In For a Penny: A little “Bitter”

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”
– Confucius, The Analects

I read quite a few articles the past two weeks that have left some strong impressions on me. Three in particular.

One was a sort of “retirement letter” by Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle art critic from 1985-2015. He reminisces about spending that time both witnessing and actively taking part in the changing face of San Francisco’s art scene and cultural make-up. As an SF native, it brought back a lot of strong and sad memories connected with my hometown (the Quake of ’89, the redesigns of the art museums, etc.). He mentions that the influx of residents, particularly over the past decade, has brought with it a lot of people with no interest in or connection to art. What’s worse, they seem to have little knowledge or appreciation of this city’s contributions to art or the fact that it is a work of art. He ends his piece with no regrets, but rather with a great deal of gratitude to have experienced so much within the span of 30 great years.

The second was a LongReads essay by Nathan Rabin. Rabin has long been my favorite pop culture writer (he’s the one who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” after watching Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown) and a helluva raconteur. But despite having spent the past decade-and-a-half getting paid to write on the internet – a medium with nowhere near as bleak a forecast as the newspaper – he recently found himself let go from his regular job of writing for the website The Dissolve. He goes into painful detail about the indignity of being a man in his mid-30s forced to move with his wife and newborn child into the wife’s parents’ basement. As he elaborates, pop culture does not highly regard people who write on the internet from their parents’ basements. Like Baker, he ends his piece with a lack of assurance about the future, but all the more determined to have no regrets about what his former life has brought him.

And then there was the theatre article (yes, this does have to do with theatre). Now, I’m of mixed feelings about the LA-based theatre website Bitter Lemons. They’ve written pieces I quite enjoy (“I don’t want to ‘Support’ Your Show, I want to ‘Enjoy’ It”) and several I don’t (too many to name). I imagine the way I feel about them is the way most people feel about them. Or HowlRound. Or – as I can personally attest – us here at Theater Pub. But what caught my attention recently was their announcement of the so-call “Bitter Lemons Imperative”, in which any company that wants their show reviewed on their website will have to pay $150.oo for the privilege.

Um… okay? 

Now I know that several folks have written about this already, so I’ll try my best not to just parrot what they’ve already said. Having said that, I do agree with their assessment that this is a bad idea. A really bad idea.

My knowledge of the LA theatre scene isn’t as intimate of my knowledge of the Bay Area scene, so I’m forced to ask: is Bitter Lemons so vital to the stability of the scene that it can make such demands? Seriously, I’m asking? If so, then bravo, BL, for being so valuable in a world that – as shown in the essays above – continues to put less and less value on artistic critique. Hell, earlier this year Theatre Bay Area had to cease production on its print incarnation and become entirely digital. Nearly every art zine and alt-press publication I knew growing up has vanished forever. So on the one hand, as a fellow arts writer, I tip my cap to BL if they’ve found a sustainable way to stay financially afloat in this business. Mind you, if.

On the other hand, whether the idea is profitable or not, it still has the problem of being both pretentious and elitist. Pretentious in the way BL appears to be lording their opinion over the theatre community (I know they say their motivation is just to stay afloat, but still…) and elitist because, let’s face it, what indie theatre company is going to put aside a single dime just for a review? With all the money spent sending out postcards and buying a single poster to put outside the theatre, we’re now expected to pay money out of our own pockets what some ‘Red Velvet’ Goldstar member with poor grammar and a stuck CAPS LOCK button gives us for free? Surely, you jest. Granted, I’m guessing the BL folks would bring considerably more knowledge than a potential Goldstar reviewer – both of the craft of theatre and of the local scene – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still trying to (as the old term goes) sell ice water to eskimos.

And there’s still the inescapable fact that a company with more money could potential buy positive reviews. Think of it this way: movies are often screened a week or so before their public opening for critics. The critics are by no means required to positively review the film, but the studio is hoping for a blurb to put on posters. If a critic gives enough negative reviews to films from one particular studio, it’s not unheard of for that critic to be uninvited to future screenings by said studio (Roger Ebert spoke of this quite often).

Now what’s to stop this from happening at BL? What’s stop a touring Broadway show from, say, paying above the asking price in the hopes the BL will put a great deal of emphasis on the productions positive qualities? What’s to stop them from paying enough to wear a truly brilliant indie show doesn’t get mentioned at all while the touring show gets prime real estate on the homepage? What’s to stop BL from creating their own David Manning who does nothing but spout off positive notices for one company, but negative ones for their competition?

There’s getting paid for what you love and then there’s flat out prostitution. There’s a reason they say “No Press is Bad Press” and it’s because reviews are adverstising. Positive reviews are even better advertising. But if you’re going to say that you’re holding a standard of artistic critique, when does that standard lower for the sake of advertising revenue? 

