Day 8. The lonely critic.

He sits in the beer tent, alone at a table, making notes on a show that he just saw, trying to decide how many stars to give it. Around him, people sneer, point, and mutter “There’s that critic that reviewed my show and said I should go back to flipping burgers. I need that job to get through school!”.

A veteran performer reads the review of his show that got two stars and laments that he will have to pass out a lot of handbills to drum up business now. At a different table, a young girl bursts into tears over her one star review, wondering in her grief “Why didn’t he like it? He says it was bad, but he doesn’t say why.”

It must be awful being a theatre critic. Spending the festival looking for the faults in others, deciding how much box office a performer should receive, and crushing the dreams of young thespians. It must be hard to be hated so much, to be reviled by the artists, merely acknowledged by the public, and respected by none. To not be included in conversations or activities with the performers, but kept at arms length, looking in at the inner sanctum of creativity, and not invited to participate. “You called me a poopy head Billy! You can’t play with us.” So Billy just sits on the periphery forming more insults to describe the neighbourhood kids that look like they’re having so much fun. “Not only are you a poopy head, but a monkey butt too!”

No wonder they are mean.

But I think that the blame for the rift between the press and the Fringe community doesn’t lie solely with the reviewer. Western society as a whole is at fault by insisting that we put a value on everything. That we must rate all of the things from the grades we get in Kindergarten for keeping inside the lines in our colouring books, to the eulogy that is given by your brother at your funeral. “Billy might have been a poopy head, but he was our poopy head. 3 stars”.

Consider this:

When you were young, and you and your siblings or friends finished watching an episode of the Brady Bunch, you would reenact it in the living room. “Marsha Marsha Marsha!”. Then you would perform it in front of your parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents to cheers and adulation. It didn’t matter what the content was, or that little Sally wasn’t believable in the part of Alice, what mattered was that the kids were being creative and interacting with each other… and it was funny as all hell.

If Uncle Bob pointed to one of the children and said “You’re just rehashing something that I saw on television yesterday, I can’t hear you in the back, and your costume design is deplorable”, he would be shunned from the living room and grandma would say “Don’t listen to him, you were great, in fact here is some candy for your efforts”.

Why can’t we apply this to our festival? Instead of sending out an army of critics that point out all that is wrong, send out a group of nurturers that write positive reinforcement and suggestions on how to make it even better. Encourage our performers, professional and amateur alike, especially our young artists that are just starting out. Don’t point out that they are not as good as a different, more seasoned performer, but applaud them, just for the act of taking the stage. Put the power in the hands of the young actor instead of judging them for where they are in their artistic journey. Take away the negativity of the critique and replace it with supportive education, nourishment to the creativity within.

If there were an army of Free Press nurturers writing encouraging articles about performances, I would subscribe to their paper and we would all benefit, and we could include them in our neighbourhood games and plays. Billy could join us in the backyard instead of throwing insults, looking down from the treehouse.

I think I’m going to go give that lonely critic a hug… but that might not be to his liking and he may give me two stars.

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About JBJ

John lives in an abandoned toolshed behind a fake rubber vomit warehouse in Winnipeg Manitoba Canada with a squirrel named Peanut Hoarder, where he steals an internet signal from the Kung Fu school next door. He is a little "off". View all posts by JBJ

24 responses to “Day 8. The lonely critic.

  • Joff Schmidt

    Hi John,

    Joff Schmidt writing – I’m the theatre critic (and head up the Fringe Fest review crew) for CBC Manitoba – though should make clear here that I’m writing for myself, not for CBC or for critics at large.

    First, thanks for this blog! I’ve been reading with interest – I think it’s always great to see the Fringe from different angles, and I appreciate this forum to talk about the festival.

    But, since you’ve weighed in on how awful it must be to be me (spoiler alert: it’s not), I thought I’d take a moment to respond.

    I should probably begin by clarifying what I think a critic is here to do – and what I’m not. While this may sound harsh, I’ll be blunt – as much as I respect them (and, believe it or not, I do), I don’t work for the artists. My role isn’t to be a director, a dramaturge, or a publicist for the producer. As much as possible, I try to outline what I think didn’t work (and yes, what did – I do that too) in a piece of theatre. But it’s not my primary responsibility.

    I AM there to try to be of some service to the audience – the people who are going to give up their time and money to support the artists by buying somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 tickets this year. I think those people have a right to know what they can expect when they go to see a show, and so my role is to relate what my experience with a show is. Of course it’s subjective, and not everyone will agree – but with 172 shows going on right now, I’d make the argument that some sort of reasoned recommendations – which is what we’re aiming to provide with reviews – is not a bad thing for audiences.

