Criticism on the Critical List: Just a Canadian Issue?

Robin Breon* and Don Rubin**

The face of arts journalism is changing again―and not for the better ―at least in Canada. Is it changing in other countries as well?

In the last two to three years, major theatres and major festivals across the country have begun to cut back on the number of review tickets being offered to all but high circulation newspapers, broadcasting outlets and even websites that don’t receive a large enough number of “hits.” The situation ― a bean-counter’s delight ―has impacted numerous long-time reviewers and theatre writers in Canada.

In place of these many small, diverse but independent commentators has emerged a troubling phenomenon ―paid advertising content in the form of backgrounders and feature pieces which occasionally even  mimic actual reviews supplied by major theatres themselves.

The elimination of media seats for smaller publications and digital platforms that don’t somehow meet a particular theatre’s (usually unstated) numerical minimums has begun to impact not only theatre criticism in Canada ―an art form that has always thrived on casting a wide net― but is also negatively impacting what might be called ‘diversity of voice’ and even career opportunities for younger voices. A loss? Yes, a palpable loss. But is Canada alone in this regard?

Is the theatre world now moving to the point where some of our most prestigious publicly-subsidized theatres are unilaterally deciding through unnecessarily tight media policies to replace critical response by all but pre-approved digital outlets and major media?

To put it another way, is ‘sponsored content’ with its disclaimers at the top of articles the way of the future for theatres with large advertising budgets, theatres that can afford to buy their own critical spaces in major publications, materials produced in-house by their own communications and media people or by paid freelancers? Is this the future of what was once independent arts journalism and theatre criticism?

In response to this emerging environment, one established Canadian arts journalist who actually works for a major daily, the Globe and Mail, a national newspaper, wrote about her own recent problems gaining media access to this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. In her piece ―carried nationally in the Globe and Mail―Marsha Lederman wrote: “A funny thing happened on the way to the [Fringe] this year: I wasn’t able to get media accreditation.” 

The reason given by the Festival’s communications and marketing representative was that it was unclear as to whether or not a piece by Lederman would actually appear during the 10-day festival. As a regular arts writer, Lederman pointed out that despite the paper’s limited arts coverage, she still tries to see as many shows as she can “in order to find break-out talent, see work that might fit into future stories and inform my general view of the Fringe.”

The arrangement she had made with her editor was that if she was really blown away by any of the shows ―in this case a play called The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Roz and Jules ―she would do a review. If not impressed, no review would appear. Not a bad deal for an untested show. But the Vancouver Fringe refused to make available complimentary seats media tickets to her.

Canada’s Stratford Festival Theatre, founded in 1953. Website: stratfordfestival.ca. Photo: Wikipedia

“I did consider just buying my own tickets,” said Lederman in the piece she wrote, “which I know are a bargain and almost always well worth it. But it’s a slippery slope. As fun as it is, this is my job, and I’m already doing this work off the side of my desk―at night, often, maybe paying for a baby sitter. And like pretty much everyone else I know, I cannot afford to pay to do my job.”

Here we believe, if anything, Lederman understates her case. For years, freelance arts journalists have gone out-of-pocket for sundry items such as gas, meals and, in some cases, accommodation when travel is involved to out-of-town venues.

But the Vancouver Fringe isn’t the only subsidized theatrical organization in Canada now into professional bean-counting. At least two years ago, both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals―among the largest theatres in Canada ―decided, at about the same time, to drastically reduce the number of media tickets that would be made available to working arts writers. Many of the writers suddenly cut off had long publishing histories that clearly placed the work of both festivals in front of the general public. At least one such deleted writer still has books about the festival prominently displayed on the shelves of its gift shops. Talk about short-term thinking!

In an effort to understand the rationale for these emerging restrictive policies toward theatre writers, the authors of this article proposed a sit-down interview with the two key artistic directors, Antoni Cimolino at Stratford and Tim Carroll at Shaw. As two long-time arts commentators in Canada, we felt a special obligation to raise this issue on behalf of our colleagues who are affected by this extremely parochial policy. We even offered to allow them  to review and comment on the article before it went to press, something we would never do if we were writing a straightforward review of a production. 

We even submitted our core questions in advance. We were especially eager to understand how these artistic directors, who have had their productions reviewed by the media for years, view what must seem to them like an armada of web-journalists now setting sail within social media and landing on their shores.

Is this a demographic that is threatening to them as artists? Did they have thoughts on how theatre writers and commentators today should be interacting with large institutions ? Did they see a difference between how critics interact with the companies they lead in North America and similar sized institutions in other parts of the world, especially in the UK and the US?

