In which a theatre attempts an experiment with criticism, and critics lose the plot

Now here’s an interesting one.


Guillermo Verdecchia and Adam Lazarus in the Factory Theatre’s promotional image for The Art of Building a Bunker

This past week, Toronto’s Factory Theatre announced that they are inviting the media to their upcoming production of The Art of Building a Bunker by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia five days after the show opens. The reason for this, according to Aislinn Rose, producer of the show for the indie company Quiptake, is to see “if the conversation [about the production] can be more open and free, and more inclusive of a greater variety of voices, before the voice of authority comes in” – the voice of authority being, of course, reviews by theatre critics in mainstream outlets.

The voice of authority – in the form of J. Kelly Nestruck, theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper – is not impressed.

In a mega-Twitter strand that grew to over 100 Tweets on September 24-25, Kelly (I refer to him by his first name because I know him) referred to the Factory’s move as “amateur hour”, “an insult to audiences”, and “unprofessional and unethical.” In a follow-up piece in the Globe and Mail, he says he is “outraged” at the Factory’s “attempt to sideline professional critics” and further asserts that the Factory is trying to “pick a fight with professional critics.” While Kelly’s voice of protest has been the loudest, another critic, the Torontoist’s listings editor Steve Fisher, Tweeted that this move is “hostile to critics” and that it is “attempting to silence… the ppl who are best qualified to evaluate” The Art of Building a Bunker. Now Magazine’s Glenn Sumi sees this as “part of a larger trend of keeping critics away.”

Really? As Rose said repeatedly in the Twitter conversation, this is not silencing or picking a fight or barring; after all, critics are welcome – just three performances (which works out to be five calendar days because of dark nights over a weekend) after the general public and the theatre community.

That this so inflames Kelly, Fisher, and Sumi, and provoked several blogs from other Toronto theatre commentators professing concern and bafflement (and also considered support) indicates that this is about more than five days in the life of one show. It’s touched a nerve about how arts criticism is changing radically in the digital age and how, as a part of this, the authority of voices rendered powerful by dint of their mainstream outlets is being challenged. By initially prioritizing voices other than mainstream reviewers, Factory and its season partners are acknowledging that there are important conversations going on about theatre other than those led by paid professionals. They’re suggesting that there are others out there – artists, the arts community, and maybe even **gasp** members of the public – who not only “qualified to evaluate” their work, but qualified to lead an evaluative dialogue about it.

I see this latest kerfluffle as part of the same set of concerns as the previous kerfluffle I blogged about a few weeks ago, about the central role that bloggers and online critics are playing in a renaissance of theatre criticism in London (UK), despite protestations by mainstream voices that criticism is in crisis. In response to my blog, Jill Dolan commented that: “All the ‘death of . . .’ arguments (from the death of criticism here to Schechner’s ‘death of the avant-garde’ in the ’80s) seem mostly self-serving for those who launch them, meant to shore up their own importance when they feel their traditional power dwindling.” This is the context for the aggressive over-reactions here: Kelly, Fisher, Sumi and others are calling foul and even claiming victim status

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 9.43.41 PM

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 9.49.16 PMbecause Factory’s move acknowledges that their power is not what it used to be.

What defines opening night vs. press night vs. gala premiere vs. (in France) couturière vs. générale is a set of conventions, not a list of rules. These conventions shift over the years as conditions of production and reception evolve. In first hearing about this, it seemed to me that Factory must be trying this “experiment” (a word they have underlined throughout) because the current conventions of criticism are not working for them. I wanted to know more, so I called up Rose and Nina Lee Aquino, Factory’s co-artistic director. Aquino says that the desire is to keep “opening night a celebration with peers, the community, and audiences,” and underlines that this move is with the full support of the Factory’s five season partner companies (Quiptake, b current, Theatre Smith-Gilmour, Native Earth Performing Arts, and U.N.I.T Productions). Rose says the plan is to “take a proactive approach in engaging social media and engaging with audiences” in the days after opening, using the Factory’s and Quiptake’s social media channels to foster and circulate audience and artist responses, as a way of extending word of mouth. “Everyone makes fun of hashtags,” Rose says, “but they are such a good way of having a conversation.”

Some have used this as an opportunity to comment on what they see as a dysfunctional relationship between the performing arts in Toronto and its critics. Philip Akin, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre (or someone identifying as such), commented on Holger Syme’s blog that “When you consider the drive by slagging that has been the mainstay of reviews over the last two years it is kind of like an abus [sic] relationship. So why not just walk away for a bit.” Director and dramaturg Jacob Zimmer names the Toronto Star’s theatre and dance critics Richard Ouzounian and Michael Crabb as doing “serious damage to the art forms they review” and says that independent companies do not speak back to destructive criticism because “there is real fear about future retribution.”

Aquino and Rose would not be drawn to direct comment about individual Toronto critics. Rather, their discussion puts me in mind of an astute statement by Holger Syme at a panel discussion on theatre criticism at Brock University earlier this year (in which Kelly Nestruck and Richard Ouzounian were also participants): “How a conversation develops usually has something to do with how a conversation starts…. if you have reviews that are primarily evaluative in nature, that say things like ‘this person is an outstanding actor’ or ‘this person is a terrible actor’ … the response of people who disagree is going to be similarly monosyllabic and underdeveloped in nature.”

