Don’t Criticize What You Can’t Understand

You feel a bit like you’re Alice in Wonderland when one of the speakers on a panel entitled “Reviewing on the Internet: The Rebirth of Theatre Criticism?” admits that she does not know what a blog is. Yet, this was precisely my experience at a panel discussion presented by the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and Tarragon Theatre on February 7th, 2010.
The panel was moderated by Kamal Al-Solaylee, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and a former theatre critic for The Globe and Mail. He was joined by Marianne Ackerman, founder and publisher of The Rover, an online arts magazine; Jeniva Berger, the publisher and editor of Scenechanges.com, the first Canadian website to concentrate solely on theatre in Toronto; Robin Breon a regular contributor to Aisle Say, a Internet magazine of stage reviews and opinion; Martin Morrow, a producer for CBC.ca/Arts; and J. Kelly Nestruck, the current theatre critic of The Globe and Mail, who publishes theatrical perceptions and musings on his blog, as well as publishing theatre reviews in the newspaper (which appear both in print and online). The issues that Ackerman, Berger, Breon, Morrow and Nestruck discussed centered on this one central question, outlined in the Press Release, “Rumours that the art of theatre criticism is dying may be premature. Despite the challenges posed by today’s shrinking arts coverage in traditional media, reviewers and theatregoers are finding a new venue for criticism on the World Wide Web. But is cyberspace the best place for informed and enlightened writing about the theatre?” From my experience as a theatre blogger, a theatre critic, and a young entrepreneur forging my own path in the hopes of building an entire career centred upon theatre criticism on the Internet, this question seems to me to be a dated one. It shows its own limitations and an inherent trepidation about adopting new technologies and a resistance to adapting to a future of inevitable change. While listening to the speakers at the Panel Discussion, I felt that not only was the Canadian Theatre Critics Association asking the wrong questions, but that they had not adequately connected to the individuals who are currently using the Internet in exciting, dynamic new ways to work within the Canadian Theatre Community to spark debate, inspire collaboration and to make theatre a relevant and vibrant reality in the national consciousness.
My intention in writing this post is not to claim I have all the answers, nor to tout my own visions for TWISI as being exemplary in the field of Internet theatre criticism. Instead, I hope this post will find the other individuals in this country (and perhaps even beyond) who will engage with me in the discussion I feel like we should be having within this community: how can we share our ideas, resources and expertise with one another and how can we use the Internet and all its social networking opportunities to reach out beyond the theatre community, beyond the avid theatergoers and to appeal to those who have perhaps never set foot in a theatre in their lives, or those who have preconceptions about all theatre being dated, boring, irrelevant, pretentious or narcissistic. Where do traditional forms of theatre criticism fall short in this country and what opportunities do these oversights provide for those who work on the outside? What challenges do we mavericks face and how can we overcome them with gusto?
I do not mean to suggest that there was nothing to be learned from the Canadian Theatre Critics Association’s Panel on “Reviewing on the Internet,” only that the lessons may not have been entirely the ones that the organizers had in mind. Much of the panel was spent with the various speakers discussing the way that each one uses the Internet to circulate their theatre criticism. It is not that Marianne Ackerman and Jeniva Berger’s websites are substandard, but they do both prescribe to a very traditional ‘magazine’ format, and one that can be seen as being outmoded or uninspiring for the Facebook generation. Upon hearing that “Internet magazines” still existed, a friend of mine expressed his surprise by referring to them as “the Internet equivalent to an 8-track.” This raises a very important issue: who is our target audience? There is a certain generational divide present here, as it seems as though the rationale for creating an Online Magazine is to appeal to those who habitually read the print-equivalent of this source. What is this demographic? Are these readers middle aged, avid patrons of the theatre and are they, as many of this generation are, daily readers of a newspaper? Do they read the newspaper online or in print? If this demographic is largely one that reads the newspaper, then we can assume that these people would also be reading the theatre reviews that appear in this newspaper. What then, is the role of the Online Magazine in the lives of these readers? Do they compare and contrast the reviews found in The Globe and Mail as compared to on Scenechanges.com? I find it striking that Jeniva Berger, while covering an impressive amount of Torontonian theatre, largely covers the exact same productions that Richard Ouzounian would review in The Star. Therefore, if these readers are reading the daily newspaper (either in print or online) they will have two reviews of all the mainstream productions to consider, but the smaller, independent theatre productions, the ones that benefit the most from Internet theatre criticism, will still go unnoticed. J. Kelly Nestruck touched on this issue in his recent article about theatre in Chicago saying, Chicago Theatre Critic Richard Christiansen was “revered for reviewing shows big or small, union and non-union, no matter where they took place in the city. ‘He would seek out new work wherever it was and new companies and give them visibility akin to a Broadway touring show.” In my opinion, it is the responsibility of those working outside of the establishment to follow in Richard Christiansen’s footsteps because J. Kelly Nestruck, Robert Cushman, and Richard Ouzounian are bound by their newspapers’ policy to limit their theatre coverage to Equity shows.
