Bugged (Critics, Criticism and Critical Categories)

Don Rubin*

Two decades ago, the German scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann theorized what he called “Post-dramatic Theatre,” and today the term describing what is essentially non-text-based theatre is ubiquitous. But what about something that he mentioned only in passing: “Pre-dramatic Theatre”? Has anyone really theorized that notion?

In Toronto, during the distant past—February and March 2020, a time just before the theatre world began collapsing because of the COVID 19 pandemic—this issue blew up on the theatre pages of the city’s major newspapers. The resulting conversation even reached Europe, when the distinguished Guardian newspaper in the U.K. decided to add in its own tuppence. All this for an issue of critical theory.

It all started innocently enough back in the summer of 2018, when a highly-funded arts festival in Toronto called Luminato—an interdisciplinary festival with an avant-garde bias—funded a short run of something called bug (yup, all lower-case). Written by a First Nations woman named Yolanda Bonnell, bug was noticed by many in the theatre community and later won a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination for “outstanding new play.” It did not win the Dora, but the nomination was certainly enough to attract the attention of many, including Asian-Canadian Marjorie Chan, a director, actor, writer, librettist and recently-named Artistic Director of one of the city’s major alternative companies, the venerable Theatre Passe Muraille.

Chan apparently had no problem with the fact that Bonnell was not calling bug a play but rather an “artistic ceremony.” Now nothing wrong with ceremonies and rituals, of course, which clearly link back to the very roots of theatre, theatre’s pre-dramatic elements.

Playwright, poet and actress Yolanda Bonnell. Photo: from her webpage. Accessed May 4, 2020

Scholars of such things tell us that most such ceremonies take place in the hope of making something positive happen in the future—good crops, rain, a successful hunt. It is only when elements of those ceremonies and rituals begin to move from future to past, from before an event has taken place to after, from a hope to a recounting of things that have already taken place, that we begin to see the essential distinction between ceremony and drama, religious ritual and theatrical art.

This is a simplistic description to be sure of a complicated subject, but there is enough basic truth to the proposition that one really can see the historical link between what we can call pre-drama, drama and Lehmann’s notion of the post-dramatic.

The issue that emerged in Toronto for theatre reviewers, however, was not theoretical but practical: should they be reviewing rituals and ceremonies at all? Theatrical these things may be but so too are many sacred ceremonies. Bonnell and Chan set off the controversy when they decided NOT to invite in the usual range of first night and first week critics but, rather, only writers and reviewers who came from what they felt were communities that would understand her work on the ceremonial level. That is, only reviewers who were indigenous, black and/or of colour. Only they would be offered press seats for the opening. “Settler” reviewers (read white or, as one First Nations writer called them tongue-in-cheek, people of “pallor”), while not excluded per se, would have to buy tickets if they wanted to attend.

The question of coverage extended widely in discussions. Some took it to hyperbolic extremes: should only people of colour be invited to write about plays by writers of colour? Should only whites be invited to write about plays by whites? Should only women be invited to write about plays by women? Men to plays by men? Muslims to plays by Muslims? Christians to plays by Christians? Jews to plays by Jews? How about only young people to plays about the young; old to plays about age? You get the idea. This tendency to be constantly filtering their points of view through the lens of identity politics can put you in the weeds pretty quickly.

The two white critics for Toronto’s largest circulation print papers—the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star—were chuffed enough to air their feelings. The Globe critic, Kelly Nestruck, called it “a basic principle of mainstream cultural journalism that artists should not pick which critics review them. But,” he asked, “should artists be allowed to choose which colour of critic reviews them?”

Karen Fricker, writing in the Star, said that the policy “certainly runs against the dominant conventions of cultural criticism.”

Bonnell argued that “there is a specific lens that white settlers view cultural work through and, at this time, we’re just not interested in bolstering that view.” She added that what she wanted to see “was the thoughts and views of fellow marginalized voices and, in particular, Indigenous women.”

In an extended interview in the Globe with Nestruck, she explained where her concern stemmed from. “There was a very problematic review for Luminato’s version of bug.” She noted also that it was not the first time she had been reviewed with “problematic, culturally specific comments”; comments insultingly suggesting that her work stay on “the reservation.”