“A lot of what has been suggested to me is that this is because we are afraid of criticism,” says Rose. “But this is not about fear of negative press; it’s about craving deeper discourse.” Part of the gambit, for Rose, is that briefly postponing the entry of mainstream critical voices into the dialogue may empower some who might otherwise discredit their personal point of view: “Sometimes I go to the theatre with my mum, and she always has very smart things to say. But she can be a bit old fashioned about the authority she gives to the official press. Sometimes if she thinks something different than the critics, she’ll say ‘maybe I’m just stupid.’ But my mum is an incredibly intelligent woman.” Both Rose and Aquino underline that media voices are welcome, but after dialogue has launched, at which point, according to Rose, they will “enhance the conversation.”

Lois Dawson and others are concerned that Factory will suffer at the box office by not getting reviewed as soon as they possibly could, and Holger goes so far as to equate conventional reviews with “unpaid publicity” – a surprisingly limited point of view from that quarter. Several say that Factory is fostering a dialogue among the already-converted, with Mike Anderson arguing this is a good thing – a celebration of the theatre’s “loyalists” as “even more important than the critics” – while Joshua Hind sees this as part of the “ongoing clique-ization of the Toronto small theatre ‘community.'”

Will the conversation around The Art of Building a Bunker really just be among a small group of theatre insiders if Factory and Quiptake curate it as they intend to, or will it grow to encompass a variety of points of view from people coming at the show from a broader range of perspectives than we usually see on review comment strands and theatres’ own websites? This is a really intriguing question – but the problem is, we may not find out the answer, because critics say they are going to defy the Factory’s strategy by buying tickets and reviewing the show immediately after opening night.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 9.35.26 PMScreen Shot 2014-09-28 at 9.37.21 PM

I fully accept that critics serve a number of constituencies, and that reviewers for mainstream outlets answer first and foremost to their editors and their readerships. Kelly argued to Aquino that the Factory’s plan is unacceptable because it is “asking me to do my job less well”, because he would be failing in his reporter function to write on this opening as news (to which Aquino riposted that sometimes Globe and Mail reviews don’t appear for 5-6 days after the opening because of publication delays and lack of space).

There could be another way about this. In the spirit of embracing our changing media environment, established critics could get on board with this experiment. They could argue to their editors that this is an artist-led attempt to open up dialogue around theatre, the stated intention of which is not to block professional and online critics but to include them as participants in an exchange that is being launched differently this time.

Because, at the end of the day, while the relationship between theatre and criticism is a two-way street, we who write about theatre wouldn’t have anything to talk about if artists didn’t make art. “We’re trying something new here,” says Aquino. “We’re artists and innovators.” Continues Rose, “Isn’t this our job?”

So hey, how’s this: back off, critics. Let the artists do their job and run this experiment as they intend. There are dozens of theatre openings in Toronto in October, and you’ll get your say on Bunker on 21st October. And if you held off and were really being sporting, you’d engage with the online dialogue before writing your reviews, to see how that affects what you write. Maybe you’ll find that loosening your hold on power will make the field you write about – and your own work – even richer than it already is.

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22 Responses to In which a theatre attempts an experiment with criticism, and critics lose the plot

  1. Holger Syme says:

    I wish I could be as positive about this entire affair as you, Karen!

    Here’s the thing: I understand why one might not want Ouzounian at one’s opening. I even get why some people might not want Kelly at theirs. But if this is actually about a shift in power-relations akin in any way to the UK resurgence of blogger-critics, the Factory would still let non-mainstream critics in at opening. That would be an interesting experiment. Instead, opening will be a closed affair where everyone celebrates (how can you know there will be something to celebrate at this point?). I don’t know what kind of critical, critically engaged conversation is going to emerge from that kind of atmosphere.

    But let’s say people who aren’t involved with the show, or the Factory, or “members of the community” actually start showing up to a show about which they know nothing beyond what the Factory’s publicity materials have told them; let’s say they like it — or more interestingly, let’s say they hate it, and can be bothered to articulate what they didn’t like. Where are they going to do this? And who is going to do it? How many regular audience members have the time, the desire, the means, and yes, the ability to write about theatre at any length in a format that’s not simply private or semi-private? What kind of “conversation” can really unfold on Twitter? (I’ve tried, and I can speak a form of short-hand on there with other critics and with some theatre makers, but that’s a completely inner-circle kind of conversation — and that surely can’t be what the Factory is after. Any serious discussion requires long-form; 140 characters won’t do.) So where will this happen? On people’s Facebook pages? On Ello?

