Tuesday, May 21, 2013

After Dark, May 21, 2013

The Funny Bunch
...and their strange bedfellows
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Lordie, what a strange week it has been for reviewers/critics/theatre journos... choose your moniker (or epithet).

F'rinstance the gang that give out the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards met this week. This is some kind of news but what is also noteworthy is that the group includes no women and no one from new media (despite some excellent blogger/reviewers existing in the city). Yes, yes it's pissy of me to note that but the fact remains that many reviewers exist who are considerably more erudite and informed than at least one of the men in the group.

However, one of the guys in the bunch I do like and admire, Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail, also made a kind of weird news this week when he had his second fairly public run-in with playwright Morris Panych. You may remember last year when Panych took umbrage with a Nestruck review of Wanderlust at Stratford and had some fun with the fact Mr. Nestuck wore shorts to the play. It was funny then. Even Nestruck laughed. This time out, however, Mr. Panych was a little less humourous in his comments beneath Nestruck's review of Our Betters, at the Shaw Festival. Here is a link to review and comments but if you find it behind the paywall, let me just quote Panych: "Kelly, it's amazing; you are really a man of your time; certainly not ahead of your time – arriving, breathlessly, for the opening, just at the curtain, fumbling for your seat, making that entrance you like to make so that everybody knows you're a critic, and that you're here, at last, now we can begin, proof once again of your uncanny sense of your own personal 'now'; two o'clock, whatever – the play starts when you arrive, because for you, time revolves like a spinning paddle on the beanie right above your head." Later, he calls Nestruck a dweeb.

We are both part of the audience and apart.

Look, I like Panych's work but that's just a wee bit (very) bitchy. 

What these two stories remind me is that the relationships between reviewers/critics/theatre journos and a) artists and b) audience are odd ones indeed. The dynamic is love/hate, the emotions on all sides always threaten to explode. (Full disclosure: I am guilty of explosion in response to my own online troll and to a production I hated when I couldn't contain my emotions at the end). There is a certain sense of entitlement on our side, and ego comes with the profession. (You cannot put your name on an opinion - even on Facebook or Twitter - without suggesting your opinion has value.) 

We are both part of the audience and apart. We sometimes forget what we say is said about human beings whose feelings and pride can be injured, and those humans sometimes forget that we, too, are such humans. 

This dynamic makes this last story I'll share particularly interesting. Opinions about the event at its centre were all over the board - both audience and critics thought the man who wrote this piece was either a hero (as he proclaims himself) or an asshole. 

Woman on cellphone. Professional theatre-goer is pissed. The end? No. 

"...I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage." The article - like Panych's comments - offers attempts at humour to cover an ego that is a little out of control. 

Yes, the lady was a stupid cow but I like to imagine how I might have handled this. I like to think...

I would have stood regally and, in my theatrically-trained voice, would have bellowed, "Excuse me, dear actors, but could we pause for one moment as this rude lady is ruining your wonderful performances for a good many of us. I would never be so rude as to interrupt like this except that the management of this hall has not done their job of controlling a non-violent but nevertheless highly disruptive patron. This one here, with her cellphone." 

What would Mr. Nestruck have done, or Mr. Panych, or you? 

It's an odd little tango, isn't it? And we all - artist, spectator and reviewer - must dance it with extreme grace.


  1. Not surprisingly, a critic comes to the defense of another critic. A similar thing happened last year when I wrote another such comment. A number of critics quickly leapt to the boy’s defense; and I duly filed them all under ‘dish it out but can’t take it’ in my Library of Critical Invective, which – as you can imagine – has it’s own electrical substation. You probably won’t see a lot of artists lining up behind me and my out of control ego (as you so eloquently put it), so let me speak for myself if I must. Let’s talk about cause and effect. Nobody who worked on Our Betters called Kelly Nestruck a misogynist, nobody said he lacked rigor or suggested that he had no integrity, and in so doing call into question the very raison d’etre of his work as a critic; nobody, in fact, mentioned him. Being the sensitive young gentleman he is, however, he chose to take our work quite personally; even though, strangely, the play he so vehemently attacked he had referred to only four weeks previous as a ‘must see’; so the word ‘disingenuous’ comes to mind, but he may want to travel back, as I earlier suggested, in his time machine, to check that out for himself and perhaps ask himself what it was he was thinking; I leave that up to him . As for the production he so roundly abused, instead of viewing the play for what it was and is – a social comedy from the early 20th century, he took a different, more unflattering perspective. He referred, I thought strangely, to ‘slut shaming’, which was, again, nowhere to be seen in his gushing preview; instead using it, volte face, as a weapon against not only the author, but the production, and particularly myself as perpetrators of some kind of horror of impolitic judgment, as if we ourselves were ‘slut shamers’, and misogynists; and had not considered any of this in presenting the work, that the play was a victim of its time because political incorrectness abounded within it, and something about trenches; even though we spent a great deal of time discussing the politics of this play both in pre-production and rehearsal, with the overwhelming conclusion – amongst the women particularly – that Maugham had a remarkably strong and positive view of women based on this play. Whether or not he may have made sexist remarks in his private life was irrelevant to us, since what we were presenting, in our view, was a very positive and enlightened view of the female sex at the time; I say ‘at the time’ because everybody – except perhaps this critic – understands that all plays are a victim of their time, stylistically, politically, dramaturgically, philosophically; and this is precisely what makes them worth doing. We also attribute to our audience enough intelligence and perspective to put the play in the context of the time and circumstance in which it was written, without always pushing our own narrow view on them, or it. Nevertheless, the critic fired at us hard – with his volley of strange and misplaced ideas. I fired back with a ‘bitchy’ comment about breathlessly late arrivals (not untrue but, yes, bitchy), and called him a dweeb (admittedly an unscientific assessment). So I figure we’re even. But alas, there is no ‘even’; the critic must not only have the last word, he must have the last, last word. So now come the comments on my comment. I understand and I sympathize. Ever since my grade three teacher, Miss Topolnisky, gave me a poor mark for my poem because she couldn’t believe I could have written it, I have been awfully sensitive to critics; or anyone else who hands out stars. May I just add that in this tango you describe between artist and critic, we invite you to the dance – if you don’t like it, you could always just sit this one out.

  2. Not I, sir. Your comments are valid and, moreover, valuable and thank you for responding.

    G. Charlebois


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