    Secondly, there is, of course, a big difference between performing in Uncle Bob’s living room and getting up on a Fringe stage. No, the Fringe is not, strictly speaking, professional theatre (although there are many very professional productions out there). But as an artist, you’re still asking an audience of strangers to give you their time and money. And again, I think that audience deserves to have some idea of what they can expect in that exchange.

    We’re not out there to crush anyone’s dreams, and I have never, EVER used a line like your “burger flipping” example in a review. We’re there to comment on the work, not the person. The trouble is that in a festival where people are often both writer and performer (and hey, sometimes even director), it can be hard to separate a commentary on the work from a personal criticism.

    As to the often-heard “they said they hated my show, but didn’t say why!” complaint, some simple realities – we’re all working within certain confines. CBC reviewers have the luxury of working on the web, where we can write a bit longer, but we’re still not writing 1,000-word reviews – in part because we don’t have the time, and in part because we don’t expect anyone to sift through 172 1,000-word reviews. It’s just not reasonable. My colleagues at the Free Press have a more daunting task – owing to the phsyical realities of trying to fit 172 reviews into a print edition with limited space, their reviews were restricted to (I believe) about 125 words. Within those confines, I think many of their writers did a fine job of providing reasoned critiques. The end goal is not, though many people focus on the “star rating,” a simple numerical evaluation – otherwise, I’d save myself a lot of time and just assign star ratings rather than writing a review. (I won’t go further into the subject of why we use star ratings, since I’ve done that before – you can see here if you want my thoughts on that:http://bit.ly/p0fk8s)

    And finally, I’d ask you to consider the shocking notion that maybe I’m not out there looking for what’s “wrong,” but what’s RIGHT – and there’s lots going on at the Fringe that’s great. (I’d point out that this year, CBC gave 72 shows – nearly half of what’s out there – a four- or five-star review, meaning we “highly recommend” them.)

    As a critic, I don’t have the luxury of following the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” rule. I promise to review a show honestly and as thoughtfully as possible – and sometimes that involves being pretty blunt.

    Believe it or not, I love theatre, and I love the Fringe festival – as, I think, do the vast majority of reviewers covering it.

    And I’ll leave it there, with apologies for writing a reply that’s vastly longer than your original post.

    Of course, if you, or anyone else, wants to follow up, I’m genuinely happy to continue this dialogue. I’m at joff.schmidt[at]cbc.ca.

    Or you can find me in the beer tent. I’ll be with my friends. Believe it or not, I have a couple.

    Thanks again for all you do for the festival and for your blog, John, and for opening up this dialogue.

    Respectfully yours,

    Joff Schmidt

    • davidjfuller

      Couldn’t agree more, Joff, as someone who has been in the Fringe and gotten reviews both good and bad, and as a reviewer of Fringe shows. Won’t rehash the excellent points you make but the bottom line is the same — the critic’s duty is to the audience, not to the artist. Feedback that can help the artist (or performer, or writer) should come when it can actually do the artist some good; in theatre’s case, during writing and rehearsal.

  • Kelly Stifora

    Well put, Joff. You say you are speaking only on your behalf, but I could not have said it better.

  • melissaontheshore

    Joff is bang on, but I’ll play too.

    I’m not sure where this image of media reviewers as curmudgeonly comes from: as I know almost every Fringe media reviewer personally, I can’t say the image rings true for any. We’re a rather delightful bunch. We love theatre, we love artists, we love art and we love describing it for our audiences.

    We do what we do because we love it all.

    You say it must be awful to be a reviewer: it’s not. I love it. Through reviewing, especially at Fringe, I have been gifted with being able to witness inspiring and in many cases transformative work I may not otherwise have connected with. It’s exciting.

    And then there’s the stuff that, well, is less delightful, to my experience.

    Here’s the thing, and I’ve blogged on this before: I love Fringe because it is perhaps the most purely meritocratic forum we have for new theatre. Its freewheeling and uncurated format generally allows that each work has a roughly equal opportunity to find its niche; if a work is excellent, even if the performers are new or unknown, that fact spreads rapidly.

    In this way, I find that laments about negative reviews ignore the flipside: that reviewers with a media platform also draw attention to four- and five-star shows, helping generate buzz and attract ad audience for those outstanding works.

    But here’s the thing: without being honest with negative reviews, that praise lacks meaning. If a reviewer with a media platform is unable or unwilling to critique shows that, in their view, have significant flaws, then their praise is also suspect.