    I think what irks me most about this entire thing is what it says about the status and the state of critical debate in Canada. It’s terrible if Aislinn is right that many people have their opinions utterly shaped by reviews, as no critic should have that kind of authority — that’s also death to critical debate. On the other hand, it’s not my experience in talking to other audience members; I hear things like “X liked it — why? I hated it!” or “Y really didn’t care for it, but I think this is great!” all the time. I do think, though, that reviews can and should serve as a very useful first step in moving from experience to reflection, or in giving an experience a frame that allows for reflection. That doesn’t mean that reviews shape how an audience sees a play, but they make it possible to approach a performance with a set of questions or considerations in mind, rather than completely unprepared. If we had proper programs in this country, that wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Equally, if we staged more plays that people already know, this wouldn’t be concern. But without such a frame — a frame any performance can explode easily, and which any audience member can react against at any time, obviously — I fear theatre runs the risk of appealing primarily to the audience’s emotions, or, perhaps worse, to become consumable in like/dislike terms. I can easily imagine many debates being sparked by the massive contrast between how an audience member saw a show and how Ouzounian saw it — and the ensuing conversation would very quickly leave his parameters behind. In my experience, there are few better ways into thinking about a show than productive disagreements with what critics say. But without any kind of discourse around a show, how is that conversation going to happen? My fear is that all the Factory’s “experiment” will yield is a bunch of upturned and downturned thumbs and a handful of tweets along the lines of “#Bunker at @FactoryTheatre: unmissable! That’s theatre!” — And that’s not a conversation. It’s not even a conversation starter.

    (All of which is to say that I really don’t think reviews are simply free publicity. But they are, among other and more important things, free publicity — and I do think that our theatres need all the publicity they can get. I also think they need all the conversation starters they can get, but those things aren’t mutually exclusive.)

  2. Holger, thank you for your thoughtful reply. It being late, I will be relatively brief – but I do not want to truncate a potentially rich dialogue.

    Re 1) Factory letting in non-mainstream critics (and only non-mainstream ones) at the opening. How the heck would they pull that off without inviting the mainstreamers too? The affront felt by the mainstreamers about the delay to their invitations to review Bunker is extreme (she says from experience, having just come out of the Twitter OK Corral with Kelly about this, bloodied and dragging smoking six-shooters behind her…). Trying to invite some commentators but not others sounds like way too controversial a prospect at this point. Down the line even – is what you’re envisioning a series of staggered press nights when bloggers come first then print critics? That doesn’t happen in the UK, quite the opposite. But perhaps I’m taking you up wrong?

    2) Opening night as celebration. Of course it is! Have you been to one? Putting on theatre is a lot of hard work for (almost always) not a lot of money. Artists, producers and technicians invest of themselves in what they do. Is that not cause for celebration? And do you really think that an artistic event that is celebrated by its artists could not then produce intelligent, critical thought afterwards by those same artists, and others in their circles?

    3) This question of where dialogue might happen: I agree, I’d like to hear more from Factory/Quiptake about what they have concretely planned. But, speculating, the Factory opens up a conversation on its website, which it publicizes via Twitter and other social media, by handouts at the theatre, and so forth, and the conversation flows from there?

    4) The example of Aislinn’s mum resonates a lot with me. I see and hear this frequently – from friends, family members, students, and others. “Who am I to have a point of view about theatre?” or “Well, I thought x, but [insert name of Name Critic] thought y, so whaddo I know?” Or, more subtly and for our pedagogical purposes more urgently, we have the critical creep, in which students read reviews before they see a show and then find it challenging to assert their own view which might go against what they have read. You may not have experienced this as I have, but it is a consistent experience for me in New York, Dublin, London and now the GTA.

    5) Critics creating the frame of reference and debate. This is a really interesting argument, and you’ve stated it really clearly and usefully here.
    Serious question: are you satisfied with the frame of reference and debate about theatre that are being created by the critics that currently service the markets you work and read in, in particular for this current discussion, Toronto?
    And are you open to the notion that it might be others than mainstream critics – that it could even be a curated audience debate – that could serve that framing function, other than critics?

    All I got, for now. Looking forward to your response. Thanks again – KF

    • Holger Syme says:

      It’s terribly late, and I’m juggling responsibilities, but this is WAY too interesting.

      1) Opening: Of course it’s a celebration. I know that. It already is that. So to say that not having critics there will make it more celebratory, as Factory does, strikes me as disingenuous at best. But I will say, and have said, that I don’t think opening is the best night for reviews. I think the last preview is a much better night for that. Opening, in many ways, is probably the worst night for a reviewer to see the show.

      But to answer your question: I do believe that critical reflection on one’s own work is something most of our theatre makers are capable of (even though I don’t think there’s enough of it, and though I don’t think the bar is anywhere near high enough). I don’t think opening night is an occasion that’s likely to trigger such reflection, though. It’s the venue for superficial, quick, nice-as-possible responses par excellence.

      2) Non-MSM critics: I don’t think there’s a practicable way of doing this, I agree. But that’s also why I really don’t think this “experiment” has anything to do with the shifts in who can count as a reviewer, and the emergence of interesting new voices in online venues. (I’d totally applaud a theatre saying something like: “Look, we have no issue with bad reviews. We have an issue with stupid reviews. So, Paper X, either send someone who is willing to engage with the work and not simply apply his [yes, his] pre-shrunk value judgments to whatever he sees, or no more comps for you. Give us zero stars all you want, but provide a well-argued justification for them — or pay for your ticket.” Yes, it’s a very slippery slope; and no, it’s not practical. But it would be rigorous. Sort of.)

      3) Sure, that would be an interesting step. At least it would create a sort of public. I still have my doubts as to whether people would contribute anything of substance without a review to bounce off of, though. The Guardian comment section is always instructive to me in that: often, the smartest things I read in the MSM about shows are written in disagreement with Billington reviews. (Of course, some of the stupidest things about shows can also be found in the same place, also often in disagreement.)

