As I See It: Why We Need Critics

A few weeks back there was a post made to the Praxis Theatre blog, referencing a piece that George Hunka had made on his blog about dismantling the critical apparatus in the theatre world, by either sending all of the critics on one-year vacations or just refusing to let them into our shows. It's taken me a while to figure out exactly how to respond to this, but I'm finally getting around to it.

As someone who straddles the worlds of critic and artist, I've had to put a lot of thought into what exactly the role of the critic should be and I can say with all sincerity that we do not need to get rid of critics. We need more critics. Better critics. What we don't need any more of is reviewers, which is what the major publications of the city have on staff. Writing a piece that tells someone whether or not they should spend money to take in a piece of art is not criticism and the people who pen these articles are not critics, despite the fact that the publications that they work for, in an attempt to grant them some level of legitimacy, assign them this title. While reviews can be humourous, insightful, and (especially when they are scathing) quite fun to read, they do not constitute critical writing and including them in this category diminishes the value and importance of actual theatre criticism.

Criticism, whether written about theatre or any other art form, is writing which is designed to accompany the work, NOT writing designed to tell people whether or not they should see it in the first place. True criticism is written under the assumption that your reading audience has seen or plans to see the work you are talking about and should inform the viewer's experience of the work, not to place a value judgement on the work itself. That doesn't mean that everything a critic has to say about a work is going to be positive, however the minute a critic starts telling their reader that they should or should not see a work, it ceases to become criticism and becomes a review.

Criticism should do several things for its audience. The first is to contextualize the work they are writing about, both within the practice of the particular artist they are covering and also within the greater context of other artists working in the same tradition. Critics who are good at what they do know what is happening on the world art scene. They read voraciously what other critics are writing about art. They travel to see work in different cities. They have an in-depth knowledge of the history of the discipline they are writing about. They also have at least a general sense of what is happening in the art world outside of their particular area of expertise. Perhaps most importantly, they talk to artists about what they are doing with their work.

True criticism should be a guide to the work being talked about. In addition to providing context it should clarify the intention of the artist. The reviews that I find most offensive are the ones that can be summed up with the phrase "I didn't understand this piece and therefore it is bad art". In an academic setting, which is about the only place in Canada where true theatre criticism takes place, if a paper was presented where the author said that they didn't understand a piece of work and that it therefore had no value they would be laughed off the stage. It is your job as a critic to understand the work you are writing about inside and out, as well as having a clear grasp of the artist's intention behind it. It's fine to judge the intention and execution of the piece in relation to the artist's practice and context in which they are working, but to simply throw up your hands, shrug your shoulders, and tell people it sucks is stupid, lazy, offensive, and is the thing I believe artists should truly be intolerant of.

When I say we need more critics, what I mean is that we need more people generating the kind of writing about theatre I've outlined above. I would love it if at every show I went to see, I was handed a critical essay along with the ticket and program that would actually engage me in the work in a way that I might not be if I just saw the work on its own. I would surmise that if this kind of writing was provided to reviewers, in addition to the company bios and flashy photos that normally pad a press-kit, we might also see a reduction in bad reviews as it would improve their understanding of what they are seeing. I would also suggest that this would be a considerably more effective tactic in dealing with the phenomenon of bad reviews than banning reviewers from seeing our shows. There have been a few companies that have tried this in the past and it hasn't worked. If a publication wants a journalist to cover a show, they'll get them in the door one way or another, even if it means having them pay for a ticket rather then getting them a media comp or having them go in disguise as Kate Taylor used to when she attended shows at companies that had banned her.

Ultimately, unless you're producing work for a large company that has a huge budget for marketing, you need to get reviews of your work as they are the primary means of reaching your audience. Rather than hate the reviewers, try to work with them by providing them with as much information as possible about your work and the context in which you are working, assuming they haven't gone to the trouble to do this themselves. Find a critic to generate this material and include it in your press kit. Have your publicist follow-up with them to ask if they had questions about the piece or found things confusing and offer to talk to them about it. And perhaps most importantly, don't hate them. Reviewers are just doing a job that they get paid for which, by the way, is the lowest paying form of journalism. It's not going to guarantee that you'll never have a bad review of your work, but at the very least it will ensure that you won't have a bad review simply because the person writing your show doesn't have a fucking clue what they are talking about. And if we can, at the very least, avoid those kinds of the reviews it's worth the effort.
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Marty Bragg is Leaving Canadian Stage



Artistic Producer Martin Bragg to leave after 2008-2009 season

- Statement from Martin Bragg, Artistic Producer, The Canadian Stage Company -

I am announcing today that our upcoming 2008-2009 season – my 17th with The Canadian Stage Company – will be my last. My current contract with the Company expires in June 2009, and I have informed the Board of Directors that I will not be seeking a renewal.