I started off this piece by sharing the Baker and Rabin testimonials because I truly get where both they and the BL folks are coming from. When people seems less and less eager to pay for art (let alone art critique), it’s easy for a sense of desperation to set in. Compromises are made. Boundaries are crossed. Things once thought impossible become par for the course. But there has to always be a line. I probably wouldn’t have a problem with the Bitter Lemons Imperative if the price were directed at, say, other art critique outlets and media. If they were charging the New York Times to reprint one of their reviews, I’d think the price was high, but I’d be willing to hi-five them for getting that kinda cash from the biggest newspaper in the US. If they were doing this for American Theatre or one of the publications that’s still in print, I’d feel different.

But they aren’t. They’re asking the artists to put up this money for potentially dubious reasons, and that’s something I find morally objectionable. I don’t know what the long-term solution is staying afloat as an art critic these days. But if this is what it takes, you can count me out.

I dunno… maybe Patreon?

Charles Lewis III will gladly critique your work for free. That’s why he writes on the internet, because his opinion is worth bupkes. To read more of his meaningless words, follow him on Twitter (@SimonPatt) and Tumblr (CharlesandhisTypewriter).

The Real World: Theater Edition: Tools for Today’s Playwright

Barbara Jwanouskos is bringing a more writer-focused bent to her column, and starts the transition with a link packed tool-box for today’s Fresh Off the Grad School playwright.

If you’re a playwright out there trying to write, make connections and get produced, there are a couple resources you should be aware of that might make it a bit easier for you. I’ve put together a mini guide to memberships you may want to consider and a couple sites online where you can read and participate in discussions involving theater.

The Dramatists Guild
Playwrights don’t have a union like screenwriters and TV writers do, but they do have the Dramatists Guild and when it comes to issues of legality, the Dramatists Guild is an excellent resource for playwrights, composers, and librettists. It has been around for over 80 years and has over 6,000 members nationwide. As a member, you receive a subscription to their publication, The Dramatist, as well as a guide to playwriting opportunities, and information about other meet-ups that are helpful to networking with other playwrights.

The best thing about the Guild is how they advocate for your rights as a playwright.

YOU: Wait, I have rights??
ME: Yes, you do.

Take a second to visit their site and you’ll find the Bill of Rights, which includes being compensated for your work as a playwright if the production charges admission and/or compensates others on the production team – EVEN IF IT IS VERY SMALL. You will also see that no one can change the words in a script you’ve written without your approval and other helpful rights. While these are not laws, they are modes of conduct that are fair and equitable and any good theater company will not only be aware of, but also abide by. As a member, you can also call (800-289-9366) the Guild if you are having legal problems with a production of your work and they will advise you on how to navigate the problem.

July 14-17th marks #RightsWeek, which is sponsored by the Dramatists Guild, Samuel French, and HowlRound, when theater makers will be having a series of online and offline conversations about one’s rights in the theater, specifically with regards to intellectual property. Follow the above listed sites and use the hashtag #newplay and #rightsweek for more information.

The Playwrights’ Center
The Playwrights Center is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is an excellent resource for playwrights of all experience levels. They offer several fellowships for emerging, mid-career and experienced playwrights that include fantastic benefits such as a respectably sized stipend to offset financial costs associated with devoting all of your time to playwriting, mentorships with more experienced playwrights for those emerging, and staged readings and productions of your work.

For members, they offer many discounts to bookstores, software, and theater publications (like American Theatre put out by TCG). They are an excellent resource for playwriting submission opportunities around the world. Their search functions and organization makes it easy to identify which ones you are interested in pursuing. They also offer classes to their members conducted by their group of Core Writers. Sadly, they are held in Minnesota, so you would need to take a trip out there if you’re coming from here.

The Playwrights Foundation
Not to be confused with the Playwrights Center above, the Playwrights Foundation is based in San Francisco. It offers a variety of classes for playwrights to brush up on their chops – a lot of them taught by local writers like Lauren Gunderson, Octavio Solis, and Eugenie Chan. I’ve taken several classes here and have always had a great time and broken through blocks I’d had in writing.

The Playwrights Foundation also hosts the Bay Area Playwrights Festival each summer that includes a selection of new plays, many of which go on to be produced by the Playwrights Foundation or other companies.

Theater Bay Area
I’ve only recently joined TBA, so am not as familiar with what resources are available and exciting to playwrights. But, from what I can see, you gain access to the Job and Talent Bank, which is an excellent resource (as Ashley mentioned the other day) for audition listings. I have also seen job postings and playwriting opportunities online when I’ve searched it after starting my membership. You get a subscription to the Theater Bay Area magazine and discounts on tickets around the Bay. They also support artists through small CA$H grants and have a Lemonade Fund to support artists who are terminally ill.

In addition to the above, these online discussion sites are great places to keep up with your theater news and issues:

HowlRound includes essays and editorials on theater making. Writers and artists of all kinds participate in ongoing discussions about the most prevalent topics in theater.

Bitter Lemons is a site devoted to LA’s theater scene, but also has some great essays that take up sometimes controversial stances on the practices of making theater.

2AMt is another great site for essays and views on theater.

Born Ready is a podcast hosted by Rob Ready and Raymond Hobbs where they make fun of the issues theater has.

What other resources (memberships, websites, podcasts, etc.) would you add? Let us know!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright who recently moved back to the Bay Area having completed the MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.