Turning off the Ghost Light at AB Theatre Guide

ghost light

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine suggested I share my uncut theatre reviews in a blog. Hoping to make a positive contribution to the theatre community, I decided I would write only “Good Reviews”. I did my best to cover as much theatre around the province as possible to encourage audiences to dip their toes in the rich theatrical waters of both Edmonton AND Calgary, and everywhere in between.

But my efforts soon groaned under the weight of immense negativity, resulting in a year of radio silence on this blog. I’ve pinpointed three major contributors to my recent disenchantment with theatre and review writing which I hope other “theatre people” will relate to:

ONE– I found good theatre very hard to come by. There were a handful of truly stunning performances, but those few beacons of artistry were soon engulfed by a flood of terrible theatre experiences and my positivity waned. I’m not just talking about smaller theatre companies or younger emerging artists performing their way through inevitable growing pains of professional self-discovery. I found the big houses were among the most disappointing offenders. These illustrious pillars of the theatre community seemed to have little or no interest in their audiences. I saw more self-indulgent bull***t than my spleen could handle and the immense privilege certain theatre companies enjoyed was, in my view, “most notoriously abused”. Where was the truth? Where was the story-telling? Though tempted, I still believed that bad reviews were hardly constructive and I found a previous statement of mine to be all too true: it is infinitely more difficult to write a fair review for a lacklustre production with redeeming features than an unnecessarily scathing review for a mediocre performance. My writing, and my theatre-going, ground to a halt.

Two– The arts columns of many local papers slashed their theatre coverage, if not eliminating them all together. The voices of much-loved reviewers, whose passion for story-telling had stretched through decades of critical writing for theatre, went quiet. This felt like a big fat strip of duct tape over the mouths of all theatre-lovers. The professional platform for artistic discourse became dangerously shallow, often with room for only one perspective, and theatre articles in the major papers became more about advertising than journalism. Critics, though often mercurial, are vital contributors to our theatre communities and a lack of investment in our critics can point towards a lack of interest in ideas. When we are removed from the conversation, when we are discouraged from sharing our opinions, those artistic mediums which are designed to provoke discussion inevitably lose their purpose.

Three– World-wide political upheaval and scathing professional scandal became daily headlines, and it was exhausting to behold. Current events seemed bent on championing extreme views, polarizing the masses and opening deep chasms between “left” and “right”, between “us” and “them”. Brexit had artists across the UK in a panic as the clock began to tick down on their right to freedom of movement, the removal of which will no doubt paralyze inter-cultural collaborations in Europe. The American election devastated women, minorities, and sane people the world over. We looked on as the glass ceiling, rather than shattering, was reinforced by an unforgiving steel frame.  Trump administration has since realized more of our nightmares than we thought possible. Trumpian productions of Julius Caesar seemed more than topical, incurring the wrath of POTUS’ temper-tantrum thumbs and bombarding innocent Shakespeare groups nation-wide with undeserved hate-mail.

Then, the entertainment industry was set ablaze by a series of explosive sexual harassment allegations. The stories of artists who have suffered under the twisted power structures of “the business” have provided kindling to a veritable bonfire of sexual harassment campaigns, and it feels like this is just the beginning.

Despite these lowering clouds, the theatre community has well and truly trounced all of my excuses to disengage.

Good, even great theatre is still engaging audiences around the province and some major changes in the “Big Houses” have led to some of the most exciting and diverse theatrical initiatives in the province.

Reviewers have branched out from major media sources to create their own platforms for critical discussion, free from censorship and sponsor-centric agendas.

And although each day seems to bring a new sexual harassment scandal, the performing arts sector’s proactive approach to discussion and policy reform has shown unprecedented mutual support. Theatre professionals are fighting marginalization and endemic sexual harassment from every angle. Intimacy directors are becoming major players in the rehearsal room, allowing theatre to continue to take risks whilst also keeping actors safe. Female identifying artists are getting more attention than ever as statistics begin to show just how male-dominated our industry is. The stories of minority groups are charging through adversity and onto the world stage, giving us some of the most beautiful theatre we’ve seen.

Deep tremors of change reverberate through every aspect of our world, seemingly hell-bent on exposing and exploiting our differences, but theatre has proven it has a major part to play (get it?) in reminding us just how much we have in common.

I decided I needed to extend the reach of this blog to include more than just my own voice. I’ve enlisted the help of some fantastic theatre-goers to contribute their own “Good Reviews”, covering more local theatre from different local perspectives. I hope Alberta Theatre Guide will grow into community of reviewers who can provide dynamic critical responses to our vibrant arts scene and encourage us all to get out and see more theatre.

This blog will also be featuring a special segment highlighting gender representation statistics in our province. The study breaks down local productions by ratios of male/female identifying actors, directors, playwrights and designers, as well as evaluating the shows on the Bechdel Test, asking questions like “Are there two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man”?

So after a year of silence, here’s to the revival of Alberta Theatre Guide with the addition of some brilliant new reviewers! Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

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