Saturday, March 24, 2012

Theatre For Thought, March 24, 2012

joel fishbane
Bennett and I are walking through the park when she remarks that she thinks it’s ridiculous for Montreal arts reporters to review any show that doesn’t come out of the Segal Centre or Centaur Theatre. Being the two largest Anglo theatre companies in Montreal, she argues that their audiences are large enough that they can risk a bad review. But the smaller theatre companies are struggling to survive and while they should be supported through preview articles, reviewers should stay away. 
I frown as she speaks. Usually I agree with Bennett, which is why I spend time with her. When you’re a curmudgeon, it’s good to find people who keep you calm. 
I try to explain the artistic value of theatre critiques. In my view, it’s insulting to independent theatres to treat them differently than larger companies, as if they aren’t worthy of the same scrutiny. “The only question is whether a show deserves to be seen,” I postulate. “Championing a company just for existing degrades a city’s cultural landscape.”
you would look at a theatre critique and see a historical document

At this a stray jogger nearly mows us down. We leap out of his way and end up in the mud. Or is it a gift from someone’s dog? Bennett looks at me as if this is my fault, some sot of punishment for using phrases like cultural landscape in everyday conversation. “It makes you sound pretentious,” she warns. 
I try again. “How are artists supposed to improve if they’re applauded just for showing up?  The whole point of theatrical criticism is to raise the artistic standard of a city’s....” I wince, sensing I am headed towards another pretentious phrase. “….a city’s artistic scene.” 
Right then, we coincidentally chance upon a fellow artist, whose latest production - a play about Joan of Arc told from the perspective of her sword - has opened to rave reviews. We ask for his opinion. 
“Artists don’t read reviews for constructive criticism,” he replies. “We certainly aren’t using critics as a measure of our own artistic worth. We just use the good reviews to promote the work and hope everyone ignores the rest.”
He disappears and we continue through the park. 
“What about the historical value?” I ask.
“Only you would look at a theatre critique and see a historical document,” laughs Bennett.
I remark that I’m reading a book about Russian actresses in the Silver Age – the era surrounding Chekhov, Ibsen and the Moscow Art Theatre. “Ever hear of Lydia Iavorskaia? Mariia Savina? They’d be forgotten if not for the reviews.”
“Only you would be reading a book about Russian actresses in the Silver Age,” says Bennett.
I press on. “What about Shaw?  His reviews of Shakespearian productions double as an analysis of the plays themselves. They’re invaluable for Shakespearian scholars.”
I just want to know if a show’s worth a piece of my pension

I’m speaking so loudly that I’m overheard by an old couple from Westmount. They’re sitting at a picnic table combing through the Gazette and looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t read the paper looking for Shakespearian analysis,” says the old lady. “I just want to know if a show’s worth a piece of my pension.”
“You see?” says Bennett. “What’s better? Telling people a show sucks or arousing their curiosity so they’ll go and form their own opinion?”
The old man speaks up. “I don’t know. The media ignores a lot of independent art. They talk about Hollywood movies and the mainstream theatre shows, but independent shows have a much harder time getting noticed. Show me a preview article and I’ll show you a glorified press release. But a review has the potential to be an eyewitness account.”
“Aha!” I say, feeling triumphant.
“I see,” says Bennett. “So you think that today’s artists should sacrifice themselves just so in a hundred years, scholars will have something to talk about.”
I open my mouth and close it again. The old man does the same. Bennett and the old lady grin. 
Later, Bennett clarifies her point, explaining that her idea is unnecessary in a city like Toronto, which has more than enough theatre to go around; but Montreal – like Halifax, Calgary and now even Vancouver – has no more then a handful of professional theatres. She says that arts supporters in these smaller communities would be wiser to simply hope for media support so they can increase their audience base.
“I think the problem is we don’t take theatrical criticism seriously enough,” I admit at last. “Even I do it. We throw off a slapdash critique to show how clever we are. We don’t think of the possibilities.”
“Only you would think of a critique’s possibilities,” smiles Bennett. “I’m sure the rest of us are just glad to see our name in print.” 
By then we’ve reached the pub. We have this longstanding agreement whenever we argue: the winner always buys the loser a drink. I go inside and reach for my wallet – only to see she’s reaching for her purse. We both sigh. In our world there are no ties: the argument, we know, is far from over. 

1 comment:

  1. It is certainly a tightrope to walk. I agree that congratulating a theatre company just because it exists is not the job of a critic. Independent professional artists and theatre companies need to be held accountable for what they put out there as "Art". At the same time, smaller theatre companies deserve to be commended when warranted. A blanket statement like "only Segal and Centaur shows should be reviewed" has a presupposition that only their shows could POSSIBLY be worthy of reviews. Or that a company needs to have a million-plus dollar operating budget to POSSIBLY be considered worthy of praise.

    All theatre productions deserve to be considered for artistic review. HOW one reviews them is up to debate. The general population is used to movie-style spoiler reviews, which are not much more than glorified summaries with some opinions sprinkled in. Those reviews are not useful in a theatrical (or artistic) context, either from a general theatre goer's point of view or from a theatre professional's point of view. Reviews need to be more than a summary, but most readers don't know that because they never see real reviews in print!

    I have a book of 60 years of theatrical reviews by Harold Clurman. Most of those reviews would never get printed in The Gazette because they are too long! People are not used to reading long articles about anything anymore. Not only theatre reviews, but general news as well! In the age of the sound bite, the tolerance for actual thought is at a human low. Since theatre (at it's best) is about the human condition, you need to write in depth to honestly critique it. And in the absence of that we get cute summaries that show how well the critic can squish thought into five paragraphs.

    One also has to take into consideration the level at which the theatre company is billing themselves. There is a big difference between training institutions, amateur companies, semi-professional companies and professional companies. All deserve to be seen and reviewed, but all must be considered for what they are, not for what we want to project upon them. This is one way a reviewer can temper their review to be fair to a smaller, less experienced company.

    Another pitfall of theatre criticism is the caliber of the theatre critics themselves. George Bernard Shaw was not only a critic, but a playwright. He worked in the milieu he was speaking about. So was the aforementioned Harold Clurman (he was a director and founder of the Group Theatre.) Most critics in Montreal don't work in the theatre, or have very little professional theatre experience themselves. And if they do, most are not ACTIVELY involved in creating theatre today. Shaw was fairly adamant that theatre critics MUST be involved in the theatre themselves! For him, a love of theatre and an appreciation of theatre is not the same as practical experience in the creation of theatre. It's easy to criticize something when you know you'll never have to undergo the same scrutiny. You wouldn't take a car review seriously unless you knew the writer actually DROVE cars! Nor should anyone really take a theatre review seriously if the reviewer has never acted, written, designed, directed or produced a play!

    In the end it isn't just about "scholarity", though there is a place for that. Reviews are about holding the PROFESSIONAL artist accountable to the community. Reviews should be able to call out pretentiousness for the self-centeredness that it is and push artists to produce theatre that speaks to the universal and the human. It should suss out naval-gazing and commend the engaged soul. And readers need to also change their tune. Readers need to siphon the PR from the actual artistic criticism. Nothing in life is all good or all bad. A review shouldn't tell you if a show is worth your hard-earned pension dollars. A review SHOULD tell you if the artists gave a damn when they decided to ask you to pay for a ticket in the first place.


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