CATR Digital Criticism Pedagogies Workshop 2020 Recap

Karen Fricker,* Michelle Macarthur,** Aisling Murphy,*** Robyn Grant-Moran,**** Mae Smith*****

Abstract

This article brings together five emerging and established Canadian critics and academics to reflect upon the CATR (Canadian Association of Theatre Research) Digital Criticism Pedagogies Workshop held in August 2020. The article discusses such hot topics in Canadian theatre criticism as embedded criticism, performative allyship and activism from Canadian theatre companies, and remuneration for emerging critics.
Keywords: Canada, digital criticism, BIPOC criticism, emerging critics, CATR

Karen Fricker and Michelle Macarthur

Late May 2020 was going to be an exciting time for Canadian theatre criticism. Three of us who are full-time academics at universities in southern Ontario—Karen at Brock University, Michelle at the University of Windsor and Barry Freeman of the University of Toronto at Scarborough—had received a conference grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and were bringing together a group of scholars, students, critics, bloggers, artists and producers to think and talk about the futures of the critical field in this country (and beyond). The endgame of our plan is the creation of an Academy of Canadian theatre and performance criticism—not a physical structure, but rather a recurrent conference and networking hub that will pop-up annually or bi-annually alongside theatre festivals across Canada. The Academy will promote best practice in criticism; offer grants, training and support to writers and artists who want to up the game for criticism in their community; and foster more research. This May 2020 gathering was to be the penultimate step in solidifying partnerships and making a concrete plan for fundraising, organization and, finally, blast-off.

COVID-19 changed things, of course: the Canadian Association of Theatre Research (CATR) conference that was the framing context for our criticism sub-conference shifted from a face-to-face gathering in Montréal to a series of digital events in July and August. Wanting to keep the momentum going, we convened a session called Digital Criticism Pedagogies in conjunction with CATR. While this title originally described a workshop on teaching innovative forms of theatre criticism using digital tools, under the present circumstances its focus shifted to the more pressing questions of how to review Zoom theatre and how to teach students how to do so.

Anand Rajaram. Photo: Web

Using part of our research council funding, we commissioned a performance from the Toronto-based theatre artist Anand Rajaram (the result was an enjoyable, wild-ride beta-test of his interactive, video-game-and-horror-film-influenced collaboration with writer/director Eric Woolfe, entitled The Monster from Inside the Third Dimension)and held two digital panels around questions of how one might review such a production, and how to think about, talk about and teach criticism of digital productions more broadly.

Writer/director Eric Woolfe. Photo: Linkedin

In addition to contemplating the pandemic’s effects on live performance and theatre criticism, our panel conversations were also informed by the ongoing global protests around anti-Black racism prompted by the murder of George Floyd in the United States. Participants discussed systemic racism within the theatre industry and the urgent need for a more inclusive and diverse landscape of theatre criticism. We invited three emerging critics, Aisling Murphy, Robyn Grant-Moran and Mae Smith, to sit in on the discussions and offer their perspectives in the short articles that follow here. 

Informed by these experiences and Aisling, Robyn and Mae’s reflections, we have shifted our plans for a live gathering to lay the groundwork for the Academy in the late summer of 2021, in the context of Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival. We look forward to sharing our ongoing work with Critical Stages readers.

Aisling Murphy

To be an emerging theatre critic in 2020 is to be resilient. It is to write for negligible pay (if any at all). It is to question those in artistic power and then take on the labour of deconstructing performative statements of inclusion, copy-and-pasted land acknowledgements and pithy social media tributes.

To emerge is to resist—to push back against the status quo and place new and established theories into perhaps-uncomfortable, but necessary, conversation with each other.

The Canadian Association of Theatre Research (CATR) Digital Criticism Pedagogies Workshop ran on August 7, 2020, and included a range of pandemic-displaced critics. Some (myself included) were university students, dissatisfied with the limited range of platforms available to young artists who wish to speak candidly on the state of Canadian performance. Some were tenured professors across Canada, others career arts journalists who have seen their discipline disappear due to changes in the Canadian media landscape. The workshop included artists, producers and scholars—a spectrum of theatre enthusiasts (a great number of whom confirmed they had spent COVID-19 reflecting on the present state of the arts and the roles they play in either affirming or rejecting cultural systems of oppression).

