He’s Filled With Doubt: I’m Full of Faith.

I should probably just stop reading The Star, but somehow it’s like picking a scab, or watching a terrible soap opera, I can’t seem to tear my eyes away. I often stumble upon articles written by the other theatre critics in this city that make me sigh sadly, or shake my head in absolute dismay. How could he have missed the point? Why is he so insistent on portraying this certain performer (or theatre company) in an unfavorable light… all the time… and without any perceptible provocation? What show did he see? Why is he reviewing something that is going on in New York instead of something on a smaller scale in Toronto… the city where his readership lives and attends theatre? I don’t want to paint all critics with one brush, I think there is a fine array of people writing about the theatre in this city and sometimes I am inspired to read pieces that I think adequately reflect Toronto’s vibrant Arts scene and the excitement of our time in Canadian theatre history. Yet sometimes I read articles that make me angry. This is one such article. Please read it, and judge it for yourself:
“The Canadian Stage Company – for the second time this season – is about to open a show that was a huge hit on Broadway and then turned into an Oscar-nominated movie.
In the fall, it was Frost/Nixon; now it’s Doubt, which starts previews on Monday.
But there’s a problem with these imports. How often have you read about a show that thrilled, electrified, shocked and illuminated a Broadway audience, only to find it about as fresh as five-day-old sushi by the time it opened in Toronto? All too often, what sizzled on Broadway fizzles here.
Why does this happen? Well, if one were to oversimplify things, there are two reasons:
1. These American hits aren’t being presented terribly well in Canada.
2. These American hits weren’t any good to begin with.
I’m afraid the truth is usually a lot closer to No.1 than to No.2, but before a horde of irate actors, directors and designers descend on me, I ought to explain what I mean.
By the time a show like Proof, for example, opened triumphantly on Broadway in the fall of 2000, it had already been through an exhaustive process of years of readings, workshops, developmental rewriting and an off-Broadway run. And a lot of the same creative people had been connected to it from the start.
When the Canadian Stage Company set out to do the same show in 2002, director Martha Henry and her company had less than a month to reach the same depth of involvement with the material. And instead of selecting one of the most sought-after actors in the country to play the lead (as New York’s Dan Sullivan did when he chose Mary-Louise Parker), Henry opted for the unknown and relatively untried Jennifer Paterson, who couldn’t begin to handle the role.
Is it any wonder the production disappointed? The hard part was hearing Toronto audiences say that “Proof wasn’t all that good a play,” when they should have blamed the production instead.
Yes, there have been “hit” plays from the States that were indeed every bit as bad as they seemed on our stages (I still recall another Canadian Stage (Amanda: it’s all Canadian Stage’s fault? That’s what I’m hearing you say here. Is that what you mean?) number called The Beard of Avon that had to be seen to be disbelieved), but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Just about now, you should be wondering if this isn’t an awfully grumpy way to be setting the stage for Doubt. Perhaps.
But it won’t be after I remind you of the one shining time when I felt a Canadian production of an acclaimed American hit was far better here than in its Pulitzer Prize-winning incarnation in New York.
The play was Margaret Edson’s Wit, and it dealt with a scholar of the works of John Donne dying of ovarian cancer. The play itself is a marvellous piece of writing, but what made it transcendent in the 2001 Toronto production was the performance of Seana McKenna.
Not only was it superior to the work of the great Kathleen Chalfant in Manhattan, it still stands in that gallery of great performances that inspire awe and mystery after many years.
That is why I hold out hope for the production of Doubt at the Canadian Stage Company: Seana McKenna is playing the leading role of Sister Aloysius.
Doubt is a wonderful play and Cherry Jones was superb on Broadway. I hope and pray it will seem even better here in the hands of Ms. McKenna.”
Wow. I’m not sure it’s possible for one to be objective after spouting all of that!
I wish to present three more options for the reason why such American hits are not as successful in Toronto as they were on Broadway:
#3. Certain theatre critics are going into Canadian productions of Broadway hits with a huge preconceived notion that the show is going to fizzle and flop, and judge the production accordingly. Instead of going in fresh, with an open mind, as the critics of new shows opening on Broadway often have the luxury of doing, said critics are unfairly making comparisons, or simply and intrinsically believing (as a general rule) that almost everything that happens on Broadway is brilliant and better, and therefore everything will pale under the shadow of it; unless it happens to be (as in Seana McKenna’s performance in Wit) a rare, extraordinary wonder. The critic then writes a poor review of the show, which affects ticket sales, and the show fizzles and flops…
#4. Canadian audiences and American audiences are not interchangeable and a show that struck a chord with Americans does not necessarily transcend the borders seamlessly. The Producers is a perfect example of a show that is well-written, and can be produced with the most stellar cast but does not hit audiences in the same way in Toronto as it does in New York. The humor is so specific to a community and a consciousness that the Canadian public, as a whole, does not have. This doesn’t reflect poorly on Canadian actors, the American writers, or Canadian audiences. We’re just different. And, that’s okay.
#5. Canadian written and developed plays are so extraordinary and are produced with such brilliance, that when Canadian audiences compare an American show surrounded in that standard American hype (a hype that Canadian shows so seldom get, but so often deserve), they fall flat. They fall flat simply because audiences here expect, because of the hype, for them to supersede the Canadian shows they have seen. Usually the American shows don’t because our Canadian shows are just as good as those imported hits, they are just not heralded as being so.
Oy. There doesn’t seem to be much more for me to say about this article. Richard Ouzounian is being very frank about his commitment to fostering Canadian Theatre, and his support of Canadian theatre ventures. He is articulating clearly and in his own words his perception of theatre not only in Toronto, but in the entire country and how dismal his hope is for our entire nation’s theatrical future.
Do we want the readers of The Star to be swayed toward this critic’s opinion that everything theatrical in Toronto but the most remarkable, occasional exception is inferior to that which comes from New York (the city of Ouzounian’s birth)? Should Ouzounian be able to bombard Canadians with his continuous insinuations that we are not doing a good enough job when that could not be further from the truth? Of course, he can do whatever he wants; it just saddens me to think that he’s polluting the minds of so many potential theatergoers every time The Star goes to print. But, really, what else is new?
Please support theatre in this city. Please attend theatre productions regardless of what the critics (myself included) say about the shows. Please form your own opinions, and hold tightly to them. Your thoughts and perceptions are the most important. You have the power to make this city great. You have the power to ensure that our theatre community thrives. All it takes is faith and trust. Please believe in the talents and the skills of your fellow Canadians.

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