    I know artists, obviously, dread a bad review. I always try to be fair and to cite as clearly as possible my reservations about a work. I do not support the (in my experience, rare) reviews that offer insult without relevance.

    However, I can’t support this idea that we should feel responsible for destroying young thespians’ dreams, or similar.

    As a writer, my work is public. It is frequently critiqued — I get emails every day from those who don’t like what I do. The same is no less true for anyone creating an artistic work for the public. By presenting it for the public, you are inviting their opinions on your work. These opinions will not always be flattering. It may be hard for a new artist to accept negative reviews at first, but learning to accept critique is an absolutely necessary element of producing any type of work that is presented to the public.

    To be blunt: this isn’t a children’s Christmas pageant. If you are presenting a show at the Fringe and accepting money for admittance, your audience — including your reviewers — will have varying opinions on whether your work delivered what it promised.

    In that way, I never consider any reviewer (including mine) to have the definitive opinion. But if we dislike a work strongly, chances are others in the audience feel the same… And those others contribute to a show’s buzz. Let’s not kid ourselves: bad reviews do not only come from the media. In the beer tent, on social media and in other forums, non-media audience members are relating to each other which shows they thought were awful.

    To sum it up? Yes, I realize it’s hard (especially at first) to receive a bad review. But honesty in reviewing is necessary to respect the meritocratic and democratic ideals of Fringe. Furthermore, it is simply a fact of creating work for public consumption.

    And most of all, learning to accept a negative review — and either to take that critique as constructive and allow it to improve that and future work, or to dismiss it, as circumstances require — is an absolutely necessary part of learning to be an artist of any kind who creates public work.

  • Charlene

    Hello,
    I just have to weigh in as someone who watches and responds to theatre all year, reads reviews from shows going on in other cities that I’ve never seen, and also reads reviews from our own town of shows that I have or have not seen. I have a pretty good idea who the theatre reviewers are in Winnipeg.

    This conversation, however, is almost moot since Joff, who rightfully responded in defence of himself, is a theatre critic all year long. His opinion is by far more experienced in theatrical matters. I trust it and agree or disagree which is my prerogative as an audience member and artist.

    The biggest problem with fringe reviews is that alot of them are not theatre critics. There are “reviewers” reviewing who are not as experienced theatrically. I don’t want to sound rude, but these opinions, when so much weighs upon a good review, are sometimes so inexperienced that a good show could disappear into the soup by someone who was not properly theatrically experienced enough to handle the material. Thus we get comments about chairs being uncomfortable, venues being hot etc. These things the artists have very little control over, and yes they are part of the theatrical experience, but should have no bearing on whether the company delivered a good production or not.

    As a theatre artist, my issue is not with theatre reviewers its with the proverbial “sports writer” acting as an informed opinion proxy for the audience of which we all, as theatre artists, desperately need.

    • Charlene

      As a side note: I retract the word ” alot” in the sentence “alot of them are not theatre critics” as I don’t know the numbers and ratios. Also, I don’t mean to put down sports writers, especially those sports writers who might be well versed in theatre.
      I was just using an example.

      * I also want to thank those theatre reviewers and critics who are thoughtful writers and who take pride in and respect their position in the theatre community.

      • charlene

        As an extra side note: One quick thought for the “blog” record – As a fringe performer and a producer I got over myself the very first fringe show I was in when there were more people on stage than in the audience.

        I don’t make theatre for the money (although it would be nice, sigh) and I only put on shows that I desire to see realized. Otherwise, what’s the point. I put in a lot of hours, money and hard work putting on the shows I produce and perform in (as many other fringe performers can attest to from their own experiences), and when you work that hard on something, you hope that audiences will come and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

        Of course it is dissapointing when you get a review that doesn’t take into account what you feel is of value in your production. And of course it feels like you got away with something when someone raves about your show.

        Of course there are too many shows and so little time for overly taxed reviewers to see and write about all of them.

        Of course this is a festival and we should all be celebrating theatre…right?

        And of course we are all, reviewers and performers, defensive of our respective art forms because what would be the point? We wouldn’t care I guess, and there wouldn’t be a Fringe Festival. I’m glad that so many of us care about live theatre to have this debate. Thanks to JBJ for allowing us a forum. Sorry for the length of this reply, I thought it would be quicker. I want to keep talking about this with some of you, but will stop for now, I have a show to do!

    • Melissa Martin (@DoubleEmMartin)

      This is a valid point, although it’s also one I’ve replied to before.