For all, 2020 has disrupted the chain of critical communication; this year has also offered the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day of strict deadlines and systemic overuse of words like “captivating” and “efficient” (adjectives in the critical lexicon which can usually be replaced with “good” or, better yet, omitted entirely—one of the more lighthearted chats that emerged in the CATR gathering). The CATR workshop, in being digital thanks to the pandemic, allowed a nationwide array of critics to air concerns surrounding equity, performative allyship from Canadian theatrical institutions and accessibility in contemporary theatre—issues which align with larger cultural conversations on racism, sexism and nepotism in our organizations.

How do we, as critics, navigate a career with no affiliated paycheck? What, in reviewing theatre, are we actually “reviewing”—does whatever it is include the pre-show land acknowledgement, or the accessibility of the theatre’s washrooms, or the diversity of the company’s Board of Directors? Where does our work split from that of a dramaturg, or a theatre scholar, or a journalist—where does it converge? Is embedded criticism the answer to more questions than the present Canadian dramaturgical ecosystem is able or willing to acknowledge?

These are some of the questions that seem to overwhelmingly haunt the present Canadian critical discipline. While the workshop offered in abundance a safe space to ask these questions, the session concluded not with specific, actionable answers, but a shared general conclusion: there is so, so much work left to be done in order to create a representative Canadian criticism that reflects back to a future audience the art it actually covers. This work might take place in the form of embedded criticism, or sponsored content à la Intermission Magazine, or TikTok criticism; measurable change can take many shapes.

But the burden of improved discourse will, by and large, fall on the emerging critics—those who review for the love of the written word in reaction to lived experience, with little expectation of payment in return (as we have already watched those coveted paid positions dwindle throughout our short time in the critical sphere). Canada’s emerging critics have burst onto our chosen scene in the wake of several difficult North American elections, a pandemic and a historic surge of global activism. Our critical practice does not exist in reaction to these events; rather, these events are embedded into the very foundation of our tastes, our metatheatrical experiences, our writing styles. We will be the split-practice critics and scholars to re-imagine Canadian theatre criticism as the dialogue it is, one between artist and critic and company and audience member. We understand that a critical conversation is just that: a conversation, one which offers back in return to its partners what it has taken in formulating its arguments and analyses. And yes: we as emerging critics understand, and have built into our practice, the notion of empathy in contemporary criticism, as well as the importance of archiving current work on behalf of a greater cultural memory.

Below are reflections on the CATR Digital Criticism Pedagogies Workshop from my fellow emerging critics, Robyn Grant-Moran and Mae Smith.

Mae Smith   

It is a little disheartening to discover that the low compensation I thought I was accepting as a student rate is the norm for freelance critics. I now have to ask myself: is theatre criticism something I can pursue as a career, and if so, how?

Looking at criticism as skilled labour (as I am sure many do), it is apparent that freelancers are criminally underpaid. During the CATR Digital Criticism Pedagogies Workshop, Generator lead producer Kristina Lemieux raised this point. She highlighted the typical amount of time and work it takes to produce a finalized review. She concluded an estimated hourly wage for this skilled labour should amount to roughly $500 a review.

And yet, many of us take $50–$100 per review (if that!), and/or complimentary tickets.

Even with a wealth of opportunities, this—criticism for the love of the craft alone—is not enough to constitute a writer’s main hustle. Where do I come in if even award-winning critics like Robyn Grant-Moran see theatre criticism as a “luxury” activity? Permanent critic positions within major publications in Ontario are limited enough without recent cuts to arts and culture sections, and overwhelmingly lack in BIPOC representation. Although everyone present at the workshop was in agreement that these trends need to be addressed as soon as possible, the question remained of how to implement actionable changes. I know what I want to see, but not necessarily how to get there. Hire more non-white writers, pay our writers more—these are a given. But as an individual writer, what can I do?

There are many options that seem obvious to fixing this problem, like starting your own publication to highlight underrepresented voices and offering to pay these voices their dues. But that does not guarantee readership, and it definitely does not guarantee pay. The millennial/gen-z’er that I am tells me to turn to one of many content sharing platforms I look at every day, but even these have their limits.