Nestruck offered a mea culpa to her saying that he could not “deny that my ‘white settler lens’ shapes how I experience theatre. . . . And, of course, that lens can also distort.”

Passe Muraille’s director Marjorie Chan said that she had told Nestruck he could attend. He just had to buy a ticket. He was simply not being invited. “Nobody’s banned. . . . There aren’t headshots of critics at the box office,” she added.

In the ongoing debate that followed, one “white” on-line reviewer announced that she will no longer be reviewing Passe Muraille’s shows. No doubt the theatre was crushed.

A few days later, Nestruck—who regularly shares with his readers how politically correct his views on everything are—took still another shot at the subject. He interviewed a First Nations professor of Indigenous performance at the University of Toronto, Karyn Recollet, who was presumably asked by him to see the show so they could compare mythologies.

He began the collaboratively written back-and-forth discussion piece (sharing a byline, in fact, for what was an unusual  hybrid staff-freelance feature) – by describing the story of bug as he saw it for his readers. His description was clear and linear. Recollet saw it differently.

She said she felt on entering the performance space that she had become some kind of “witness,” a “participant” in something. For her, the event itself “encompassed painful stories and transformations” as “a generative Indigenous harm-reductive process. . . . as though the stories themselves were strands of a web. . . . We were reminded that in the middle of colonial, racialized and gendered violence, we must become bugs to negotiate our terrain. . . . to carry the weight of generations of stolen children and difficult lives.”

She continued: “Bonnell . . . prefaced the evening with a song that presenced water . . . and had the Indigenous women in the audience stand up so we could acknowledge their presence. . . . Bonnell’s bug created an ethical space that illuminated our responsibility to make sure that the conduits—the artists, world builders and indigenous futurists—are safe and free to activate land/kin relationships . . . as a decolonial practice.”

Nestruck concluded the conversation by asking Recollet if she could offer a “star” rating of the piece for readers, something done regularly with films and plays by the Globe. Her response avoided the consumerist issues of stars entirely: for her, bug was “a full-on constellation.”

About ten days later, the controversy washed up onto the shores of Britain. Somehow, The Guardian had heard about it, and on February 21 the paper asked several of its own cultural critics how they would respond to the issue if bug were to open in London.

In the published story, Bonnell was given the first word and repeated that she had been the subject of racialized reviews in the past. In describing the Toronto situation, she noted that the critics were mostly white and male. Because of that, she said “they come at indigenous art with a different lens—that often comes back to ‘If I don’t understand it, that means it’s not good or it’s not a valid form of theatre.’ . . . I don’t mind being critiqued. But at least let it come from a place of knowledge, of understanding what you’re talking about.”

Guardian critic Lanre Bakare pointed out that “skin colour is no guarantee that a critic will or won’t be good.” Referencing one of his own favourite critics, Ian Penman, Bakare noted that Penman was “a white man who writes about Prince. He’s amazing because he brings 50 years of fandom to the craft.”

Guardian film editor Catherine Shoard said that “quality” should be the benchmark for a review whoever writes it. “For me, the idea that you’re not allowed to say whether you think something is good or not on the basis of your gender, or any other demographic, it’s just crazy. . . . You’re just perpetuating prejudice if you are not going to let people experience other cultures. . . . It’s not like everyone who is in a particular profession who doesn’t look exactly like you is some sort of privileged enemy.”

Arifa Akbar, now the Guardian’s chief theatre critic (she replaced the now retired Michael Billington), pointed out that, in her own experience, she found that often “white reviewers seem reluctant to engage with the quality of a play by an artist of colour.” That said, she also saw Bonnell’s position as “almost like an inverted form of racism.” She added, “people should always be free to write outside their identity, walk around and imagine themselves in other shoes. Indeed, playwrights normally have to imagine experiences outside their own, and we trust and critique them on their ability to do so effectively. I feel like we should abide by that rule for everybody.”

Akbar noted that she was “a south Asian born in Britain. Am I going to be attuned to Indigenous experience in a theatre in Canada? . . . You do wonder who will be left to do the review. Just by making this request, she [Bonnell] is showing how little diversity there is in theatre reviewing.”

Following the publication of the Guardian article, I reached out to Robin Breon for his specific opinion on the controversy. Breon, a senior arts journalist in Toronto and long-time member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, has written regularly over the years on equity issues as they affect the arts in relation to race, cultural pluralism and diversity.