      4) Interesting. I can only defer to your experience. Though the “I thought X” response is interesting — clearly, in that case, the audience member’s actual experience of and thinking about the show had not been determined by the review, just retroactively qualified into a kind of submission. That, to me, is not an argument against reviews — that’s an argument against giving reviewers an authority they shouldn’t have. I don’t think this is about a lack of exposure to theatre, by the way — I’ve had friends who see very few live shows disagree with seasoned critics without any hesitation. But I do think it’s pretty obviously about assumed authority and individual audience members’ self-perception. I imagine the fact that I almost always see plays with either academics or theatre people very much colours my perception — but I’ve also chatted to feisty octogenarian “outsiders” after WorldStage shows that violently disagreed with what they’d read in the papers.

      5) Am I satisfied? Good grief, no. Our critical discourse is utterly appalling. It’s a frame, but a really cheap and poorly made one, and about 50 years out of date to boot. (You know which frame maker I mean. It’s not Kelly.) And I must admit that the online contributions to date don’t leave me much more hopeful — it’s nice that Mooney exists, but they don’t really raise the bar. That Jordan Bimm now seems to be one of NOW’s main critics has me wailing in despair.

      I absolutely think there are many different ways of framing debates. Having pre-shows is one; talk-backs is another. But they’d have to be done differently than most of them are now. It would help if we had dramaturgs. Real programs could make a big difference — our “playbills” drive tears into my eyes. I can barely read the letters to the audience things that Soulpepper put in theirs without bursting into howls of anger. And of course writers other than MSM critics should be a driving force: I don’t see why that can’t happen here the same way it’s happened in the UK, and especially in Australia. I’m hugely impressed with the level of critical discourse in Australian theatre blogs — and that’s a theatre ecology that’s much more comparable to our own than either the UK or the US.

      • Thanks for this Holger and you’re obvs. made of stronger stuff than me in terms of late nights.

        There are lectures to prep etc, but a few thoughts – and to start with a question: I’ve heard through the grapevine that Richard Rose tried an experiment like this back in the day at Necessary Angel. I’ve emailed him to ask about this and how it went, but if you, Holger (given that you’ve been in his rehearsal room of late) or anyone else with a longer memory of Toronto theatre knows anything about this it’d be really interesting to hear about it.

        I agree, Holger, that this particular experiment is not really about the MSM/non MSM critical relationship; it’s about the role of the ticket-buying public in the discussion around theatre, and the role of the theatre organization in framing that discussion. I have placed this, in my initial blog, in the context of the currently changing field of theatre criticism because I think that helps contextualize the very aggressive reaction of critics to the Factory’s plan. There is a raw nerve there because the overall status of the critic is currently a volatile issue, and many MSM critics are on the defensive. Jill Dolan’s comments on this which I cite in my blog get to the heart of the matter, I think.

        I bridle somewhat at your assertion that the public won’t know how to respond without critics shepherding them; that feels elitist to me. And/but, I do see that the theatre organization has an important role to play here in framing and curating the discussions that could take place, which could take the form of (as you suggest) robust programme notes, educational materials, pre and post shows etc, as well as online fora. We’ll see how Factory responds in the coming weeks and what they have planned (though as I point out, the experiment will not work as the Factory envisions it if the MSM buy tickets and review straightaway).

        I agree with your concern/observation that the online conversations are a free for all, with really insightful and fresh comments happening BTL (below the line) in MSM reviews, but this mixed in with utter dross and nastiness. Mark Fisher (also commenting here) is a friend and colleague who covers theatre in Scotland for the Guardian (as I did in Ireland for five years in the ’00s); like me he’ll know that Guardian crix are very much encouraged to weigh in BTL, but it is challenging because you’re trying to have the smart, engaged conversations while body-swerving trolls. Thoughts/strategies, Mark?

        And yes, more broadly, I think that there needs to be a much more robust and thoughtful theatre blogosphere in Toronto than currently exists (and I feel the academic sector can and should play a key role in this, and is starting to). I don’t know the Oz scene well, just what I’ve read in that one wonderful article in Contemporary Theatre Review (20, 1) by Grehan, Tompkins and Harvey, and admiring observation of Alison Croggan’s FB and Twitter postings. But I know the UK very well and the level of dialogue there currently is v high (as I said in my previous).

        Holger, to your comment about ‘someone should Storify this’, I totally agree and it might interest you and others to know that our colleague Michelle MacArthur (newly PHD’d by the Drama Centre) is launching a research project called “Mapping the Toronto Blogosphere” in which, amongst other smart and timely activities, she plans to model an archival strategy that will include as much of the online dialogue about productions as can be captured. Watch this space, as it were.

      • Megan Mooney says:

        Just poking my nose in here to clarify the mandate of Mooney on Theatre. Mooney on Theatre was never intended for theatre people. The idea behind it was to provide a place for non-theatre people to find out about theatre in a way they could access, in a way that didn’t assume prior knowledge of theatre, that avoids jargon, that isn’t about analysing the show, that is just about talking about the experience of the show.

        I’m not daft, I know that most of our readers are theatre people, but that’s the mandate I built the site on, and that’s the mandate it continues on.

