Everyone’s a critic

As we roll into the last weekend of the Van Fringe, I’m proud to say that the Plank review team managed to tuck 60 reviews under our belts, which is actually way better than I’d hoped for. Congratulations gang, you done good, reviewed from the gut, and did it all for the sheer love of theatre. I’m proud of all of you.

I’m also proud of the legion of Vancouverites that have raided the public reviews section of the site, the response to that little experiment was way beyond my wildest expectations. You’ve done it now Van City, you’ve exposed yourself as a scrappy little opinionated theatre town. Don’t even think about pretending that you don’t care about your theatre after all that. Some of you even aroused the ire of mild-mannered plank editor Andrew Templeton, not an easy task, believe me.

Keep ’em coming everyone. And if you have some opinions on shows that you’ve seen so far, please add your voice to the chorus. And don’t just stop at “this show blew” or “this show rocks!”, tell us why you thought it blew or rocked. I’ve still got a weekend of Fringing left, and I could use your help…

We’re looking for a few honest opinions…

Okay Fringers, you’ve walked the walk, now it’s time to talk the talk. With the Van Fringe solidly underway, we can take advantage of indie theatre’s highest profile period of the year to really kick start a city-wide conversation about the great art.

After you hit up a show, head on over to the Plank Magazine website and publish your candid opinion on it. They’ve set up a dedicated section exclusively for public reviews. Just click on the show you saw and fire away.

Whether you loved it, hated it or were entirely indifferent towards it, your opinion matters. The continued growth of kick-ass theatre in Vancouver depends on a reciprocal relationship between artist and audience, so please share your thoughts on what you experience over the next two weeks.

Click on the Plank below to join the conversation…

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!

Must-Read Theatre Blogging…

This is great, great, great…Ian at Theatre is Territory has published a simply wonderful interview with University of Minnesota theatre prof and Broadway alum Charles Nolte, who grandly holds court on the state of theatre, reminisces about the heyday of Broadway, and dishes hilariously on working with the likes of Henry Fonda, Jack Palance, and Charlton Heston (!). It contains the single greatest observation I’ve ever heard on my hero, Sir Ian McKellan, as well. Click on through, you’ll be glad you did.

Sarah Kane is my Kurt Cobain

Up until last week I hated Sarah Kane. Thought she was anathema to the theatre and pretty much civilization in general. Well, as it turns out, I’m an idiot. An idiot who just learned a great big lesson in judging a book by a single chapter, and had his already firm belief in the power of live performance fortified. It’s been a good week.

I first came into contact with SK a few years ago while making my way through a compilation of established plays just for fun, as I am wont to do. I was having a good old time until I ran headfirst into Blasted, which was lurking somewhere in the middle of the volume. I innocently dove in and read on with growing revulsion. This play seemed to me not so much written as excreted, and caustically placed there alongside works of obvious distinction, no less. I felt as if I’d been ambushed, tricked into reading a nonsensical vomiting of someone’s problems onto paper. Surely no one had actually produced this…this…thing, had they? Fascinated by my strong reaction, I did a little research. Sarah Kane: b. 1971 Essex, d. 1999 by hanging herself in a bathroom at London’s King’s College Hospital. Leading member of the childishly monikered In-Yer-Face theatre movement in London that “shocked” the theatre out of its boring political rut. Evangelical upbringing. Lifetime depressive. Well, there you go, that explains it. I tossed Sarah Kane out of my life, which had no room for problem theatre, nor for filth for filth’s sake.

Fate disapproved, however, and brought Sarah back into my life. Over at the LSP, all the members of the ensemble are encouraged to bring in plays for group readings and production consideration at any time, and a couple of months ago one of the guys did just that with a work he’d become fascinated with. Ech. Blasted. Seriously? Fine. I suffered in silence through the read and most of the post-read discussion until, inevitably, came the dreaded “you’re uncharacteristically quiet Si-guy, what’s your take?”. My take? Vile, pornographically violent, heavy-handed, pointless, production heavy, heartless, simplistic garbage from an angry person with a selfish agenda. Thanks for bringing it in, though. Bah. Humbug. Moving on.

Stars aligned. Planes shifted. Portals opened, whatever. I was to review a play called 4.48 Psychosis, by Sarah Kane. Oh, yippee. The night arrived, along with pouring rain, a pounding headache, and the expected comps not waiting at the door. $40 lighter and 4 pounds wetter, I sit to await curtain, head in hand.

I walked from that theatre transformed. And saddened, and wiser than when I went in. Sarah’s final work is an anguished howl of pain and suffering that is utterly beautiful in the revealing of its author’s torment. The grace and ferocity of the writing is exquisite. A tortured poet who could not bear the life she had been given, she invited us into it with this piece of writing, gives us a private tour of the horrors of it, and then, with nothing left to write about, ended it. The juxtaposition of such a selfless act with such a selfish one is a jarring meditation on art that I haven’t yet begun to deal with, mostly because it scares the shit out of me. But I feel that I know a couple things now that I didn’t before: I’ve spent time in the mind of a clinically depressed suicidal and have an better insight and understanding of it (I move through the east side differently now because of it); I’ve seen the power of art forged from the truest, most private parts of the artist; and I know that one play is never a true barometer of the skill of a playwright. Won’t make that mistake again.

And I know that artists who speak their truth and write from their souls can live forever, no matter how short their time here.

