November 4, 2011

Burning Bridges aka Reviewing Theatre

Over the past five years, I've called myself an actor. I've been ridiculously lucky enough to perform with Prairie Theatre Exchange, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Shakespeare in the Ruins, Sarasvati Productions, and Echo Theatre - among others.

More importantly and impressively, I`ve been able to perform with my own company, Theatre by the River. We`ve produced some of the most socially relevant, artistically provocative shows to see the light of day in Winnipeg. I`m immensely proud of what we`ve accomplished and what I`ve been able to do.

But you can`t make a living as an actor in Winnipeg. You really can`t - not unless you`re prepared to travel elsewhere. Or you`re some kind of golden god. Or you have a sugar daddy or momma. The reality is you (hopefully) land a few weeks of work a year, then between shows you work wherever you can get a job. I've poured coffee, been a legislative assistant, built fences, rejigged locks and stacked boxes for eight hours a day (among other things). As I get older - and my financial plans get more ambitious - I can`t live that life anymore.

So I`ve quit. I`m not taking theatre gigs anymore. I`ve enrolled in Red River College`s Creative Communications program to take my `career` in a new direction. But I still want to maintain some connection to theatre.

SO I`ve been tempted to write reviews. Reviewers have an amazing influence over what kind of theatre gets produced (or at least celebrated) in Winnipeg. Reviewing would give me an outlet to not only influence the Winnipeg theatre scene, it would let me do what theatre has always let me do; try to artistically unravel the question "why are we here?"


The problem is that, as a reviewer, I would be in an awesome position of power. Reviews can make or break a show, particularly a small independent show that doesn`t have guaranteed subscribers or operating funds. And the Winnipeg independent theatre scene is populated by my friends - people I love. Sooner or later, as a reviewer I will be required to say what I think about their shows, which isn`t always good things. Mom`s old axiom ``If you can`t say anything nice`` goes out the window when you`re a reviewer.

So I`m hesitant. I really want to stay in touch with theatre while not actually being a performer. And I think there is room for an actor turned reviewer in Winnipeg. But I also don`t want to burn bridges with my friends. I`m putting together an evening of discussion between theatre reviewers and producers - partly because I think a chat would be healthy, but mostly because I want to bounce my thoughts off some qualified minds. Stay tuned for details.

Do you have any thoughts on this? What would you ask a theatre reviewer? What would you ask a local artistic director? Do you even care what reviewers have to say?


  1. Matt, I completely support this. Check out my recent blog after a seminar on Theatre Reviewing with Andrew Dickson from The Guardian. What theatre needs is people who understand what they are watching to offer critical analysis on it, not simply a sports or pop culture writer who got stuck there due to staffing numbers.

    And if you base your comment on fact and analysis, not on feeling (i liked it, I hated it) then it will always be valued. Read lots of Kenneth Tynan and Lyn Gardner and then go on my friend!!

    x kendra

  2. Hi Matt,
    I'm quite sad to read that you may actually stop performing but I have immense respect for the debate you are having with yourself about whether or not you SHOULD start reviewing. To me, that's the best sign that you might actually be good at it.

    You've raised some good points (so has Kendra) but here are the most important reasons to encourage you to review.

    Every community needs critical analysis of the work it creates. No one gets any better if we get one or the same viewpoint every time. The artists and their audiences must insist that the local media request (and pay for) such reviews as an important part of their role in the cultural life of the community.

    Also, a theatre review may be key to a funder, sponsor or supporter getting to know a company or an individual's work. It is a financial necessity for artists and companies to be evaluated/analyzed/celebrated by reviewers and the more people in that pool, the better.

    I live in a place where the reviewing pool is more like a teapot. I've had to take my company on the road to get a variety of reviewers and audiences to see (and applaud) our work and, FINALLY, we are getting supported at home on the word of those people. It was the single BEST thing I've done with the company; it was also expensive.

    So please review, review, review. You're not going to like everything...if you do, who will believe you...but you will be adding a very important voice to the critical community. You will start conversations. You could inspire the artists in your community to take on new challenges. You may, however, get invited to fewer cast parties.
    All the best,