After more than a decade and a half of great artistic achievement, and times of prosperity and challenge, I have decided that it is time for me to turn the keys over to new leadership. I have been very fortunate to have forged many treasured relationships with this Company and, for that, I will be forever grateful.

The Canadian Stage Company is now on a strong footing going forward. The Company has received important artistic recognition for our 2007-2008 season, with 21 Dora Mavor Moore Award- nominations, and we are poised to present a very powerful 2008-2009 season of contemporary theatre on all of our stages. This begins with A Midsummer Night’s Dream later this month, Nightwood Theatre’s Wild Dogs in September and Frost/Nixon in October. We have a strong vision and strategy in place for the Company and next year will mark the beginning of our new Berkeley Street Project, a concept and idea of which I am particularly proud.

Our plans for the upcoming season are well in hand; we will have all remaining shows cast by mid-July; and we have begun planning for our exciting new season in 2009-2010. I will also be supporting the Company’s search for new leadership in whatever way I can. It is our plan to effect a smooth transition.

My immediate focus will be to lead the organization through next season and to present one of the strongest seasons of theatre in the history of The Canadian Stage Company, while I plan the next chapter of my career.

I would like to thank all of the artists, staff and our Board of Directors, past and present, for their ongoing support of this Company. To our audiences, donors, funders and sponsors - please accept my deepest thanks for helping to make Canadian Stage one of the most important theatre companies in Canada. These past 17 years have truly been the highlight of my career.


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Nadia Ross is Talking to Chris Dupuis!

After the craziness of the FTA settled down, I had the chance to dialogue the Nadia Ross, Artistic Director of STO Union. I caught their new show 7 Important Things, the third section of the 'How Can We Live' trilogy, and decided to pose 7 Important Questions to Nadia about her work, why some people hate what she does, and interviewing piles of Kleenex.

Check it out!

For someone who has never seen it before, describe the aesthetic of your work.

Stark, primitive and restrained with a practical design. We try not to present work that has an iconic feel to it – something that must be submitted to. We try to create something more porous, which can be entered into. I am interested in the authentic, which appears imperfect and flawed from the perspective of ‘the Grand Performance/Well-made Play’, but, to me is much more beautiful.

What artists working in performance today are you inspired by? Can you speak a bit about what they do and how they have influenced you?

What happened to me was that I was hugely inspired for a couple of years when I was just starting out in the theatre, but then, just like an infatuation, the feeling faded. That being said, I love to see the work of Rimini Protokoll (Berlin). They use people from the general public and they really know how to frame each person so that they ‘come out’ beautifully. They also have a really nice sense for design. I just saw Raimund Hoghe at the FTA. He is the hunchback dancer/choreographer. There was something extremely vulnerable in his work, and, again, very restrained. He is a hunchback who threw himself into the dance. Just that was beautiful for me. But it was his restraint that was truly masterful. There are more companies, like Lone Twin in England… When I started out, it was Robert Wilson, Heiner Mueller, the Wooster Group. In Canada, I’ve always liked Daniel Brooks’ work for its elegance and intelligence. I like Darren O’Donnell (provocateur) and Jacob Wren (intelligent and eccentric), to name a few.

The first STO Union show I ever saw, I didn't like. The improvisatory nature of the performance left me feeling like the artists on stage hadn't put that much thought into what they were doing. It was only after seeing more of the company's work that I began to understand the careful choreography that goes into creating a work which gives off the energy of being improvisatory. How do you respond to audience members who, being unfamiliar with the way in which the company works, respond to your work like this?

In my experience, I’ve met some audiences that like to be taken away by a strong narrative and the perfect/repeatable performance. They like the feeling of having their minds and imaginations taken for a ride through a well-made illusion. That’s just their cup of tea and when it is well done, it is a great experience. Often, this is a cultural difference: audiences in Germany, for example, are more at ease with different kinds of work than audiences in other parts of the world.

