Power! Influence! Drama! Pulling back the curtain on four of Toronto's top theatre critics
The theatre performance du jour in Toronto is Soulpepper’s adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Having just finished their opening night performance, the three actors return to the stage to take their bows. A sparse standing ovation springs up for the 2005 Nobel Prize winner’s 1959 classic. The audience members process what they’ve seen. “That was great,” one says, nudging her neighbour. The actors bow again. Some in the audience continue clapping while others slip into their coats. There are a few here whose opinions will soon be read by thousands of people. To varying degrees, the production will be judged by what they say. A couple of these critics, scattered throughout the theatre, take notes. Some clap, while one, Richard Ouzounian, walks briskly to the exit. He’s in a cab as soon as the play finishes. “Take me to the Toronto Star,” he says.
At the Star, only a few people work this late. Someone’s at the news desk to catch breaking stories. A sports reporter waits for the West Coast scores to come in. Ouzounian sits down and signs into the system. His space is ready: the publicity photo from tonight’s performance and the blank spot he has to fill. He punches in his rating (2.5 stars out of four) and begins pecking out 12.5 inches of copy. After hundreds of reviews, it’s routine. The Star is the last major newspaper in the country to consistently publish next-day reviews, which means Ouzounian’s deadline is tight, especially tonight, since the three-act play’s running time was two hours, 45 minutes.
“How was it?” asks a Star colleague.
“Medium.” He doesn’t look up.
He glances at the night editor. “Kim, could I get that extra inch?”
His editor asks him to save what he has so far to assess length. The typing continues, interrupted only by a few flips through the program to double-check spellings of the actors’ names.
“I need to sum up,” says Ouzounian, removing his glasses. He gazes off into the distance, not looking so much for what to say, but how to fit it into the two remaining lines.
Google search for “symbiosis” returns the desired result; he is using the right word.
Time for reread, still no ending.
Ending is in but the story is two lines too long.
Editor works up a headline. Abandons joke, “Ouzounian Mops up Caretaker.” Replaces with, “Caretaker all Surface Polish.”
Two months before The Caretaker debuted in Toronto, another play, The Lord of the Rings, left the city for London. Just as the Titanic was billed ‘unsinkable’ before it set out on its only voyage, the 2006 Toronto stage production of The Lord of the Rings was called “critic-proof.” One of the biggest undertakings in the theatre industry’s history — estimated at $28 million, with a running cost of around $1 million per week — the extravaganza was expected to run in Toronto for years. Yet even before opening night, skeptics were wagering that it would never float. And they were right. Like the Titanic, The Lord of the Rings was technically unmatched, well-financed and received international media attention, but lacked essential elements that would allow it to overcome unforeseen obstacles: a 10 per cent higher-than-expected budget, some poor casting choices and an unwieldy opening running time of nearly four hours. Both stories worked better as movies.
The Lord of the Rings closed just over five months after opening, and producer Kevin Wallace needed someone to blame. In a press conference announcing the show’s closure, he said, “I would not discount the role of the critics. In the Toronto press, the vote was three to one [against the show]. That became an issue.” The only thoroughly positive review among Toronto’s four major dailies came from the National Post’s Robert Cushman. This near unanimous lack of confidence in the show made critics an easy target for the failure of a project that was supposed to reaffirm Toronto’s place in the theatre world and bring in millions of dollars.
While there is no doubt critics have some influence over what theatre audiences go to see, there is debate over how far their power reaches. Don Rubin, theatre scholar and former Star and CBC critic, says critics weren’t to blame for the short run. “It really was not a good show,” he says, “and afterwards, the producer said, ‘There were real problems,’ essentially saying the critics were right.” Rubin says the most powerful factor in its failure was negative word of mouth. “When there is a general consistency between major reviewers, they have some power,” he says, “but if the critics are split, the biggest determining factor is word of mouth.”
Ouzounian has just filed his review of The Caretaker and it will appear in tomorrow’s paper. But next-day reviewing has its drawbacks. Ouzounian doesn’t have the space or time for the same consideration as those who get a day or two. Though the constraints — quick decision-making, and the need for an immediate response — can also make his opinion useful to readers. When the person who sits next to the critic goes to work tomorrow, he’ll tell a few friends how the play was. But the critic will tell tens of thousands of people, including the actors, the theatre’s sponsors and many potential audience members. Ouzounian’s review will be the first read, but by the same time next week critics from across the city will have weighed in: The Globe and Mail’s Kamal Al-Solaylee, the Post’s Cushman, the Toronto Sun’s John Coulbourn and Jon Kaplan from Now, a Toronto alternative weekly.
