Don't Circle the Wagons!

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Too often in theater there's as much drama backstage as onstage.

Back in January, I told you about the LA Weekly cutting their theater coverage by 70 percent. Well, the scramble to figure out what comes next resembles a mix of melodrama, French farce, and civic tragedy.

First the back story, the LA Weekly was the de facto paper for LA's smaller theater scene. With Steven Leigh Morris guiding the section, it had the most reviews, the closest thing to a comprehensive theater listing, and a weekly piece by Mr. Morris that tried put things in perspective. When the Weekly announced they were scaling way back, there was a collective gasp behind the scenes. 'This was a huge loss and something had to be done!'

Now, it's telling that there wasn't a major uproar from the theater community but remember this is just one starting point for our story. We could easily begin with Backstage West dropping their theater reviews or Michael Phillips leaving the LA Times, or the death of Dramalogue, or half a dozen other minor calamities. The point is the trend line was already headed in this direction.

So at first it looked like LA Stage Alliance was going to be the knight in shining armor. Steven Leigh Morris began writing for their LA Stage Times blog. Here was an existing online publication - maybe everyone would coalesce around it, it would expand its reach, problem solved, right?

Well, on January 31 LA Stage Times announced they were going on hiatus: shutting down their journalistic efforts: the model just didn't make money. So much for that saviour.

So then there was chatter about crowd funding a review site which has led to two new projects. The first is being championed by the Pasadena Arts Council - that should tell you something right there - that LA needs to look to Pasadena for leadership. Basically, Steven Leigh Morris has taken the LA Weekly "Stage Raw" brand and critics and set up shop online. The site just launched. It's an elegantly clunky skeleton at the moment and it's too early to give a review of the reviews but it looks like the goal is to recreate the Weekly coverage with a "Pick of the Week", listings, et cetera. The tag line at the bottom of the page is "The Essential Doesn't Change."

Now, across town Colin Mitchell, the tenacious editor behind Bitter Lemons, a site that aggregates LA Theater reviews, is trying to launch an initiative that cuts out all the middle men. Basically, theater companies would pay for a review. A challenging model to be sure.

So where does this leave LA theater and LA theater journalism? And more importantly why should you care?

Well, it's clear everyone's circling the wagons . . . and that's part of the problem. These online models are geared towards people who are already looking for theater coverage. One need look no further than subscription audiences in America's regional theaters to see what happens when you count on serving the people you already reach - it's a diminishing proposition.

Now we can argue which is the chicken and which is the egg. Is LA theater suffering from a lack of critical response, or is it no longer worthy of broad coverage because it's no longer giving voice to Los Angeles?

Either way, this is a canary in the coal mine for journalism, theater and the civic fabric of LA.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Anthony adds:

The fallout from the LA Stage Times hiatus also includes one bright spot: Don Shirley's posts are now part of the LA Observed website. To me this is the only bit of positive news in the mix. For both theater criticism and LA Theater to reach beyond their existing audience, they have to be part of a larger venture. There has to be the opportunity for someone to 'stumble upon' it. What better place than a website geared to folks who care about the politics of Los Angeles?

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Steven Leigh Morris has posted some hints of the future plans for Definitely not 'more of the same' and exciting. The real question is what will drive traffic to the site and who that audience will be. To me, the promise lies on the edges of the spectrum.  A bit like politics, the site could reinvigorate the base (i.e. the heart of LA Theater: folks who are already engaged - either theater makers or avid theatergoers) or become a big top that attracts new audiences to the theater (and more broadly the arts -  it's promising that their second 'issue' has branched out into features on the visual arts).

For Los Angeles' sake, I hope the site is a huge success."