Next up in a series of interviews with Vancouver theatre critics is Jo Ledingham, who has been consistently reporting on our theatre scene at the Courier for quite some time. Once, years ago, I was putting up a couple of my original plays for their first run and, stupidly, hadn’t bothered to invite any of the press. Jo, whom I had yet to meet at that point, heard about the show somehow and contacted me to see if I wanted her to cover it. I had that review framed.
Now that’s dedication to the theatre. Jo, take it away…
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
Angry. About trophy hunting, logging of old growth, open net fish farming, the war in Iraq, farmland being pulled out of the agricultural land reserve, immigration laws that allow thugs to stay in Canada, litter in our parks – you name it, I’m angry.
2. With no restrictions or editing, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
It’s a mixed bag. Case in point: consider the 2008-2009 season first announced by The Playhouse. The season opener was to be the highly promising Frost/Nixon followed by The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz? Okay, so it was The Playhouse’s Christmas show but does that mean we have to spend it with the likes of Dorothy and Toto? (Fortunately, the rights weren’t available and The Playhouse snagged The Drowsy Chaperone, a fresh, new Canadian musical described as witty and irresistible, a show about which the New York Times said, “It sort of lets you eat cake and diet, too.”) Except for the cancellation of rights, though, we would have been in Kansas for Christmas.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, Vancouver is home to some of the cockiest, most audacious young companies in the country including Boca del Lupo, Theatre Replacement, Electric Company, Radix, Felix Culpa, Western Theatre Conspiracy, Pi, Rumble, Ruby Slippers and neworldtheatre. Thank Dionysus for Blackbird Theatre, committed to the classics and the PuSh Festival that brings international companies to several Vancouver stages.
So the scene ranges – at any given time – from ho-hum to hold onto your hat.
3. What is it about theatre that’s kept you so invested in it?
Anticipation. Excitement. The shaking up of my own preconceptions and my own value system. Living – for a couple of hours – someone else’s life. And the fact that the theatre experience is shared: real people on stage, real people behind the scenes and real people in the theatre. Anything can happen. It’s a rush. Highly addictive.
4. How did you come to start reviewing?
When Colin Thomas took a brief sabbatical years ago, The Straight offered the fill-in job to a friend of mine. He was too busy writing his own plays so he suggested I give it a try. I was terrified at the prospect but since I was working on an MA in Dramatic Literature at UBC, it made some sense. It was – and remains – daunting.
5. What is the current relationship between the critic and the theatre artist in Vancouver?
I hope it’s one of mutual respect. But the relationship is, by its very nature, an uneasy one. Criticism is so public and now, with reviews archived online, so lasting. What recourse does a director, performer or designer have to criticism he/she perceives as unfair? A letter to the editor? A posted rebuttal online?
So it’s really important for critics to be as informed and as fair as possible. It’s so easy – and so cheap – to trash a production outright. It’s a lot more difficult to praise what is praiseworthy and offer constructive criticism – all in the same review. In six hundred and fifty words or less. Sometimes overnight. I think theatre professionals recognize the challenge that critics regularly face.
6. What’s the big adjustment we as companies need to make to bring theatre closer to the mainstream here?
Don’t pander to the mainstream. That’s what (most) TV and movies do. Look what moving closer to the mainstream has done for CBC: dumbed it down.
7. Above all else, what are you hoping for when you sit down to review a play?
I’m hoping the play and the production are so excellent that the review writes itself. I’m hoping that the performances are so fantastic that superlatives leap to my fingertips. If it’s not an unqualified success, I’m hoping I can do justice to the production, that I haven’t missed an element that might have made all the difference in my response. And, finally, I’m hoping I can meet my deadline before eating my way through the entire refrigerator.
8. What is the responsibility of the critic to today’s theatre?
I believe my responsibility is to bring an informed intelligence to the job. To serve as best I can many masters: the playwright; the performers, director, design team and crew; the theatregoer; the reader; and myself. And by ‘serve’, I mean to be honest and to offer intelligent, constructive commentary that might just possibly raise the bar.
9. In terms of content, what are Vancouver companies strongest with, and what would you like to see more attempts at?
I don’t think content is the problem. What does frustrate me is the swing away from good, well-written scripts. Lots of ‘stuff’ – multi-media effects – can hide the fact that a script is skimpy, the story not engaging or relevant. While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest a return to unadorned written word, I think sometimes we have shifted too far in the other direction. The best (or worst) example of this kind of sacrifice of content to style was Hey Girl!, Romeo Castellucci’s PuSh Festival entry that, although visually stunning, left many of us completely cold. More good writing would be great.
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
Not necessarily ‘top’ but consistently read are The Straight, vancouverplays.com, The Sun, and, recently added, Plank! Alright, that’s four. My most recent, more academic reading was done a few years ago when I took DD Kugler’s dramaturgy course at SFU and before that, at UBC. But I’m continually reading plays new and old and, of course, reading articles whenever I stumble across something worthwhile. And that’s not nearly often enough.
11. What’s next?
Covering the madness we call the Vancouver Fringe Festival.