The increasingly permeable divide between artists and critics

The increasingly permeable divide between artists and critics

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We’re all connected and most of us have something to say.

When we started the Praxis blog in 2006 it had one golden rule: No reviews.

We felt as artists we wanted to communicate with and about other artists. If the site passed judgment on artistic merit of our colleagues’ work, we would always be outsiders. This seemed antithetical to our aims.

I still think this was a wise decision and allowed the site to grow and become accepted quite quickly. Looking around at what is going on in the theatrosphere these days, the notion seems antiquated. The lines are blurring. Johnnie Walker has reviewed for Torontoist, as well as being a theatre artist on the front of NOW who gets top marks from The Grid, virtually all of the other blogs that have achieved longevity have some ‘review-based’ content, and most importantly, the most rigorous discussion that I can find on theatre these days is the one taking place between artists, critics, and bloggers on social media.

The notion that the artist/critic/blogger divide has become quite permeable became most obvious when World Stage brought controversial Conte d’amour to Harbourfront Centre. Touring the world for the past four years, this is a production that has oozed controversy as a three-hour piece dealing with the real-life story of Josef Fritzl who secretly kept his daughter prisoner for twenty-four years, raising incestuous children with her. Even champions of the show have described it as a difficult, durational work, and it has been both lauded and lamented by critics and audiences alike.

I first became aware of this controversy when the day after opening night, colleagues who had been at the performance related Globe and Mail Theatre Critic Kelly Nestruck had stood up and booed at the end. A 0 star review followed quickly thereafter.  This was reported to me by two different artists whom I respect and work with who found the production both successful and important. A number of other reviews came out, most negative. What happened next I found fascinating: Artists, bloggers and mainstream critics began to debate the work further through social media.

There were several posts in my various newsfeeds encouraging me to ignore the critics and see a truly challenging international work. Matters escalated when online review site Charlebois Post elected to post a review of the show even though their critic had left halfway through the performance. Theatre artist Frank Cox O’Connell was the first to respond in the comments:

 hated it for two hours and then something shifted for me. (That was my experience, it might have not been yours, we won’t know.) You can certainly walk out, but then don’t write about the work… You didn’t see the work.”

At this point, having not seen the show, but being supremely annoyed by the lack of professionalism in my beloved theatrosphere, I felt compelled to engage @CharPoCanada on the topic of reviewing what you have not seen:

After this first wave of pushback from artists like about the behaviour that should be expected from those that self-identify as critics, the critics themselves began to weigh in:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this, things got nasty and personal in a way that only the internet can empower. I haven’t included it, because I don’t find those conversations useful. What is also not included are comments and RTs by CIUT’s @Slotkinletter and NOW Magazine’s @GlennSumi, who also condemned the practice of publishing a review of a show that the critic only saw half of. One can assume The Toronto Star didn’t get in on the action only because none of their critics have elected to join the 21st Century and the rest of their colleagues for these important conversations on Twitter.

Regardless, critics from traditional media seemed to have achieved quorum in this exchange – and at this moment the theatrosphere self-corrected.  This gives me hope for the future of criticism online. There is no escaping the exchange of ideas in this community, and while I am reticent to use meritocracy in any late-capitalist context, it does seem like the best analysis can rise to the top, the worst can be shunned; and that this can all exist in a rigorous discussion with diverse perspectives that includes theatre-makers, theatre-writers, and those of us who do some of both.

I still don’t think PraxisTheatre.com will begin running reviews any time soon, but that may not be the point of how these discussions take place anymore. Some of the most compelling conversations about theatre right now are happening in a micro-blogging context, like Facebook and Twitter, and these are forums where everyone can participate.

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About the Author

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Michael is Artistic Director of SpiderWebShow, which he co-created with Creative Catalyst Sarah Garton Stanley. He was previously Executive Director and Transformation Designer of Generator, where he led the transition from a fee-for-service model named STAF, to the current capacity-building model it operates on.
Since 2003, he has run Toronto-based Praxis Theatre, with which he has directed 14 plays and curated several festivals while writing for and running performance-based websites. He teaches regularly at The National Theatre School and Queen’s University, where SpiderWebShow is currently in residence.