george bernard shaw
photo: malcolm arbathnot
It feels a bit early in the game to be this riled up about issues pertaining to the role of theatre criticism in Toronto, as I have only been back in this fair city for just over two weeks and in that time I have only seen three shows, all of which I paid for. TWISI and I have been away from Ontario for three and a half years, so I don’t expect to immediately be able to jump into the shoes I once wore when I saw eight to ten shows every week (far more during Fringe and Summerworks) when I felt very much a part of this beautiful, vibrant, passionate, talented, complex, sometimes frustrating, often inspiring, theatre community. I have a lot of rebuilding to do and I’m willing to start again from the ground up. I have zero expectation and zero sense of entitlement. I am here because I am passionate about the theatre in this country and this city. I am here because I have dedicated my life to the theatre since I was eleven years old and I wish to serve the Canadian theatre in the best way that I know my own talents and strengths allow me.
I am writing this response to Factory Theatre’s decision to open its newest show The Art of Building a Bunker in a Critic-Free Zone, and then have a designated “Media Night” mid-run- three performances later, purely from my own perspective as someone who has been a theatre critic for the last seven years, but also as someone for whom the label “Theatre Critic” still comes with my own mixed emotions and connotations. I also do not write this response as someone who was expecting to be invited to the opening of The Art of Building a Bunker, since I have only been back in Toronto for two weeks, but as someone who feels strongly about the fact that there are no simple cut and dry lines drawn in the sand about “The Artists” and “The Critics.” It is a delusion to think that all “The Artists” can be lumped together as being a homogeneous entity and the same can be said about “The Critics.”
J. Kelly Nestruck, theatre critic of The Globe and Mail, has raised several valid points about Factory’s decision to delay the critical response to The Art of Building a Bunker, including that if a show is considered ready to be “open” then it should be considered ready to be reviewed. There has been much debate over who gets to decide when a show can be reviewed and what decides when a show is “open.” Steve Fisher has argued that Factory is “attempting to silence (for the v[ery] important 1st week) the [people] who are best qualified to publicly evaluate [their] show.” This raises the question of, if the theatre critics aren’t able to discuss this show then who will spread the news of its success or failure, and how qualified will they be, and what kind of reach will they have? This also leads into questions of who really has the power to make or break a show (financially), whose opinions are more (or less) “valid” or “important” or “knowledgable” and what impact does this have on the caliber of the work. What defines a show as a “success” or a “failure” and do those words even mean anything at all? It even raises the question of what kind of audience a show seeks to reach- an audience of those who attend everything J. Kelly Nestruck recommends or an audience of those who rely on word of mouth from the Theatre “Community.” From what I’ve read on Twitter from Aislinn Rose, one of the Producers of The Art of Building a Bunker, these questions and this debate seems to me to be EXACTLY the point of this experiment… and she also says that we should hold our judgment of it until we have seen the results.
I think all the issues that Nestruck and Fisher raise are important ones, I think also that the fierce debate Factory’s decision has incited over Twitter is not only good publicity for (let me write the name of the play again just so we’re clear) The Art of Building a Bunker, but also, it seems to be exactly the sort of conversation Rose is interested in generating- so clearly her experiment is off to a promising start. Personally, I don’t mind being told by theatre artists when they would like a review published. I don’t mind being told that an artist would prefer their show not be reviewed at all. I don’t mind the idea of delaying reviews until well after Opening, and I especially don’t have an issue with it as an Experiment that creates debate and conversation and potentially teaches us something about the Contemporary Toronto Theatre and Theatre Criticism and how they intersect. Perhaps this will launch new ideas for how we can better help one another make the theatre industry in Toronto, in which both artists and critics work, better. Perhaps we will learn that theatre critics have become redundant and that the theatre is greater without them.
In fact, it wasn’t the premise of Factory’s new “Media Night” that bothered me, it was the rhetoric that cropped up in the explanation of it. Over and over again on Twitter I read that Opening Night was for “The Community” and that “The Community” didn’t involve theatre critics. Tell that to George Bernard Shaw and Kenneth Tynan. Throughout history there have been a myriad of different kind of theatre critics and so too are there a myriad of different kind of theatre critics right now living and working in Toronto. Each one of us, and I will include myself here since I do intend to stay, is wonderfully individual. Some of us are more like Brooks Atkinson, who I read somewhere, avoided all actors as a rule, believing that was the key to remaining objective. These critics likely won’t be bothered by the distinction between the Community Opening and the Media Opening, since likely they don’t consider themselves a part of the Community anyway. Yet, I look at someone like Steve Fisher, who for me absolutely exemplifies the Toronto Theatre Community, in the same way that someone like Derrick Chua does. They are not often onstage and their roles in the theatre are different and unique, but they are both essential to this community as much as the actors, the designers, the stage managers, the writers, and everyone else onstage or backstage whose job it is to create magic. It was the suggestion that because Steve Fisher uses his passion for theatre to write ABOUT it for Torontoist rather than writing for it as in a play makes him have to give up who he is, a Theatre Critic, for the evening to attend the Community Opening, that is unfair to me. I would say the exact same about Kate Watson who reviews for The Coast in Halifax. (There is a segue here into a discussion of whether comps are for “the privileged” or “expected” or “required” and what the ramifications for not offering comps are- but my bottom line is that, if we are being honest, a huge majority of the “Community” attending Opening Night of any show is there with a comp so for Fisher to have to give up his comp in order to go as part of the Community he belongs to is again, unfair).