      A quick note: I used to mention venue issues in reviews if they were highly notable, only because it is highly useful information for some segments of the audience and the venues are often unfamiliar or new places to audience members.

      For instance, for many people with certain medical conditions that impact heat tolerance, it is rather important to know if a venue tends to be hot. If seating is challenging, that can pose issues for people with certain mobility or physical limitations. You want to give people a sense of what to expect if there’s a notably challenging element about the venue environment, even if it wouldn’t impact everyone’s ability to enjoy the show.

      That said, in recent years with the general uptake of social media, I’ve found that Twitter is an effective way to spread some of these comments and/or have them addressed by venues or the theatre company if possible, thus enabling me to remove it from the review itself — and at least on the print side, our word limits have shrunk a lot, so that requires evicting that stuff anyway.

      On to your more general comment. Last year, I blogged about that specific note — that many Fringe reviewers aren’t year-round theatre reviewers — in some depth here:

      http://www.nothinginwinnipeg.com/2011/07/the-reviewer-writes-back-part-i/

      To boil that down a little bit, my objection to the assertion that Fringe reviewers must or should be year-round theatre critics is the fact that in my experience, most audience members at Fringe are not year-round theatre experts. While many who attend Fringe certainly enjoy other theatre works throughout the year, it’s probably fair to say that large numbers of people count Fringe as at least the bulk of their yearly experience of theatre, if not the entirety.

      In that way, Fringe media reviewers reflect Fringe audiences. Most of us have extensive experience in reviewing, and in writing about, critiquing or otherwise engaging arts and culture, even if we’re not specifically limited to theatre. That’s our primary qualification to do what we do — but otherwise there’s some value in that our perceptions reflect that of some members of the audience. (Not all, but it will never be all.) And I think for a lot of us, our experience of Fringe is so extensive, that this also can’t be discounted in terms of our background.

      In the specific context of Fringe, I feel like there’s a fit in that — to say nothing of the fact it would be patently impossible for any media outlet to be able to review even the majority of shows if it required a full-time theatre critic to do it.

      I realize now this is coming off as defensive and it’s not what I intend; it’s more a reflection of my long-time aversion to the concept of “the critic,” which includes myself and dates back to all the years I was a full-time music writer and reviewer.

      To me, the implication of “a critic” implies an opinion that is elevated above that of the readership; while I respect experience and specific education in reviewing any genre, I don’t care for the idea of “the critic” generally, as there are so many myriad and valid ways that audiences engage, appreciate or observe any art, and to me as long as a reviewer fundamentally enjoys and craves the art form which they are writing about, they’ll be able to express something about the work which is relevant or interesting or valuable to put out in the world, good or bad.

  • Kevin Longfield

    Thanks, JBJ, for kicking this off. We need to have a conversation about reviewing in this city. By coincidence, just this morning I had a conversation with a person who is new to attending theatre and the Fringe. He asked an interesting question: does anyone review the reviewers?
    I know most of the reviewers in town, and I can safely say that they are intelligent people who mean well. Even the “found in” reviewers that the Free Press sometimes uses seem to at least enjoy going to theatre, for the most part, anyway. That said, I will also say that the calibre of reviewing and theatre criticism in this city has yet to catch up with the calibre of the artists who present theatre. A general weakness is a lack of appreciation for metaphor. Another is a general lack of openness to new forms, a sin the great Charles Handscombe committed in his famous review of The Doll’s House over a century ago. Besides Handscombe, Winnipeg has had some truly great theatre writers, including Harriet Walker, Charles Wheeler and Frank Morriss. More recently Reg Skene and Jacqui Good provided intelligent criticism that both advanced the art form and informed audiences. With all due respect to our current reviewers, they are not in the same league as these past reviewers, and it sometimes seems to me that they do not aspite to those levels. A good writer can both provide constructive criticism to the artists and inform the audience– in fact, it is the same thing if you do it well. It’s a matter of talent, time, and diligence.
    The other general weakness I have seen in many local reviewers is an unreasonable sense of the value of their opinions to the audiences. Reviewers, and I include myself in this category, are just not that smart. We can offer honest opinions on what we have seen, and in time we can offer honest, informed opinions. But just like Charles Handscombe we will also miss the mark, and we will do it almost every time we write, at least for a part of the audience.
    We are not writing consumer reports where you can hook a hair dryer up to a circuit and measure the amount of current it draws. Our opinions lack that scientific reliability. We can, however, show the same diligence to our form as the product tester, and we can apply some professional ethics to our work. Trying to review all the shows in the fringe by the first weekend is just silly. It serves no one. The space constraints that Joff mentions are serious enough without adding a ridiculous time constraint. We need reviewers who will have high enough professional standards that they will refuse to take on work in situations where they cannot give their best: to the artists, to the audiences, and to themselves.
    I know the counter-argument to this: audiences want reviews. Perhaps they do, but I’m willing to bet that they would prefer intelligent, thoughtful reviews to one written on the fly by someone who has another five shows to review before midnight.
    Expecting quality work to come out of a meatgrinder is like expectiong to have an advanced civilization without paying taxes, and no politician would advocate that, right? Oh, wait: nevermind.

