Tuesday, September 10, 2013

After Dark, September 10, 2013

How should reviewers handle the sensitivities of artists?
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

When I began to work at the Montreal Mirror as a full-time critic two decades or so ago I made a firm decision not to go back to theatre. It had been good to me for a decade but - being an arrogant busybody - I was not being satisfied as an artist and wanted to, instead, discuss the form and follow its progress (as the Fringe was beginning and small companies were exploding everywhere and I could review both French and English shows).

From the first review - a show at Centaur - I was chastised for not taking into account the fragility of the Montreal English-language theatre (MELT) scene. I was told I was too rough. There was no doubt I was caustic sometimes, but not for nothing (I still believe) - because I was, I felt, only one part of a discussion that included audience and artist and therefore the talk had to be as vigorous as the art, not the "scene"...

...nor the artist.

I am always astounded by the energy some artists put into hating specific reviewers.

Art, I firmly believe, is not for shrinking violets and it mustn't be. Creators of art have to be as robust as art itself.

To that end, this is what I tell a reviewer here when they ask if they're being too harsh (that's after I have assured myself they haven't called anyone a useless cunt): remember these people (artists) are not 12-years-old and it is two hours of your life you will never get back. 

Nevertheless, I am always astounded by the energy some artists put into hating specific reviewers. There is no doubt some reviewers earn this hatred and on a fairly steady basis (and you'll see those reviewers reviled by whole communities of artists and - in the case of a couple - by other reviewers too). But I'm talking about vendettas between one artist and one reviewer usually for one review. It starts in the form of anonymous comments on a website or even, in some cases, poison-pen letters (there's an old-fashioned concept!). In the days before caller-ID, there were anonymous calls. I've heard one astounding story of a fax sent to an outlet, full of personal details about the reviewer that were, subsequently, circulated around the office. (My first letter was a death threat, then a death threat by phone and then two letters calling me a faggot - anonymous all but it wasn't hard for me to figure out who the people were...wah-wah-wah...)

Online media outlets will tell you that more bad blood is spilled during Fringe season and that is not surprising because the nature of the season means there are a lot of amateurs around. But should you think amateurs are the only ones who get arched backs and start spitting when they're targetted, think again. 

Feuds and bad blood have helped form me as a writer and reviewer. I believe that actors and I are on an equal footing. Many artists disagree - some have pointed out to me and to others that we have misused the power we have. I have always found this hilarious. If artists knew how splintered audiences are when it comes to readers/reviewers, they would understand - as I have since I apprenticed at 15 - that theatre journalists have no "power". They have an opinion and readers find that opinion interesting. Period. I would argue no single theatre reviewer in Canada now (and arguably in most other parts of the world) can fill or empty a house.  (Anecdotally, there was a show in Toronto, recently, that every major and minor critic adored and where the director subsequently told me they did not play to one full house.)

This brings us to those artists again. 

a) Move on. By nursing a grudge you are wasting your energy on a stupid thing instead of your work; your art. 

b) When you display a fundamental lack of maturity in a response to negative criticism you simply fuel a reviewer's disrespect for you and this will not be forgotten the next time s/he goes to your show.

c) The moment's the thing: it is the master of the artist, director, designers, reviewers and spectators and, as a result, nothing can change the effect the moment has on any one person. When the moment is created, positive or negative, it cannot be acted away, or talked away or written away. 

It would be wise if we all remembered this last. For there are also those other moments: When we are joined in a single second of crystalline perfection. It is better to nurture that thing and memories of it than to brood on the single, individual moments we cannot control and which are even more ephemeral.

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