Loving the hate: seeing the benefit in backlash

While we’re on the topic of backlash, there’s a play that has made the ‘best of fest‘ at the just-wrapped Winnipeg Fringe (click here for reviews) that’s got people talking about how we as artists handle negative response to our work.

Keir Cutler is a seasoned Fringe writer and performer, whose last work Teaching As You Like It was met with almost universal praise. Almost. One persnickity audience member objected to the show’s subject matter: the distasteful practice of teachers who seduce their teenage students. The play featured Cutler portraying one such teacher as he addresses his class while waiting for the police to arrive to pick him up for his most recent offense. One long-term Fringe-goer apparently didn’t quite get the inherent satire of the piece, and in response wrote a scathingly accusatory 3-page letter to both the Winnipeg Fringe administration and Child Find Manitoba, an organization that notifies community members about high-risk sexual offenders. The letter asserted that the play “could be used as a textbook for the luring and seduction of young girls” and that it “promotes the idea that sexual predation of underage girls is acceptable.”

Well, what’s an artist to do? Cutler responded by creating an entirely new work entitled Teaching the Fringe (directed by home-town hero TJ Dawe) which contains excerpts from the letter and is marketed with this copy: “In his first autobiographical show, Keir Cutler takes a comic look at the menace of rogue audience members and the wacky encounters that can happen at the Fringe, including being reported to the authorities for one of his plays.” The new play was a smash hit and received resounding critical acclaim, but there has been some question as to whether or not such a reactive statement to an obviously misconstrued reception was even necessary. From the CBC review:

There’s no denying the quality of the craft: the writing, direction, and performance are of the highest quality. But watching, I couldn’t help but feel saddened Cutler felt it necessary to bring to bear the full weight of his considerable wit and intellect to demolish an argument so asinine it needn’t have been dignified with a response.

It’s the best show that didn’t need to be made you’ll see.

In a way, such a vitriolic outburst in response to this kind of play is a huge compliment, if you can muster up that sort of perspective on it. I would much rather have an audience member come up to me mad as hell after one of my shows because it pushed some buttons for them (this has actually happened to me, more than once), than for them to be utterly indifferent to the work. It strikes me as unrealistic to think that everyone is going to luv your piece and come away from it all happiness and sunshine, and instantly improved. The possibility of backlash permeates any work that addresses the unseemly or provocative. We invite any member of the public with the price of admission to be affected by our work, there’s no way that we can affect them all in the same way.

When it comes to subject matter, is any passionate reaction, whether gushy or seething, a worthy objective? How do you measure success in your work?


  1. Thanks for the comments about my play “Teaching the Fringe.” I just want to stress that while a vitriolic outburst by an audience member can be expected from time to time; where the letter-writer attacking my play crossed the line is in contact a child protection agency. She never posted anything on the plethora of sites available for Winnipeg Fringe goers. She waited until I left Winnipeg, then started a secret smear campaign. This is totally unacceptable, and does not fall into the area of “compliment.”

    Incidentally, despite being contacted by me, TJ Dawe and many media outlets, Child Find Manitoba has refused to say what they are doing with the letter and with my name.

    In the area of child abuse, we have reached, as a society, the medieval witch-hunt level of accusation is guilt.

    Keir Cutler, Ph. D.

  2. Hello Keir, thanks for that. I think that this story is certainly about as extreme an example of over-the-top moral exhibitionism as you can get, and I don’t mean to diminish it’s obviously hurtful impact on you personally.

    It perfectly illustrates the potential consequences of artistically putting yourself out there in works of social consequence (which is pretty much the definition of artist, to me anyway), and the fact that someone had such a strong visceral – albeit misguided – reaction to it means that you’ve hit some nerves with the piece.

    I’m wondering, did this incident actually prove hurtful to your image or to your reputation as an artist? When you say that we have reached the medieval witch-hunt level of accusation is guilt (which I don’t disagree with, I’m curious as to how this affected you on a professional level), did you actually experience any repercussions from this person’s letter to CFM? I would hope that a official organization such as that would be able to tell when someone’s crying wolf.

  3. I saw the piece at the Toronto Fringe and it was really very excellent (even if Kier was in Montreal at the time…). So, if you get the chance to see it, I highly recoomend it.

  4. Unfortunately, “Teaching the Fringe” is only going as far as Edmonton this year, and will not be presented at the Vancouver Fringe in 2008.

    As far as long term effects of being reported to Child Find, it is impossible to say what they are. I am told that anyone can smear anyone they like with the charge of child abuse. Unlike all other crimes in this country, the accusation of child abuse needs no proof. All false accusations are welcome, even accusations against actors playing characters on stage.

    What people must understand is by encouraging and accepting false accusations, the actual child abusers are being protected. If everyone is a child abuser, then no one is!

  5. That’s a good point Keir, and certainly worthy of addressing from the stage itself. One can only hope that the organizations responsible for these types of allegations have methods in place to filter out the wack jobs like this one.

    I’m sorry the show’s not coming to Van, I’ve been hearing raves about it. (Much like the one above, Megan knows her stuff.)

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