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This One Goes to Eleven: Ellie O’Day

Vancouver indie theatre, allow me to introduce you to Ellie O’Day, super-publicist. The reason you want to keep making money is so that you can one day hire her so you can work less and make lots ‘n lots more money. She began her career here in the ’70s as Western Canada’s first female rock and roll DJ, then started interviewing artists, then started writing for the Georgia Straight in the ’80s while also contributing to the CBC, then doing, like, a zillion other things in the arts industries here. O’Day Productions provides promotion, publicity, and consulting to the arts community, mainly in theatre, music and festivals. So until we can afford her, I thought I’d see if we can at least get some advice from her that we can use in the meanwhile. Or at least finally figure out what the difference is between marketing and publicity.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Hectic.

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

I spent 25 years working in the music industry, and in 1999 Norman Armour asked me to do publicity for Rumble Productions. “I don’t know anything about theatre publicity,” I protested to Norman. He said he knew I attended theatre, and that I’d figure it out. Norman has this way of pushing you just beyond your comfort zone.

Little did I know that I would fall in love with indie theatre, just the way I did with indie music. But what I liked even better was the team that was assembled for each production. I learned so much about theatre craft in production meetings, and met incredible people who are superb problem-solvers through creativity. So just as the music biz was going into a bit of a cyclical tail spin, I fell for theatre.

What excites me about the indie theatre scene is that each company has a “personality” and I had come into the scene at a time when many key theatre grads, instead of waiting for the phone to ring, had started their own companies. So there was amazing enthusiasm as much as there were tremendous challenges. It reminded me of the D.I.Y. scene that revived rock music in the late 70s, and I was indie-born-again!

However, the indie scene – whether you’re talking about music or theatre – really only becomes a scene when there is cooperation and collaboration. So See Seven helped to market many indie companies who didn’t have the capacity to produce a full season. And last year’s HIVE showed how indie companies could collaborate on a great project that incorporated Vancouver’s well-known site-specific theatre, while each company created a small piece of theatre. No two experiences over that weekend in November were alike. And the central “cafe” allowed patrons and participants to talk about it. Buzz buzz buzz.

3.) Why is theatre a necessary component of our culture?

As a live experience, theatre allows us to explore the human condition. But like music arrangers, directors can adapt a piece of proven theatre in a new context giving it new or refreshed meaning. It’s important for the audience to experience live performance, which grabs your attention in a different way than a recorded one. But I can also see now what the theatre process means to those who create it. The immediacy of reaction is also something that you don’t get in a recorded performance.

4.) For the neophyte companies around town, describe the role of the publicist.

All independent companies have limited budget for advertising. So publicity is the way to get notices and editorial without buying it. You are paying for someone who has relationships with the media to try to get preview articles, and to get reviewers out to the show. However, a publicist cannot ensure that seats are filled. That is a combination of marketing (which includes paid ads, posters, postcard and media sponsors), the publicity, and the success of the piece of theatre and its performance. Today, a publicist is also working with radio, TV and all kinds of electronic postings.

5.) Can you reconcile the adversarial image of the critic to theatre artists?

I once was a music critic, so I understand the critic’s role. Like many of our local theatre writers, I also considered myself to be helpful with constructive criticism. Many actors do not read their reviews, which I never encountered in the music business, but I’m quite sure all the directors and Artistic Directors do. With all the blogging and web sites today, we are seeing exposure for writers who do know theatre, but aren’t employed by mainstream media, but it also opens the door to wannabe critics. As publicist, when I assemble media reports, I try to sift through and find those with genuine comments.

6.) Any words of wisdom for zero-budget theatre crews to help get bums in their seats?

Get noticed. Use the internet. Pitch good stories to the mainstream media. Get to know the media so that you know which writer or producer would find your piece appealing.

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7.) What would you like to see more of on Vancouver stages?

In one respect, Blackbird Theatre has done it, as well as some productions by United Players at Jericho. As much as I like original work (and I have a particular fondness for staged readings of new works), I feel like a young student, still, in learning the great works that preceded us. So I’d like to see more great works on stage so that I, too, can experience them. You didn’t ask, but what I’d like to see less of is sit-com style theatre. I don’t like it on TV either.

8.) How useful is the internet becoming as an publicity tool?

It’s great, but it’s still lots of work finding the legitimate web sites. I just finished Boca Del Lupo‘s Quasimodo, and even found it mentioned in people’s personal blogs.

When I started in 1999 people would ask for big media kits and 8 x 10 glossies. I talked them into jpegs. I hardly print a thing anymore – it’s all emailed, or a link to a web site.

9.) What kind of impact will Magnetic North have on Vancouver as a theatre town?

Magnetic North will be exciting. It was already exciting that the 2006 edition was dominated by Vancouver pieces. Maybe after next June the word will finally be out across the country (and particularly in Ontario) that there IS a theatre scene in Vancouver, and it’s HOT!

10.) Can you recommend any good reading for the aspiring theatre artist?

I didn’t really study theatre, so all my theatre education has been experiential.

11.) What’s next?

Look out for the first professional production of Bent in Vancouver in 26 years. In 1981 it set records in a 4 month run here. I was so excited when Meta.for Theatre called me to work on this one, opening Oct 31. Then in November I’ll be working on Tideline, a tale of war, exile and individual discovery by Governor General’s Award winner Wajdi Mouawad, a co-production between neworld theatre and Touchstone Theatre. In December, I’ll be working on Carousel Theatre‘s month-long run of Seussical!, and then right into the PuSh Festival.

But before all that, I’m Media Director for the Vancouver International Film Festival, Sept 27 – Oct 12.

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.