two reviews, I encouraged them. Both Katie and Joel write for and have written for the LA Weekly. Both were indirectly but publicly threatened by a public announcement from Steven Leigh Morris, in which he said that it has always been the policy of the LA Weekly that anyone accepting direct “quid pro quo” payment to write a review would be banned from ever writing for the LA Weekly again and he also mentioned that this policy would be the same with his current outlet Stage Raw. Katie wilted, Joel has not. But both Katie and Joel were rightfully enraged by the blowback, especially those who said they would lose their credibility and their legitimacy if they participated. The tenor of those first two reviews, for me, was pitch perfect in response to those outlandish threats and disparagements. 

Since then the work has been mostly focused on the theater, but I continue to encourage these writers to be themselves and to not shy away from letting their personalities shine through, in whatever form that takes. This too is part of the evolution of the BLI. As I mentioned this is going to be theater criticism with a sharp edge, if you can’t handle the sight of your own blood, you should probably go elsewhere. If you can’t handle “free market” theater criticism, then get in line with the rest of them and hope for the best.

Loss of Editorial Independence

And speaking of that “free market” theater criticism, there were many thoughtful voices out there who were concerned over the possible loss of “editorial independence” in relation to the BLI. Here are a few of those voices:

This from Scottish journalist, Mark Fisher:

What concerns me more about the Bitter Lemons scheme is that it favours only those companies that can pay. The question would be less about what the site published than what it didn’t publish. At the moment, if you buy a newspaper or alight on any other theatre blog, you can read the reviews in the reasonable belief that someone thought the shows were interesting enough to write about. A pay-per-review scheme means being interesting is no longer the main criterion. What counts is a company’s ability or willingness to come up with the dosh.

That would be good neither for the website itself nor for the theatre ecology as a whole. If a producer chose not to pay, it would be as if their show never existed. The website would be imbalanced, readers would be left in the dark and worthwhile artists would be excluded from the critical discussion.

It’s a good point, but again, this is simply ANOTHER option, the traditional model still exists out there and if a show that can’t afford to pay gets noticed, then they’ll get a notice. If they don’t, they still remain invisible.

This from Oregon blogger, Bob Keefer:

Bitter Lemons has abandoned the most important aspect of editorial independence, which is choosing what to review in the first place. There is no such thing, the adage goes, as bad publicity. And Bitter Lemons is now offering their editorial judgment for sale, cash on the barrel head.

That, I think, is a bitter lesson. And one that does not help the cause of theater.

Unfortunately, Mr. Keefer offers no evidence to support his claims, so really, there is nothing to refute here. He simply believes that if he says it is so, it must be so.

And then there was this summarized snippet from American Theatre’s podcast discussing the BLI, a conversation which included Editor Rob Weinert-Kendt, Deep Tran and Suzy Evans:

One of the most important things an outlet does is choosing the shows to review. It’s not supposed to be a free for all. We hope it goes away. If Colin is serious about helping theatre criticism he should put together a consortium of theaters to help pay for it and then he can choose what to review.

Why can’t it be a “free for all”? Our LemonMeter has already created a way for those lonely voices in the wilderness to be included in the critical conversation and while it certainly has manufactured its own share of monsters, it has also allowed some of the best writers of theater in LA to rise to the top. And the LM is now a trusted lexicon in LA Theater. We’re just trying to offer that same option to those making the theater.

Some Other Observations From Near and Far

Before I get to my final thoughts (yes, we’re almost done) I did want to air out a few other notable responses and then offer my own responses to them. Here they are in no particular order:

This from LA based blogger Daniel Faigin:

In short it boils down to trust and integrity of the reviewer – or as one trainer put it, you either have ethics in your soul or you don’t. Ethical an honest reviewers will honestly tell you what they think of a production, irrespective of any “bribes” from the theatre, because their goal is not to make the production succeed, but to make theatre as a whole better. Unethical reviewers don’t have that mission, and unscrupulous producers will take advantage of them.

Yep. Couldn’t have put it any better myself.

This from Playbill, interviewing David Cote on the BLI:

“On the one hand, on the Bitter Lemons site they make the case”, Cote said in an interview with Playbill.com. “There’s money allocated for advertising and marketing. Why not eliminate the middle man and go straight to the critic? But this just sets up an unhealthy relationship between the critics and the theaters…not because they’re going to get positive reviews or the critic will feel pressured to write positive reviews. If they’re a terrible critic or desperate for money, that might naturally happen…it’s unhealthy for the audience and for the reader ultimately. They’re getting a product that isn’t as pure as it could be.”

Was it ever really that pure to begin with? Sounds to me like one of those urban myths like “the good old days”. But Mr. Cote makes at least one salient point and my response is this: our “editorial oversight” occurs in the signing of quality critics, for me “casting” is always 90% of the job. The people I’ve handpicked and who have agreed to be a part of the BLI are already established and are already trusted. We’re just providing a home. After that, the rest is simply a natural collision of critic and art and I’m happy to let the chips fall where they may, because I trust these writers to do the work.

