LOS ANGELES: It’s Hollywood Fringe Festival season, and this year one of the fest’s keynote events, the annual panel of critics sponsored by the provocative local theatre website Bitter Lemons, opened with a startling piece of theatrical showmanship of its own. As each of the veteran critics on the panel arrived, they found an envelope taped to the bottom of their chair. Each envelope contained a crisp $20 bill. As the critics murmured their approval, Colin Mitchell, Bitter Lemons’ editor and publisher, who was moderating the panel and who had taped the cash under the chairs, cackled, “You have all been openly and transparently paid! I hope that you will all be able to maintain your integrity!”
The cash-payola gift was undeniably a stunt and a joke, but it stood in for an unusual debate over Bitter Lemons’ latest shift in the conventional paradigm of theatre criticism in Los Angeles. Mitchell, a longtime gadfly and critic of local stage critics, recently launched a review section on Bitter Lemons, which had previously chiefly served to aggregate reviews by others. The new initiative, called the Bitter Lemons Imperative, is making a particular stir because it is straightforwardly, unabashedly offering reviews for sale, pay-for-play style: Theatre producers can flat-out plop down $150, and Mitchell will assign one of his cadre of critics to review the show. The critic will get $125, and Mitchell’s site pockets the rest. (Fringe reviews have been half-priced.) According to Mitchell, purchasing a review does not guarantee a positive notice: It could as easily be a pan, regardless of the fact that the producers have paid good money for the critic’s time and attention.
This, needless to say, is a through-the-looking-glass reversal of long-accepted journalistic traditions, in which writers and editors are kept entirely separate from advertising and other revenue-generating departments in the interest of maintaining journalistic integrity and independence. It’s one of the most unassailable axioms of journalism—keep the cash flow and the news feed separate—but it’s one which Mitchell and company are downright assailing.
The Bitter Lemons Imperative’s rollout was, unsurprisingly, met with controversy; the American Theater Critics Association released a statement deploring the website’s plan to directly accept payment for reviews. “This pay-for-play arrangement creates a clear appearance of conflict of interest,” noted the statement. “That appearance, even if spurious, undermines the crucial credibility of not only the Bitter Lemons critics, but all critics.” The ATCA statement was released almost simultaneously with an article in the LA Weekly, Los Angeles’s main alternative newspaper, in which critic Steven Leigh Morris opined, “To say ‘let’s slide further down the slippery slope’ doesn’t make it any less of a slide.” In the midst of the controversy, some critics on the initial roster of Bitter Lemons reviewers backed out of participating in the new venture.
Bitter Lemons responded to these criticisms with a vituperative ad hominem attack by writer Jason Rohrer, calling into question Morris’s own motives (Morris’s website StageRaw also covers theatre in the Los Angeles area). Though Morris had already begged off the panel due to a scheduling conflict, several other critics withdrew from their annual appearances on the panel in the wake of the feud.
Faced with these cancellations, Mitchell moved quickly to replace Morris and the other critics with several of his “Bitter Lemons Review Brigade.” Perhaps that’s why the panel on Saturday felt less like an introspective discussion of the state of theatre criticism in L.A. than an extended infomercial touting the benefits of the Bitter Lemons Imperative.
To the site’s credit, if there are any problems with Mitchell’s new policy, they do not reside with the caliber of writers, most of them local veterans who are clearly confident enough in their professional reputations that they are willing to operate within this rather sketchy organizational structure. (Necessary disclosure: Mitchell invited me to join the Bitter Lemons team in spring of 2014—he’s been brewing the idea for a while—but I declined. I also cover theatre for Stage Raw.)
Former longtime Variety critic and KPFK radio show host Julio Martinez passionately defended his decision to write for the site, noting, “No one has ever told me how or what to write, and all the other concerns are inconsequential. The only consequential thing is that I am getting paid to review theatre.” Martinez added that, following his time at Variety, he wrote for various sites for free just to continue plying his trade. “I do the same job whether I’m paid or not, so when I was offered the opportunity to write for money, I jumped at it.”
Martinez went on to point out the disgraceful behavior of some local reviewers, purportedly sent to write positive reviews of shows if the producers have bought ads in their papers. Other reviewers are rumored to trade positive reviews for invites to opening night parties. “At the Falcon,” Martinez alleged, there’s a critic who’s popular “because she likes everything and they get rid of a lot of meatballs on opening night.” Frances Baum Nicholson of Stage Struck Review and the Pasadena Star-News, noted, “When hasn’t there been a conflict of interest? If they pay me, they still get honesty.”
With 43 reviews having already been sold, the site’s customers generally appear to be satisfied with the product. Bella Merlin, appearing in the Fringe in her solo show Nell Gwynne: A Dramatic Essaye on Acting and Prostitution, claims to be well pleased by her review by Rohrer. Yes, it was a rave, but even if had been a negative review, Merlin said she would have been pleased with her purchase. “All mention is a good mention,” she said.
But Mitchell’s apologia for his site’s pay-for-play reviewing scheme raises a number of questions which his otherwise exuberant panel presentation simply was not able to resolve satisfactorily. When asked whether productions who purchase reviews that turn out to be negative would have the right to simply “spike” or delete the reviews from the site, Mitchell’s answer seemed oddly fuzzy; he mentioned a policy that might involve him seeing the reviewed show a second time to determine if there was any grounds for emendation.
Additionally, Mitchell’s notion seems to be that, because a separation of editorial and advertising doesn’t always prevent a conflict of interest, it’s therefore all right to simply do away with even the pretense of independence. And that inevitably worries professionals versed in the craft of theatre criticism. As Morris put it, “It rips up the covenant between critics and readers, that critics are financially independent of their subjects, thereby torching the divide between criticism and marketing.”
It will be hard if not impossible for Mitchell’s site to ensure with certainty that the customer’s purchases aren’t influencing the results of the critics’ work. It might be that the site just doesn’t care about these things. But to that, one must reply with the old saw “Don’t care was made to care.”
Again and again, Mitchell and the panel insisted that there must be a “trust” built between the reader and the critic. But it appears that the Bitter Lemons Imperative’s trust is built on a premise of hardboiled cynicism: Since you know that the play’s producer is buying the review, if the review happens to be truthful (i.e., critical), that will seem an unexpected blessing. Should the truth really come as a surprise from a critic?
As opposed to the principle of the Chinese Wall or the church-state divide, which is the standard analogy for the separation of editorial from advertising, Mitchell seems to be following a model more like the Uber ride-sharing system: The critics, with their names and “brands,” are writing the reviews, and Mitchell is the “app” that connects the theatres to them.
But as with Uber, which has had its share of growing pains, who will watch the watchers? Critics, readers, and theatres may be wagering the fragile future of their scene on a site that sorely needs more substantial policies and underpinnings to ensure ethical accountability and probity. My review? The jury is still out.
Correction: The comment about meatballs was originally attributed to another critic.