Do a search for a theatrical production happening in your city right now, and you’re likely to find quite a bit of stuff online. Photos, video clips, actor and director bios, etc. If the show is open and running, you’re also likely to find reviews from the newspapers and, in the last few years, from bloggers.
Bloggers writing about theatre may not seem like a big deal, but it certainly has become one.
A very interesting debate is going on in the dressing rooms and home offices across Canada. On one side of the debate are bloggers who command unique online communities of people looking to connect. On the other side of the debate are actors, directors, dancers and other theatre artists looking to connect with new audiences and grow their numbers.
If both are looking to connect, looking to provoke dialogue and build community, why do they seem so far apart right now?
Let’s travel to Edmonton, which has become the epicentre of this debate. An actor and director named Jeff Haslam left a comment on the blog “Only Here for the Food” after it’s writer, Sharon, gave a review of one of Jeff’s recent shows at Teatro La Quindicina. Mr. Haslam questioned the credibility of a blogger to provide professional criticism of the theatre and later went on to request the blogger not return his company as a patron.
Naturally the blogger was taken aback, as the review really wasn’t bad and she is used to be one of Jeff’s biggest fans.
Pretty big deal, hey?
As someone who makes his living in the theatre and also someone who believes in the incredible force of social media, I feel a sense of duty to both sides. I think that’s how I came to my opinion that both sides have it all wrong.
Haslam is right in that theatre criticism has been an important part of the business and art form for a long time. In order to gain the credibility required to give fair and thoughtful reviews, the critic is expected to have a vast amount of knowledge on the subject they critique, be aware of the trends and current practices at play in the industry and be recognized as a professional in their own field, typically journalism. Seen by the general public as having their finger on the pulse of theatre, potential audience members often make their buying decisions based on a professional recommendation from the critic of their choice. Theatre artists are already taking on a lot by bearing their souls and passions onstage and having to read about it in the papers. The week the reviews all come out are seldom joyous days in dressing rooms, particularly when a critic isn’t keen on the work. Like I’ve said before, having a bad day at work in the theatre is something thousands of people can end up reading about. Not too many other jobs carry that threat. Theatre criticism even has it’s own international body which offers training for new critics. Maybe that should be something online theatre reviewers consider.
The bloggers here also have a point, too. They’re out sipping and sampling from all cultural forms that make up a part of their daily lives. Whether it’s TV, film, theatre, food, wine or community events, they’re heading out into the world in search of experiences they can share with their own community, which wasn’t likely very easy to build. Their readers (or viewers, if it’s a video blog), have followed them on their travels and engaged in a thoughtful dialogue with the author and others on the things that matter to them. In this case, it’s theatre. People talking about theatre only gets more people going to the theatre. Anyone with an ounce of marketing knowledge will agree with me on that. Not to mention, social media is now a part of the landscape and isn’t going anywhere. Today, consumers go online to hear from other consumers that are just like them to find out what to spend money on. That’s why sites like Yelp are so popular.
So why the disconnect? Why does Jeff mention the hurt feelings of his colleagues instead of ignoring it? If it’s about the dialogue and community, why are the bloggers complying with the request to avoid Teatro La Quindicina’s productions?
It’s all ego. On both sides.
As artists we are egotistical in the view that someone (other than the critics we know and hate/love) would come into the place we work and publish their opinions of us for all to read, as if they were an expert on the subject. We like to feel we have some level of expertise… we do it every day.
Egotistical bloggers have a sense of entitlement because of the profound impact their work has had on the media landscape. While society grapples with whether or not a blogger is truly a journalist, the writers themselves feel very strongly that they deserve the same rights and freedoms as those who work at newspapers or other news outlets. Just because they have a smaller paycheque, if one at all, doesn’t make their viewpoint any less relevant.
Somewhere in the middle lies a place where our communities actually rely on each other. Theatre companies and artists are able to engage in discussion and connect with more people than ever before by making themselves and their work accessible to social media. These online communities are made of people who are thinking locally and looking to enrich their existence. They’re young, have money to spend and want to connect with others in order to learn or debate. They often have some level of higher education, as well. Sounds to me like perfect audience members!!!
Bloggers need to make their reviews a part of a conversation, a dialogue. Artists seldom write to critics because traditional media isn’t about community, it’s about “reporting on it”. Blog reviews should seek to gain other people’s opinions in the comments, ask questions about the issues raised in the work, and ultimately suggest their audience check it out, or ignore it. In other words, take the criticism on their work in the way they expect their criticism to be taken.
So I hope Sharon and Mack continue to see Teatro La Quindicina and Jeff Haslam’s shows. I hope Jeff continues to challenge them to a debate on the work that they see and the opinions they’ve shared. These dialogues will not only make for a great read next time you’re online, but also build a richer, more robust theatre community in Canada.
So I welcome your thoughts!! Artists, other bloggers, audience members… let’s talk. How to we build a better relationship between artists and bloggers, social media sites or other non-traditional sources of criticism?