And finally, this from NYC based Theatre of Ideas blogger, Edward Einhorn, who in my opinion offers the most thoughtful and nuanced of all the opinions so far on the BLI:

This brings me to Bitter Lemons. Unlike Kirkus, they don’t have paid/unpaid wall. On the other hand, they don’t need one: all the reviews will be paid for. And though they have a certain following in Los Angeles, they do not have cache of the major print publications. Paying for a review in The New York Times—or The Los Angeles Times—is one thing. But from a well respected blog? That gets into much more iffy territory.

And of course it comes with a stigma: you paid for it. You are not worthy of a regular review. If you were worthy, reviewers would be reviewing you for free. They would rush to see your show and put words in print, because they would sense the importance of the work. They would have heard from…someone. 

This is of course bullshit. Plenty of worthy work goes unseen. But still, it is a mantra fervently believed, especially among many critics. There is a true blindness that many critics have to their own blindness that I find disturbing.

But my own critique about Bitter Lemons new policy is not that it is inherently immoral, or a breach of journalistic ethics. To call it biased is to ignore the accepted biases in reviewers, pre-existing slants mostly based on reputation, or a taste for one type of art over another, or one set of ideas over another, or perhaps one gender over another. If anything, I suspect the Bitter Lemons reviewer will have that same doubt most hold lingering in the back of his or her mind: why did this artist have to pay for it?

Does self-interest pay a part in their decision? I cannot know what lies in their heart, but I suspect it plays a part, as it does in us all. But I don’t particularly care. What I do care about is whether this is a model that can break through the barrier for those whose work is rendered invisible. This I doubt. Ironically, if it were, their business model would be an ineffective one. Because in order for it to be effective it would have to adopted by every large publication as well. And then: $150 for a single blog review when I can get a reviewer down from the LA Times for just $800? Who wants to shell out on the little stuff?

But if the Bitter Lemons policy inspires people to reexamine the reviewing model we have, just a little bit, I welcome it. Sadly, all I have seen are angry denouncements. Which is an easy way to avoid the real problems in the system as it stands.

Good stuff.

“This is a model that can break through the barrier for those whose work is rendered invisible.”

Indeed. Thank you, sir, for keeping an open mind and seeing the potential. 

There were a few others out there you can read here, here and here, but the above were the ones I most wanted to respond to and now have.

Final Thoughts

Let me finish with this: we are continuing to refine the BLI model and will continue to do so until we think it works as well as it possibly can, if you find this model simply too distressing for you, don’t use it, but don’t pretend that it’s repugnant on “ethical” grounds or due to the fact that there “appears” to be a “conflict of interest” and don’t pretend that this is some sort of “money grab” or an attempt to “dupe” or “gouge” the poor, innocent, naive artist out there who doesn’t know any better. Because that simply isn’t the case. If you’ve read everything I’ve just written and still think otherwise you are being delusional and I’d suggest you return to the comfort of your circle jerk echo chambers, I’m sure you will find more than enough offense and outrage to feed your precious sensibilities.

The BLI is a sincere and genuine attempt to address the loss of quality theater coverage in this town, to say otherwise speaks more to the quality of the detractors than to the integrity our motivations. I’d ask that those still on the fence and those who still actually have the ability to think and act for themselves to try and give it a chance. Let the market have its say. If the demand dries up and it fizzles and fades, so be it. This is simply an experiment, one that does not bet the bank on its success, and its demise will not sink the ship. And if this experiment creates a market and others come up with even better models, again, I would consider the BLI a success, even if our particular model goes the way of the dinosaur or gets outclassed by someone else.

As always, we here at Bitter Lemons are more than happy to blaze the trail that others will follow. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.

But also know this, people are presently still buying these reviews whether you like it or not and even some of the academics and traditionalists themselves are being forced to give this a second look, as evidenced by this from USC journalism and communications professor, Joe Salzman, from the LA Times article written by Mike Boehm:

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.

And for those of you out there who are making the theater and are tired of having your work overlooked and think your stuff will stand up under the judgement of a top class, high quality, extremely experienced Los Angeles theater critic, the Bitter Lemons Imperative might just be for you. Give us a shout at [email protected]

And for those more “established” companies out there, large or small, the BLI is open for you as well, feel free to give us a shout if you’re tired of all those re-assuring slaps on the back and are ready for some honest reportage on your work.

For the rest of you, feel free to keep your torches well-oiled and your pitchforks well sharpened, as I’m sure there will be plenty more monsters out there for you to chase in the very near future, but for now this particular monster, the Bitter Lemons Imperative, remains unscathed, unfettered, undaunted, and most definitely open for business.

Relentlessly yours.

