I had been a professional stage actor and UBC English professor for more than a decade when I started reviewing Vancouver theatre for CBC Radio in the mid-1980s, first as a stringer for the national program State of the Arts, then for 17 years as a regular weekly critic for CBC Vancouver’s The Afternoon Show. In 2004, when the show permanently eliminated my theatre slot, as well as book reviews, in favour of a sex column and pop music, I decided to create a website, www.vancouverplays.com, to review local theatre and dance. At that time there was hardly any online arts coverage in Vancouver.
Once my site was up and running I also pitched myself to The Province, the local tabloid that had stopped reviewing theatre in the mid-1990s. Luckily for me, Province subscribers had been complaining about the lack of local arts and entertainment coverage so I was hired as the paper’s freelance theatre critic. With many policy changes and turnovers of editors, my Province gig lasted on and off until 2015. Meanwhile, I continued to teach, act, and run Vancouverplays.com, now solely devoted to theatre. (A few years ago I dropped dance coverage because no dance companies were buying my ads.) Currently in its twelfth year, the site has logged over 1.2 million visitors and archived more than 600 reviews, 95% of them written by me.
Linda Malloy, my wonderful designer and webmistress (as we both jokingly call her), posts the material I send her. I do everything else: edit all the text I receive from publicists, update and refresh the site weekly, write a weekly editorial for the home page, solicit the advertising, do the billing. I also write nearly all the reviews. Since I have been traveling for extended periods during the past few years, I have given over some reviewing to another local journalist. In an attempt to instill some ethnic diversity in the all-white Vancouver theatre critics’ community, I have also recently begun assigning reviews to two UBC Theatre grad students, one First Nations, the other Asian-Canadian. But I feel most comfortable when I can take full credit or blame for whatever appears on the site.
I consider myself a public intellectual and would describe my style of theatre criticism as informed populism. My approach to reviewing has not changed very much whether live on air for radio, in print for a newspaper, or online for my own site. I’ve always chosen the shows I want to review, and I’ve been unusually fortunate, I’m sure, in never having any of my reviews censored or rejected on radio or in print. I had to stick to a format (five or six minutes on air, 600-800 words for the paper), but except for one editor at The Province, no one ever so much as trimmed a review of mine. I told the next editor I wouldn’t write for the paper anymore if they cut my words, and he agreed not to. I was also somehow able to get away with reprinting all my Province reviews on Vancouverplays.com without formal permission from Postmedia. Luck? Chutzpah? I don’t know. The only real difference in reviewing for my own website is that I can write as much as I want and use words I couldn’t use on CBC or in the paper.
Today, Vancouver has many theatre bloggers and online reviewers, but mine is likely the only website fully supported by paid ads from local theatre companies. I don’t feel that this has put me in a serious conflict of interest. It’s no different than reviewing for a newspaper that carries even more expensive theatre ads. Besides, I’m already in conflict in so many other ways—reviewing friends, former students, actors I’ve acted with, directors who have directed me and might, I hope, again.
I studiously avoid cheap shots, but when a show sucks, I say so. Yet none of my advertisers has ever pressured me to write puff pieces or pull my punches. I’m a huge fan of theatre, a booster of the local theatrical economy, and I tend generally to be a positive guy. I think my reviews reflect all that. I would hope that the financial support I get from theatre companies has everything to do with my knowledge and experience of theatre, my reputation for integrity and good writing, the quality of my site, and the numbers of would-be ticket buyers who visit it.
As for the future, Linda will redesign the website this year to get us better Google results, higher placement on the page when someone searches “Vancouver theatre.” Otherwise, it’s steady as she goes. I’ve avoided Twitter because of the extra time it involves, though I’m likely to suffer for that as social media continues to replace mainstream media as people’s primary source of cultural information. The steady demise of newspapers and other opportunities for informed theatre criticism to reach a wide general audience is an unfortunate reality of our times.
No one is going to make a living blogging theatre reviews. But critics will continue to be a crucial element of the cultural ecology. The Calgary Herald’s Stephen Hunt calls us “the honeybees of Canadian culture. We pollinate it.” Since there seems to be no shortage of people who want their critical voices heard, it’s important that we find ways for those voices to be as educated, aware and diverse as possible, and for the pollination to be efficient, effective and widespread. In the most recent issue of Critically Speaking, the newsletter of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, Hunt proposes “a Canada Council for Critics.” 1% of the Council’s budget, or about $2 million a year, he suggests, “could fund over 100 digital critics across the country, so that they could have a deeper sense of professionalism, and also a longer-term commitment to learning and receiving training for their craft. A whole lot of Canadian artists would get critiqued as a result.”
Good theatre criticism is hard, important work, and those who do it deserve to be recompensed for their labour. In our brave new world where writers, filmmakers, musicians and other cultural workers are struggling to figure out how to make the online world profitable for them, I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to generate some revenue doing one of the things I love most. Though the profit I derive from my website divided by the number of hours I put into it works out to less than minimum wage, it keeps this bee a-buzzing.