What role does theatre criticism play in a post-truth world?
A COUPLE OF MONTHS BACK I read two news items that added to my numerous gray hairs. No, these pieces were not about Donald Trump, although he will make an (unwelcome) appearance here.
First, in early October longtime Georgia Straight theatre reviewer Colin Thomas was abruptly let go from his freelance job, after 30 years, with no notice or much of an explanation. Then, shortly afterwards, theatre reviewer Stephen Hunt wrote an article in the Globe and Mail about his own departure from the Calgary Herald.
Cue the ominous music. The titles of these articles say clearly what was on my mind: “Theatre community deserves informed, honest critics” and “What is a country’s cultural landscape without critics?” The question in the latter title seems even more pressing in US President-elect Trump’s “post-truth” world. When posting an opinion, well-informed or not, is as easy as a tweet or troll-like comment, what is the effect on both professional arts criticism and on the culture at large?
I recently marked my tenth anniversary reviewing for CBC Victoria’s On the Island. My perspective has always been an intentionally quite generous one. This is indicative of my work as a theatre educator and professor at the University of Victoria. I always learn from theatregoing, even when the work is less than stellar. So my goal in reviewing has been to try to communicate what it is I valued in a show, rather than to dwell too much on what was lacking.
That said, I have had to cover a few stinkers along the way. The honesty required of a critic is a challenge in a small city such as ours. I never wish to call someone out too harshly for shoddy work, especially in what is a vital yet largely amateur theatre community. But if the show is professional, I do feel I can be a bit more pointed in my comments. Taking criticism is part of the job in the professional artworld.
Colin Thomas knows all about this. Thomas has a reputation in Vancouver for not holding back when he dislikes a production. He has been involved in more than one running battle with an angry director, actor or playwright who could not handle a negative review. Yet there is no doubt that Thomas’ reviews have been an essential part of the cultural conversation in Vancouver theatre. When he posted on Facebook that he had been fired, there was an amazing outpouring of support, much of which came from theatre artists. Many of them prefaced their comments by saying that they had received bad reviews from Thomas. Many also acknowledged that those reviews had actually woken them up and improved their subsequent work.
As Thomas himself says (in an email interview), “I’m very clear that, when I write a review, I’m responding to the work rather than to the individuals who are making the work. In my experience, most artists understand and respect that, although less seasoned artists sometimes have a little trouble drawing a distinction between their work and themselves.”
In a great blog post (he is continuing to review, for free, online), “On Criticism,” Thomas also reflects on how important it is for a good critic to be aware of his or her own biases and to see that, at some level, all criticism is a form of autobiography. We reveal ourselves through our opinions. Yet reviewers have the responsibility to be mindful that opinions carry additional weight when placed in a public space.
How to achieve this balance between personal background and taste and effective public criticism? For me, an informed opinion is key. Good critics do their homework and are able to put whatever is being reviewed into both historical and cultural contexts. A bad critic spends too much time or space laying out the plot, or in offering superficial platitudes, or overly negative (as in hurtful and unconstructive) critiques.
Adrian Chamberlain, now entering his 30th year reviewing for the Times-Colonist, has some thoughts on these matters. He tells me that, “The primary function of the critic is not to be a cheerleader or even an arts advocate. Reviewers who give everything a thumbs-up are not critics. The critic will provide a (hopefully) objective opinion that others (especially friends and family of the cast/creators) will not provide. If done well, this can be helpful, especially for audience members.
“Honesty is a big thing. A reviewer may think they’re being ‘nice’ by soft-pedalling weaknesses in shows. But they’re not being true to the craft of criticism, nor are they helping audiences, especially those who pay bucks to see a ‘great’ show that turns out to be mediocre. The critic is writing primarily for the reader, not the artists.”
My fellow CBC Radio reviewer David Lennam agrees with Chamberlain, telling me, “As a theatre critic, I’ve been savaged and criticized as much as the productions I’ve been less than kind with. That doesn’t matter. It’s all part of a conversation that’s essential. I am a supporter of live theatre so I want my criticism to reflect that I am a fan, but I want it to show that I am a fan who will not suffer through inferior work without telling it like it is. That’s fair.”
