Facebook to the Rescue of Local Theater?

The past few months have seen more reviews about local theater than at any point in OC history. But you're not seeing them in traditional print publications. Times are very tough in the ink-stained wretch industry. Pages are shrinking, and the space for editorial content in those pages is tough to come by.
But an on-line project started by a handful of hard-working local theater artists is doing its best to fill in the gap. It's called OC Theatre Reviews, and it can be found on Facebook, where it links to podcasts between its reviewers and a moderator. In true Facebook fashion, it's also turned into a lively site about local theater in general, from companies posting audition notices to audiences chiming in about local shows they've seen.

We checked in with one of the project's principal movers and shakers, Stephen John, and asked him what's up with the project:

OC Weekly (Joel Beers):  What's the scoop?
Stephen John: OC Theatre Reviews is an alternative to the generic theater review provided by print media, including the OC Weekly. The problem, as we see it, is that print media has too big of an audience and that audience seems to dictate what kind of shows are being reviewed and the type of review being provided.

Ultimately, the artist does not get a whole heck of a lot of constructive feedback about the show. And by artist I mean the designers, directors, actors and producers. Print reviews are typically 50 - 75 percent book report and then 25-50 percent opinion. What we have done is change that formula and change the perspective of the review. We look at theater from a theater perspective.

OK, we'll conveniently forget the crack about OC Weekly reviews being generic. How do your reviews differ from those in truly generic publications?
We ask three people who work in local theater, whether they're stage managers, directors, artistic directors, actors or producers, to see the same show and then conduct a structured conversation with them that hits on several topics: Their overall impression; the target audience; the acting, directing and design; and, finally, the value of the dollars spent versus the quality of the show. All the topics are discussed honestly and with constructive intentions.

What do you hope to accomplish?
To elevate the level of theater productions in Orange County by highlighing those companies doing outstanding work, like the Monkey Wrench Collective and Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, while holding companies that aren't doing as high-quality work accountable. The hope is that people who work in the theatre as well as audiences will start to gravitate to the companies consistently presenting quality theaer experiences. And subsequently, that the companies who do are not on the receiving end of that equation step up their game and really work towards a better reputation for OC theater as a whole.

When did the idea come about?
It's been brewing in my head for some time. I had talked with several people about publishing better reviews specific to the theatre community. None of those people took it seriously. Then one evening I was talking with Joshua Nicols and Mike Martin. Josh suggested we have the conversation but turn it into a pod cast. It was an easy jump for him as he has had his own pod cast series for quite some time. At that point, we all realized that we could really do this rather easily and this could have an impact.

However, it poses a great amount of risk  to go from theatre artist to critic and expect to make it back to the artist side unscathed. I love to direct, and I am pretty sure that there are some companies that would rather I not direct in their space as I have adopted a policy of absolute honesty. And there are some people who just don't want to hear the negative. They just want to know how great they are. Well... that has to be earned in my book.

I am pretty awesome. Any thoughts on that?

 How has the reception been?
From our audience, the reception has been fantastic. Peope love the reviews.

And those involved in the productions?
We have received personal messages from leads in shows, designers and even stage manager from shows that we felt were really bad. Those e-mails have been filled with heartfelt thanks for us pointing out what they felt but were unwilling to say to their directors or producers. But we have also been accused of not liking or supporting theater. To which my response is that we don't just like bad theater. We love all good theater. I have seen more than 40 shows this year alone. That kind of commitment does not come from someone who hates theater.

Where do you hope to take this? Will its portal exclusively be Facebook?
Right now we are building our audience base but before the end of the year we do hope to launch a stand-alone website. Facebook has been great to us though and we have almost 1000 friends at this point. Plus we have all of our pod cast subscribers on iTunes. Its kind of crazy how the whole thing just kind of took off,

Anything else you want to add about the project?
I think it's important to clarify that we are a niche review of sorts. For example, the OC Register is going to review shows for its audience, most of whom are not working theater people. They just want to go see shows to excape and to be entertained. We are looking at the state of theater in a more communal fashion. We want OC theater to become strong enough to compete with the LA theater scene.  We want the respect that some of the theater companies deserve and have earned, but don't get, just because they are behind the orange curtain as it were.

And most importantly,  we are just people who want to engage the conversation. We want to create and continue the dialogue. We want people to be vocal if they disagree and vocal if they agree.  We cannot grow if all of these little theater companies just continue to be small islands unto themselves. Instead, they need to share visions, share talent, share marketing, share the craft and create a greater identity for Orange County Theater.


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