Dr. MacFrankenstein

Comments (3)

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An interesting post. Yes, I took the time to read through all of it, and in general I agree with the points you made. I’m also very grateful that you didn’t linclude my little blog with the “like-minded brood of cheerleaders who write for such sites as Life In LA, Stagehappenings, LASplash, Tolucan Times and the NoHo Arts District, to name a few”. I recognize that I can sound like a cheerleader, but that is primarily because I’m laying out my own money for the shows I go to (yes, even when they are arranged through a PR person, I pay — so be prepared, Theatricum Botanicum, when I go out there in a few weeks). When I lay out my money, I tend to pick shows I like. I’m personally offended by the notion of a critic or reviewer that will only go to a show when they get free tickets and free parking. I’ve discovered that if you have that reviewer / critic / observer gene, you’re going to comment on whatever you see whether it is free or not. But you know my opinion on free tickets, where I’m definately swimming upstream.

Back to the BLI. A number of weeks ago, I spent a lot of time developing a post for my blog with a proposal for the BLI that was specifically engineered to address all the concerns that were circling out there. My goal was the same one I have when I write up shows: I want to make things better, not tear them down. I believed there was a way to achieve what you wanted with the BLI and address all the concerns. I tried hard to get some of the naysayers specifically to review the proposal, so that I could make sure every concern was addressed. I got a few comments, revised it, put it out again as a password protected post and… nothing one way or another. If you decide you want to look at it, let me know and I’ll send you the password. If you want it posted, let me know and I’ll do that.

Since then, however, it appears the attention of the naysayers has gone elsewhere. This is no longer the fun issue for them; they would rather rail on about the inactivity of the folks working to save 99 seat theatre (when in reality, there is probably quiet work going on that isn’t for public ears — yes, there is a reason classified information is classified).

I think the BLI will settle down and find its way as part of the overall ecosystem, and I think that is a good thing. I would, however, like to call your attention to two podcasts that (as I listened to them while commuting) made me think of the BLI and all the issues swirling around it. You might be able to gleen something from them — at worst they are entertaining for the drive on the freeway.

The first was an episode of Ken Davenport’s Producer Perspective podcast. He had an interview with Ben Brantley of the NY Times ( see www.theproducersperspective.com/my_weblog/2015/06/podcast-episode-26-ben-brantley.html ) where he talked about the state of criticism today, and the issues of conflict of interest. I particularly found the part where he described how he picked what shows to see and whether he assocated with others in the industry quite interesting.

The second was a bonus episode from the second season of the Gimlet Startup podcast ( gimletmedia.com/episode/bonus-but-wait-theres-more/ ). In this episode, they go into the apparent conflicts of interest from advertising in general — and in particular, endorsement advertising (I use this product and I like it). That line — between advertiser and endorser — is very similar to the line between ad and critic. What’s interesting here is how it touches on the problems faced by small operations — such as websites — that don’t have the staff to provide the traditional separation.

As you know, I think the primary thing the BLI needs is transparency. It needs to be clear to someone reading it or going to a writeup that it was part of the BLI, and that the BLI consists of paid reviews by independent critics who have pledged to provide independent and unbiased reviews. A disclaimer to that effect should be at the bottom of each writeup (so it is more contextual than just where it is on the site). My bigger problem is with the site front page, where the BLI reviews crowd out the other commentaries and news. Either there should be a separate scroll for BLI reviews, or the graphic for each review should have a BLI symbol on it to distinguish reviews from other news and commentary items. You could even adopt the convention that there is a particular symbol for each part of the site.

Here’s hoping the rest of the community takes the time to read what you have said. I have always found you to be someone who cares about this community greatly — so greatly that you’re willing to run a website (which is like being a banjo player — you get tens and tens of dollars) and deal with the slings and arrows for the community. Unlike a lot of other people, you’re willing to try things. Some work, some don’t, and some need adjustment — but you make that effort (which is more than most people do).

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Always glad to collect royalties for my $0.10 use of ‘chicanery.’ Also good to see the invisible hypocrisies of traditional outlets brought into clear relief by more upfront schemes like BLI. Business is more honest when done in public.

Default user

“Bitter Lemons has abandoned the most important aspect of editorial independence, which is choosing what to review in the first place. There is no such thing, the adage goes, as bad publicity. And Bitter Lemons is now offering their editorial judgment for sale, cash on the barrel head.”

This kind of blinkered naïveté is ridiculous or disingenuous. Editorial decisions at all of these outlets are certainly influenced by Press Agents on a consistent basis. That’s after all what the agents are selling to their clients, their ability to place a story or secure coverage. And you know who can afford press agents? The larger monied producers thand theaters. If anything your BLI system actually provides a rare opportunity for coverage not based on back room relationships.

What I find of interest in this scheme (not derogatory) is that it ultimately threatens the business of press agents the most. And given how screwy the business of paying a press agent for the luxury of their relationship with editors and writers feels plenty gross already, I wouldn’t shed a tear to not have to spend $4k on a press agent again.


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