        I’m just pointing this out because Mooney was never actually intended to further the critical discussion. There are other online folks who are out there working on that. I just think that Mooney is a bad example for this purpose.

        We may be the most prominent theatre coverage group online because we’re big and prolific, but if you’re looking for deep critical analysis that’s not us. I actually have a hard time writing my reviews because I want to get all theatre-geek on them and always have to edit that stuff out of mine.

      • Holger Syme says:

        No nested replies-to-replies, Karen? Will have to reply to myself then…

        Just a quick one: “I bridle somewhat at your assertion that the public won’t know how to respond without critics shepherding them; that feels elitist to me.” I would bridle at that suggestion too — it’s not quite what I said. I said I wasn’t convinced that people would post substantive things independently, not that they wouldn’t know how to. In my experience, very few theatre goers are interested in sharing their thoughts at a significant level of critical involvement on social media platforms — and those who do sooner or later become theatre bloggers. On the other hand, people who see a show that’s been reviewed favourably or negatively seem at least occasionally inclined to take issue with a critic’s point of view BTL or on Facebook, and in relatively substantive terms.

        In all honesty: how often do you come across tweets or FB books by regular audience members that have something detailed and substantial to say about a show? (it’s rare enough to see tweets that say something negative about a play around here…)

  3. Patrick McManus says:

    And not just “what you write.” But, “what you see,” and “how you see it,” based on what you’ve read from people who have already seen it. It strikes me as an interesting (if potentially devastating) invitation to the reviewer to report on, or consider the response the show has received from the online public. Or… they can ignore the social media noise and review the show without preconception, and see how much weight their opinion holds in the conversation.

  4. Although, I think you are right, Holger, with your suggestion that social media operates more as promotional platform more than a critical one.

    • Thanks for your comments, Patrick. Yes, the broader question for me is, what’s the difference between going into a production having read no critical response; and going in with your frame of reference conditioned by what you’ve read and heard. I am quite a stickler when I teach theatre criticism that students need to do research about the company, playwright/work (if it exists previously), creative team, the team’s statements about their desires and intentions for the production in pre-show materials etc — this because these tyro critics are not ordinary audience members off the street, but privileged ones with a job to do (my current students did such research when they went in to review the Shaw’s production of Creve Coeur last weekend, for example). I caveat to them however that reading reviews of the production in question (if they exist) is not a great idea because then students tend to evaluate not only what they see on stage but against or in response to the existing published evaluation (which particularly in a student context carries the weight of authority).
      Factory here seem to be acknowledging that in their experience, the same thing may be happening in terms of critics framing or even limiting broad audience response to Bunker, and they are trying to see what happens if they forestall the critical response a bit. …

      Re social media being more promo than critical; my experience is that it can be critical/ evaluative as well as promotional, and can influence box office within theatre communities. Here’s a very current example: the Irish company Corn Exchange just opened their adaptation of Eimear MacBride’s novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing at the Dublin Theatre Festival last night. Friends and colleagues within the Irish theatre community started Facebooking and Tweeting about how amazing it was, even on the way home from the theatre last night (this well before the Irish Times review comes out). I trust the taste and standards of the people who were doing this social networking, and so am really glad I have my ticket for the show for Thursday (because I am lucky enough to be going to Dublin this week!) — because I know that this buzz will turn into sell-out houses.

      Is this in-groupy, ‘just’ a theatre community talking to itself, as many commentators around this Factory story worried, and is it ‘just’ promotion? I don’t think so. Yes, the discussion is starting in the theatre community but it bleeds out. Most of these people have social media contacts/circles beyond our community. The Dublin Theatre Festival is doing its bit to circulate these comments as part of its (yes) promotional work. But the comments are coming from people who know and love (passionately) their theatre – the comments are critical and evaluative, and I take them seriously because these colleagues have their own reputations on the line. If they are always on FB and Twitter saying everything is amazing, not only would the community stop trusting what they say, the community might even start to question the colleague’s creative/critical judgement more broadly, vis-a-vis that colleague’s own work.

      When it’s not just isolated comments but becomes a certain critical mass, for me a consensus has formed that this is a production that demands attention. So I’ll go along and evaluate it for myself.

      That’s a lot but, thoughts?

      • Mark Fisher says:

        Do you have an opinion about whether Factory is correct in its analysis that critics are “framing or even limiting broad audience response”? I don’t know Toronto well enough to know how influential the critics are, but that analysis would suggest they’re pretty powerful.

        It would also be interesting to know, as this experiment plays out, how different (if at all) the social media chat is from the critic’s reviews. My own experience suggests that a good show produces lively social media buzz and good reviews. A poor show leads to social media silence and poor reviews. Karen, once the reviews of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing come out, would you have time to pick them apart to see if they say anything qualitatively different to what your social media circle has been saying? Are they more or less narrow-minded, insightful, reactionary, liberal, etc, or do they reflect the general flow of the conversation around the show?

      • Holger Syme says:

        Karen: OK, going with your concrete example — what do you know about A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing now, from those comments, beyond the fact that people whose judgment you trust liked it?

