Conte d’amour: How I Almost Gave Up On Theatre Criticism & How Kelly Nestruck Booed Me Back

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conte d’amour
(Robin Junicke/Harbourfront)

I once made a promise to myself that I would stop reviewing theatre if there ever came a day that I started to hate it. At the time the promise seemed so remote, the idea of ever coming to the point where I, Amanda Campbell, *hated* the THEATRE seemed like an impossibility. It was laughable to me- more like a joke than a solemn vow. Yet, roughly three years later, I suddenly found myself questioning my relationship with the theatre, finding that it was leaving me so often unsatisfied and angry, deeply frustrated and dejected. The strange thing was that it wasn’t just the mediocre theatre or the less than mediocre theatre that left me feeling this way, the brilliant shows that I was seeing, the inspired performances, the innovative and the masterful gems were leaving me with a similar feeling of complete despair.

“That’s it,” I said to myself one day a few months ago, “I guess it’s really happened. I hate the theatre and I should do everyone in the community a favour—I should stop going and I should stop reviewing.” So, I did.

Nothing dramatic happened, nor did I expect it to, and that’s okay.

I still had this nagging feeling though in the pit of my stomach that I actually did NOT hate the theatre at all. Actually, maybe I loved the theatre just as fiercely and strongly and passionately as I always had. Perhaps all my lack of satisfaction and anger and frustration and dejected despair was systematic of how much I care about the theatre in the city that I live in and how ardently I CARE about its future and its potential.

Why am I so angry when the theatre here can be so glorious? Why do I come home after seeing a play that filled my heart with joy and triumph that made me SO EXCITED about the future of Atlantic Canadian Theatre and then despair as I sit down to write about it to the point that I just can’t face it? For a long time I didn’t know the answer.

Today J. Kelly Nestruck of The Globe and Mail wrote a scathing 0 star review about a play called Conte d’amour that is playing at the Habourfront WorldStage until Sunday and wrote about actually BOOING the company at curtain call. Lynn Slotkin wrote a similarly scathing review on her website The Slotkin Letter. Suddenly these reviews started popping up on my Twitter feed and on my Facebook feed, with threads and tweets where artists from various parts of the theatre community engaged with open, public, critical, intelligent, respectful discourse and dialogue with the critics. There were some who agreed, some who disagreed, some who wanted to see the play in question even more fervently, those who conjectured about the play without having seen it- some people had walked out they were so offended by the play. Reading this it was like my heart started beating again. Someone breathed some life into me and suddenly I could see some perspective where everything had hitherto been fuzzy. I realized what the despair, what the frustration and the anger and the sadness had come from.

I have seen reviews and pieces written by theatre critics spark these kinds of conversations all the time. I’m not sure why this particular article hit the nail on the head today, but it’s not an anomaly in the least for an article like this to go kind of “theatre viral” and for the discussions on people’s Facebook pages to be fascinating, addictive & significant and vital to the continued development of the Canadian Theatre. In Toronto TWISI lived in a thriving community of communion and communication. I was a part of something special, a large group of people who worked in the theatre industry who were continually challenging themselves and the “industry” and the theatre and critically examining it and calling it out when it was being a pretentious self-absorbed egomaniac or when it got too big headed for its britches… its uh… head britches. We built brilliant and essential discussions about theatre on the backs of what the reviews were saying, or weren’t saying, we called out critics, we called out theatre companies, we called out bullshit. We brought these ideas back into the theatre we made, often literally. We learned from each other and we all slogged toward actively forging (and fighting for) a better theatre for Toronto and Canada.

I’m SO tired of all the theatre in Halifax being hailed and marketed as brilliance. It breeds disappointment when I’m promised something “amazing!” and I’m handed something that isn’t even finished. I’m tired of knowing that people are lying to me in their exuberance for their friends’ “brilliant play!” and I’m full of despair that there’s no words left for me to describe and distinguish the truly incredible work that is being done here from the mediocrity being heralded as genius. When everything is whitewashed as “awesome” the word “awesome” loses all its power. When words lose power, so does their writer.

I’m SO tired of feeling like the lone voice yelling in an empty wood- my opinions bouncing off the trees and their echoes smacking me back in the face. “Did anyone hear that?” I find myself thinking, “Does the silence mean they all agree? Or are they having secret meetings discussing what a moron I am in tiny, soft, whispers in the corners of bars”… as slowly I notice I’m being “de-friended” both on Facebook and in real life, but silently… people slipping away that I was never sure were really there to begin with. I’m so tired of theatre criticism being made to be SO personal, when it is NOT personal. I miss my community of voices, the connection and exchange of opinions— the building of one idea on another— the way we all moved together forward and how I could feel the momentum- the future shining so bright it made me squint.

“Go back to Toronto, then, bitch,” I can hear the words before you type them.

I want more voices. I want loud, passionate and engaged voices, in Halifax, that are speaking up and speaking out – that are disagreeing, debating, challenging and calling out— that are honest and brave and confident. I want more people like Hugo Dann and I want it more often. I wish this for your benefit, Halifax Theatre Community— for the benefit of your stronger and healthier future.

It’s clear that I still love the theatre. It’s clear that I never stopped caring about the theatre in this country or specifically in the city of my birth. I’m not one to back down when things are tough, and I’ll be honest, it is tough to review theatre in a small city. I’m not one to be intimidated or to be self-pitying, and since it seems like I don’t, in fact, hate the theatre, I better get back out there and keep writing.

After all, one voice yelling in the expansive woods is better than complete silence.

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