Gone to the Dark Side, Please Leave a Message

Damn. It finally happened. I’ve become what I beheld. I am now (SFX: Darth Vader theme plays), a Theatre Reviewer! ‘Zwounds, can it be true, yours truly, consorting with the enemy, nay, wearing their colours? What’s up with that?

Times have changed for me, it seems. I used to hate theatre critics. Actually, I used to hate Vancouver theatre critics, even before I stopped talking and started doing. My mode of thought went something like this: theatre art in this city is just a babe in swaddling clouts, it must be gently nurtured and supported so that it may one day grow big and strong , and be a force to be reckoned with, at last a theatre city that the world would sit up and take notice of. New York in the sixties, that kind of thing. It seemed unconscionable to review young theatre here like it was a grown-up, I saw any harsh reviews as a tearing down of the fragile foundation that was trying to find its shape and structure, and that pissed me off. A play could receive bad notices, sure, but they had to be handed out gently and with constructive criticism, so that the company wouldn’t be so disheartened or wounded as to not want to do another one…that was the way I felt back then.

I do not feel that way anymore.

Love, war, you can add theatre criticism to the list of all’s fair as far as I’m concerned. I now believe that (good) critics have real value and even a certain art when they apply themselves to their candlelit quills with due diligence, and I want to see both barrels blazing when I read an opinion piece on a new play. The crux of this is, of course, that the reviewer in question be both a talented writer and an educated theatreist. We have very few in town, and I wish we had more. Lemme ‘splain whereupon I came by this change of viewpoint…

There are a few factors that have moved the theatre critic over onto the plus side of my opinion index. All of these factors have come out of producing independent theatre over the past several years. First and foremost, we need them. We invite them to watch our shows for free and pray like hell they’ll show, and then sweat like we’re down there until the article comes out. They’re an essential part of our marketing plan from the git go, and we need to develop a very healthy attitude about this. Which means we need to prepare for the worst thing an actor or director can possibly imagine: the harrowing negative review. And by prepare I mean grow a thicker skin, and some perspective. It takes real courage to swallow a unfavorable review of your work and find value in it, to file away the stuff that you can use for later reference and bin the nonsense that you can’t. I would hope that you only invite reviewers to your show whose opinions and talent you respect, as well. If the hacks come of their own accord, well, at least they had to pay.

Also, I read them. Always have. They’re out there supporting independent theatre in an unsupportive town. And they affect the choices I make. (This applies to film even more for me, I have a resigned EW review addiction, reading Owen and Lisa is my porn.) So this relates to my first point by raising the question: does a good review really have a direct effect on box office, and conversely, does a negative review have an adverse effect? To be honest I’m still not sure , that’s a tough one to quantify. I brought this up with Lori a while back while we were doing Miss Julie, she’s the artistic director of the Beaumont and has been doing theatre forever, and she reports that she routinely sees a spike in ticket sales after every published review, no matter what the given grade. I guess there really isn’t such thing as bad publicity.

But what it really came down to, what really put me in the corner of the hard-nosed critic and prompted me to don that mantle myself was this: accountability. I no longer feel that it’s enough to just clean out the ol’ barn and say “let’s put on a show!”. It’s important that the shows be mounted competently and professionally and passionately, because we are charging people money for it. I’ve got a lot of plays under my belt now, theatre’s moved from the dream to the reality for me, and I have hands-on knowledge of just exactly how hard it is. How laborious and sleep-depriving working in indie theatre really is. And if you’re not prepared to put in that much work, If you’re doing it for a reason other than love, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all, because it’s gonna show, glaringly, under your lights. It’s a disservice to theatre itself. Competent criticism is quality control. I say this now: I would rather Vancouver be known as “the city with no theatre” than as “the city of crappy theatre”. You can guage the level the bar is set at here by the reaction of the crowds after a poor or a mediocre performance. Standing ovations are given here for stuff that would get pelted with beer bottles in other cities, or at the very least, met with mute disapproval. That bar must be raised. We must show our audiences the true power of the theatre and earn the applause.

And so, I’m a critic in print. It feels weird, my first critique turned out to be a negative one, and I so wanted it to be a good one. I’m sticking to my guns, however, and the two things that I can promise as I wade into this new experience are these: I will be supportive wherever I can, and I will always be honest. Please let me know what else I should be, and while you’re at it, what you think the role of the critic is in our world. I would love to hear your opinions on this.

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