        To my mind, the evaluative aspect of a review is the least interesting point, and the least fruitful point of departure for a conversation. (“I liked it.” “I didn’t.” Done.) Forget about promotion or evaluation — I don’t read reviews to find out if a particular reviewer thinks a particular show is good or bad, but to find out what a show is trying to do, how it is doing it, and to what extent the critic thinks it succeeded or failed in doing it. I then might well decide to go and see a show based on any one of those elements — its apparent goals, its theatrical strategies and choices, or, rarely, because a critic says all of those things came together well. The very last thing I need to hear from a critic is that well-established actor X did a great or poor job, or that young, unknown actor Y failed to leave an impression (or blew the critic away).

        I recognize that I’m probably not a completely run-of-the-mill audience member. But no matter what readership they have in mind, in general, even the worst, most superficial reviews still do some work describing the show, even if poorly. My sense is that in social media discourse, most of that descriptive or analytical work is ignored, and people jump straight to evaluation. And I don’t really see the point or value in that (other than as a helpful data point in trying to figure out how to pick the handful of shows I can fit into a busy term-time schedule). But if the goal is to start a real conversation about a show, this tendency of social media strikes me as actively counter-productive.

  5. Mark Fisher says:

    Fascinating discussion. I’m wondering if the theatre company is asking the right question but hasn’t necessarily come up with the right answer. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem to be clear, for example, where the “open and free” discussion will take place and how the “greater variety of voices” will be heard. If it’s just on Facebook and Twitter, well, that would surely happen anyway in the gap between press night and publication. That gap can already be a few days, so there should be plenty of time for a conversation to develop before the critics contribute. I can’t see that waiting for three more performances would make much difference (especially as many people don’t read reviews in the first place so word-of-mouth and social media conversations will continue regardless).

    I agree with Karen that these things are a matter of convention. Companies should be free to invite critics whenever they like. The sense of an opening night being an event, however, is quite strong and the danger in delaying is that it diminishes the importance of that event. On the up side, first nights can be ghastly love-ins, with hyped-up performances and over-eager audiences, so by avoiding it, the critics may actually see a better show. Pitlochry Festival Theatre made a similar move a few seasons ago on the basis that the productions would have bedded in after a few performances. This raises the question of why it’s OK for paying audiences to see a show that may not be ready enough for the critics to see. I think I’m right in saying that PFT’s opening night is now sold at preview prices, which seems a good compromise.

  6. Philip Akin says:

    Geeez Karen. You had to pick the one comment with a typo in it.. Oh for a do over I say.

    • LOL Philip. It’s that pesky ethics thing. I could have corrected you (and was tempted to) but then I’d have been misquoting you. The point is, the spirit and content of the comment is powerful and I felt it was important to be included in an account of the debate. And the obvious answer is: always write things in fountain pen!! 🙂

  7. Megan Mooney says:

    I’m doing a really bad job of staying out of this. I was really planning on staying out of it, I really really was. But now I’ve started apparently I can’t stop. Except my compromise is that I’m going to say nothing new, and just copy and paste what I wrote randomly on a comment on Facebook:
    So, I have remained (conspicuously apparently, as I’ve noticed people trying to pull me in) out of this because of a couple things (first, I’m sick as a dog, second, I’m trying to get ready for my wedding in two weeks, third, I’m sort of generally trying to stay out of it because I just don’t have the energy to fight right now, and I feel like it might be a really big fight big because it would be with fellow critics who I suppose I’m supposed to be ‘standing in solidarity with’)

    I’ve poked my head into a couple small discussions because apparently I’m not fantastic at staying completely quiet.

    What I don’t understand is why critics think that they should get a say in this. If someone wants to put on a show why are they beholden to us? I mean, sure, we have a mutual agreement, you give us comps and we’ll give you publicity by writing about your show (good or bad). But it seems to me that pretty much that’s it.

    I mean, obviously that simplifies it. But, really, at it’s core that’s it.

    If for some reason people don’t feel like they can trust whether or not to go to a show until they read a review, then it’s not the end of the world if they wait a couple extra days. They won’t falsely believe it has been reviewed when it hasn’t. I just feel like a couple days isn’t a big deal.

    I have no idea if it’s a good idea or not, but that’s kind of the point of an experiment, and kind of not really my place to say anyway. I don’t see why a theatre shouldn’t be able to control how they present their art without consulting critics first.

    Now, of course critics are allowed to speak their mind about the idea, but the rhetoric flying around on this one, and some of the language (I seem to remember reading the word “unethical” at one point *Not in the original FB post: this unethical refers to Kelly’s as quoted in the piece above.) has been quite astounding to me.

    At this point Steve Fisher commented with something that included: “Seriously, Megan: you’re OK with the Star and the Globe being the only critical voices opining on opening night?”

    So I replied:
    See, I should have stuck with my gut and just not said anything. Like I said I’m way too sick and way too tired and way too slammed with wedding prep (and behind since I’ve been sick for a week and not been able to do anything) to actually get into any of this.

    But my belief is that it’s the theatre’s choice to make. I don’t think that they are beholden to us as critics. I don’t think they are *required* to give us comps at all. I think that it is in their best interest to do so because they wouldn’t get as many reviews and there for not as much publicity, but I still think it’s their choice.

    And yeah, so the dailies with money will have an advantage. This isn’t really news though. I mean, they also have an advantage in that they get to pay their writers decent living wages. The fact that the dailies are doing something to circumvent the setup is fine. That’s their prerogative, and not really the theatre’s responsibility.