Irving Wardle, theatre critic for several major American publications over the years, said criticism “completes the circle of public attention.” There is something incomplete about a work “until its existence also extends to the reading public.”
A theatrical review’s impact can be complex. American theatre scholar Richard H. Palmer wrote in his 1988 book, The Critic’s Canon, that the critic’s job is to “serve as a consumer aid, to document an artistic event, to judge the degree of success of a performance, to provide background and commentary, to instruct potential theatregoers, to entertain, to offer suggestions to performers and producers and to advocate more support for the theatre.”
Palmer set a high standard, but Rubin thinks the response to a work of art can be reduced to three simple questions. “First,” he says, “you must ask, ‘What was the work of art attempting to do?’” That seems simple enough. “Second,” he continues, “is to ask, ‘How well was it done?’ or ‘Did it achieve what it was attempting to do?’” That, of course, is a matter of personal opinion, but only to a point. Even if a critic hates a performance, the general knowledge the critic has of theatre will help determine if it was staged and performed well. “The third question is, ‘Was it worth doing?’”
With this third question, theatre criticism turns from conventional reportage into something else. One of Rubin’s editors in the 1970s told him that to write about theatre, a person needed the same skills as a journalist reporting on a fire. “No one wants the reporter’s opinion of the fire,” he said. Rubin argues that it is not that simple. Good critics include their subjective response in reviews, because as Rubin says, “In arts writing, you are responding to your own humanity.”
Rubin concocted three labels for theatre critics. The first is ‘reporter.’ The theatre reporter, he says, is “a good collector of facts.” The second is ‘reviewer.’ This person is “sent to the theatre to literally see the performance again in print, for people who didn’t see it, and to give a professional response.” This second title implies more education, knowledge and context. The third label, according to Rubin, is ‘critic,’ which is best suited to “someone who is often trained in theatre and talks about ideas in relationship to the art of theatre.” Rubin thinks most Toronto critics fall somewhere between reviewer and critic, depending on lead-time and approach.
Theatre critics in Toronto have been blamed for closing blockbusters, praised for bolstering sales in small theatres and accused of writing with too little context. Toronto poet and playwright R. M. Vaughan thinks that although critics are important, they alone do not determine a show’s success. “It is the holy grail to figure out what that formula is,” he says, especially for publicists. There might be a correlation between good reviews and ticket sales, but what makes a show popular is not consistent. Frank Rich, reviewing for The New York Times, was arguably the most powerful theatre critic in North America. But looking back on his 13 years of reviews, he noticed inconsistencies. He gave rave reviews to All’s Well That Ends Well and The Iceman Cometh but they only saw 38 and 55 performances respectively. He gave a production of 42nd Street a negative review and it still went on to a run of nearly 3,500 performances.
Many shows have selling points, like popular songs or a major star — Mamma Mia! and The Phantom of the Opera, to name two — that will, up to a point, attract audiences no matter what. Where the critics can have greater influence is in reviewing smaller theatre productions. Toronto playwright Sky Gilbert, founder of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 28 years ago and the newly launched Hammertheatre in Hamilton, says the Globe and the Star “had enormous power over Buddies from the very beginning” because the company was financially strapped. “We couldn’t afford much advertising,” he says. “Every time we got a review we got a kind of visibility we could never buy.” Since Gilbert’s productions dealt with provocative, often sexual subject matter, what critics said really did matter. “People have no idea what they’re getting into,” he says, “and look to a critic to guide them.”
When compared to other arts, Vaughan agrees “theatre is one art form where critics really have power.” Unlike film, for example, theatre performances always change. Marlon Brando delivers his lines the same way every time The Godfather plays, but a theatre actor might have an off night or sore throat, which could seriously affect a review. Theatre critics also have a local focus. “Julia Roberts is not going to read a bad review in a Toronto paper and get mad,” Ouzounian points out. The negative assessment might affect sales in one city, but the film is usually playing across the continent and beyond, so one bad review doesn’t matter. In a local theatre production, with local actors and a local director involved, the critic has different responsibilities and pressures.
