Now here’s an interesting one.
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
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.
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.