For years now, film and music critics have been creating content on YouTube, and some have gained significant followings. Channels dedicated to analyzing media (both seriously and comically) like theneedledrop and Cinema Sins have amassed millions of subscribers, monetizing videos with advertising through the YouTube Partner Program and forging brand partnerships. Even channels with fewer than a million subscribers, like Ryan Hollinger, who post in-depth analyses of horror films, are able to maintain a secondary subscription model on platforms like Patreon, where subscribers pay a monthly fee for bonus content and early releases. I have yet to see a channel centred on theatre criticism at that level, but it is somewhere I would love the practice to go. Theatre is just as worthy of forty-minute-long videos of deep analysis as any film or music album. However, the difference in distribution between local theatre and Hollywood films can make creating a significant audience difficult still. With many theatres moving performances online, whether that be recordings of traditional performances or shows designed for Zoom, the reach could increase.

Those who wish to remain writers, rather than video creators, could turn to Instagram or TikTok, like many content creators have. Many creators who have established themselves as authorities on beauty or fashion, based on their followings on the photo and video sharing platforms, generate income from sponsored posts while maintaining blogs or separate websites for their main content. Rarely requiring more than an email to sign up, YouTube and other content sharing platforms make it easier for people who might otherwise be at a disadvantage to be heard on a larger scale.

Before I tell all my fellow artists to migrate to these platforms to make money, I have to reiterate their aforementioned limits. Video recommendations, “explore” pages and built-in advertising on these platforms make it easier to browse and monetize content than, say, on WordPress, but audience and money are still not guaranteed. Viewership—and subsequently income—exists at the hands of digital algorithms and moderated curation. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok are all content sharing platforms which allow their users to follow and see content from whomever they choose. However, automated algorithms interfere with these choices, suggesting content potentially (but not necessarily) related to users’ interests.The suggested content could help a smaller creator get noticed, but some creators are frequently left out. All the platforms I have cited have come under fire in the past for systematically hurting specific groups of creators.

YouTube has previously been called out for de-monetizing content surrounding LGBTQIA+ content. Instagram’s ban on depictions of the female nipple was a huge talking point during the #FreeTheNipple movement (now female nipples are permitted if used for activism). Many TikTok users recently expressed frustration at the app for allegedly censoring content surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. These practices reinforce systems of oppression we already see in abundance offline. If I were to move my criticism to one of these mega-popular platforms, would I be removed from search results or suggestions, effectively denying me income, for covering a show entered around trans rights? Around issues of race? Where can I take my work?

Because of this, it is hard for me to say what specifically we can fix in our field. Theatre criticism, like the art it analyzes, does not (and cannot) exist in a bubble. As much as there is no shortage of artists working towards a more equitable future, it feels like we are still at the mercy of outdated and biased systems which force us to maintain hurtful media practices.

Mae Smith’s original drawing in reaction to the CATR performance of Anand Rajaram’s The Monster from Inside the Third Dimension. Photo: CATR Digital Criticism Pedagogies/Mae Smith
Robyn Grant-Moran

As an emerging outsider, sitting in on the CATR Digital Criticism Pedagogies discussion was a fascinating experience. I am used to blindly stumbling from room to room, hoping to find the party—not being called in and having a seat pulled up at the table. But COVID has shifted things; here, I found myself at a polite and well-prepared gathering of concerned academics and artists. Why do I mention this? Because of what this gesture means for diversity and representation in the critical field. There are plenty of critical thinkers who do not have access to these kinds of spaces. And without the inclusion of us, it is tricky to answer many of the specific questions being posed around topics of equity and accessibility—so not just who is invited to the party, but who gets to throw the party in the first place.

There are many barriers to criticism being a full-time profession; for me, it is money. How do I make theatre criticism something more than a hobby which gives me occasional extra pocket money? Philip Riccio and Company Theatre in Toronto made a wonderful model with Intermission Magazine, one of few paid theatre criticism platforms which partners with Canadian companies to produce high quality theatre journalism.

Photo: Web

During the CATR workshop, Ricciopointed out that theatre criticism is, ideally, part of the revenue system of companies (in that quality criticism factors into eventual ticket sales) in a thriving theatre ecosystem. Riccio reminded those in attendance at the CATR Digital Criticism Pedagogies Workshop to keep that idea in mind while working to solve problems creatively. The funding model in place at Intermission has been invaluable to myself and other emerging critics in Toronto, offering us the chance to write in a wide variety of styles alongside established professionals while being compensated for our work.

