This one goes to eleven: Peter Birnie

I’m fascinated by our relationship with the critics. When I hear members of the theatre community talk about them, it’s always with an amazing degree of passion, one way or the other. Nobody, it seems, is ever indifferent to them. I think it’s great, and a good indication that they hold some position of importance within our little community here.

Personally, I value them all quite highly, and I’ll tell you why. First off, I’ve met them all, and they’re all whip-smart, delightful individuals. Second, they are members of my audience, who both love theatre and love writing about theatre, and that’s a wonderful and rare combination. And thirdly they are not scared to give me an honest personal opinion of our work, and that is very rare, and just as valuable. I wish I could get an honest evaluation from every member of my audience. You don’t even have to agree with it, but you should listen for the value in it.

This week we welcome Peter Birnie to This One Goes to Eleven. Peter has been the theatre critic for the Vancouver Sun since 1997, moving up from his position as their film critic. (I say ‘moving up’, anyway.) We’re grateful for this chance to get to talk a little theatre with him…

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1) In one word, describe your present condition.

Alarmed.

2) With no restrictions on word count, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

We certainly live in interesting times. I have delayed answering these questions in the hope the crystal ball would clear. Instead it’s foggier than ever, and there are absolutely no indications our economic meltdown is yet at an end. Therefore, I boldly declare the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene to be absolutely dreadful — and likely to get worse.

Since no one is acknowledging the elephant in the room, let me say that, other than the one per cent of the population with buckets of cash stashed in tax havens, we are all, collectively, in very serious financial trouble. Pity poor Barack Obama, who inherits a disaster he cannot possibly ameliorate. Pity Vancouver’s theatre scene, which within six months will be starting to show the full effects of what can only be viewed as a recession if you’re wearing rose-coloured glasses.

People’s priorities are already shifting strongly away from discretionary spending. Anything resembling a big-budget production, whether from one of the established local companies or in a bus-and-truck touring show, will find enormous difficulty filling houses. Small shows will actually fare marginally better, but only because this city’s resilient artistic community will cinch in its belts once again and keep itself afloat. Start supporting each other as much as you can, folks, because it’s pot-luck from here on in.

3) How has Vancouver evolved as a theatre town over the last ten years?

A decade ago, the Stanley Theatre was opening just as the Ford Centre was closing. Garth Drabinsky’s grand plan to bring Broadway west wasn’t based in financial reality, and his curse has seemed to hang in the air over the former Ford ever since, as the Law brothers from Denver continue to keep afloat what is now The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. The Arts Club had no illusions about money, and in fact went through a business-modelling program so strict that the company knew it had to devote a great deal of energy to marketing, sponsorships and the boosting of its subscription base.

The result is the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, named for a sponsor. The Playhouse is hoping for the same magic to happen when it moves into Wall Centre False Creek — when the credit crisis is over and construction can begin on the company’s desperately needed second stage.

We’ve also seen an explosion in young talent trying to make a name for itself. The Electric Company is the gold standard for small companies seeking to carve out a niche, and one of its smartest policies has been a strictly disciplined approach to finding funding. Since those already narrow avenues of opportunity are squeezing tighter every day, I expect to see many more multidisciplinary groups formed in a bid to keep diverse groups of artists employed.

4) What does independent theatre here need to do in order to make the leap into a more wide-spread city consciousness?

There will be no leaping in the days ahead. Unless you’re willing to entertain for free, or accept vegetables as barter, you and your troupe won’t be gaining any market share in a city where just about everyone’s busy struggling to survive.

5) Please describe the current relationship between Vancouver’s theatre artists and the critics.

I can only speak to my own experience, but I suspect it’s the same for any critic — anyone I praise thinks I’m the greatest critic since Kenneth Tynan, anyone I criticize thinks I’m an idiot.

6) When reviewing, should all productions be held to the same standard, or should a sliding scale be applied dependent on the experience of the company?

