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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Theatre for Thought, February 7, 2011

CharPo is adding a new column to our op-ed Tuesdays. With the publisher's After Dark column, every week you will also be able to read writer/actor/director Joel Fishbane's opinions on Montreal English-language theater (MELT): Theatre For Thought. Feel free to join the conversations in the comments section below each piece.

On Genres and Critics
by Joel Fishbane

There were three significant openings in the MELT scene this week. Tableau D’Hote's Internet-based fundraising campaign peeked our interest for Humans; indie wunderkind Andrew Shaver has gone mainstream with Stones in His Pockets; and Geordie Theatre has helped Clowns Gone Bad resurrect MöcShplat, their giddy adaptation of a certain cursed Shakespearian play. All three are worthy additions to the theatre season. Yet, once again, the Montreal Gazette has shown their usual display of bias and assigned Pat Donnelly to the adult theatre (Stones and Humans) while giving Geordie to Kathryn Greenaway.

...if I was Dean Flemming I’d be asking the Gazette why their editors don’t deem his productions important enough to warrant the attention of their first-string critic...
For those of you not paying attention, Donnelly is the paper’s first-string theatre critic and for years the division of labor between her and Greenaway has been entirely genre-based: Donnelly reviews the shows that resonate with sturm und drang while Greenaway is assigned to anything that smacks of TYA. Its completely possible the two women like it this way but the result of this great divide is the implication that the adult-orientated theatre is of more worth.
No one at Geordie Theatre needs to be told how to do their job – Möcshplat is proof that they know exactly what they’re doing – but if I was Geordie Artistic Director Dean Flemming I’d be asking the Gazette why their editors don’t deem his productions important enough to warrant the attention of their first-string critic. Youth-orientated theatre is as valid a theatrical form as anything else. It deserves the same type of serious notice. To consistently pass it off to the second-string critic, as the Gazette has repeatedly done, is to implicitly favour one genre over the other.
The editors at the Gazette aren't the only people suffering from genre-bias. Any comedian can tell you it’s a continuing problem in the arts: our clowns are never taken seriously, whether they’ve gone bad or not. Years ago, the National Theatre School’s playwriting program refused to accept musicals from applicants while both the Tony Awards and the Golden Globes continue to divide their Best of the Year award according to genre (“Best Musical”, “Best Play” etc.)
It is shameful that artists who strive to create youth-orientated material are either ignored or segregated by the media.
MöcShplat (photo: Julian Haber)
At this year’s Academy Awards, however, Toy Story 3 has been nominated for Best Picture, proving that an animated film can warrant the notice of our culture’s highest critics. By implication, this means the film can hold its own against more dramatic works like The King’s Speech. This is a step in the right direction. No genre is of greater value then the next. The only consideration for both critics and audiences alike is their own personal enjoyment and how well the art succeeds in being what its creators wanted it to be.
It is shameful that artists who strive to create youth-orientated material are either ignored or segregated by the media. They are usually relegated to their own corner of the room where they collect their own awards and stay out of the spotlight reserved for their adult-themed counterparts. This is ironic as it is the youth-orientated material which often stands the test of time – we all remember Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but does anyone remember which book won the Pulitzer Prize the same year? (For the record, it was Stephen Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, but I needed the Internet to check). 
The editors of the Gazette should take note that the artists behind Möcshplat (and all of Geordie Theatre) work just as hard as those behind Humans or Stones in His Pockets. No one would expect Pat Donnelly to be in several theatres at once. But Stones in His Pockets  runs until the end of the month, while MöcShplat ends on the 13th. If we wish to truly celebrate the culture our city produces, the Gazette should get their priorities straight.


  1. or at the very least they should have several critics who can cover all theatre so that during busier times nobody gets forgotten.

    humans will not be receiving a print-review given that pat is out of town and neil already had a cover story on the 5th to work on. i would never expect pat to not take a vacation, or neil to be at 20 places at once, but it would be nice for the gazette or the mirror to have a backup plan so that they do not stretch their theatre columnist thin.

    oh well.

  2. MocShplat was reviewed quite favorably by The Gazette. My question is, who determines that Pat Donnelly is the superior or "first string" critic? Aren't you just handing her a sharper knife?

  3. I'd be hard pressed to give Gazette writers on the theatre beat the title of "Critic" rather than "Reporter."
    Donnelly certainly does her research. She gets plot points, characters and actor's names, times and dates of performance correct (Contrary to some former Gazette theatre writers who aren't mentioned in this article) but is more likely to write about how bad weather put her off her mood to see a show than offer any legitimate critique. The only thing I have ever gleaned from one of her "reviews" is that a play occurred.

  4. I think the point of the article is that one genre is taken more seriously than the other and Joel is right about that. The quality of work should not be pigeonholed by genre or style but taken as QUALITY period.

    I do however agree that there should be more coverage by more writers (critics) and perhaps we should not decide that one is more "first-string" than the other because aren't we doing the same thing by saying that Pat is a more "first-string" critic than Kathryn? Just a thought.

    More coverage. That's what's important and more writers doing it. And less placing labels on everyone and everything.