    It’s not about whether or not I think it’s a good idea. It’s about whether or not I think critics should have a say in the operation of a theatre. And frankly, no, I don’t.

    bah! stupid ‘enter means submit’ is driving me crazy! I’m still writing in edit mode.

    I mean, I think that a conversation about whether or not people think it’s a good idea is great. About how it makes them feel? Sure, great. It’s the level of vitrol and, well, frankly the ‘It’s wrong, you can’t do it’ kind of messaging that has bewildered me.

    Hell, it would be weird if critics didn’t talk about it, I mean, that’s what we do, right? We analyze shit. We look, we did, we chew, we taste, we swallow, we evaluate, we expound.

    But that’s not what this feels like.

    And then, because people came out swinging, the response has been, predictably, very defensive and also piqued.

    So this thing that really should just be an experiment that a company is doing, which will either turn out to be a cool thing, or turn out to be some huge failure, or perhaps turn out to be just some neutral non-starter, has suddenly become a polarizing divisive issue. It feels a bit bewildering is all.

    But to answer your question, nope, I don’t mind. If someone wants to pay money to buy tickets to review the show before us, more power to ’em. Because hey, that means more money going to support theatre in this city, and lord knows there is always something else on that we can cover that night.

    Not surprisingly though, there are many of the same people in this thread as in that FB thread, so this is probably all old news… 😉

    • Thanks Megan, and no, I’d not been following the FB dialogues you mention so I appreciate you filling us in. I don’t want to pull you in further as you sound like you are up to your eyes with other stuff, but just to say — sounds like you and I are on the same page in general about hoping the experiment will be able to happen, in the spirit of experiment. I agree that it’s not for us as critics to dictate how theatres handle their press invite policy. Yes, it’s totally in our purview to comment on it, but the level of vitriol and judgment has been extreme here. How is it possibly unethical for a theatre to make and implement policy? (both Kelly and Steve Fisher have asserted this).
      I am really chagrined to hear that the culture of bullying that has become evident in this discussion has extended to attempts to shame and intimidate you into buying tickets to the opening night of Bunker. For what it’s worth I hope you stick to your principles and your gut on this (I initially wrote ‘stick to your guns’ but that would have fed into the aggressive, binary way in which this is being framed, which I resist, as apparently so do you).
      I do wonder at your equation of reviews with publicity – as I said in my initial post, I think there is a lot more at stake in informed comment about theatre than just publicity. And one of the really interesting questions that the Factory experiment would allow us to start to explore (if it were allowed to run properly) is, DO reviews really function as publicity? Would not having MSM reviews and blogger reviews initially be evident in the Factory’s box office for this show?

  8. Steve Fisher says:

    Ah, the “unethical” reference pops up again, sans context. Karen, I’m just going to cut and post what I said to Megan on Facebook here:

    “Hi Megan—I recall using the word “unethical”, but it was in the context that it would be unethical for a critic to review a preview performance without the consent of the producing company.

    “Kelly used it earlier in that thread as well, and HIS context was that it’s unethical to call it “opening night” when it’s in fact a “community night” (and I of course have some issues with bloggers and critics not being considered part of the theatre community, those of us who Nina referred to as “you people” in her interview).

    “The company has made it clear they don’t want bloggers and critics writing about the show until the run is half over, and any critic purchasing a ticket before the media night (which only the major dailies are going to spring for, anyway) is being forced to do exactly what I described. And the reason they’ll have to is because the expectations of their editors and readers (to whom a critic’s first responsibility is) are that they’ll do their job at the earliest opportunity.

    “Seriously, Megan: you’re OK with the Star and the Globe being the only critical voices opining on opening night? With Mooney on Theatre and online outlets not being able to chime in until a week later? How THAT policy helps Factory “allow for more voices” is baffling. Because even if the dailies DIDN’T use their $ to their advantage and stayed away, this policy seems geared towards keeping discussion of the show firmly fixed at the navel level of friends, families, and collaborators.”

    (Megan’s since posted, in these here comments, that her blog’s never been intended to be a critical voice in theatre discussion, but rather an accessible entry and a promotional voice, which has always been A-OK by me; plenty of companies do great work on stage but lousy PR for themselves, and champions like Derrick Chua are too few and far between.)

    As for claiming “victim” status, nuts to that! Factory has every right to decide whether or not to offer comps at all if they don’t think critical coverage is beneficial. But critics being critics, we’re going to respond with our thoughts on this “experiment” as we see fit (especially since we weren’t part of the discussion until after we were told we were unwelcome for the first half of the run), and my response is, “this is dumb, and this is disingenuous.” If you’re unclear on what possible motive Factory might have in avoiding media commentary on their season opening, bear in mind that last season was a critical disaster, with Factory shut out of the major Dora nominations, and nothing has changed at the Board of Director level there since this was written:

    As Megan said in the last line of her FB reply to me, “Lord knows there is always something else on that we can cover that night.” Damn right.