  • J.Sane

    Charlene is actually the only person who made the correct observation here. For Fringe, all of the media outlets bring in people who are sadly unqualified to review theatre and the audience (that Joff claims is being well served) is being influenced by a “critic” who may not have any more experience in theatre than my grandmother. I would ask Joff, and the others who agree with his post, how is the audience being served by that? Is it fair to an artist that by luck of the draw they had an intern who writes CD reviews critiquing their pantomime or dance show that this intern has no hope of understanding or having any perspective on? Of course there are some critics who are professional and understand how to craft a balanced review but there are so many at Fringe who are not that it doesn’t serve the public or the artists. Unless a real, trained, experienced critic can review all 172 shows, the reviews should be scrapped entirely because not one single artist deserves an unqualified intern who can influence a potential audience. No one wins. Scrap it.

  • Bradley

    the system has problems, I don’t disagree with that.
    there are good and bad critics just as there are good and bad actors. there is much to be said of a supportive community but there’s also something to be said for earning your praise. far from all of them but there are too many shows, both good and bad, pro actors and amateurs, that seem to expect 5 stars like it’s their right.
    it’s an easy tactic to blame the reviewer, especially at the fringe. the rest of the year we grumble around bar tables but those grumbles become shouts at the fringe, maybe because of the feeling of strength in numbers. I don’t know. what I do know is that the reviewer is part of the audience and that if I as a performer am not getting through to all of the audience it’s cheap on my part to blame them.

  • Julia

    Good job JBJ. I agree! We have worked in this industry far too long to know all too well the fallout of bad reviews. Plus everyone always sees a show differently so how can you actually review it…just because I like a show doesn’t mean the guy down the street is going to. Maybe the reviewers should let people make up their own minds.

  • Arne MacPherson

    This is a crucial dialogue. I hope the editors at the Free Press and other media outlets read this very considered debate. Thanks JBJ.

  • Paul

    Reviewers DO need to lighten up in the reviews but as a patron who has little to practically no time to “do the fringe” properly by seeing random shows and spend days wandering, I need the stars. I don’t have the time or cash to select a show based on a synopsis that is actually written better than any piece of dialogue that ever comes out of one of the actor’s face. I need that Prokosh man to tell me that the “Red Lemon” show was awful or worth seeing. My wallet and sleep schedule thank the reviewers.

  • Michael Nathanson

    Well, I have two cents, and here they are:

    To Those Who Fringe

    Okay. Imagine you have 172 different brands of coffee to taste and only four full days to write a report on what you think of each cup. That’s a lot of fucking coffee. Now, imagine that it would take you between forty-five minutes to two hours to sip each cup. That’s a lot of fucking time. That’s too much time. You wouldn’t want to drink that much coffee because you might never stop pissing and after that much coffee, you might never want coffee again. So you gather up a bunch of people to help. “Hey, “ you ask people, “ever had a cup of coffee?” You find your Coffee Crew and off the lot of you go to complete your task.

    What will the quality of the consumer reporting on the coffee be like? Who knows?? How many people are versed in the history of coffee making, know something about where the beans are from, what the roasting methods are, have a cultivated palette able to make fine distinctions of taste, and then can actually write well about their coffee experience? But, here’s the thing, you’ve given them your cuppa joe. If you don’t give it to them, they aren’t going to taste it.

    We have paid to be in the Fringe. No one has forced us to do it. The Fringe has become a beloved summer festival, a true Winnipeg institution. As it has evolved, the two major media outlets – the Winnipeg Free Press and CBC Radio – have taken on the task to review every show by the end of the first weekend.

    So: To my fellow writers, directors, producers, and actors who are involved in the Fringe can I say this: Let us put our Fringe reviews into context. During the theatre season, there are only three regular reviewers used by the Free Press and CBC. For this Fringe, there are thirty-one reviewers. I ask you, my fellow theatrical fellas and gals, do you think there are thirty-one qualified theatre reviewers in this city? And, let me go one step further, do you think there are thirty-one qualified theatre reviewers in any city?