For those who don’t know how to approach our work but our willing to try, I say to them that one of the best ways to connect with the work is to stay in the moment. I think that the struggle people may be having is that their minds are trying to connect the dots and make a traditional story out of what they are seeing. They want to make sense of things right away and to feel secure in the thought that the performer is not going to make any mistakes – is not going to be humiliated. They came to see something solid, perfect; they don’t want to be reminded of our humanness, and they don’t want to be brought into the present moment. They want to be taken over and not participate at some level. Some people hate the feeling of ‘not knowing’ – it feels a little bit like a kind of death. If one can relax enough into this kind of open system, they often find that they’ve ended up somewhere they didn’t expect. This happens because they’ve allowed themselves to become more vulnerable, because usually that is what comes with ‘not knowing’. The audience’s vulnerability touches us onstage, and we also become more vulnerable. A kind of intimacy can ensue: it is a tangible feeling in the room and it is really nourishing for humans to experience this kind of intimacy in a public setting.

One of the things I've seen in several of your works is a section in which the performers dance. At those moments, there was a certain feeling of relief that I experienced as an audience member, as if that was my opportunity to process the experience I'd just had during a dance-break. Why is it important to you to include that element in your work and what do you feel it brings to the audience?

Dance is just another kind of energy, one that has a ‘release’ feeling to it. Release is always good at some point in an evening, in my opinion. It’s healthy. It’s fun and, in our case, we like our dance to be entertaining. I like a bit of entertainment with my art.

In this specific show, I saw the melding of your lecture-style aesthetic with sections that functioned more like conventional play scenes. As an artist currently working on a project that involves this blend of different styles, I'm especially interested to know more about your process of combining the two, the impetus behind it, and any pitfalls or wrong turns you may have taken during the process.

I look for different types of performance acts. A lecture is a performance, a eulogy is a performance, a dramatic scene is a performance, a stand-up comedy act is a performance, etc. They all have their own rules and each has a certain flavor. I have no problem at all butting up two very different things against each other. That, to me, is when things get most interesting. The play becomes more like a score, than a story. So I approach it a bit more like music. The music of 7 Important Things is jaded, has sharp edges – a kind of broken melody. So the sections that I use are meant to create this kind of discord: a beautiful song that has been somehow broken; it is similar to how the main character has experienced life.

The greatest pitfall, which applies to all kinds of processes, is the one where the director is only seeing what he/she wants to see and not what is really there. Because we don’t work from an already written play, there is more chance for this kind of delusion to enter the process. For example, Jacob Wren, Tracy Wright and I spent an afternoon working on an interview section where we interviewed different piles of Kleenex – anthropomorphizing piles of tissue paper. We were having a lot of fun so it was tempting to think that the work was good. But, we came to our senses. A German director I was training under years ago used to repeat: ‘don’t be stupid, you are stupid enough’. Another German who I study meditation with says: “when the animal is ready, slaughter it’. A third German I worked with used to say: “You can only do good work when you know where you come from”. The same director would also repeat to me: ‘don’t be afraid of not-knowing what to do” And, a final quote from another German director I studied with at school: “avoid doubling” (i.e. indicating).

This show is based on the life of a real person, as I believe some of your previous works have been. Can you talk about the process of creating a work that is based on a living human being who is part of the process? Are there certain challenges associated with that that are different from, for example, creating a show about someone who is dead or that you've never met before?

7 Important Things is the last of the 'How Can We Live' trilogy. For these three plays, I was interested in a process that I’ve seen over and over again in meditation groups, and which I find riveting. This is a process where someone who is blocked, who doesn’t know how to proceed, goes in front of a group and just reports what is happening in their body, their mind and their emotions. They catch a kind of thread that they begin to follow, simply by reporting what is actually happening now. The thread is by no means a traditional narrative, but it is most definitely engaging as a story, one that is made up of bits and pieces that eventually form a whole. By observing this thread, things start to shift. The thread leads the person to some truth about themselves or their lives that they are resisting or a delusion that is making them sick. The moment they can finally see it, than the entire story takes a different turn: things open up, the sun comes out, space occurs. Their awareness is finally able to see what they’ve been avoiding because they’ve been present, moment to moment, following and reporting their inner states as they shift, as opposed to leading or controlling what is happening to them. In the vast majority of cases, the trajectory goes from suffering because of a delusion, meeting up with the resistance to seeing the delusion, experiencing the resistance openly, things shifting naturally because they’ve been seen, and the letting go into unknown territory: the empty space that the illusion was defending against.

