Establishing rules for new media
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Last week I got a direct message, via Facebook, which evolved into a chat. An FB friend (I've never met but who I think of as a real friend) wanted to discuss a review I had published. The review, she felt, was too harsh and as it was of a colleague of hers she was upset. I knew what review she was talking about (I always do in these cases) and she was right about the piece's harshness. She asked if a sentence might be removed.
This kind of contact with people I know, admire and respect is good for me - no matter how uncomfortable. It gives me the chance to explain myself, the model we are creating at The Charlebois Post, and what this model is based on.
In the print media outlets I worked for there is a hierarchy that is, for all intents and purposes, a good one. You have the reviewers and columnists, proof-readers, the editors and the publisher (who sometimes brings in the lawyers). In these outlets the publisher who runs the machine has little contact with the front line writers. In smaller outlets, like this one, publishers have to be pretty hands on without, also, usurping the powers of editors (like our bureau chiefs and associates). But in this little world - CharPo's - primacy is given to the writers. All of us are there to protect and defend what they do as they are on the ground. This is similar to a newspaper in that editors rarely see the plays reviewed by the outlet and so rarely intervene with the way a review is written (unless it's a grammatical mess). Because I format all articles, I do basic editing but only after each has been vetted by our National Editor-in-Chief (Estelle Rosen). Estelle might warn me of some risky content, but that is a rare thing. There have been occasions where I will warn a writer about the possible consequences of what s/he wrote - especially a new writer - but that is all.
In the same way a reviewer can haunt you with the way they describe a play they adore, they can also engage or provoke you with a turn of phrase in a negative review.
If the writer is seasoned, like the writer in my friend's case (or as was the case with CharPo v. Mirvish) they pretty much have free reign. I trust their opinions, I like the way they write and - once again, I wasn't there. When it comes to opinion/review writers, I pretty much use the old model of editorial arm's length. (Something Mirvish never truly understood.)
Now to get back to my friend...
In the same way a reviewer can haunt you with the way they describe a play they adore, they can also engage or provoke you with a turn of phrase in a negative review. But by their very nature, negative reviews - and the wording in them that makes them readable and provocative - will be unpleasant for the artists. And their friends.
Now here is where we veer off from print models, and indeed from blog models. CharPo has a fairly large staff of writers for a specialist website - so it would be similar, in that respect, to a smallish town's newspaper. It is closer, still, to the alternative weeklies where expression is (or I should say "was") more free-wheeling. I liked working at the weeklies because I could use the language I wanted as long as it was backed up by evident knowledge. I brought this freedom to CharPo and it is a hallmark of the entire site.
To my mind, the reviewing we are seeing in most newspapers is too tame for the subject at hand. It's far too polite for an art form that should never be polite. I was often reminded at the Gazette, a Montreal daily, when I edged towards certain raw or vulgar expressions that it was a family newspaper. This was even in the context of the Fringe fest where very little content is family friendly. Here, at CharPo, we are not writing for families. We are writing for people who love theatre and are ready to read commentary as lively, raw and - yes - as vulgar as theatre.
Now back again to my friend.
I told her I never censor writers. I can guide them (old coot that I am) or repair a phrase but I will never change their tone nor the words which are the foundation of that tone. The reason: we are responding to a quickly growing readership that wants something both different from old media and yet similar. They want some rules to be broken and others to be reshaped just as theatre itself has become more fluid. They want a swift response to trends - as swift as theatre changes shape. They also want us to respond to mainstream companies (ie: Mirvish) but in precisely the same tone as we use for the new wave creators. Reviewing is no longer a question of good or bad, it is becoming - with each production - a more fundamental question: Why is this?
And when the question is that existential, it is often very hard for an artist to hear.