    If you get a good review, congratulations. Paper the town, let people know via email, Facebook, Twitter, do whatever it takes to let people and hope that drives people to your show. If you get a bad review, sorry to hear it. Curse at the Fates, rail at the pernicious nature of this industry, find something in the review you might be able to use for publicity and then paper the town, let people know via email, Facebook, Twitter, do whatever it takes to let people and hope that drives people to your show.

    And I know, I know, I’ve heard the gripes: “All the five star shows this year were COMEDIES! What about DRAMA?” What about it? It’s the Fringe. If you want to put bums in seats, do “Tits: The Improvised Musical Story of the Perfect Pair” and see if you get five stars. No one is forcing you to put on what you think is “art.” Or “good.” It’s the Fringe.

    We will always rail against reviewers. Our relationship is, in its very structure, antagonistic. But it is only one person’s opinion. How much do you want to entrust your sense of artistic well-being on one person’s opinion? And that’s all it is: One person’s opinion, despite reviewers who will talk about what “the audience” was experiencing. Please. To those reviewers, fuck off. It’s your opinion. Unless you have interviewed everybody in the audience who was at the performance you were reviewing, please do not speak for anybody but yourself.

    What is frustrating, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that a great review will help put asses in the seats. For those hoping to cobble together a shekel or two from their Fringe adventure, the star system is a blessing or curse that saves your ass or kills it. In running WJT for the past five years I can tell you that four stars or up will result in an increase in sales, three and a half stars or less means there will be no bump. I’ve little doubt that is true for the Fringe as well. And that sucks – it puts a disproportionate amount of your financial success in the hands of one person. It makes every Fringe reviewer a potential Frank Rich, the legendary and feared New York Times theatre critic who was known as “The Butcher of Broadway” for the way his negative reviews had the power to close a show. Is it unfair that the star system has that much power? Sure. Life is unfair, a life in the theatre is unfair, and no one is holding a gun to our head to put on plays. We need to get over ourselves.

    I leave you with this wonderful bit of writing from David Mamet. In an article entitled “Why I Am No Longer a Brain Dead Liberal,” published in the Village Voice in 2008, he told this anecdote:

    “I once won one of Mary Ann Madden’s “Competitions” in New York magazine. The task was to name or create a “10″ of anything, and mine was the World’s Perfect Theatrical Review. It went like this: “I never understood the theater until last night. Please forgive everything I’ve ever written. When you read this I’ll be dead.” That, of course, is the only review anybody in the theater ever wants to get.”

    Until you get such a review, Happy Fringing.

  • Tonya Jone Miller

    Thanks, JBJ, for getting a long overdue conversation started, and thanks to Michael for an accountable artist’s perspective. Once we present our art to the audience, we have no control over how it is received. Letting one person’s opinion of your work determine your current mental/physical state or your own feelings about that work is a steep, slippery slope to depression and unproductiveness.

    I took My show to the Atlanta and Orlando fringe festivals in May. Atlanta was a first-year fringe, which I only decide to apply to after I got into Orlando, so my expectations were low and I basically used it as a dress-rehearsal for Orlando. Atlanta was only one weekend, and no shows got reviewed in time to make a difference.

    I’d heard Orlando was Fun and a big party and you could make money, so I was hoping to fill my 50-seat venue at least once or twice during my run of six shows. Opening night, my audience was 12 people. I got a decent review- they don’t use a star system there, but it probably would have translated to 3.5, maybe 4. I got my ass out and flyered every line up for hours, all day, every day. And my biggest house in Orlando was less people than my smallest house here in Winnipeg.

    I was absolutely shocked to get two five-star reviews here. People told me I could stop flyering, but with no advance tickets sold out for my shows, I kept hitting the lines. Suddenly there was all this buzz and my shows started selling out day-of. More flyering. They announced Best of Fest and I about peed myself when I got it. Still not sold out in advance. More flyering, but a little breathing room now. Yesterday was the first day I haven’t flyered at any festival I’ve ever done.

    I love my show, I love performing it, and I came a long way to tell my story. I want to tell it to as many people as possible, and no review is going to change that. The artist in me is happy with the work I’m doing. Here in Winnipeg, I happened to get the right reviewers for my particular show. It feels like I won the lottery. It is a crazy ride, and I’m enjoying every second. But Tuesday I start over in Minnesota and the odds are against me winning the lottery twice, right?
    .

