Bennett and I are walking through the park when she remarks that she thinks it’s ridiculous for Montreal arts reporters to review any show that doesn’t come out of the Segal Centre or Centaur Theatre. Being the two largest Anglo theatre companies in Montreal, she argues that their audiences are large enough that they can risk a bad review. But the smaller theatre companies are struggling to survive and while they should be supported through preview articles, reviewers should stay away.
I frown as she speaks. Usually I agree with Bennett, which is why I spend time with her. When you’re a curmudgeon, it’s good to find people who keep you calm.
I try to explain the artistic value of theatre critiques. In my view, it’s insulting to independent theatres to treat them differently than larger companies, as if they aren’t worthy of the same scrutiny. “The only question is whether a show deserves to be seen,” I postulate. “Championing a company just for existing degrades a city’s cultural landscape.”
you would look at a theatre critique and see a historical document
At this a stray jogger nearly mows us down. We leap out of his way and end up in the mud. Or is it a gift from someone’s dog? Bennett looks at me as if this is my fault, some sot of punishment for using phrases like cultural landscape in everyday conversation. “It makes you sound pretentious,” she warns.
I try again. “How are artists supposed to improve if they’re applauded just for showing up? The whole point of theatrical criticism is to raise the artistic standard of a city’s....” I wince, sensing I am headed towards another pretentious phrase. “….a city’s artistic scene.”
Right then, we coincidentally chance upon a fellow artist, whose latest production - a play about Joan of Arc told from the perspective of her sword - has opened to rave reviews. We ask for his opinion.
“Artists don’t read reviews for constructive criticism,” he replies. “We certainly aren’t using critics as a measure of our own artistic worth. We just use the good reviews to promote the work and hope everyone ignores the rest.”
He disappears and we continue through the park.
“What about the historical value?” I ask.
“Only you would look at a theatre critique and see a historical document,” laughs Bennett.
I remark that I’m reading a book about Russian actresses in the Silver Age – the era surrounding Chekhov, Ibsen and the Moscow Art Theatre. “Ever hear of Lydia Iavorskaia? Mariia Savina? They’d be forgotten if not for the reviews.”
“Only you would be reading a book about Russian actresses in the Silver Age,” says Bennett.
I press on. “What about Shaw? His reviews of Shakespearian productions double as an analysis of the plays themselves. They’re invaluable for Shakespearian scholars.”
I just want to know if a show’s worth a piece of my pension
I’m speaking so loudly that I’m overheard by an old couple from Westmount. They’re sitting at a picnic table combing through the Gazette and looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t read the paper looking for Shakespearian analysis,” says the old lady. “I just want to know if a show’s worth a piece of my pension.”
“You see?” says Bennett. “What’s better? Telling people a show sucks or arousing their curiosity so they’ll go and form their own opinion?”
The old man speaks up. “I don’t know. The media ignores a lot of independent art. They talk about Hollywood movies and the mainstream theatre shows, but independent shows have a much harder time getting noticed. Show me a preview article and I’ll show you a glorified press release. But a review has the potential to be an eyewitness account.”
“Aha!” I say, feeling triumphant.
“I see,” says Bennett. “So you think that today’s artists should sacrifice themselves just so in a hundred years, scholars will have something to talk about.”
I open my mouth and close it again. The old man does the same. Bennett and the old lady grin.
Later, Bennett clarifies her point, explaining that her idea is unnecessary in a city like Toronto, which has more than enough theatre to go around; but Montreal – like Halifax, Calgary and now even Vancouver – has no more then a handful of professional theatres. She says that arts supporters in these smaller communities would be wiser to simply hope for media support so they can increase their audience base.
“I think the problem is we don’t take theatrical criticism seriously enough,” I admit at last. “Even I do it. We throw off a slapdash critique to show how clever we are. We don’t think of the possibilities.”
“Only you would think of a critique’s possibilities,” smiles Bennett. “I’m sure the rest of us are just glad to see our name in print.”
By then we’ve reached the pub. We have this longstanding agreement whenever we argue: the winner always buys the loser a drink. I go inside and reach for my wallet – only to see she’s reaching for her purse. We both sigh. In our world there are no ties: the argument, we know, is far from over.