“I think what Yolanda Bonnell and Marjorie Chan did at Passe Muraille,” he said, “was very interesting with regard to opening night invitations. In a very conscious and public way, they sought out writers who have been historically unprivileged and gave them privilege with regard to their own thoughts and reflections for this one particular show on the occasion of its Toronto opening.

“I didn’t find their actions and motivations at all outside the mainstream of discussion and debate around cultural diversity being carried on at many levels across the country. It’s now clear though that some of my colleagues found this role reversal (which is how I think of it) as somewhat objectionable.

“With regard to the follow-up article that appeared in The Guardian,” Breon added, “I found it rather odd to have three distinguished British critics from different disciplines all chiming in with their take. While the article was interesting, I do think it was piling on. The fact that our local Toronto discussions were attracting this kind of attention in the U.K. while no other U.K. mainstream print outlet even appeared to notice it did seem a bit strange.”

Two weeks later, still another voice entered the scene: that of Drew Hayden Taylor, a much respected and widely-produced playwright, who just also happens to be a First Nations person himself. Writing in the Globe, he said, “Many times I have been approached by Artistic Directors curious about how I told a particular story, telling me there should be more ‘fighting’ to draw out the drama and information. Unlike in Hamlet, most indigenous plays don’t end with two-thirds of the cast dying.”

Calling Bonnell and Chan’s decision to only invite specific ethnic groups to review the show “a bold and gutsy move that had Toronto’s artistic community talking,” he went on to say that it was clear to him that when his plays were seen by indigenous people whose connection to the issues and “background went back several thousands of years . . . they were tapping into a different understanding.”

He pointed out that earlier, when Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre produced an indigenous play, they actually took the pro-active step of issuing established critics a list of things that they hoped they would consider in their reviews. These included questions like:

—How can you recognize and shift the gaze that you are using when attending theatre?

—How can you listen, learn and act in relationship to potential cultural differences?

More specifically about the bug issue, Taylor said that when he and his partner attended, they were the only Indigenous people there.

“So an argument could be made I suppose that white reviewers are the Lewis and Clark of Indigenous theatre, white people making their way into unfamiliar territory, occasionally getting things wrong but setting stuff up for discussion. . . . Heaven forbid if Stratford or Shaw were to only want white reviewers to see their work. . . .”

In the end—given that Bonnell had told the Toronto Star that the whole “idea of critiquing an act that is ceremonial feels very wrong” might well suggest that an error in judgement was being  been made to even call it theatre. It was that act of “naming” that really did open the event to traditional theatrical practices such as opening night reviews and the many caprices of the very wide range of people who call themselves reviewers these days.

For me personally, if a writer says their work involves private ceremony or cultural ritual and they want to invite only certain people to it, I have no problem staying away. Because, by definition, it is not theatre. It is rather pre-dramatic ritual, like a wedding. We don’t crash people’s weddings or bar mitzvahs. No one “reviews” such events. They really are private.

But if a writer and a professional director are choosing to hold such an event in a public space (like a theatre), and if they are actually charging money for people to enter that space, then no one should be surprised when the event is treated as theatre and no one writing about it should be privileged. The core issue in this situation really has nothing to do with ethnicity or colour or religion or sexual preference. It has to do with naming.

Did Bonnell and Chan make a mistake to throw bug open to critical comment by naming it theatre? Perhaps. If something is calling itself theatre and is therefore going to be open to comment, it must be open to comment by anyone. And whoever comes comes and whoever is writing must have the freedom and responsibility to respond to that work with honesty, intelligence and sensitivity.

Some works—and maybe this is a case in point—just aren’t created to be theatre. Theatrical they may be. Dramatic they may be, but maybe the term pre-dramatic really is the right one for them.

As I said, if I encounter a work that falls into that category I would accept it in that light and simply not write about it. Not everything needs to be reviewed. And I’m really okay with that notion both in theory and in practice. 

*Don Rubin is Managing Editor of Critical Stages and editor of its Book Review section. He is the series editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and founding Editor of the Canadian Theatre Review. He is Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar in the Department of Theatre at Toronto’s York University.

Copyright © 2020 Don Rubin
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