  • Joff Schmidt

    Hi again,

    Once more, thanks to John for getting this really remarkable conversation rolling – and for the very reasoned follow-up post. While I don’t agree with everything here, it’s certainly thought-provoking.

    One thing I did want to respond to, though, since both Charlene and Michael brought the point up eloquently, is the question: what makes a “qualified” reviewer? Is a theatre degree required? Performing experience?

    While the point is quite true that the ranks of reviewers swell during the Fringe… and I will fully admit that there are some reviewers who are much better at their jobs than others (and I’ll take my cue from JBJ and opt not to name names here)… I think there are some very qualified people who only review theatre during the Fringe.

    For me, the most vital qualifications – and the ones I’m looking for in putting together my crew – are a genuine interest in theatre, an ability to think critically (and express that thought effectively in writing), and an ability to provide a reasoned take on what they’ve seen. I think, while they may not be “full time” critics, we see many people who meet those criteria at the Fringe. We might not recognize their names because they’re at other jobs the rest of the year – but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to the theatre year-round, and I don’t think it means they’re necessarily “unqualified,” either.

    The Fringe is, ultimately, democratic theatre – any artist with $600 can participate, any patron with $10 can come to a show (and for many, I’d suspect this is the only theatre they attend year-round), and I’d suggest that there’s a certain democracy in letting smart, critical writers – who aren’t necessarily full-time critics – participate in this thing called Fringe too.

    Again, thanks to John for opening this up, and I’m very appreciative of all the thoughtful remarks on this subject.

    • Michael Nathanson

      Hi Joff,

      I think a qualified theatre critic,has, at very least, studied theatre and can make critical distinction between the text, the directing choices, the acting choices, and the design choices. That knowledge would be really helpful in engaging a theatre community in a dialogue around the art being produced and that would translate into helping audiences understand what they’re seeing. Because theatre is not television and it isn’t film; it’s a different art form.

      Are those high expectations to put on a theatre critic? Maybe. But that’s me. When it comes to theatre, I have extremely high expectations. My goal is not to produce the best “Jewish” theatre in Winnipeg, my goal is to produce the best theatre in Canada, recognizing that WJT has financial and human resource limitations that makes that difficult. But I’ll put our best productions (“Salesman” and “Angels”) against anything done in this country.

      I agree: The Fringe is the ultimate in democracy and the folly the artists fall into is thinking it’s a meritocracy. It isn’t. You pays your money, you takes your chances. Someone gave you a bad review that you didn’t like? Don’t put yourself out there. I don’t think critics are there to help move tickets or to encourage an artist; that’s not their job nor should it be. But do I want someone to review a Fringe show who has previously published a review that described Fringe shows as “exuberant, goofy and cute, as well as half-baked, insubstantial and semi-amateurish?” Well, no. Because, while some fit that description, others don’t, and more thought is put into most Fringe shows than were clearly put into that description.

      But that’s another rant for another day.

  • Kim Zeglinski

    Reviewers are assigned. Audiences choose. It would help immensely if the reviewers could add a note of recommendation rather than a star rating: e.g. “If you are a mom over 40, don’t miss this one!” “If your kids are under 6, this is the perfect show for them!” “If you like poorly performed magic tricks and really uncomfortable audience ‘volunteers’, this is the show for you!” That would help the audience know what to put on their list, and what to leave off. If reviewers serve audiences, then try to pinpoint “WHO” a particular show would be suited to. Star ratings make or kill shows, and although reviewers want to protect that precious output of $10, think of the loss to artists–especially those on tour of rely on bums in seats to recoup costs. A poor review can set an independent artist back a couple of years in unrecovered debt. And then they really do have to stop what they’re doing and flip burgers. Which is sad, because SOMEBODY would like their show and attend it for $10, if it were reviewed properly. And SOMEBODY would feel like the artist created the piece just for them.
    Kim Zeglinski

  • Kim Zeglinski

    *who rely on bums in seats (typo)

  • Cory Wojcik

    Ha! There’s always a good discussion on this topic. I actually posted a status on my Facebook about reviews and so there’s a discussion going on there too. Sorry, I can’t accept all of you as my Facebook buddies so you can’t see what is said there. But I have encouraged those posting on my Facebook to come over here and write their thoughts.

    For me, I know there is something I need to accept about the whole reviewing process. As Michael Nathanson notes:,yes, perhaps I need to get over myself.

    BUT, until such time that I do, I am going to weigh in my thoughts at this moment.

