There’s a lot of drama going on behind the scenes of theatre criticism these days.
As journalism has moved online, the number of critics paid to write theatre reviews for mainstream media outlets has dwindled (the same goes for other forms of arts criticism). After 19 years as theatre critic at the National Post, Robert Cushman left that post last September and has not been replaced, leaving only three mainstream outlets — the Star, the Globe and Mail, and NOW magazine — paying critics to review theatre on a regular basis in Toronto. There are other outlets that publish reviews, such as the vibrant site Mooney on Theatre, but their writers are unpaid, and in the case of Mooney the focus is not on theatrical knowledge and expertise but on enthusiasm and a layperson’s approach.
For at least a dozen years, many in our circles have been calling all this a crisis. If you believe that the arts need consistent and thoughtful critical response in order to thrive, then where is that response going to come from if so few people can make any money (let alone a living) doing critical work?
Our response to this situation is to train more critics. Some might find this counter-intuitive — why seek out and nurture new voices if there’s so little work out there? — but we believe that answers to the questions of where and how criticism can thrive on digital media need to be developed in collaboration with younger people, and with populations whose voices have not been heard on Toronto’s mainstream arts criticism scene (which remains decidedly white, male-dominated and ableist).
Those voices are out there — and they want to be heard. When the Toronto-based arts incubator Generator put out a call for its first Performance Criticism Training Program earlier this year, more than 60 aspiring critics applied for six places. Along with Generator’s Kristina Lemieux and Lisa Alves and a number of guest teachers, we led that cohort through an eight-week curriculum that ended in late June. Those six Generator critics are now reviewing productions in the Toronto Fringe for NOW Toronto and The Dance Current magazine.
Now we’re teaching a cohort of 22 University of Toronto undergraduates in an intensive course called Reviewing the Toronto Fringe. You can read a selection of their Fringe reviews here.
Our approach to criticism training calls on Karen’s experience teaching the subject at Brock University, and before that at universities in the UK and Ireland. A basic principle is getting trainee critics straight into the thick of seeing shows and writing about them, while at the same time studying the functions of criticism and where it fits in cultural ecosystems. Serendipitously, these courses have overlapped with the Toronto Fringe Festival, matching these batches of new critical voices with the emerging artistic creators and productions that can use a variety of responses the most.
The participants in our programs have ranged from practising artists, to academics, to emerging journalists, to designers, stage managers, and other technical roles, bringing together a diversity of professional experience as well as lived. Their motivations span from a need to get more writing experience, particularly under strict deadlines, to a desire to improve critical discourse in their own community and to lead that change.
And in the vast majority of the work we’ve seen so far, there has been an undeniable ownership of voice and perspective. The reviews we’ve read are by writers who are eager to place themselves in relationship to those who are making the art and those it is made for, and to respond to that dynamic. Emboldened by the intersectional analysis of identity, privilege and space that social media has fostered, and that is now so much of the life-world of younger generations, these are not writers who are interested in only staying within their “bubble” — they ask why they are expected to join ones that don’t reflect them.
Toronto theatre has a lot of work to do. We’ve seen many writers take up the arduous and ongoing task of pointing out inequality in productions and companies, from indie to mainstream. It has been an eye-opening experience to watch an emerging critic in a wheelchair face challenges just getting in the door.
We don’t have the answers to unlocking new well-paid, full-time theatre criticism positions, but perhaps that’s not where we should be looking. Why not start with creating a current environment of criticism that’s relevant and reflective of the world we live in? Then we, and future generations of critics, can focus on the drama onstage.
Karen Fricker and Carly Maga are Toronto-based freelance theatre critics for the Star. They usually alternate the Wednesday Matinée column. Follow them on Twitter: @KarenFricker2 and @RadioMaga