Mitchell Gossett, producing director of the well-established Los Angeles production company Bottom's Dream, has been waging a campaign to make L.A.'s press-community relations more like Austin's. When Gossett met Chronicle Arts editor Robert Faires at the RAT conference (a national theatre alliance) several years back, he was impressed by Faires' description of Austin critics' involvement in the missions of individual theatres. At a RAT conference in L.A. last summer, Gossett brought up the "Austin model" at a press round table, suggesting that L.A. become "more connected to the theatres" by attending rehearsals and increasing the contact between critics and the community.
While he acknowledges L.A.'s larger size and the fact that many L.A. theatre critics already review a show every night, Gossett says there's still room for increased dialogue. "If we didn't think we needed new models, these conferences and alliances all over the country wouldn't be springing up," he says. To this end, Gossett arranged a meeting in the L.A. Times office with the newspaper's entire theatre press. It didn't go well.
"They were vehement in their distance, their desire to be separate and apart," says Gossett, "and I felt that was really to our loss. It doesn't feed anything other than discontent."
Gossett recalls of the meeting: "I got a lecture ... from the Arts editor about maybe I should take a journalism class so I can understand journalism. We're talking about a community. We're talking about art. This isn't a story about Clinton and the Mideast peace process. This is about a play. This is about a group of artists."
Gossett praises the alternative weekly newspaper over the daily because, he says, the weekly makes more of an effort to be a part of the community. Gossett cites the fact that Steven Leigh Morris, Arts editor of the L.A. Weekly, even works as a playwright in L.A.
But Morris insists he has strict guidelines to guard against conflicts of interest. He says that you "are not supposed to review your friends," and defines "friend" as "someone you have lunch with." Morris holds himself to a one-year statute of limitations, which means he will not write about theatres that he submits work to until a year has passed. Morris says during that time he also turns over edits of stories about those theatres to a colleague. He keeps his writers to the same rules.
Gossett says that Don Shirley, head critic at the L.A. Times, was especially opposed to Gossett's "Austin model." Shirley says the Times' policy is that a journalistic remove guards against conflicts of interest. This, Shirley says, is consistent with the position of most of the country's general-interest newspapers.
Michael Barnes, the Austin American-Statesman Arts editor, echoes those sentiments. "Daily newspapers play a different role in a community than does, say, an alternative weekly. We are reaching a broader cross-section of readers, and so we are careful to be fair and to avoid even the suggestion of a conflict of interest. That's just what a daily does. That doesn't mean it's necessarily the only way. Every publication has its own culture."
Still, Gossett believes both the dailies and the weeklies have an obligation to get to know the troupes they're writing about. Whereas some would argue that a critic is actually the servant of the audience, not the theatre, and therefore should not know more than the average audience member, Gossett insists that the better informed a critic is, the more the critic can inform the audience.
Asked if he thought a lack of critical distance was provincial, Gossett says, "I yearn for provincial attitudes in big cities, because the big-city attitude is just a general jumble, it's just a big mess. And what we have here [in L.A.] is just a big mess when it comes to the relationship with the press."
Gossett's advice to members of the Austin theatre community who want Austin to be more like L.A. and New York: "Be careful what you wish for."
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