    • Hi Steve, Thanks for your comment here. Yes, you’re right I did not understand what you were referring to as ‘unethical’ in your Tweet and I totally agree with you, critics reviewing previews is not ethical. I still don’t see what Kelly finds unethical about the Factory’s creation of the non-media opening night, but that’s obvs not your question to answer.
      I did find an overall tone of victimization amongst some the leading voices in the initial response to the Factory announcement, but at this point in the story this does not feel like the most productive line for us to argue out.
      As to Factory’s possible blocking of critical engagement that you and Alexander comment on here (and others have elsewhere), I’d rather not comment on that. Again as I said to Holger, I’m not speaking on behalf of Factory, and for me the most important questions are about the model of critical response being proposed here and its implications.

  9. Ahem, if I might just pipe up for a moment here, it seems to me (and Holger will correct me if I’m misreading him), that Holger’s fundamental objection is not necessarily that this business is “offensive” or “unethical” per se, but only that it seems pointless, and maybe a little counterproductive

    This is mostly because it’s unclear (apparently even to Factory Theatre themselves) what the specific “goal” of the “experiment” is…the talk about wanting the “community to drive the conversation” is just really vague (who is “the community” and what “conversation” are they driving?), and beyond that, it’s unclear how delaying the critics’ comps a few shows accomplishes this any real sense.

    IF Factory Theatre is attempting to balance the power dynamic between critics in this city and artists (which seems – speaking solely from my personal experience as an artist and not supported by anything like proper data – pretty unbalanced), then why not simply refuse comps altogether? IF their problem is the practice of giving special privilege to the voices of popular critics with blogs or column inches over the voices of everyday theatre-goers, why even undergo the pretense of comping them at all – why not put them in the same situation as every other audience member?
    That probably also wouldn’t accomplish much w/r/t “changing the conversation” but it would at least be a clear gesture representing a clear perspective on the relationship between critics, audiences, and theatre. As things stand, the whole business seems a little vague, and a little futile.

    • Holger Syme says:

      You’re reading me correctly, Alexander! (Except for the “maybe a little” part. I wasn’t as cautious as that.)

    • Thanks for your reply Alexander, and yes, I agree, the Factory does need to flesh out what it is proposing. I feel like they’ve been quite clear about why they’re not refusing comps altogether… but if you still don’t get it, why not ask them directly and see if we can get more info about what they are envisioning for this dialogue?

  10. So, Holger (and sorry, yes, things have got a bit messy in terms of nesting of replies with your entries – sorry, me and WordPress is not the most functional of relationships)…
    I’ll reply to your several comments here.

    Overall, I’d say that you’re commenting about what you have seen happen in the past or what is happening in the present in terms of online behaviour; my focus is on the future, on what could happen.

    You ask “what do you know about A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing now, from those comments, beyond the fact that people whose judgment you trust liked it?” The answer is, not much. But I was not saying that these comments were substantive. I was noting that there is now an avenue for quick informational exchange about theatre that didn’t exist previously – or that existed in terms of literal word of mouth, but has now become virtual, transnational word of mouth. Yeah, that’s mainly promotional and within existing communities – but it does contribute to ticket sales, which is significant to the theatre field; and it’s something that’s emerged and become significant in the past 5-6 years in theatre circles.

    You point to a lack of depth or substance in social media comment on theatre by RAM (regular audience members) thus far. You ask “how often do you come across tweets or FB books by regular audience members that have something detailed and substantial to say about a show?” My impressionistic response is, not often, but I think we don’t have enough data to really comment on this authoritatively. As you say, you are a privileged theatregoer and people in your circles would tend to have a high level of knowledge about the arts. Me too. So our experience of who’s commenting and how is not really representative. As a scholar, can you really say scientifically that smart, engaged things are not being said online about theatre by RAM? We’d need more data to really comment on this.

    Within our circles, and in an increasing way over the past several years, I am constantly blown away by how engaged, deep, and thoughtful discussion has become about theatre on Facebook. Its dialogic capacity has allowed for some seriously excellent critical exchanges to happen; you’ve been included in numerous of these, Holger; so has Kelly. I feel the data is accumulating about this, and it’s part of Michelle MacArthur’s project to start to amass and study that data in the Toronto market.

    So, while we don’t know yet if there is substantive critical engagement happening on social media by RAM, we do know the kind of deep critical engagement that you crave about theatre is happening on FB amongst expert communities. That’s genuinely new and exciting. So, who’s to say that deeper critical engagement by RAM couldn’t happen in the future? Beyond promotion, and looking forward into the future, given that the internet has turned into an important site of exchanging excitement and 140-character POVs about theatre, who’s to say it could not be a venue for something more substantive, in online sites/venues where there is more space to comment than the quick blast of the Tweet? And I’m asking what role we can play, as people passionately invested in fostering deeper critical engagement with theatre and with significant resources at our disposal, to imagine and participate in new strategies.

    I agree with what you and others have said (including Alexander Offord here) – the Factory has been vague about what exactly it’s planning in this instance, and I feel it would be really useful for them to be clearer about how they intend to create avenues and spaces for substantive comment to happen around Bunker (if indeed they do). Perhaps they don’t – I’m not speaking on behalf of Factory here. Rather, I’m imagining forward from our present reality, looking at the changes that have happened in the recent past around how communication about the arts, and projecting into a hopeful future – and I see in Factory’s gesture here a small but significant move in a positive direction.

    Would be awesome if there was a public event in which those engaged in this debate could take it further…

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