What I found most discouraging while listening to Marianne Ackerman and Jeniva Berger speak was how adamant they both were in dismissing the role of social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook and the use of blogs as vital tools for the future of theatre criticism on the Internet. Indeed, each of the panelists looked bemused (and some surprisingly patronizingly) toward Nestruck, who makes extremely efficient use of Twitter as a means of both disseminating his own articles, and also keeping his followers informed about press releases, contests, updated websites, and sharing links to other reviews and articles pertinent to Canadian Theatre, as the only person among them who knew the difference between a tweet and text. Ackerman and Berger were both very clear that their websites would never make use of such “gadgets,” which to me means that their Online Magazines will likely not find their way toward a younger audience, since the younger generations are largely reliant on this technology for the majority of their information.
According to Dan Zarrella, a marketing scientist, “Twitter is a force that any serious web publisher needs to reckon with in order to gain maximum exposure for content. Twitter is changing the way information spreads online. Links that would have been blogged a couple of years ago are now more often shared via the micro-blogging service instead, which fundamentally changes strategy when trying to get content to spread.” The fact that Jeniva Berger did not know what a blog was suggests that she is at least two generations behind in her viral marketing strategies for scenechanges.com, and thus it is likely that her website will get lost in an expansive generational chasm. Ackerman and Berger did raise some interesting questions while they were speaking, which I would be interested in having other members of the blogging community address. Both Ackerman and Berger dismissed blogs as not being a legitimate form for theatre criticism. Ackerman said that blogs were, “the unedited equivalent of overhearing a telephone conversation. They are a place for mindless drivel and they will never have any power.” She was passionate in her opinion that theatre criticism was utterly reliant on an editor for the process to be considered “legitimate.” Kamal Al-Solaylee also raised the question, if blogs give free reign for anyone to spout an opinion, will the Internet become too crowded with conflicting and overlapping voices, and will this mute and bury the prolific theatre critics in a sea of mediocrity? How can we judge quality on the Internet and weed out those who are simply bashing a production for the sake of bashing it?
From my perspective, the fear is never that “too many people will be clamouring to talk about Canadian theatre,” the fear is that it will someday fade away without a single soul to mourn it. Can we have “too many voices”? One of the reasons that I am so fond of the Internet is that, truly, there is room for everyone to forge his or her own space within it. At the same time, I do believe that in most cases Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” tends to apply to the Internet as well, and that those who have dedication and passion for their work (whether that is Roger Ebert or Perez Hilton) tend to be the most successful in their pursuits. To have such passion and dedication requires a great deal of time and effort, and likeminded people will flock to the committed bloggers who reflect an image that they can respond to. I do think that as bloggers, theatre artists and theatre critics on the Internet, we do not seek to stifle other voices. Our goal is not to be the omniscient booming gospel that Canadians need look to for the answers, but to be a myriad of inspired ideas, perspectives and excited opportunities to connect with one another, to discuss, to ask the questions and most of all, to work adamantly to bring the theatre out of the shadows and into the forefront of Canadian life.
Don Rubin asked if theatre criticism on the Internet was a sort of “cottage industry” made up by those who are content to settle for theatre criticism being a second job, or a hobby for retirement, with no grandiose goals or lofty ambitions beyond subsisting as they are. There were murmurings in accordance to Rubin’s question from the panellists and then Rubin asked, “Can anyone have the dream of being a theatre critic anymore?” I have that dream. I have a dream; I have grandiose goals and lofty ambitions. I have a plan to forge a career out of my own path and to bring Canadian theatre criticism into the future with integrity, creativity, passion and enthusiasm. I may be a maverick, but I know that I am not entirely alone in my quest. I am allied to every ambitious fantasist in this country who is passionate about the theatre and invigorated by the notion that the times they are a changin’.

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