I became a theatre critic while I was working on my MA in Drama Studies at the University of Toronto. I did not become a theatre critic at The University of Toronto. In fact, I became a theatre critic IN SPITE of The University of Toronto. No, I became a theatre critic in the Bluma Appel Theatre, upstairs in a huge crowd of people over the course of a series of Opening Nights in 2007 and 2008. I became a theatre critic because I so loved the conversations that TWISI allowed me the good fortune to have that taught me more about the theatre than my six years in University studying theatre ever could. Almost all the best conversations were not on Twitter or Facebook Chat or via text, they were in person, often in large, vivid groups, at the Opening of a show. They began at Canadian Stage and then quickly branched into theatres all over the city. I sometimes tell people that I’ve had one of the best theatre educations in Canada because I lived for three and a half years seeing 8-10 shows a week and I learned watching every single one of them. I learned unequivocally from the performances, of course, but I also learned from the ensuing discussions. I learned from the artists who were directly involved with the show and I learned from those who were not. I learned from engaging constantly with other members of the Canadian Theatre Community, the people who inspire me every day, the people who make what I do worthwhile. If I had attended a series of Media Nights instead of being allowed- encouraged– to grow as a part of a community, TWISI would have faded into oblivion seven years ago.
On her blog part of Lois Dawson’s response to the delayed critical response for (one more time) The Art of Building a Bunker is thus:
“But that said, I wonder if there aren’t additional ways that Factory is planning to encourage critical discourse amongst their patrons at those first three performances in lieu of media criticism? If so, how? An online message board, a newsletter or survey, talkbacks, a social media scheme, or some other engagement policy?”
Aislinn Rose says to Lois (via Twitter): “I love your ideas around audience discourse during that time, some of which we’ve discussed… The hope is this brings MORE voices to the table, as some voices are currently scared away.”
Without getting into a deep analysis of who exactly is currently “scared away” and of what and why, which is an entire conversation for another time, it is great to want to bring more voices to the table, yet, by fostering this discussion with “The Community” on the three performances I am not invited to attend completely alienates me and others like me not just from engaging IN the conversation, but from even hearing it at all. Speaking from my own seven years experience, this does a massive disservice to me and I would be surprised if I am the only theatre critic who feels this way. For me, and this does not address Nestruck or Fisher’s issues with Factory’s new “Media Night” arrangement, but for me, I would have no problem at all being welcome to attend a performance as a theatre critic on Opening but having my review embargoed until a specific date. In that way, I am able to engage as an audience member, a Community member and a human being, in the exact same way as everyone else who attends, until the specified date when the critical opinions are released en masse to the World- and what happens next remains to be seen.
This flawed assumption that “The Community” and “The Critics” bat for different teams is a dangerous one, and one that I am interested in exploring and blowing apart. Are some theatre critics toxic to the theatre community? ABSOLUTELY. Are some theatre artists toxic to the theatre community? ABSOLUTELY. We are all flawed and complex human beings in a complex and deeply flawed World. Factory Theatre’s own recent history is dramatic testament to the fact that the Theatre Community and theatre artists can be just as divisive and damaging and explosive and imperfect and complicated as any other community of humans anywhere. Yet, for some reason it is so much easier for “The Critics” to get all lumped together- every critic from every city across centuries and continents- is so often reduced to a lame theatre critic joke in a hit Broadway show. It’s a cliche. It’s the same as dismissing all actors as “divas” and all directors as “impossible.” A close examination of the history of Theatre Criticism offers a diverse assortment of critics who have helped to shape theatre history and those who themselves have created theatre history. Where is the room for this to occur in Toronto if the theatre critic is cut off from the Community? How can theatre criticism improve and evolve to better serve the theatre community and the theatre industry if it is continually being confined to such a stifling definition?
It’s not a matter of who is winning or losing. Theatre criticism could not exist without the theatre. As far as we know, the theatre existed just fine without theatre criticism for hundreds of years. Yet, perhaps if more Ancient plays had been reviewed in their own time, we would have more documents upon which to learn from and about them today. And we would all win.