Can’t live with ’em, can’t get ’em all fired

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Michael Nathanson

WHAT are we artists go­ing to do about re­view­ers? We cre­ative types typ­i­cally hate get­ting re­viewed. We’ve spent an aw­fully long time think­ing about, and bring­ing to life, our work. We want peo­ple to like what we do, not merely from an ego stand­point but so that we ac­tu­ally might make a liv­ing at it. But at the end of our artis­tic en­deav­ours of­ten lies The Re­view. It is not merely an opin­ion about your ef­fort; it can also af­fect at­ten­dance quite sig­nif­i­cantly.

For the­atre prac­ti­tion­ers, our ire tends to peak dur­ing the fringe fes­ti­val, where a five-star re­view guar­an­tees sold­out shows. We then at­tend th­ese crit­i­cally anointed shows and can’t fig­ure out what the re­viewer was think­ing. “It was a com­edy,” we sur­mise. “It was im­prov,” we as­sert. “It was luck,” we com­fort our­selves.

At last year’s fes­ti­val, there were 175 shows. Both the Win­nipeg Free Press and CBC Ra­dio re­viewed all of them. In only four days. To ac­com­plish this task, th­ese me­dia out­lets em­ployed 31 re­view­ers. I don’t think it’s con­tro­ver­sial to as­sert that you might be hard-pressed to find 31 cre­den­tialled the­atre crit­ics in New York City, let alone our hum­ble burgh.

Is it un­fair that some­one who hasn’t read Aris­to­tle’s Po­et­ics — on which much dra­matic the­ory is still based — is telling us what they liked in our plays? Per­haps. Don’t we have a right to com­plain?

Ul­ti­mately, I don’t think we do. No one asked us to pro­duce a play at the fringe. We paid for the priv­i­lege and par­tic­i­pants know their play will be re­viewed. (In the early days of the fringe, not all plays were re­viewed. The com­plaint from the artists then was that only the lucky ones got a re­view.)

The truth is if we get a great re­view, we’re thrilled and feel vin­di­cated. If we get a bad re­view, well, it’s a bit like hear­ing your new­born baby be­ing called ugly to your face. Ex­cept the in­sult is in black and white and thou­sands of peo­ple will read it.

The re­viewer’s job is to re­late their ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing the play to their read­er­ship. As artists, we must ac­cept this. In truth, as soon as our show has been re­viewed, we scour the critic’s words to find the “rip quotes,” those prais­ing phrases that might help us mar­ket the play. Is it un­fair of us to parse a re­viewer’s work down to a sen­tence or two of pure praise? Maybe. Then again, that’s part of our job, sell­ing our work.

My most suc­cess­ful play is Talk. When it pre­miered in Win­nipeg in Oc­to­ber 2007, it re­ceived 3½ stars in the Win­nipeg Free Press, which didn’t nec­es­sar­ily por­tend a promis­ing fu­ture. The other re­views were about the same — good, not great. Yet the play’s progress was not im­peded. I was for­tu­nate enough that Play­wrights Canada Press chose to pub­lish the play, which led to it be­com­ing a fi­nal­ist for the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award in 2009. That ac­co­lade paved the way for fu­ture pro­duc­tions in Toronto, Ot­tawa and Jerusalem. I can look back at those ini­tial re­views in a dif­fer­ent light now. They weren’t the de­fin­i­tive judg­ment; they were spe­cific re­ac­tions from dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­u­als based on the per­for­mance they wit­nessed. The crit­ics were do­ing what they are paid to do.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween artists and re­view­ers is like the old Looney Tunes car­toon with the wolf and the sheep­dog. They go into work to­gether, punch the time clock, and the wolf tries to steal the sheep and the sheep­dog pre­vents it. Artists may never be sat­is­fied with what a critic writes, but with­out the artist, the critic won’t have any­thing to write about. We may eye each other war­ily from afar but best I can tell, nei­ther of us is go­ing away.

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