On Censorship Going Both Ways

des mcanuff

I was deeply disappointed to read that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has revoked Toronto-based theatre critic Lynn Slotkin’s media privileges for the rest of the season because she is not a “fan or friend of the Festival.” She wrote this article on her blog, The Slotkin Letter, inferring that the reason that she has been singled out in this way is because of an article that she wrote back in March which took issue with the media painting Stratford’s departing Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, as a theatre legend who raised Stratford’s international luster beyond the shadows of former AD Richard Monette. She disagreed and she and McAnuff exchanged some heated words in her Comments Section. Now, it seems that she is unwelcome at the Festival at all.

I don’t like the “us” versus “them” approach to theatre criticism and TWISI was born straight out of my desire to create something different, to develop a new relationship between the theatre community and writing about the theatre. I understand the frustration that theatre artists feel when theatre critics are biased, when they use their position of great responsibility, whose opinions are sometimes heard by millions of people, to purposefully degrade the theatre and the people who work in this industry out of resentment, jealousy or ignorance. Although, I don’t think this was the case with Lynn Slotkin’s article. I understand that it seems self-sabotaging to give free tickets to people who are going to write terrible things about your art in the newspaper or on the internet. I understand the impulse to cut these reviews off at the stem, but it is the petty and childish choice. The professional response is to rise above it and to have respect for other people’s opinions and to continue to do good work that the company feels pride in despite what anyone else says or writes.

I expect better from Des McAnuff and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I expect better from the Canadian theatre community in general. What is the difference between the government cutting funding to a theatre festival in attempt to silence “terrorist” plays and a theatre company cutting media tickets to a critic in attempt to silence a negative review? We, as a community that are sometimes attacked or ignored by our governments and sometimes attacked or ignored by our media, are far stronger when we stand united. It would be really nice if the values that the independent theatres are fighting for so strongly, demands to be uncensored, to not be bullied into parroting the voice of the majority or to kowtow to the Conservatives in charge, were mirrored by the bigger theatre companies who receive a larger percentage of the funding, the theatre coverage in the biggest media publications in the country and who have the loudest and most far-reaching voice. How can we, in good conscience, say that artists should never be censored if we are trying to censor the media? How we can blast the Conservatives for seeking to censor the press if we are going around doing the same thing?

There are people who are going to hear about Stratford trying to censor a theatre critic who don’t know that the Summerworks Festival exists, and there are people who are going to build their judgments of what the artists in theatre in Canada are like based on the way Stratford behaves. This is a little unfair, but it is the reality of the way that the theatre coverage permeates into the general public. It means that Stratford has a big responsibility to put its best foot forward and to be an institution representative of the Canadian theatre community that the Theatre Community can be proud of.

The reality is also that it works both ways. It wasn’t long ago that I wrote about how proud Des McAnuff had made me of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival when his production of Jesus Christ Superstar represented Canada and our theatre community as the cast performed on the Tony Awards. I am proud of all the success that Stratford has attained in the last 60 years and I am thrilled that we have such a world-renowned theatre institution here. It is because of how much esteem I hold the festival in that this sort of cowardly move disappoints me. I hold McAnuff to a higher standard. I know he and the Festival are better than this pettiness and I think he is giving too much power away to the theatre critics by seeking to censor them.

After all, if anyone in the theatre in this country should be in a position where they are able to be brave and to respond to dissent and criticism with maturity and self-confidence, it should be the Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

THEATRE NEWS UPDATE:

Here is an update via J. Kelly Nestruck of The Globe and Mail.

“Stratford has had a change of heart. Festival publicity director Ann Swerdfager has just emailed Lynn Slotkin to reinstate her tickets: “Please accept our regrets for any over-hasty action on our part regarding your media tickets for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Upon reflection, we realize that critical debate is an essential part of any vibrant theatrical culture and that we should continue to provide you with reviewer’s tickets.”

Well done, Stratford Festival. 

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