Tuesday, April 22, 2014

After Dark, April 22, 2014

A Walk-Out and a Pile-On
Leaving, staying, reviewing
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

I don't know which wise person said this about social networks, but I learned it the hard way a couple of weeks ago: Disrespect takes over when community becomes society. 

The person was talking about the phenomenon of trolling. Now I've been at the receiving end of trolling before, but it happened on Twitter the other night. It began as a perfectly civilized discussion about walking out of a show which one nevertheless reviews. 

Some background: A work appeared at World Stage Festival in Toronto, called Conte d'amour. It was insanely controversial. Kelly Nestruck at the Globe and Mail gave it no stars. People walked out. Our reviewer, Jason Booker, survived 130 minutes of its 180 before he left. Despite this I asked him to write a review anyway.(As I have done for shows I have walked out of, to explain why one's reaction would be so strong. Accept my word, please, that I, and none of the reviewers at CharPo, are delicate flowers.)

Nestruck and I tweeted and twitted each other. (More on this later.) We know each other's work well, we get along, he has written for this site. He was "not wild", as he said, about Jason reviewing a show he had not finished. Others chimed in. It was good. I knew most of the people tweeting. But what I had forgotten was that Kelly has 5000+ followers on Twitter. This is when community turned into society: there was a pile-on (comments supporting Kelly appeared for three days - well after I left the discussion). Suddenly I was being insulted, moreover some asshole decided to bring up my unpleasant relationship with the Mirvish organization. 

What was particularly galling was that I could no longer explain my position and some of the group were invoking the word "durational" to describe Conte d'amour. Durational theatre doesn't really apply to a long play (three hours) - more to the six-24-hour spectacles which send both artist and spectator into a special state of complicity/survival/Nirvana. Conte d'amour, no longer than many classics, ain't no durational. 

So what was happening was insult, pile-on and misused jargon.

Now why have I left, and nevertheless reviewed, other works? Well, from what I have read and heard about Conte d'amour all the elements for a good walkout were there for Jason: offensiveness, self-indulgent length, lack of structure. There is a basic criticism of much theatre: it has no third act (ie: you get to the end and there is no there, there). I think if a reviewer (including me) sees that there is no first or second act, that - no matter the pay-off at the end - this is bad theatre. (I am about to use a vulgar analogy: it's like watching porn just for the cum-shot without being able to fast-forward.) The most enraged I have ever been about a play was when the work was hideous but at its core was a secret and I hated everyone involved for keeping me in the hall to find out what that secret was.

The paradoxical thing about the initial discussion with Kelly and the subsequent pile-on, was that we were discussing a stridently iconoclastic work but everyone was bellowing at me about the rules of reviewing. Somehow, in my four decades of reviewing, I have never read that rulebook and am glad of it. Perhaps there are rules at the Globe and Mail or other outlets, but I have worked largely in the alt press and consider CharPo an extension of that spirit. In this light, I insist there are no rules. Indeed, I have had reviewers turn in a negative review while apologizing for it. I tell them, each time, you have a right to be negative about a piece as it is time you will never get back again. (It is during a bad show when you truly realize how short life is.)

Do not get me wrong: if you walk out you must explain why and the explanation better be good (as Jason's was). But rules?

And it was when "rules" were being hurled at me that something hit me:

Rules of content, behaviour and form no longer apply any more to new media than they do to art. The sooner traditional theatres and media outlets get that, the better it will be for all involved.

Even I had to learn, again (via the society of Twitter) that politesse and art do not go hand in hand.


  1. Pointing out your hypocrisy about rules/obligations vis a vis a critic's relationship to a work, and a theatre company's relationship to a critic makes me an "asshole?" Classy.

    Ad hominem attacks only reinforce my point.

  2. Whoa! Taking things a little personally there! a) it wasn't you b) the attacks on me and the writers here were very much more personal.

  3. Just for the record, I think a review is appropriate even if the reviewer walked out, provided he explains what caused him to exit.
    My question is - did you not write a column a couple of years ago about the rules of reviewing? High on the list was - Don't make it personal. Maybe I'm mistaken.


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