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.

13 thoughts on “Critics are your friends. Meet your new friends.

  1. Great article! I just started my own nerdy theater blog and I’m going to link to this post!

    I was at a workshop with Chuck Mee one time and he told a story that a critic reviewed his friend’s work (a director, who’s name I’ve forgotten) and they said that it was like watching a play through a plastic wall. The next show he separated the audience from the stage with a giant plastic wall.

  2. Thanks Carla, and I love the name and positioning line of your new blog! Instantly subscribed.

    What a fantastic story, what could the critic possibly have meant by that? And to take the criticism to heart so much that you would go to that length…wow. It must have been like watching the show through a really old, giant TV. Wee-yard.

  3. Nice post. I am, (as you know) a publicist for theatre, and it’s my job to get the critics to the show. Everyone wants to be reviewed–it shows a level of professionalism. I always tell my clients what I told myself whenever I was on stage and my work was being reviewed: “good or bad, it’s just one person’s opinion.” Problem with critics is, they do have the ability to affect your bottom line. But that’s the risk you take when you invite them. You’d better be damn sure you have something worth putting out there…

  4. I worked as a publicist in all of the performing arts during the last millennium (yes, it does seem that long ago) and while I agree with the substance of this article, I felt that those employed to interpret and appraise the work being presented were all too often ill equipped to do so. My favourite was the Vancouver Sun reviewer who, in the course of a negative review that demonstrated that the work, an incredible theater piece from Buenos Aires by Teatro del Sur, had gone right by him, also managed to get two of the three characters confused. Impressive!
    I could go on – and will a bit – there was the time the esteemed Georgia Straight critic (now, put your nose well into the air as you read this) said (and I paraphrase) “This work has been so well received elsewhere in the country that I feel duty bound to point out some of the shortcomings. Well lah de da, you pompous git! It is tragic to me that cultural workers who have put their guts and blood on the line have to be judged by dolts and/or assholes – even when the art is lacking.

  5. Simon,

    Thanks for this meditation on the role of critics. I’m going to put an extract, the Muppet guys’ image, and a link on AustinLiveTheatre.com, a site that’s working to provide arts coverage and drama criticism not available elsewhere in town.

    regards,

    MM

  6. Love that last quote from the Plank Magazine. I wish that all arts journalists would approach their jobs with such developed consideration.

  7. Pingback: LoisBackstage » Friday Arts Quotes: Critics Edition

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