Critical Stages, a web-based international journal — one created for theatre critics about theatre criticism — seemed like the perfect place to begin this discussion. And we wish that we could tell you this interview proceeded in a cordial, straightforward and candid fashion and that we are now ready to share the results of our labor with you. Alas, this is not the case. 

The fact is, both of these distinguished directors declined to respond to us directly and referred our request to their respective in-house media and communications people who maintained that they ―the reps ― were more interested in a discussion of meta-data, analytics and circulation numbers than issues of what we felt were of actual critical substance. They added that discussions about media issues did not fit within their artistic directors’ mandates.

Apparently, the valuable and many times unheralded work that theatre publicists used to do everyday has now been turned heavily toward bottom-line bean counting. We thought about their responses and then offered to meet with them all―the  artistic directors and the PR people―together. Even that was declined by both Stratford and Shaw.  Knowing when discretion is the greater part of valor we agreed to disagree and politely withdrew our invitations for any interview.

Interestingly, one of the grand old voices of contemporary anglophone criticism, Eric Bentley (now over a hundred years of age), even before such terms were popular, recognized the dangers of commodifying culture this way and turning it into what is essentially an economic issue. In his classic volume What is Theatre? (published in 1968) Bentley observed that the values of capitalism were becoming increasingly entrenched in the arts and cultural life more generally. Bentley wrote, “in business these days…it has been discovered that the quality of the product is less important than the quality of the salesmanship; we don’t sell products anymore, we sell a customer “on” a product” (Bentley, p. 274).

There were also other troubling economic trends at the two Canadian Festivals. This past season, Shaw was charging a Hamilton-like top ticket price of $270 a shot for its production of Man and Superman (including the Don Juan in Hell scene). More “accessible” seats to the production came in at $180 a pop. Meanwhile, over at Stratford, they were charging an equally uncomfortable $140 (top price) for a ticket for shows in its Studio Theatre ― the company’s so-called experimental stage. 

Shaw Festival. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. Founded: 1962. Website: www.shawfest.com

Commercial theatres can of course, charge what they want and do what they want vis-a-vis media but these two festival theatres are significantly subsidized by taxpayer money so their policies deserve special evaluation. Indeed, the Stratford Festival receives annual operating grants from Canadian arts councils of some $3 million, not so significant in percentage terms to each festival’s overall budget but still a significant chunk of the national arts theatre subsidies. And each theatre clings tightly to its non-profit tax status and receives additional funding for bricks and mortar projects like Stratford’s new Tom Patterson Theatre opening next season in a $66 million theatre on the banks of Ontario’s Avon River.

So given all this and given these skyrocketing prices, is the audience, narrowing at these theatres? Is this the reason for cutting back on media seats? Does a saving of less than one percent on potential media seating across a six month season really matter to the bottom line? And given that neither theatre sells out every performance, what are they actually doing with their empty seats?

The fact is, neither theatre has a pay-what-you-can policy in operation. Such seats seem to remain empty. While doing our own bean-counting for this article, we noted that one performance of Stratford’s The Crucible had over 370 seats available just two hours before the performance. Hopefully they had a great walk-up crowd that night.

As we see it, a savvy communications, media and marketing office would have wanted to see, for argument’s sake, at least fifty to a hundred of those empty seats filled with freelancers and web-based media types, as well as members of Canada’s professional theatre community not living in those communities, who might be curious to see the production. Even if only a-third of these people loved the show, a-third of them hated it and a-third were left neutral in their opinion, the amount of buzz created would surely go far far beyond the sound of no hands clapping.

Full disclosure here: although we two writers accept media tickets when they are offered, we have also occasionally purchased our own tickets for Stratford and Shaw. And, given ticket prices even with occasional discounts, we are actually seeing fewer and fewer productions at these theatres and are therefore commenting less and less on what they do. That is to say, our own theatrical conversation is decreasing and these major companies don’t seem very interested in starting it up again.

And so, without being rhetorical, we ask the question in all sincerity once again: are we witnessing a paradigm shift vis-à-vis critical commentary among highly-funded theatres? Is it happening elsewhere?

If it is happening now in Canada, is your country next?

Can this particular paradigm be changed?

Should it be changed? 



 

*Robin Breon is an arts journalist based in Toronto and author of the blog, Aisle Say.ca. 


 

**Don Rubin is Managing Editor of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques. He is the General Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and founding Editor of Canada’s national theatre quarterly Canadian Theatre Review. He is Professor Emeritus of Theatre at York University in Toronto and Founding Director and Former Chair of both York’s Department of Theatre and its MA/PhD Program in Theatre and Performance Studies. His volume Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings is a standard volume on the subject. He is a vice-president and trustee of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship.

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