Embedded criticism—bearing witness to elements of a whole production through a long-term relationship, rather than producing merely a reactionary review or more limited conventional feature—is the logical extension of the role of a critic in increasingly multicultural and ethnic urban centres. In support of John Rowntree’s work on both, the PLEDGE Project and Barry Freeman’s Staging Strangers; Theatre and Global Ethics, I was inspired to visit the Statistics Canada site and look at Toronto demographics. As of 2016, Toronto was comprised of 47,7% residents of European ancestry, and a wide number of ethnicities making up the remaining 52,3%. There are so many languages spoken here that we can (and do) have a Top 20 list. More traditional, Eurocentric models for criticism predicated on the critic being an expert in all things theatre do not necessarily fit such diverse spaces. If theatre is to be representative of the world in which it exists, it seems unrealistic and unfair to companies, critics and audiences not to embed, providing a full range of context for an eventual review. Embedding allows for a much deeper and more nuanced approach to productions. As both Melissa Poll, in her pre-discussion response, and Liz Nicholls, in synchronous discussion, asked of us during the CATR workshop: how and where do we write about companies’ commitments to anti-oppression and anti-racism work, and how do we include discussion of land acknowledgements, if at all?

Embedded criticism is the perfect space to further investigate these questions—through direct contact with various levels of leadership within a given company. Is a performer hired to tick a box, or is there an increase in representation throughout all levels of the company; what is the culture in the rehearsal space? Embedding a critic into the artistic process can offer a clearer answer to these questions, as well as provide cultural context for those lacking.

As Jenna Shummogum brought up during the CATR discussion, BIPOC artists in Calgary are leaving for cities like Vancouver and Toronto, cities with larger theatre scenes and companies which cater to BIPOC artists, audiences and experiences (Native Earth, Obsidian Theatre, as examples), as well as a greater likelihood for more diverse audiences and, ideally, casting. The necessity of relocation to larger cities is exactly why we as critics should not be contemplating whether we include discussion of anti-oppression commitments or land acknowledgements in our writing; we should just be doing it.

When companies make public statements about their roles in upholding structurally racist systems and their commitment to dismantling them, or acknowledge the land their theatre is on, those are inherently performative acts; at this moment in time, they are an inextricable part of contemporary theatre practice. In not including these acts in our analyses, we are complicit in the maintenance of the status quo so many need changed. It is a small act that we, as critics, can do to help bring about visibility and support BIPOC artists. By applauding successes, exposing empty gestures and signal-boosting for BIPOC companies, surely we can help reform this culture which forces artists to other cities in search of work.

I am so grateful conversations such as this one are happening, and I am honoured to be invited into the discourse, but I am tired of waiting for change. We, as critics, need to use our voices to disrupt the system that has failed so many—it is part of our job description. 


*Karen Fricker is Associate Professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, Ontario, Canada, and a theatre critic at the Toronto Star. Her monograph The Original Stage Productions of Robert Lepage: Making Theatre Global was published in 2020 by Manchester University Press. With Charles R. Batson she is co-founder of the Circus and Its Others research project; the project’s third conference will take place at the University of California, Davis, in November 2021. 

**Michelle Macarthur is Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor’s School of Dramatic Art in Ontario, Canada. Her SSHRC-funded research examines the intersections of theatre criticism, equity and diversity in the digital age. 

***Aisling Murphy is a critic and theatre student currently based in Ottawa, ON. A theatre student at the University of Ottawa, she is the Arts & Culture Editor for The Fulcrum, an associate editor for Intermission Magazine and a co-editor of the December 2020 edition of Critical Stages. Her research interests include theatre criticism, British playwright Sarah Kane and multilingualism onstage. 

****Robyn Grant-Moran (Metis) is a multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto, ON. In 2018, Robyn completed her BFA at York University and in 2019 received the inaugural Nathan Cohen Award for Outstanding Emerging Critic. At present, Robyn can be heard co-hosting the Canadian Opera Company’s new podcast, “Key Change.” 

*****Mae Smith is a theatre artist working out of the Niagara Region of Canada who focuses on production, design and criticism. Mae is currently an associate editor with Intermission Magazine. More of her work can be found at www.maesmith.work.

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