With the trilogy, I was experimenting with this basic process and its potential applications for the theatre. George Acheson, the central figure in 7 Important Things, was willing to bring his own life to the process. The main challenge I faced is that George doesn’t really agree with the process that I’ve outlined above. So, he wasn’t willing to really ‘go there’. That created a similar discord that I had with Jacob Wren when we created ‘Revolutions in Therapy’. Jacob doesn’t really see much value in the meditation stuff that I am so interested in. So, this kind of opposition was integrated in the work, which makes the work more complex. It polarizes it, which I like. I like that because it then offers audiences a choice: they can become polarized (like/dislike) or they can see if they can ‘hold both sides’ and not ‘choose’. That, for me, was the answer to the Trilogy’s question.

What is the space that you see performance occupying within our contemporary TV watching, Internet-surfing, DVD-renting culture? More specifically, if an artist wants to create in performance, what do you think they need to do that differentiates their work from the world of increasingly accessible digital entertainment?

I have heard it said that Theatre is version 1.0, TV is version 2.0, film is version 3.0 and video games are version 4.0 of the ‘observer/observed’ fictionalized experience. In some ways I feel a kinship with people who do traditional crafts, like quilting or looming. I think that it’s important to keep the traditions of the theatre alive during times when it is not very popular. I also think it’s important to continue to experiment with it. It has the potential of revealing the shared human experience in a tangible way, because it involves the body and real time and actual space. I believe that to be reminded of our shared experience is really important for the health of our communities. So, to me, the aspect of sharing is key, as is actual spaciousness. The other mediums you mention above don’t involve much actual, real space. They also have elements of sharing, but to a different, and often lesser degree. They tend to re-enforce a kind of me-ness. The benefit of the shared experience is that it offers the chance to not feel that me-ness for a brief moment. It is actually a relief. In my experience, the release from me-ness reveals a space of incredible potential.
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Time and Space

When I made the decision to start blogging about four months ago I spent a long time racking my brain for what to call the whole enterprise. I wanted something that was distinctive and yet all encompassing in terms of the myriad of different issues I wanted to address. I had a few different ideas that I ran past my group of people that I run ideas by and eventually just settled on calling it Chris Dupuis. Far from being some sort of megalomaniacal gesture, it was really just a lack of creativity on my part; I couldn't come up with anything better at the time.

Now months later, seeing my own name at the top of the page every time I log on is starting to grate on me. When I initially conceived this project it was to be about giving time and space to a range of different voices and opinions, not just mine. In the coming months, I'm hoping to expand things a little bit, and start getting some other people to post things here. With that in mind, still having the blog appear under my own name did feel a bit megalomaniacal so I started to think about what the fuck else I could call it.

The two things that seem to be the hardest for artists to find in life are the time to create their work and the space in which to work and present what they've created. Certainly in my own artistic practice, seeking out those two things has been a difficult and ongoing battle, superseded perhaps only by the struggle to make ends meet. Though I'd love to start giving away money here, I've yet to win big at 6/49, so calling the thing Cash Grab didn't seem particularly logical either. After a stoned walk up the mountain inspiration stuck and I decided to re-christen the whole enterprise Time and Space.

I'm not sure exactly what else is going to come here over the next few months, however I do know that it can and will be a space in which ideas are exchanged, minds are expanded, and more likely than not a few catfights will ensue. Together as a community we can create this space. We'll all just have to work at finding the time.
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Biking in MTL

I've been pretty quiet the last few weeks here. Partially because I have a lot of other things I've been working on, but also because I've been spending a lot of time biking around Montreal. The city of Montreal has created two proper bike lanes that run through the downtown area, one running north/south and the other east/west. When I say "proper" bike lanes, I mean the kind with a concrete barrier separating cyclists from vehicles and a total lack of parked cars to open their doors into your path. They've done something especially clever here that I've never seen elsewhere, by grouping the bike lanes together on the same side of the road, meaning there's less space taken up over all.

It's ironic that Montreal, a city that lives under the weight of winter for so much of the year and consequently has a much shorter biking season than Toronto, would be so much more progressive with its infrastructure. The beauty of the whole situation is that you don't need to build a whole lot of them for the plan to be effective. If Toronto had two dedicated bike lanes cutting through downtown, most cyclists would have to problem going a few blocks out of their way to catch them, since they'd save a lot of time and hassle, not to mention injuries.

Anyone feel like lobbying Toronto City Council to build a few of these beauties?

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