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Thursday, Jun 8, 2023

Big Role to Play

After a series of dramatic cuts to L.A. theater coverage, a veteran stage critic is raising the curtain on a new online publication to bring more coverage and reviews to the scene.

The site is called Stage Raw and was launched last week by Steven Leigh Morris, a longtime theater critic for the LA Weekly.

Morris said the new site was born of necessity, since there is an abundance of live theater in Los Angeles – but a steadily shrinking pool of information in local newspapers for theatergoers and others in that community.

“One of the things people feel is lacking is a place to turn to know what to see, in a cogent form,” Morris said. “That’s what the Weekly used to do.”

Morris is still a stage critic at the Weekly, but he decided to start his online venture when the publication decided late last year to slash the number of theater reviews it publishes each week from about seven to about two. The paper also cut the frequency of his column from weekly to twice monthly.

Morris put up a landing page for the site last week and was planning to add local show listings. The next step will be to start posting editorial content, such as show reviews, next month.

He’s trying to finance the site with donations from people interested in seeing a rebound in theater coverage. Morris said the site has raised enough money through word of mouth to pay freelance writers for two to three months, though it is still well short of the $31,000 that would keep it running through the entire year.

Some of the site’s early contributors are theater industry professionals. That could raise questions about whether the site’s content will be biased one way or another, but Morris said the site will maintain complete editorial independence. Such financial contributions can go toward purchasing ads on the site, he added.

Local cutbacks in theater coverage go far beyond the Weekly. Last month, the website LA Stage Times suspended publication. In addition, actors’ trade publication Backstage stopped reviewing theater in Los Angeles last year. Morris said the Los Angeles Times has halved its theater writing in the past decade.

One problem is that print advertising continues to drop industrywide – and many of the small theaters in Los Angeles don’t have the money to purchase ads. Morris is hoping to incorporate ads eventually, but for now he’s relying on donations.

The other question is more existential: Is there demand for the professional theater review in a time of abundant amateur opinions posted online?

“We’re in this Yelp generation,” said Deborah Behrens, the former editor of Stage Times. “We’re in this transition time of, Whose opinion should I value?”

Equity arrangement

The L.A. theater scene has long been a secondary act in the public’s mind to the local film and TV industry. But theaters have also flourished thanks to Hollywood’s steady influx of talent.

Los Angeles is fertile ground for theaters thanks to a waiver from theater workers union Actors’ Equity Association. The waiver policy allows union actors to work at below-union wages (sometimes just a few bucks) in L.A. theaters that have 99 seats or fewer. That lets smaller venues stage shows at low cost, sometimes even featuring known talent.

As a result, there is a preponderance of small – or as theater executives like to say, intimate – venues around town. In total, there were about 600 theatrical productions in Los Angeles –most of them at 99-seat-or-under theaters – in 2011, according to an Actors’ Equity study on the 99-seat waiver policy.

The problem is that many theater companies operate as non-profits and struggle to pay their rent. Some well-regarded companies haven’t even been able to do that. For example, Open Fist Theatre Co. was priced out of its location on Santa Monica Boulevard’s theater row in Hollywood this summer. Given those challenges, there’s little money in the theater industry to spend on print or even Web advertising, said Simon Levy, producing director at the Fountain Theatre, who personally donated a small amount to the launch of Stage Raw.

“There are not a lot of discretionary funds available to do the kinds of advertising that large organizations have built into their budgets,” Levy said.

With little money flowing out of theater ad budgets, it has become a tough financial equation for newspapers to maintain coverage in a time of belt-tightening.

Still, readers of theater writing include the acting community, stagehands and playgoers, said Sasha Anawalt, director of arts journalism programs at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

So the critical community has rallied online. A number of L.A. theater sites have popped up, including Bitter Lemons – a kind of Rotten Tomatoes-styled theater review aggregator – and ArtsinLA, a site started by former Backstage writer Dany Margolis. After the recent closure of Stage Times, one of its writers, Julio Martinez, has been posting at ArtsinLA. Another, Don Shirley, who also used to write at the Times, is writing for news blog L.A. Observed.

So there is still information out there among the sites. But with less exposure in mainstream print outlets, it’s tough to tell if word of local theater is spreading beyond the community.

That’s created a challenge for publicists, who are often hired by theaters to promote their shows.

“It began to freak out publicists,” Behrens said. “Where are these stories going to go?”

Coverage collapse

Morris has been covering local theater at the Weekly for 25 years. He began emailing a proposal for Stage Raw around theater circles last month. Helping him spread the word is veteran theater publicist David Elzer of L.A. public relations firm Demand PR. The site is accepting donations through Pasadena Arts Council, a non-profit company.

Just weeks after the proposal was sent out, Stage Times, which was run by non-profit service organization L.A. Stage Alliance, ceased operations and laid off staff due to budget problems. It remains to be seen whether it will be revived.

Morris is planning to contract with about eight theater writers he has worked with at the Weekly who have had their space in the paper cut either partly or entirely. The plan is to have eight or more reviews posted on the site each week, along with long-form features, profiles and insider gossip.

For now, there’s a lot of chatter in theater circles about whether his experiment will work. Anawalt at USC said the arts journalism world is eager to explore new funding models as old ones go away.

She thinks traditional theater criticism can succeed online, since artists and theater executives will always want to have their work critiqued by writers with a background in theater and knowledge of that world, not just Yelp reviewers who might have just seen their first play.

“Having a great big chorus conversation about your work online is fantastic,” she said. “But most people also want the traditional theater critic.”

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