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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Theatre for Thought, February 21, 2011

An Open Letter to Patrick Goddard
Your remarks, and the subsequent discussion, has shone a very bright spotlight on a very big problem in the MELT community: namely, its continual fear of self-examination.

by joel fishbane

Dear Patrick,

I was all set to write a brilliant column that would use the Academy Awards as a way of discussing the value of creating a hierarchy of merit for something which is inherently subjective, namely art. Then you wrote a certain article discussing the ten things you hate about theatre. Here, in case you’ve forgotten, you charged Tableau d’Hote’s recent production of Humans with the unthinkable crime of being bad.

I’m assuming you’re not surprised at the vehement response – you probably expected it. It has become routine for MELT artists to champion the independent theatres while simultaneously attacking the rest. The myth perpetuated over drinks at La Cabane is that Centaur and Segal produce generic theatre designed only to appeal to their subscription base while the independent productions are “edgy”. I won’t debunk this myth – today – but I would suggest that it is one of the reasons for the nature of the reaction to your article. I would also suggest that no one would have been too upset (or surprised) if you had said that you and your wife hated Stones in His Pockets. 

What’s so shocking about the discussion provoked by your column is that the column itself was not particularly cruel

Your remarks, and the subsequent discussion, has shone a very bright spotlight on a very big problem in the MELT community: namely, its continual fear of self-examination. As I’m sure you know, our community has routinely applauded each another simply for the fact that we exist (and, presumably, for not having moved to Toronto). Part of this never-ending ovation is the fault of our critics, many of whom write “reviews” which are little more then plot summaries coupled with a brief description of the set. But the other problem is the artists themselves. We are not hard enough on each other or ourselves. Simply put, we have made a sport out of championing mediocrity. 

What’s so shocking about the discussion provoked by your column is that the column itself was not particularly cruel (or insightful, although I suspect the insight is to come). All you said was that Humans had filled you with “hate and rage” as it represented the very sort of theatre you deplore. You then went on to list the things about the show you disapproved of, none of which were racist, sexist, homophobic or in any other way controversial. For this you were mocked! For this, your position as president of the Board of Directors of QDF was called into question! 

As Anglophone artists in a Francophone province, we are proud of our independent, entrepreneurial spirit and celebrate all those who share it...

I would suggest that the anger directed at you was not because of your remarks but rather because you inadvertently attacked our community’s long-held belief that we have never produced a bad show. As Anglophone artists in a Francophone province, we are proud of our independent, entrepreneurial spirit and celebrate all those who share it, heaping laurels on every independent English language show without once entertaining the question as to whether it has any worth. 

Of course, such a debate will never bring a definitive answer. But in daring to ask the question, we force our artists to defend their ideals and ourselves to defend our own. 
MELT artists have come to embrace their tight-knit community, looking to each other for the support we cannot seem to find in grant agencies, the media or audiences themselves. Because of this, we may feel hesitant to criticize. But the very fact that our closest friend is also the artist next door is what should allows us the freedom to challenge his or her work. 

Oh and you still owe me twenty bucks. 


[Ed: For the record, the critic CharPo dispatched to Humans liked it.]


  1. wow, I couldn't agree more but you may be stepping on dangerous ground. Are you suggesting that the MELT are, to some extent, living in suspended disbelief that they are part of a "real" theatre community at all? I go out and a see a lot of shows, and generally the quality is pretty mediocre. I see the same people week after week and really feel that to a large extent, MELT is more of a social club than a theatre community. In that kind of framework I think there's a lot less room for criticism, it's like dissing the tomatoes someone grows at your community garden when knowing full well they only go there to chat. It's not quite that dire, and it doesn't mean people should just stay home or go to the pub - it's good to be creative, but there's a reason serious theatre people move to Toronto.

  2. I am part of a discussion that was started on facebook referring to Patrick's article. Lots of interesting discussion there which will lead to...who knows. This is what I wrote in that conversation. It is, I think, related a bit to this. If not then feel free to move on and ignore.

    I think that this debate or conversation or whatever this is and, to a degree, the one on the charlebois post is not going to come up with an answer but rather is an interesting way of us talking about what it is that we do.
    Should we hold people accountable for creating shitty theatre? Yes is the only answer I can come up with. If a company or an individual creates theatre that is shit over and over again but everyone around them congratulates them and makes them feel as though they are doing good stuff then what the hell are they going to do but keep making shit?
    Theatre is, I think, hard to do, hard to create. Sometimes it’s easy but if it is then I have to question how hard everyone was trying. My issue is that I can’t help but feel that people don’t aim high enough. If one is trying to create something “satisfactory” or “fun” or even “good” then that is the best you can get- that is the very highest level you can attain. BUT chances are, because we rarely achieve the level we aim for, that was happens is we end up with either shit, boring mundane crap, an ok night out, or something that makes you question why the theatre exists anymore.
    Whereas if you aim for excellence, for fucking amazing, to create something that scares the shit out of you because you have no idea how you are going to do it, in other words to challenge yourself then and only then do you have the chance to create something that is really fucking good.
    How many times have you left the theatre blown away, shaking, crying, laughing hysterically? I can probably count on one hand how many times that has happened. Why? BECAUSE THAT IS REALLY FUCKING HARD TO DO. But does that mean we shouldn’t aim for it? Not every play has the seed in it that can make the above feelings happen. But we can try can’t we? Shouldn’t we? Because if somebody tries for that, tries to blow my mind completely, tries to make my eyes shake with visual astonishment, tries to make me feel something I have never felt…and if they fail? Then bless them and they should then be congratulated on the effort for that. And then, then I think we do absolutely learn something. Do I, though, learn from an attempt at mediocrity? Well, I suppose I learn not to do that, I learn to try harder than last time, I learn to question myself and the people around me. I guess that’s what I learn. But other people? People not in the theatre- the people we create theatre for- the patrons? What do they learn? To never come back because the theatre is no better than television or the internet or…

  3. I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the critics in Montreal merely writing plot summaries. That said I think the issue with Patrick's article is thus far it appear for the next ten weeks he will be outlining his personal dislikes. Which is irrelevant. I love cheese my roommate doesn't. See that's just not very exciting. I do hope that as he continues on for 10 weeks he has more to say than I don't like these things, but I am doubtful. To the person above who says more serious theatre people move to Toronto, reading your comments is beyond insulting. I'm not the least bit surprised you are too embarrassed to put your own name on them. I'm a serious theatre artist. I continue to work in this town because I truly believe we have an opportunity right now to take more risks and improve the quality of English work.

  4. I read a lot of Mtl theatre criticism and don't feel they are all just plot summaries. I love it when people comment on a review and take a different opinion. Indifference is far more serious than good or bad reviews. Seems to me there are move viewpoints and ever on Montreal theatre. Rover is just one among many. Marianne Ackerman

  5. Thanks, Joel. Took the words right out of my mouth. Mediocrity rules. And it's not only because people do a half-assed job of rehearsing and learning their parts (not to mention knowing their *fucking* lines (!!!)), it's also because directors (some of them) don't know a thing about directing! Ask them what their vision is of the play they're directing, what the underlying statement is, or how they are going to change the statement, and you'll be lucky if you get any sort of reflection, assessment, or faint articulation of the whole point of the theatre in an image-based age and raison d'être of the production in light of this.


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