On The Eating of One's Own Head
Can critics' dislikes and the internet be creating precisely what theatre needs?
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
This week Andrew Dickson, one of The Guardian's many very able theatre critics, tweeted thusly:
"Invitation arrives for Kiss Me, Kate, dir by Trevor Nunn. No, no, thanks awfully, very kind, really don't think so #wouldrathereatmyownhead"
I laughed out loud because I knew what he was talking about. There are productions I get invited to that I would rather eat my own head than spend an evening seeing let alone reviewing. Kiss Me, Kate would be in my top ten for sure, along with Annie (and a lot of musicals), anything by Ionesco, a lot of Albee, mime, a lot of Greek theatre, tons of Shakespeare, most French opera...need I go on?
The fact is, we all have tastes. My uncle loves opera but when I told him I had seen the Ring at Covent Garden he said, "Better you than me." He is, says he, "Saving Wagner for my old age." He's 75.
I am dead against critics as generalists. There is absolutely no point in a critic seeing a production he or she knows they will not like. Do you really want to know what I, or anyone, thinks of a show when - as we go in we are asking ourselves, "Why are they doing this piece of shit?"
Here's what happens...a real story:
I went to the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM), a while back, to see something that was, to me, a very exciting outing. The company was daring to present Berg's Wozzeck in its operatic form and as a chamber piece. They presented it in German with French surtitles. It took my breath away. At the end, when Wozzeck's orphan is playing alone, oblivious to the fact his father has murdered his mother, I was blubbering.
This was my single greatest night at the opera and in the top ten of my nights at the theatre. It was directed by a theatre director, in her own house, (Lorraine Pintal at the peak of her powers) and conducted by a man who understood theatre (the then-emerging Yannick Nézet-Séguin).
Here's the thing...
One of my opera reviewer colleagues who doesn't like Wozzeck reviewed it and a theatre critic, at the same paper, who doesn't like opera (but who saw it because it was part of the TNM season) reviewed and they were both wrong, wrong, wrong. I don't often say that of colleagues but I wanted to scream, "You shouldn't have reviewed it at all, goddammit!"
Unlike many, I do not see this development as tragic.
Now, because of online magazines, the world of the Royal Reviewer (where a paper has only one writer on staff) are, thankfully, ending. Reviewers don't have to see plays they don't like or may not understand (we had one bozo at La Presse, here, who never "got" plays and would negatively compare his experiences at the experimental houses to his pleasant evenings at summerstock). Websites editors can be like The Guardian or The New York Times and ask reviewers what they want to see and, as a result, get fairer reviews. On this site I have a pretty good idea which reviewers will do a good job on opera, musical theatre, experimental works, Shakespeare, etc.
The problem is that readers don't understand the value of this kind of specialist criticism and won't pay for it. So even as print, worldwide, is weakening in terms of content and expertise, the paradigm shift (forgive the jargon) has not occurred in consumers of arts information.
our daily wasn't even paying people to write about tech (even while they maintained their society column)
I think it will, with time and with deaths, one after another, of arts departments at newspapers and of the papers themselves. Unlike many, I do not see this development as tragic. I see it as evolution. I worked at an arts weekly which, when the internet began, insisted we all jump on it even as the dailies in Montreal were writing about the web as if it was Dungeons and Dragons - a playground for a small selection of geeks and shut-ins. At the Gazette, when I was working there, one of the first departments to be cut back was tech reporting, fercrissakes. As stats told that gaming was the number one entertainment business in the world (bigger than porn!) our daily wasn't even paying people to write about it (even while they maintained their society column).
Every website that doesn't specialize will die. It is a lesson I have learned. It is why we have more than one website because not only do people want to read about JUST theatre they also want to read about JUST Montreal and Toronto theatre. They also want voices on the sites to be more specific yet.
I am one of those readers and when I sit down to edit or format the articles my glorious collaborators send to me, even though I would never see the shows they review I want to follow their part of the conversation that is theatre. I want to read what Stuart Munro has to say about Jekyll and Hyde because he knows. I want to see what Shannon Christy says about the COC because he, like me, has been around opera since young childhood. I want to read Christian Baines or Rebecca Ugolini or damn near everyone I could spend a page listing because they see what they want and rarely go into a show unarmed or leave it untouched (enraged or delighted). I like the vigour of their writing and thinking.
This is the way of the future.
No. Correction: the future is now.
Hop on or get out of the way. (And fercrissakes, if you like it support it!)