  5. There is defintely a hierarchy among the daily's critics and Kathryn, as fine a writer as she is, is also dance critic, I believe, leaving one "senior" theatre critic who is not covering YPT. That's a fact. Also fact: the daily not only doesn't cover MELT enough but simply does not have the space alotted for it and with canwest bleeding it dry, never will. However...there are arts blogs at the daily's web site and they should be discussing more than Justin Bieber at Stratford and Plummer's opening. Humans? maybe?

  6. one more we need more Cirque news?

  7. I was just going to read this, have a whole lot of thoughts go through my head and then move on but instead I will just write some thoughts out.
    Joel, before commenting generally about the idea of Theatre for Young Audiences getting treated like a second class citizen I will quickly talk about Kathryn being our critic and the gaz.
    I have been at Geordie for almost 5 years now and I consider my relationship with Kathryn one of great importance. She has seen every show we have done since I have been here, she has (because she decided to) made an effort to understand the company and see it as a living entity and so comments on our plays from an informed place. She asks me good questions. When we do an interview it is interesting. She knows that Geordie is part of a landscape within Montreal, within Canada and hopefully in the future within the international community.
    In my first month at Geordie we opened a show that I had nothing to do with. I went to opening night and thought that the show was not ready (no fault at all to the artists- it was just that the piece was not given enough time). The review (written by Kathryn) came out and it was lukewarm. I agreed with it even though I knew it would mean less bums in seats. I went back and saw the show a few days into the run and it was much better. I wrote Kathryn. I first told her that I agreed with what she had written and thanked her for being fair. Then I proceeded to tell her why I thought that the play was not ready on opening night- I talked about time, the creation process, the English system, and our company. I also promised that this would be the last play that would be created in three weeks at Geordie. The next time Kathryn and I spoke it was for about two hours.
    I have no desire for our critic to change because I believe that she believes in the theatre, that she believes in allowing herself to be amazed, that she believes she is a part of the theatre landscape. So for all these reasons I would never call Kathryn the 2nd string critic.
    Now, onto bigger questions that arise from what you and others have written.
    Have you ever seen a review of a TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) play in the Hour or Mirror? Not our shows. How come?

    The Gazette refused to put the review of MocShplat into the Saturday Gazette even though it was ready and online by late Friday night. Why? A request from our critic even went in to the editors a week beforehand asking to save the space for the review- it was turned down. So we did not get a review in time for it to help sales on the first of two weekends. My question there would be why? Can the Gazette not handle two theatre reviews on the same day? Gaetan, I gotta agree with the “Justin Bieber at Stratford and Plummer's opening” comment.

    To be continued as the blog won't let me post such a long response- apologies.

  8. continued...

    Geordie is the third largest theatre company in Montreal (English) behind Centaur and Segal. I believe we boast higher audience numbers than any company- last year over 100 000. So I get miffed (and I did write a friendly note to Pat who responded) when there is very rarely a mention of Geordie when general Montreal theatre stories are written. Again, to the weeklies we are not even doing theatre it seems, so that’s even worse.

    I was going to ask about the MECCAS but I rode that horse on facebook a while back and too many people thought I was actually hurt about not winning an award so I won’t go there.

    Two years ago I changed the description of what we do to theatre for ALL audiences. I felt it better described the work we have been trying to create and also described who was coming. I won’t lie when I say that I also did it to gain a little bit of respect from the media and the public. It does get tiring being put in the same pot as Sharon Lois and Brahm or whatever. When I came to Geordie I gathered the staff and said that we would be focusing our energy on one thing and that was to create excellent theatre- period. We would be working with the best artists around, would never be afraid to put what we imagine on stage, and we would challenge ourselves constantly. I was able to say this because our main audience was (is) made up of the most imaginative people on the earth. They were (are) also made up of people who will not accept crap and as soon as you lie to them they’ll just start talking to whoever is beside them or, even better, talking back to the people on stage.

    I am very proud of the theatre we create. Almost 5 years after I told the staff that what we aim for is excellence on stage we still do the same. But all that said, for some reason Theatre for Young Audiences is dismissed by some people. It’s closed minded, it’s an American (North American?) way of thinking but what can we do?
    The thing I take to heart all the time is that I have never asked an artist to come and work with Geordie and not received an enthusiastic response.

    Thanks for writing the article Joel


  9. Thanks for the long, thoughtful comment, Dean. The Mirror and Hour have very specific demographics and, bluntly, they don't reach the same audience at TYP. Also the weeklies have a problem of space, time and, bluntly again, money. A critic there gets paid so miserably they pretty much cover one show a week. however, the problem is different at the Gaz. I was paid per review and so pitched lots of plays and when I took over the beat while Matt was sick, I worked a lot. But it always boiled down to space. The battles for space in the Saturday paper were huge because any sane writer wants to be read by the most people. Simply, tho, theatre coverage was not high on any editor's lost of priorities. I did better with my TV column, in terms of getting printed. But you only have to look at the paper and you can see the space problem has gotten even worse. Without a doubt, Canwest is the worst fucking organization you can imagine. Not as Paquet's Voir inc., but for a national entity pretty fucking bad. theatres need a pressure group...with teeth. I've saying it for three decades.


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