Everyone's a critic.
It's always been so, with a few critics given a greater platform from which to voice their opinions. In theatre, whoever is drama critic at the New York Times has the divine right to make or break Broadway shows at the box office. A handful of other prominent reviewers wield significant clout on the fate of new shows, while the majority of those in theatre's unholy trade serve today mostly as consumer guides.
That cultural authority in recent years has been under siege from a theatre-going public anxious to share their views on their blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Social media has brought a digital democratization to our fragmented media world, creating a parallel universe where Everyman opinion is the currency in the appraisal business.
So welcome to all those local theatre lovers who are attracted by the power of live performance and are inspired to talk about what goes on our stages.
And why not? Winnipeg is a theatre town, home of the oldest Canadian regional theatre and francophone companies, a leading children's troupe, a world-renowned fringe festival and, most of all, a very savvy and loyal audience. Even the path from our stages to Broadway is becoming well trod by our young stars.
That national reputation is due to a stalwart core of cultural pioneers, forward-thinking citizens and creative artists with DIY determination. A sliver of that credit is due to critics who pay attention, who convince their audience that they too should pay attention to the arts. The two largest fringe festivals in North America are in Edmonton and Winnipeg in part because each has media that lavish it with intense and comprehensive coverage. (The Free Press is the only newspaper in Canada that reviews all the shows at its fringe theatre festival.)
That a critic would have the audacity to claim a small portion of the credit for a thriving theatre scene will likely cause a flurry of outrage. That's OK -- if you give it, you have to take it.
The job of professional critic comes with an inherently adversarial relationship with actors, directors, designers and ticket buyers. That's despite sharing with them a belief that drama is a communal experience, providing valuable insights into the human condition.
Reviews must judge as well as edify, clarify and encourage. Those reviews can, in turn, be judged unfair and mean-spirited. But there are occasions when an honest opinion, intelligently framed and judiciously couched, is still going to wound the subject.
Most will suffer in silence, but many express their displeasure. I've had the routine "did-you-see-the-same-play-I-saw" carping in letters to the editor -- to the extreme of an inebriated actor leaving a telephone message threatening murder. One creative audience member who didn't appreciate a favourable judgment of what he thought was an unexciting drama penned a five-star-worthy poem, elegantly trashing the play and the review.
These days reviews, like most mainstream media stories, promptly elicit anonymous insults and personal attacks. Some of the anger comes from being told that a production with expensive tickets wasn't a good investment. It seems the costlier the ticket, the deeper the need for a public endorsement in the form of a rave review.
Theatre managers resent the power of reviews over their box office revenue, but if the notices are favourable, they're quick to feature those positive words conspicuously in their company's advertising; really, they only don't like them when they're not good.
The only thing worse than a negative review is no review at all, which to many is the ultimate slight. Smaller companies need that critique to prove cultural relevance with tight-fisted government funders. Most veteran administrators accept critics, reluctantly, as part of the theatre ecology and reviews as the cost of free publicity.
For the most part, I have found Winnipeggers are not over-awed by the opinions of any theatre reviewer. They reject the need of gatekeepers to protect them from theatrical barbarians. Ticket buyers are knowledgable enough to make their own decisions. No blow to the ego of this critic.
There's a wide range of taste even within the reviewing community and there are times when critics disagree radically about hits and misses. It can be embarrassing when an actor's performance earns swooning praise by one critic and is hissed at by another.
The worst part of the job is attaching a star rating, which often makes the 600 or so words that come with it of secondary importance.
Forums for theatre criticism are shrinking, as weekly newspapers die or eliminate coverage of live drama. The Internet has a voracious hunger for opinion and has opened the door for anyone with a passion for the arts to publish an opinion. The more extreme, the more attention a provocative Australian blog like Sh-- on Your Play generates.
Even non-theatregoers have been invited to attempt to review. The website TheatreMania has instituted Bros on Broadway, which involves inviting average Joes who don't do plays to see top New York shows and write about the experience from their outsider perspective. Their reviews were semi-entertaining and generally positive -- the guy who attended a play about porn was contemplating a career change.
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Sound off on Sondheim gives you a chance to win a pair of tickets to an upcoming RMTC production -- and the fame and glory of having your review on winnipegfreepress.com
Just write a short review (under 500 words) of one of the SondheimFest productions and post it at www.winnipegfreepress.com/sondheimfest/submission/
We'll put your name in a draw for the tickets and post your review online. If you don't have access to a computer, reviews can be dropped off at the Winnipeg Free Press office at 1355 Mountain Ave.