Tuesday, November 5, 2013

After Dark, November 5, 2013

The Playing Field
The teams are different now
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

I have said and written again and again that a reviewer must write for a reader, not for actors, directors, companies, technicians. The fact is, most people who delight in reading theatre reviews - and their numbers are legion (I discovered this when one of the papers I worked for asked readers that specific question) - do not go to theatre. You can tear a production to shreds or praise it to the skies and you are, nevertheless, being read for entertainment, not for ticket-buying advice. 

I have fought quite publicly with artistic directors who felt my reviews were too much - who thought I was (to translate a French term) abusing my tribune or, as one editor told me, hitting too hard with a big hammer. I don't know if any critic in the world has this kind of power any more and I'll share anecdotal evidence: a show now playing in Toronto has received across-the-board raves and still cannot fill a Saturday night house of fairly small proportions. 

It means that critics who have been doing the job for decades are now free-blogging.

If the big hammer ever existed, it so does not any more and this is a good thing and a bad thing. Reviewing is slowly moving from a profession with the delicious perks we all used to enjoy, to a bunch of professionals sharing the public's attention with hobbyists and all of us doing it for the love of the various arts we cover.

I have seen it happen at so many papers: architecture critics get cut, then dance, art, books, theatre and - eventually - music and movies. (The order may vary, but not much.) It means that critics who have been doing the job for decades are now free-blogging. Libby Purves, the London Times critic (I say again...the London Times!) has been tossed and has joined the hive

What this means is that name-reviewers must now carve their place out again and we do that by participating with readers. We tweet to and with them, we engage by email, we argue with the non-trolls. That is the best thing about this changing world.

The bad thing is that a reviewer - whom I have always considered as essential a part of the theatrical dialogue as a director, actor, designer etc - becomes the only participant in the art who cannot survive within it. The time we used to spend reading plays, studying theory, examining artistic trends are now spent foraging for food and rent money.

Any individual who works on the net outside of an organization like Amazon or, even, The Guardian, will tell you that as of now no model exists that pays professionals a living wage. 


The potential for such a model does exist! What stands in its way is the quick-money thinking that created the infamous internet bubble and even the financial crisis. A couple of decades ago everyone who started a business (especially an arts business) knew that they would be subsidizing it during its growth period. That growth period could be years (which is where the idea of five-year plans comes from). The last two decades have created expectations of instant returns and everyone has suffered. Companies are born and die because artists or boards don't have the patience to learn about courting (for lack of a better word) clients (for lack of a better word). Also environmental change (not relating to climate) requires fleet thinking yes, but also cautious action. You have to respond (as we did to Google+) and track these changes in the landscape, but you needn't dive in headfirst. I am always confabbing with people about things like Instagram, YouTube, Vine and their potential uses. Are these doors to new clients (ie: growth and then income) or passing things? Do they have reach to our target clients? 

What might happen is that reviewers - along with closer contact with readers and artists - may be forced to eschew acute tunnel-vision. We might learn how to exploit our knowledge of video-processing or music software. We might learn, as many did, that a combination of merchandising, advertising, service-bartering, and donations by loyal fans COMBINED are sufficient. We might learn that a website AND a podcast AND a YouTube channel are all required. 

What I think we will mostly learn, in this brave new world, is that everyone in the arts - including the reviewers - don't necessarily need to have the cliché waiter/waitress job to survive but will have to stretch their basic skills in ten directions. Directors will have to write, dancers will have to give good interview, reviewers will have to know what Twitter is and use it well.

Let me give you an example that all of us can do right now and that the Guardian, for instance, are exploiting wondrously. If you are going to a play, ballet or opera - tweet at arrival at the hall, at intermission and after. Tweet when you have an idea about a TV show, or a movie, or a book. 

Ultimately, what the new age is insisting upon, is that we engage with each other. The days of the monolith artist or reviewer are over.

I, for one, am glad of it.

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Here are some terrific articles (none behind paywalls) which will spark your imagination as they did mine:

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