So here is the problem: When professional reviewers are taken out of the picture, who is there for the interested theatregoer to rely on? As Chamberlain points out, “Unfortunately for arts journalism, when the budget gets thin (talking about newspapers here) this is the section that is first in line for cuts. Arts are still regarded as a ‘frill’ by many, including some newspaper owners.”
Lennam echoes these thoughts: “The current state of theatre reviewing has dropped dramatically over the past few years, not just in Victoria, but across the country. There seems to be little appetite for good criticism from the media gate-holders. Newspapers, TV, radio…they’re not willing to pay professional critics or run critiques, maybe because they think it might hurt advertising.”
Chamberlain goes on to ask, “Is the void going to be filled by websites, blogs and so forth? Perhaps it is. It’s a very transitional time in journalism right now…Bottom line, if people want good arts criticism, it will somehow survive. And if they don’t, it will not.”
Well, giving the people what they want has landed our neighbours to the south in some dire straits (just my opinion!). In November, President-elect Trump took to his favourite critical outpost, Twitter, to express his anger at the cast of Hamilton: The Musical. This diverse cast—in one of the most popular shows in Broadway history—had the temerity to deliver a short speech at curtain call to an audience member, Vice-President-elect Mike Pence. Trump grumped that the address calling for unity and respect for all was “inappropriate” and “rude” and that the show itself was “overrated” (even though a tweet by his daughter Ivanka praised it as exceeding her high expectations).
What Trump provides me with here is a great example of bad criticism. No thought, no homework, no context, just negatively biased opinions aired without care or concern as to their effect.
We are entering some dangerous times in which good critical opinions may continue to come under attack, or even be silenced. I worry about the future of arts criticism in an online age. When lies are presented by so-called leaders as truth, we all need to become vigilant readers, viewers and listeners. It bothers me that a critic of Colin Thomas’ stature has to retreat to a blog. He deserves the public audience he has nurtured and educated, an audience of both theatre artists and theatregoers looking for an honest, informed voice in an ever-more ignorant world.
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF GOOD PLAYS in January and February. Expect some laughs, some music, and some serious commentary about women’s place in the world.
The Belfry has a new Joan MacLeod play, Gracie, about a 15-year-old girl born into a polygamous community (Jan 20-Feb 19), played by Lili Beaudoin. There’s also a bonus show, Taking Off in their studio space (Feb 21-Mar 12). Taking Off is written by Deborah Williams, one of the writer/performers of the popular Mom’s the Word. Both are worth a visit. (www.belfry.bc.ca)
The British comedy One Man, Two Guvnors (based on Goldoni’s classic Servant of Two Masters) plays at Langham Court and under Roger Carr’s direction I predict another big hit. It was, after all, nominated for no less than seven Tony Awards. (Jan 20-Feb 4, www.langhamtheatre.ca)
Glynis Leyshon directs Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Ruddigore for the Canadian College of Performing Arts in an unusual venue: Craigdarroch Castle. This one should be lots of fun. (Jan 25-Feb 5, www.ccpacanada.com)
I’m also looking forward to the next Phoenix show, Gut Girls by Sarah Daniels. This 1980s British play explores working class women’s lives in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. (Feb 9-18, www.finearts.uvic.ca/theatre/phoenix)
Theatre Inconnu presents Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal in mid-February—another play about history and women, this time the Suffragettes. ( www.theatreinconnu.com, Feb 4-Mar 4)
Pacific Opera Victoria presents the ever-popular The Magic Flute by Mozart, a treat for music-lovers of all ages. (Feb 16-26, www.rmts.bc.ca)
Finally, Intrepid Theatre has a touring show in town for just two nights in February. Pajama Men: Pterodactyl Nights promises excellent sketch and improvised comedy from a seasoned pair of performers. (Metro Studio, Feb 24 & 25, http://intrepidtheatre.com)
Plenty to get out of the rain and into a theatre to catch. See the community calendar for more on these as well as other productions.
Monica Prendergast believes there’s much to look forward to in 2017 as the arts provide hopefulness and collectivity in a fractured time. Thomas’ blog: www.colinthomas.ca/blog.
Edited by admin