Let’s get a real subjective conversation going

Let’s get a real subjective conversation going



As a director and producer, I have to read reviews of my shows. I would rather be boiled in a vat of Kelly Nestruck’s bike-ride-to-Montreal sweat.

They’re important and, having come from a one-reviewer town, I know that the more reviewers there are about the same piece, the better. We know logically and absolutely that a reviewer’s response to a show is subjective – it MUST be. I don’t know if many reviewers understand that really. Many reviewers use a lot of absolute praise and insult: This is unbearable, this is wonderful, this is excruciating, this is hyperbolic. And those are just examples of the absolute. What about the examples of the subjective:  Here, let’s pick from my own latest reviews for example “a non-stop riot” -Toronto Star; “not funny” -The National Post. Same show, same day.

Many teachers will tell you that the best way for your student to hear what is wrong is to cushion it in what is right. I’m told that this is called a criticism sandwich. Positive buttery toasty bread, Negative bologna and sauerkraut, Positive buttery toasty bread.  We can take in the bologna because we are not only thinking about how stupid the bologna-dispensing critic is. I don’t think this makes artists immature. I think it makes them human, and you know, if artists lose their sensitivity and their capacity to feel, humanely and humanly, then we have lost something even more critical than good criticism.

Because it’s the same as subjecting myself to a root canal (or the above boiling), when I read reviews of a show I’m proud of, I create a criticism sandwich for myself by reading all of the reviews at the same time. My most recent experience reading a stack of reviews for Alice Through the Looking-Glass at Stratford went a little bit like this: good, good, not bad, bad, outstanding, harsh, forgiving, excellent, bad, cruel, good, bad, bad, good, good, good, not too bad and toasty good. I took notes on what worked, what certain people had trouble with, conflicting opinions on what communicated and what didn’t. Suddenly I can hear what the detractors are saying. It’s easy to say what a cynic this guy is and how stupid this guy is and what a smarty pants this blogger is. I’m not above admitting that it hurts to read that my offering qualified as “theatrical roadkill” to my new local paper, the Ottawa Citizen – thanks new neighbours! Reading them all at once gives me the capacity to hear what people are having trouble with: out of isolation, individual reviews are simply part of a larger sandwich – some good, some bad, all in the end, edible and helpful.

In programming for a national stage at the NAC, reviews are an incredibly important tool.  A programmer can’t be at all shows all the time, but learning about what is happening across the country is a massive part of understanding Canadian work and what Canadian Theatre artists are making right now. Reviews that can’t and don’t discuss the intention of the piece, the response of the audience (though this sometimes is also strangely subjective) and the artistic and community context, are useless to me.  I also must read reviews recognizing the subjective; that maybe the reviewer who loved the show has long been a champion of the under-produced writer, or the one that hated it was tired and had just seen something too similar. I must recognize that in myself as well – and make room to re-watch or re-consider shows that didn’t appeal on first viewing when everyone I trust is on fire for it. There is no real checklist for ‘good theatre.’ The only thing that is certain is that reviewers, audiences and programmers view the work subjectively.

I regularly read the national reviewers (and I use “national” loosely because truly, neither the Globe nor the National Post actually represent the national scene) and I regularly find opposing perspectives about productions.  It’s exciting.  It would be so wonderful to read, all together, vast and varied opinion from a large community of local Canadian reviewers– the blog reviewers from Prince George as well as the best known reviewers from Toronto and Montreal. Having four or five perspectives on a single show is really the only way we can begin to garner a larger understanding of how a piece is heard.    It also is useful after I’ve seen the show myself.  It helps cube my own comprehension and helps me understand my own reaction.   I have often requested video recordings of a work that I couldn’t attend because I was so taken by the positive response by a wide variety of reviewers – Or the wildly negative review of a reviewer whom I consider not very perceptive. It’s helpful. Reviewers and reviews can, at their best, advance the art by promoting the finest of works, measuring a response, and helping us understand the context and import of a piece within a given community.  You are important.

So I have a request: that is for bloggers, professional reviewers and student reviewers to hashtag their reviews with #cdncult #review. This way all subscribers to the SpiderWebShow – a good central hub for theatre practitioners – can read reviews for shows that are happening all over the country.  We don’t always know where to seek out reviews from the wider community, but this can help us collect them and read them. We can learn about each other, and importantly the variety of subjective opinion about what is going on in the country. Otherwise it is left to the producers and let’s face it, the smart producer is not exactly going to promote a ½ star review on twitter.

Directors and colleagues who fear the review – I do recommend the binge review reading.  And if you’re a reviewer, or want to simply express your response to a production – please hashtag it.  Let’s get a collection and a real subjective conversation going, for work from right across Canada.  #cdncult #review






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About the Author

Jillian Keiley is an award-winning director from The Goulds, Newfoundland and founding Artistic Director of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland. She was the winner of the Siminovitch Prize for Directing in 2004 and the Canada Council John Hirsch Prize. She was awarded Honorary Doctorates of Letters from Memorial University and York University. Jillian directs regularly for the Stratford Festival and theatres across Canada. Ms. Keiley assumed her role as NAC English Theatre Artistic Director in 2012.