Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Amateurs, Armchair critics and Fringing in beautiful Victoria

I've been on the road for 6 weeks now. Edmonton which was frenetic and fantastic is well behind me and I am coming into week two at the VICTORIA FRINGE. It's my first time in this city and at this festival.

My darling eldest niece lives in this part of the world as does one of my oldest friends, the fine visual artist Maery Callaghan. Victoria is beautiful, I have a great tech,an idyllic billet and the weather is fine.

What's hard here: houses for the most part are small and the level of discourse online about the work at the festival is mostly painful.

There are 72 shows on here this week. I have yet to see a performance or flier a line-up that had more than 70 people in it. I hear there are people selling out and I hope it's true. It's nearly $600 to be in the festival. If you add the cost of flights or gas,food,posters,fliers,costumes and figure out what a performer makes when they play to 20 people a night you can easily see why some really talented people come here once and don't come back. It's the math - or rather just straight addition and subtraction.

As to the fifth estate: the reviewers in the Times-Colonist,the main paper are thoughtful and well-informed but there's only so many shows two people can write up in 10 days. Unlike Winnipeg the CBC doesn't seem to be giving the festival much coverage.

I arrived here off really good press in Edmonton from some tough pro critics in the dailies. I think Edmonton and Toronto have the toughest and some of the best theatre journalists in the country. I fear them and I often disagree with them, but I at least have respect for most of them.

I've been praised and slagged across the country for years now. I'll take a beat-down when I deserve it and try make the work better.

A problem in many smaller markets is that except for the dailies and hopefully the weekly arts journal reviewers, shows are being reviewed, in the main, by audience members and amateur critics online. These people mostly aren't paid and they mostly aren't pros.

You can have 6 months hard work dismissed in three lines by someone who reviews as a hobby, informally for nothing with no real background in your artistic discipline or any related education.

What this usually means is our audiences read critiques devoid of any real discourse about plot,character or structure: no consciousness of direction,rarely if ever any talk about design,pacing or heaven forbid,a discussion of the play in a historical or literary context.
"I liked or I didn't like the character" isn't a review. It's an opinion with no context. You aren't supposed to like Iago.

Plays are literature, word made flesh. I am all for online reviews. I would just really like to raise the standard of the writing about theatre online. Comments by audience members are NOT reviews, they are remarks. Good and bad, they need to be read the same way you'd take chat in a bar.

As a producer friend of mine pointed out in a recent conversation, when theatre is discussed as "entertainment" by random bloggers, restaurant,rock music and movie reviewers and other people who are really don't have an informed or qualified opinion, it cheapens and diminishes the whole process. Trust me, I'm not writing about hockey or opera here for a reason. I don't know enough about either to make informed commentary.

I did get well-written reviews from real journalists in Edmonton in the Sun and the Journal and I was grateful that someone thought hard about my work, because God knows I thought hard when I wrote it. Not all my fellow artists were so lucky. One friend of mine had his brilliant, dense cowboy musical full of references to Greek tragedy reviewed by the Journal rock critic who couldn't see the allegorical aspects of the fine script because she clearly lacked the literary education to be able to discuss the text in an informed fashion.

Yes there are amateur actors and neophyte playwrights out here. They only harm themselves when they are shoddy. Bad amateur critics harm everybody. They keep audiences away from good shows and damage the reputations of artists who deserve better writing and informed and lucid discourse, not tossed off opinion about their work.

Some shows I have seen and liked currently playing here:

JEM ROLLS IS PISSED OFF - because Jem can write,he's intelligent ,lucid,passionate and he is a great performance poet.

GRIM AND FISHER - you are unlikely to see a better physical theatre performance or a more moving and affecting show this year anywhere.

HOUDINI'S LAST ESCAPE: because Monster Theatre has tackled a great piece of theatre history with warmth and style and Bange and Travis bring seasoned performances and great stage chemistry to this artful creation, ably directed by Ryan Gladstone.

THE DONNELLY SIDESHOW: Jeff Culbert acts, he sings, he writes, he illuminates a dark corner of Canadian history in a lyrical and understated fashion and Jason MacDonald who directed is a very talented theatre creator.

LIMBO: Andrew Bailey is a brilliant writer and this is one of the most moving pleas for compassion for an outsider and one of the most beautifully written plays I've seen this year.

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTHINESS: Well written look at the dark side and the benefits of fandom.

THE SPARROW AND THE MOUSE is charming and Melanie Gall is a fine singer. I am going to see BREMNER DULTHIE do KABARETT 33 because you couldn't get a ticket in Winnipeg and I loved his Weimar cabaret in Edmonton. PHONE WHORE will take you for a walk on a sexual wild side with a searing set of stories you won't soon forget. THE HYSTERIC is a charming and clever parody of Victorian melodrama, stylishly performed and written. THE SEMINAR from Edmonton is a scalpel sharp critique of the "beauty" industry performed by a fine crew of young actor-writers from Edmonton. Miss Rosie Bitts is a burlesque artist who makes every reveal a lovely tableau. I have seen all of these performers and I can assure you they are well worth $11.00.

I'm planning to check out BURNING BROTHELS and anything else I can squeeze in on the days I'm dark.

Many of these artists have also had good press in the mainstream media.

What the hell do I know? I've been in this business since I was 3 1/2,I have a degree in theatre,I'm an award-winning writer,I see over 50 shows a year and for the most part,writing, acting and teaching people to write is how I make my living. I've been involved with the Fringe as a writer, producer and a performer since 1999.

By the way most venues have hard seating. Bring a pillow. If you were after a numb brain and a comfy duff you'd be home on the couch in front of the telly, wouldn't you?