It’s obvious that I try to avoid reviewing amateur productions. There are exceptions, such as Royal City Musical Theatre or Theatre Under the Stars, so I always declare early on in the review that “this group of amateurs” — or words to that effect — have done a good/bad job. Any professional production, however, should be assessed as something people will pay to see. Is it worth their money?

7) What’s your best piece of advice for the young theatre company just starting out here?

Keep your day job. This economic shitstorm gives you precisely no room to manouevre, so think of Orson Welles and The Cradle Will Rock, and seize a theatre.

8) What is your fondest theatrical memory?

Each time I come away from a show filled with the glow that comes from witnessing something special, that production then becomes my fondest memory. It happened recently at the Telus Studio Theatre in the Chan Centre with Ryan Beil and Zachary Gray breathing new life into Billy Bishop Goes to War, and again at Performance Works as Katrin Dunn’s Touchstone Theatre provided a rich forum for Janet Munsil’s new play, Influence.

9) What would you like to see more of on our stages?

The great works. The big ones, Chekhov and Shakespeare (no insult to Bard on the Beach, but something on a real proscenium stage in a real theatre in the dead of winter). The heavy ones from America, Streetcar and All My Sons, Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey. The classics of Canadian theatre, Tremblay especially. More Mamet! Can’t wait for Main Street Theatre’s Glengarry Glen Ross. I have acquired a rep as a guy who loves musical theatre, which is true, but I still crave depth and darkness. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing many genuine attempts to capture the pain that’s coming to society — and that’s a good thing.

10) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

I read all of the local critics faithfully, to see if they got it right. I scour the theatre blogs from Toronto, New York and London, and read whatever catches my fancy. That’s about it — the rest of my reading is as far removed from theatre as possible, in a bid to maintain my sanity.

11) What’s next?

I’m on the verge of finally, after years of pleading, getting a blog from The Sun that allows me to archive reviews and give Wasserman and vancouverplays.com some competition. Please stay tuned.

On the Difference Between a Critic and a Reviewer

Terrific article by Chris Dupuis over at his newly re-christened site Time and Space, in which he offers a modest proposal for a new model of responsibility for our critics. It’s a great contexualization of the actual job, and the post itself follows the very guidelines that he propounds within it.

Chris puts some responsibility back on the artists as well, which struck a real chord for me. He suggests that we should be taking greater initiative in engaging with the critics that we invite to our shows, and beginning the dialogue with them even before the start of the run.

Rather than hate the reviewers, try to work with them by providing them with as much information as possible about your work and the context in which you are working, assuming they haven’t gone to the trouble to do this themselves.

If this kind of effort continues to be made towards the delibration of the art amongst the practitioners ourselves and with the invested critics, it just might compel a new benchmark for the tradition of arts critisicm and discussion in Canada. Great stuff. Click here to read the full essay.

Canadian Critical Culture Called into Question

Now first off, I know a lot of you are thinking: “we have a culture of criticism?”. Well, apparently we in fact do, and the UK Guardian’s Andrew Haydon offers as proof the web site of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. Now I know a lot of you are thinking: “we have a Canadian Theatre Critics Association?” We do, in fact; its headquarters is in Toronto, it has 43 members from across the nation, and a list of seven objectives, the seventh being to “promote a code of ethics for professional critics and their employers”. The code itself is built out of six tenets and exists to ensure that due respect is paid by reviewers to the artists whose work they sit in judgment upon. It is the very existence of this code and Canada’s slavish adherence to it that Mr. Haydon suggests gives Great Britain’s theatre reviewers the critical high ground.

He does concede that several of the CTCA’s rules are in standard practice by theatre reviewers in the UK, and suggests that these articles are just plain common sense, which they indeed are. The crucial difference, according to the article, is that over in Blighty these rules aren’t actually written down anywhere, which relieves them of institutional oppression; and thus British theatre critics are, unlike we strictly constrained Canucks, able to choose to follow their common sense or not, free from the yoke of any sort of tyrannical critical legislation. This, then, will render a “more adult state of affairs if criticism is a negotiation between grown-ups rather than a set of rules that ultimately leaves artist and public alike wondering what the critic really wanted to say”. Take that Colin Thomas, member of the CTCA!