Sometimes reviews don’t meet with the most civil of responses. Rubin says he’s “lost friends” over things he’s written. While attending a play with his family, Ouzounian was accosted by a belligerent director whose play he’d reviewed. And the Globe’s Al-Solaylee almost had to get a restraining order after receiving threats relating to a review. A gentle person, Al-Solaylee is soft-spoken at times to the point of inaudibility. Yet one complaint he gets about his writing is “that it’s bitchy,” he says. “I never thought of myself as mean. There is a fine line between who I am and what I do.” His approach is almost the opposite of Ouzounian’s. Al-Solaylee has a PhD in Victorian literature but no real practical theatre experience, while Ouzounian spent over 35 years performing and directing in theatre. Al-Solaylee does extensive research. For The Caretaker, he re-read the script, read essays on Pinter and reviews of the play from years past. “I do all the research so I can get to a point in the theatre where I’m not worried about getting lost in the story — I can just watch it from an emotional perspective.”
On the other hand, Ouzounian does almost no research, saying, “My life is my prep.” Al-Solaylee has a little longer — his deadline for The Caretaker was the next day at noon — to submit his reviews. Ouzounian writes most of his reviews in less than an hour.
So while Ouzounian sped back to the office after The Caretaker, Al-Solaylee got home at around 11:30 p.m. and walked his dog. He says this pet has “softened him up,” although some might find it hard to imagine what his writing was like beforehand. Al-Solaylee is the latest of tough Globe critics — before him came Kate Taylor and Ray Conlogue. In a 2005 review, Al-Solaylee called one director’s work “rudimentary and clichéd to a point that verges on beginner’s theatre.” With a large national audience, he’s one of the country’s most prominent theatre critics. “I’m aware of the responsibility,” he says.
Ouzounian and Al-Solaylee differ in reviewing strategy, but one trait they and other Toronto critics share is a healthy disdain for the rating system. Ouzounian despises it, finding it a challenge to put a star rating on a play, especially if it’s mediocre (as was his verdict on the new Soulpepper production). The star system (‘Ns’ in the case of Now) makes theatre reviews, like film reviews, more consumer-friendly. “I don’t know what that has to do with criticism,” Rubin says. “It’s the dumbing down of criticism in this country.” While star ratings provide a reader service, they’re often most helpful to publicists, giving them something shiny and simple to put on posters and advertisements.
Some people in the theatre industry also worry about the ‘dumbing down’ aspect. Andy McKim, associate artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, complains that reviews have become too much like market reports. “I wish we were in a position where critics were more contextual, as opposed to writing consumer reviews,” he says. “Critics have the opportunity and unique perspective to have insight into local work, which is not always realized.” But not everyone in the business is quite as understanding. John Karastamatis, director of communications at Mirvish Productions, which presented The Lord of the Rings, pays less and less attention to reviewers. “Their taste is just as unreliable as anyone else’s,” he says. “They know fuck-all — how dare they tell me if I’d like a play. They’re just filling up space in the newspaper, space that’s only there because we bought ads.”
The relationship between critics and the theatre community is touchy. Al-Solaylee insists “critics are not a part of the theatre community,” and sees any close involvement as compromising. Jon Kaplan of Now is quite the opposite.
He happily admits, “Many of my friends are in theatre,” yet he doesn’t see this relationship as a problem for his reviewing. Instead, he sees himself as an integral part of the theatre community. He doesn’t even like the word ‘critic.’ He prefers to be called a “reviewer” or “theatre writer,” labels which are more suitable to his role as “nurturer” and “up-lifter to young playwrights and actors” in the theatre community.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for Kaplan’s cheerleading is that while the Star and Globe tend to focus on large theatre productions, even sending critics to New York and Chicago to scout important American productions, Kaplan focuses on small local theatre, where criticism can be taken personally. Ouzounian’s closeness to the theatre community was a charge against him when he began reviewing. After so many years in Canadian theatre, some feared he’d go easy on former associates. He’s aware of this, and proudly tells the story of one of his actor friends being asked if he’d given her special treatment. “She said, ‘Do you want to see the knife wounds in my back?’”
The only special treatment the reader wants is consistency. To read a review is to engage in a dialogue with a critic, and usually it doesn’t matter if the reader disagrees. Al-Solaylee believes that kind of regularity applies to critics in relation to each other. Rubin thinks diverse opinion is good for the theatre community. “Toronto is healthy in terms of critics,” he says. “We have four major dailies, as well as weekly arts magazines, all doing consistent reviewing.”
Of course, it’s easy to discuss the strength and cultural value of theatre criticism in Toronto when you haven’t felt the lash yourself. After decades of enduring reviews, good and bad, Gilbert is less forgiving. In his memoir he calls critics “sad, unattractive people — nerds,” and “the kind of kids you used to make fun of at school.” He writes, “I won’t say I have a love- hate relationship with them because that would be a lie. I hate them.”
Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.
by David Pratt
David Pratt was the Associate Editor for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.