    There are some good points made by the reviewers on here, and it has given me clarity to their jobs.

    To briefly summarize the relationship of artist/reviewer, based on what is said here: artists create a show for an audience and the reviewers report their opinions to the audience.

    Okay, this I can accept and get behind. As an artist, I am willing to accept and learn from criticism (yes, I have learned from a critical 1 star review as I have learned from a glowing 5 star)

    As a side note, one of the things I learned from the difference between a 1 star and 5 star reviews is of course, the change in momentum. A reviewer can change the momentum of a fringe show with the snap of their stars. Is that the reviewer’s fault? Well, no. Perhaps a show deserves a 1 star or a 5. Perhaps they don’t. Again, it’s one person’s opinion. Well, I am going to talk about stars later, so I’ll save it.

    In response to the notion that the reviewers have an obligation to only the audience and not the artist-well, I have to disagree. Reviewers have the responsibility to the artist, and it’s very simple: to show some respect.

    I don’t think artists are really expecting reviewers to involve themselves with any part of theatre production roles: director, producer, etc. Nor do I think we are expecting reviewers of carrying the burden of coddling young artists so as to not hurt their feelings.

    We only ask for an honest, informed, respectful accounts of what was seen on stage. Yes, I know some reviewers do this; but not all.

    I’d like to refer to the comments about the reviewers who don’t cover theatre normally but are now reviewing for the fringe. To say that these reviewers are “the average voice of the audience” is not a solid argument. When I taught in public school, I could’ve taught Geography, but I didn’t; I have no idea how to teach Geography. Regardless, I wouldn’t go in a try to teach it based on the fact that my limited knowledge is the voice of the average man, or something like that.

    But, yes, there is this problem about 32 reviewers in one city. There is no city that has this many good reviewers-as Michael mentioned. So, yes, hiring non-theatre types to review is inevitable.

    However, experience or not, we are talking about a human being telling other human beings about human beings. As such, if not for respect for the artist, but for respect for another human being, use some language that is helpful and not hurtful. If reviewers do critique respectfully, artists will take what they say and deal with it- whether they agree or not. In the end, without the artists, the reviewers have nothing to write about. Reviewers get paid for their work regardless if their audience likes it or not. Their work is not dependent on how many people read their reviews. The same can’t be said for the artist. Artists provide the subject matter for reviewers, and in the case of the 1 star, they will also pay for this opinion dearly. So, yes, I think reviewers have a responsibility to the artists.

    Next!

    The star ratings! Oh boy the star ratings! The problem with star ratings is that they are like grades. Don’t get me wrong, grades are an effective way to give merit in such school subjects as math, but in art, it doesn’t work. In fact, I could begin to tell you how the whole notion of giving grades (placing a value on a person based on numbers) is a long broken structure in schools that is slowly being phased out- but that’s another topic for another time.

    Yes, our typical audiences can relate to star ratings, we were of course all graded in school. But, if you’re in arts education, you know that grades don’t work…I don’t know if they ever did. Especially when we’re talking about something that does not have a definitive answer- like art. How else can you explain the backlash about star ratings? As artists, we’re tired of being critiqued with an archaic system, by a system that belongs in another area of study.

    And no, I don’t think a rubric or any form of evaluation is a justification to giving a grade. Now you’re only using words to justify a number.

    The experience of theatre is just that, an experience. You can’t place a value on that.

    Reviewers, you are the wordsmiths, use your words and use them respectfully!

    Thanks for your time,

    And thanks JBJ for getting the ball rolling on this. It’s a hot topic!

  • Stephen McIntyre

    A reviewer once wrote “Mystifyingly well-received.” about a play I co-wrote and was also an actor. Note I did not have to resort to a “…” as I quickly placed the quote in large font on my Fringe posters. To me the point will always be that Fringe performers (et almost al performers) love critics who love them and despise critics who do not. Until you are willing to give up your great review – suck it up and accept your not so great review. You know when you have done all you could to create the best piece possible. You also know when you didn’t. Just once I would like to see some Fringe pr that says “under rehearsed, could use a rewrite or two, should probably not have gotten my neighbour to direct and my idea was conceived over a bottle of baby duck. As is – I hope you can come – you might like what I’ve done…”

  • JBJ

    I know this is all old news now, but if anybody is still following this thread you might like to know that some other critics have some things to say.

    In Utah:

    http://utahtheaterbloggers.com/12316/what-if-there-were-no-critics

    And in London England:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2012/aug/16/edinburgh-fringe-banksy-bloggers

    Passive aggressively yours,
    Anonymous

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