Vet LA Theater Critic To Launch Community-Funded Digital Pub

In the aftermath of severe cutbacks in local theater coverage by LA Weekly and other Southland publications, veteran theater critic Steven Leigh Morris has announced plans to launch Stage Raw, a community-funded digital publication.

Morris, who edited LA Weekly's theater section for 13 years and, since that position was eliminated in 2009, continues as theater critic-at-large, starts out with strong backing from the theater community. David Elzer of DEMAND Public Relations and Michael Seel, Executive Director of Boston Court Performing Arts Complex in Pasadena, are co-sponsoring the venture. Pasadena CalArts School of Theater Dean Travis Preston has pledged to supply Stage Raw with "whatever infrastructure and technical support that CalArts can bring to the table." The Pasadena Arts Council has offered its fundraising and marketing resources and LA Weekly will chip in with moral and technical assistance.

That local theater coverage in LA Weekly is barely 20 percent of what it once was is especially sad given that it was a major element of the paper's founding mission. (Disclosure: I was publisher of LA Weekly from 1984-2002.) Co-founder Joie Davidow was a passionate theater-lover and the paper's theater reviews, commentary and the annual LA Weekly Theatre Awards were as essential to the paper's identity as surveying punk rock, exposing political corruption, covering wars in Central America and keeping the citizenry informed about phone sex.

A proposal by LA Weekly's local management to preserve the paper's theater section was reportedly vetoed by parent company Voice Media, which also owns the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, Phoenix New Times and several other alt-weeklies. LA Weekly editor Sarah Fenske emailed, "Reductions in coverage are always a heartbreaker. But we're grateful that Steven is staying on as our lead critic, and thrilled that the L.A. Weekly Theatre Awards will be continuing. The new community-funded plan sounds extremely promising, and all of us here are rooting for it to work."

Morris says Stage Raw will feature capsule reviews, free theater listings, a gossip column, long-form reviews, essays and the ramblings of a fictitious blogger who gets his facts stunningly wrong. Charter writers, many of whom are well-known to theater goers, will include Bill Raden, Paul Birchall, Deborah Klugman, Lovell Estell III, Mayank Keshaviah, Mindy Farabee, Jenny Lower, Pauline Adamek and Neal Weaver. Morris adds that new writers will be brought in and that "We'll welcome editorial contributions by playwrights, directors and designers with shows open or about to open."

Morris and his team hope that the demographic data they gather on visitors will build an empirical case that they are serving a need, after which, Morris says, "We will take that data to private philanthropists and to foundations that have a vested interest in what they like to call the 'cultural ecosystem.'"

An effort to raise $31,000, the cost of running Stage Raw for the rest of this year, is underway. A letter sent out by Elzer says, "If all of our theatres were to take a small portion of their ad budgets and donate that to this endeavor -- Steven would be able to start a new site called Stage Raw and keep his crew of reviewers intact and provide our community with a new theatrical destination website."

Contributions can be made by contacting Elzer at Donors can qualify for tax-deductions by making out checks to the Pasadena Arts Council with "Stage Raw" written into the subject line, paying by credit card via phone [626.793-8171] or contributing via PayPal.

Asked why we need rigorous criticism in the age of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, Morris says, "I think it's important to sustain the profession, which entailed the dignity of payment along with the rigors of editing, fact-checking, copy-editing and a code of ethics to prevent conflicts of interest -- all of which lends the entire enterprise legitimacy and maybe even the authority to offer the best possible service to the community."

Morris is shooting for a March debut, but says he won't launch unless and until he raises $10,000, which would give him the resources to pay critics for three months.