“The Canadians” critique objectively. The British critique subjectively. Excuse me, “completely subjectively”. So there. Allrighty then. But regardless of the outsized brush with which Mr. Haydon paints the critical community of our little nation, the point of the article is well taken: critics are answerable to their readership. And now that anyone with access to a computer connected to these here internets can publicly announce their opinion on last night’s play there is increased pressure on the professionals to remain just that, professional. And if criticism is your vocation of choice you shouldn’t have to be told by anyone else but your readership and your own conscience what’s fair and unfair. But really what it all comes down to is that malevolent or ill-informed reviewers tend to inevitably fall out of orbit under the sheer weight of their own disagreeability anyway, whether they hold a membership card to a non-profit critics coffee klatch or to Costco. But that’s just my opinion, eh?

What do You Want From Your Critics?

There’s been a lot of discussion about critics and their place in our theatre scene around here lately. Established critics are reaching out, new critics are popping up, and so I think the time is ripe to hear from you about what exactly it is that you expect when you take in a review.

I’ll start.

The main function of a play review for me is to provide a general idea of the quality of a work before I budget the time and money for it. I’m not long on spare time or money these days, and nothing will put me into a foul mood more easily than spending some on a stanky play (or movie, for that matter). And I hate filmed trailers for theatre, even the best stage work translates terribly to a little 2D box on a monitor, and marketing copy speaks only to content, not quality. So unless I know someone that’s already seen the play I have only the critics to trust…that is, those that have earned my trust. There are those here in town whose opinions I have disagreed with so often in the past that I don’t use them any more, and I’ve come to rely on the rest to help me with my play-going decisions.

Not that I pick plays exclusively from the opinions of a particular set of critics. I’ve gotten to know their voices and I know where my opinion differs from theirs. And the strength and history of a particular company or director or performer plays into it as well. But for the sake of this discussion, I would like to talk plainly about the mechanics of criticism.

So there it is: I’m a pre-play review reader. As such my bar-none, number one, all-time pet peeve is the descriptive spoiler. Why any reviewer feels that it’s okay to detail narrative business is beyond me, unless they think that the only people reading them have already seen the work too, and are looking for someone else’s opinion, or something. You can comment on context, intent, message, metaphor, tone, success, failure – virtually anything opinion based, but please don’t waste word count on anything that physically describes what you have seen. If all else fails and you can’t come up with any other way to examine your experience, please consider the ol’ default standby: “and then – well, I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s [insert intensifier-adjective here]”.

I’ve read some reviews that are almost entirely composed of the tourist version of the narrative. That’s not writing a review, it’s composing a study guide, and it’s selfish. Stop it. If I’ve paid for it, I want to experience it all – from the first glimpse of the set to the director’s blocking to the big revelation in the third act – without any presuppositions.

I would also like you to tell me why you think a particular aspect of the production succeeded or failed, taking into account the intent of the artists. Not good enough to say that something is ‘great’ or ‘not-so-great’. A frame of reference is required.

Enough from me! It’s your turn. The critics are listening, what do you want them to tell you? What do you love in a review, what do you hate? And for any of you new critics out there, please feel free to jump in and introduce yourselves and ask any questions you may have of your audience. Reviews, like theatre itself, should be dialogue, not monologue. Let the conversation begin!

Critics are your friends. Meet your new friends.

I’m a theatre nerd with a blog. It’s something I do simply because I want people to talk more about this thing that I’m in love with, so that more people make and see theatre. So the fact that a new Vancouver theatre magazine has just emerged online has made me a very happy little nerd. Plank Magazine‘s (GREAT handle guys, BTW) mandate reads thusly:

To encourage intelligent, critical dialogue amongst arts enthusiasts and people working in the cultural sector. To increase media coverage of the performing arts in Vancouver, giving culture the conversational space it deserves.

