October 23, 2011
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I have been a critic for almost as long as I've been a theatre person. The main difference was that when I was 15 and writing for the Quebec Chronicle Telegraph (reviewing for the free tickets) I usally didn't feel like barfing before the play started. Stage fright (terror?) has been my constant companion since those same days. In highschool I appeared in a production of Sorry, Wrong Number as the murderer and at the end just as I was meant to stab Christine Taylor to death, I felt the bile rise. I fought it by hurling myself, instead, onto Christine's bed and stabbing away at her pillow with a butterknife. (It looked rather real in half-light.) I got my first review too when Richard Malone, in the audience, bellowed, "Kill the bitch, Charlebois! Yeah, man!"
Seeing a brilliant Death of a Salesman with Jean Duceppe requires you to look at what you've written and say "What's wrong with this?"
The bug bit, for the first time, when I was 14 and saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Quebec City Summer Stock Theatre. From that day it was a steady diet of going to, reading and writing theatre. It was the writing which formed the critic in me. Seeing a brilliant Death of a Salesman with Jean Duceppe requires you to look at what you've written and say "What's wrong with this?"
I was fat, I was a maternal orphan, and I read, went to theatre and wrote. I wrote a good dozen full-length plays before, the night I turned 18, I wrote in one fell swoop the play I realized was IT. Aléola won me lots of money, made me lots of money (in theatre, radio and television) and moved me from acting and directing to writing. However...I was still that barfy guy - couldn't even go to my own opening nights.
Two techies picked me up to drive me into town and in the car asked, "Have you heard about the tree? For the death scene?"
Worse, I could see that Aléola's first production, in Edmonton, was a calamity. How soon did I find that out? In the ride from the airport. Two techies picked me up to drive me into town and in the car asked, "Have you heard about the tree? For the death scene?" A: there was no death scene in my play (the two characters commit suicide, but we don't see the end) B: A tree?
Oh yes! The headboard of the bed in the play had a twenty foot wrought iron tree welded to it which was going to appear in the added-on death scene. The problem was that the tree which was only supposed to appear at the end was visible through the scrim from the start of the play. It was the WTF-tree. I was 21, terrified of the director, and shut up.
The critics were right on that production. Most mentioned the WTF?-tree. But the critics weren't always right. In a later production of the piece, in French, one cow said the play would cure insomnia. That was not only below the belt but also wrong as she seemed to be the only one sleeping (and it was this production that moved on to radio and huge ratings on TV).
I noticed that the critical eye I cast on my own works I now used on everything I saw in a theatre - play, set, actors, directing.
I had other plays produced, but none gave me that Aléola AHA! moment nor earned me the same money. Moreover, I realized that there were so many Canuck writers better than me and I could see the ways they could be even better still. Also I noticed that the critical eye I cast on my own works I now used on everything I saw in a theatre - play, set, actors, directing. The neon light arrows only visible to me were virtually blinding me as they pointed to aspects of a piece both magnificent and wretched. My ten years working in the theatre had given me all the tools to be a critic.
If I have advice, that would be it. Do, do, do, do theatre. There is a critic in all of us and all artists need one for themselves - even if it is themselves.