Independent theatre criticism or payola?

WE’RE CREATURES of habit. When we hear of something being done differently, our knee-jerk reaction is to condemn it. It’s certainly hard not to respond that way to a scheme by Los Angeles website Bitter Lemons to charge theatre companies for the privilege of being reviewed. If you’re putting on a play and you’d like it to be covered by one of the site’s high-calibre reviewers, it’ll set you back $150.

For the past couple of centuries it’s never been done like that. What we’re familiar with is a system where publishers not theatres pay for reviews. This has several advantages. If the critic’s loyalty is to the publication not the theatre, it’s more likely their judgement will be independent and impartial. And if a review is directed to the reader not the theatremakers, it’s more likely to tell it like it is.

The system is imperfect (critics are rarely as neutral as they’d like to make out and publications can have agendas of their own) but it’s worked reasonably well. 

Until now, that is. Thanks to the open-access nature of the internet and the contraction of print journalism, we’re living at a time when many critics are not paid by anybody. For those who regard criticism as a profession and not a hobby, it is becoming increasingly hard to see how to earn a living from it. That’s where the Bitter Lemons idea comes from. In the absence of money from publishers or readers, the website has turned to the theatres themselves for revenue. As the website put it:

Simply put, if a producer or a theater company wants their show reviewed, they can get it reviewed, guaranteed, but it will cost them $150 per review and that review will be originally published at Bitter Lemons.

A couple of days ago, it even claimed to be having a degree of success:

On the eve of opening night for previews at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Bitter Lemons has over 30 exclusive Bitter Lemons Reviews ordered and purchased – that’s right pre-purchased – and those top quality works of theater criticism will be rolling out over the next couple of weeks. You’ll be able to see them all in our Bitter Lemons Reviews section here.
We offered a deeply discounted 50% off our regular price of $150 just because we love the Fringe community so much and understand how important it is for them to get quality coverage from a truly experienced, savvy, historian of the ephemeral arts, plus we saw this as the perfect opportunity to introduce the Los Angeles Theater Community to our new business model for theater criticism.

In the thread beneath this article you’ll see how editor Colin Mitchell has been dealing with accusations that this is a “bonehead move” that amounts to “payola”. It has been criticised in greater depth on the Parabasis blog and by Howard Sherman who said:

But linking coverage to cash on the barrelhead smacks too much of payola, of pay for play, even if it’s out in the open. I think it can only serve to diminish the site’s credibility, and may well, in the long run, result in a diminished Bitter Lemons, which would be a shame. After all, can this model hold up if paying companies start receiving blistering pans, or simply indifference?

These are valid concerns and the proof will be how the scheme plays out in practice. I’d suggest, though, that the ethical concerns are not the greatest problem. If the writers remains true to their existing standards and the theatre companies really do roll with the punches, I can imagine it working – at least in theory. I can foresee another problem about how theatre companies would choose to allocate their review funds ($150 would get them only one review and I imagine they’d want more than that), but maybe they’d find a solution to that as well.

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.

We can only watch what happens, but it seems to me that while the impulse to raise money from a different source is an understandable one, Bitter Lemons is not looking in quite the right place. 

If theatremakers and audiences believe in the value of criticism – and if they agree that valuable things should be paid for – then we need to find sources of funding that have fewer strings attached. I’m thinking about arts councils, charitable trusts, universities, theatre federations or other organisations, such as Hall for Cornwall in Truro, that have an understanding of the bigger picture and a belief in editorial independence. These alternatives could still lead to ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest, but then so does the existing system, and in an era of declining newspaper revenues, they seem to offer a more likely future for the professional critic.