I know, I know, we’ve still got a real love/hate thing going on with the critics, don’t we? it’s terrifying having them somewhere out there in the house (Is that him? The one in the back row? How does he look, happy? Pissy? Bored? I think he looks bored, I’m going to kill myself now), lurking in the dark hunkered over their little pads, judging us, probably hating us…god, why do we even need them at all? Seriously, why do we even invite them? This piece is about the art. The art, dammit!

It is so past due for us to get over this. It’s time to get real perspective on these people and what they are doing. It’s time to talk about them, and to them – to engage with them. Professional criticism is not a one way street, it’s one half of a conversation that you start with your play. We need them. We really do, if we want to ever make money through theatre work, anyway.

The critics don’t work for us. Sure, it’s nice for our progressive marketing if they say some nice things in print about the show, but this can’t be the only reason we care about them, can it? Is their worth to us measured merely as a potential sound bite? Seems a bit mercenary, doesn’t it?

The critics don’t work for our audience either (we do), they are the audience, and what’s more, they know a lot about theatre, and they love it. And they can write, and they like to talk, so people listen. Everybody else at the show is talking to people about you too, but you don’t get to hear what they’re really saying. Now, I know that this is just fine for some of us. There are a lot of theatre artists out there right now who are delicate and sensitive and quite happy making their art for themselves and don’t want to hear what people thought about the work, because they think that it will have an effect on future work. And they’re right, it will. Is that such a bad thing? I guess it depends on what part you want to play in the bigger picture.

Remember, critics don’t make culture, artists do. Critics report on it. Let’s just be clear on our respective jobs. The critics, simply put, work for the theatre. They exist to maintain a conversation about something bigger than all of us individually, something that we all want: a popular, sustainable, trendy theatre. They keep the ball of public awareness in the air, and so we could use more of them, many more, getting the idea of theatre into the heads of more people.

If putting up a play is something that you need to do for you, because you want to be on a stage in a particular role that’s important to you, and you want all your friends to see you perform it, and after it’s done you can always be able to say that you did it, that’s fine too. Go ahead and hate the critics. Don’t invite them. But if you want to put on another play after that one, and then a bunch more after that, and you want to work less on convincing people to come out and watch you make art and more on actually making it, you’re going to have to embrace the critics, or at least honour what it is they do for us. Which means pulling on our big artist undies and standing tall and saying “so, what’d you think?”, and then listening with the awareness that nothing in the reply, good or bad, is a reflection on you as a person. We must somehow learn to separate the art from the artist. We are, after all, charging money for it, which makes it more than art. It also makes it a product. And the most successful companies solicit for product feedback all the time. They make it a point to know the satisfaction level of their customers.

Vancouver is a town in dire need of more media coverage for the arts. The arts community here sustains itself by supporting each other’s work, and the rest of the city – the majority of the city – goes on about their daily lives completely unaware of what we’re doing. It’s not that they don’t want to know, they’re just busy people with a ton of options to spend their spare time on. We need to get in their face more, and then perhaps, quite probably, we’ll have a major movement on our hands. We’ve certainly got the artists. Now it’s time to build their audience. There are a lot of cool people out there who will be awed by us, if only they knew where to find us. And they do want to find us. It’s part of the job to go get them.

And so, I bid Plank Magazine a hearty welcome to the Vancouver arts scene, and leave you with a pull quote from their landing page. It sounds to me like they’re taking their new role seriously. Are we ready for it?

We want to provide the space that will allow for in-depth consideration of the performing arts in Vancouver. You won’t find star systems or thumbs up/thumbs down ratings. If we do capsule reviews, they will be deliberately pithy. We will not resort to short-hand praise or off-hand dismissals of work. We’ll track performers and companies over their careers; we’ll keep track of the development of productions; we’ll ask about ideas, directions, successes and crashes. If we feel a work has fallen short of the goals that have been set for it, we will try to explain how and why we believe this to be the case.