Culturebot’s Canadian Adventure

On Thursday February 20, 2014 I headed up to Brock University in St. Catharine’s Ontario for a colloquium on theater criticism as part of their Walker Cultural Leader Series where the featured guest was Jill Dolan, the Annan Professor of English and Professor of Theater at Princeton University and author of the Feminist Spectator blog.

I had been invited by Brock’s newly arrived theater professor Karen Fricker, along with London’s Maddy Costa, to take part in three days of discussion and debate. While I had met Karen once before in person, I had never met Jill or Maddy before, though we all knew each other from the Internet. We met over lunch on Thursday and within minutes we were off on a whirlwind of conversation that lasted until our final panel concluded on Saturday afternoon – and a bit after that as well.

Karen had taken the notion of “embedded criticism” – a term coined by Andrew Haydon and subsequently borrowed by yours truly in my essay on criticism for the 21st Century – and used it as a framework for her theater criticism class.  The students – among many other activities – started a group blog at where they published reviews of shows they saw and documented their experiences “embedded” in productions.

After lunch we went to the Brock Campus for a Masterclass in Online Arts Criticism where we met the students, answered some questions, watched their presentations and engaged in a great discussion.

As if spending hours in uninterrupted discussion with Jill and Maddy weren’t enough, the students were all spectacular. Bright, inquisitive and eager, I was repeatedly thrilled and humbled by their questions and insights. I loved talking with them because they are already living in this world that so many people in the establishment are still trying to understand. I never have to stop and explain myself, they just nod – totally getting it – and ask great questions.

When we say that we’re still figuring this new mode of criticism  out, when we are honest and admit that the language, the ideas, the structure, the practice, the system itself is still being developed and we’re all working collaboratively and building on each other’s ideas, they just get it and are ready to jump in! Sometimes I think the best thing we can do is  get out of the way and let the kids do their thing – give them the reins and guide them well.

After Thursday’s invigorating program Jill, Maddy and I were treated to an incredible dinner at Ravine Vineyard. To digress from the theater talk for a moment, the Niagara region is home to some (so I’m told) excellent vineyards. I’m not a knowledgable oenophile but I do love good wine and Ravine Vineyard’s restaurant has an impressive menu of locally sourced meat and veg, all of which is paired with wine from their vineyards. It was wicked cold and sleeting when we were there, so the place was pretty empty. But I can imagine that when the weather gets nicer, it is packed. The food was delicious and so was the wine, the service was friendly and helpful to boot. If you’re ever up that way, be sure to take a detour and taste it for yourself. Thanks to Dr. Fricker for hipping us to the hidden epicurean pleasures of the Great White North!

Friday morning Jill gave her keynote lecture “Moving the Body Politic: How Feminism and Theatre Inspire Social Re-imaginings” which was a wonderful way to start the day. Here it is:

After some conversation and a break for lunch we came back for the colloquium itself, a series of four panel discussions exploring “The Changing Face of Arts Criticism in the Digital Age.”

The DART students gave a welcome presentation and then we transitioned into a discussion on critics and the arts in Niagara. The panel was chaired by David Fancy, associate professor of Dramatic Arts, Brock University, co-artistic director, neXt Company Theatre. Participants included Monica Dufault, artistic director, Essential Collective Theatre; John Law, arts and entertainment writer, Sun Media; Sara Palmieri, co-founder, In the Soil Festival; Stephen Remus, minister of energy, minds, and resources, Niagara Arts Centre; Steve Solski, director, St. Catharines Centre for the Performing Arts; Candice Turner-Smith, managing director, Niagara Symphony Orchestra.

One thing that stuck out for me was the role of “community-based” coverage versus “arts” coverage. One of the local theaters that is dedicated to producing (primarily) work by local writers wanted to be acknowledged as professional instead of being consistently lumped in with community theater. And the visual arts guy felt that he could only get coverage when there was a local, community angle, but not an art angle. Even the Symphony felt they were facing an uphill battle to get coverage that didn’t have a local angle.

This seems to speak more to the limitations of a vastly diminished general interest media sector (no different in St Catharines than anywhere else!) than anything else. But it also seems like an opportunity for fostering more voices to help make the connections between the local and global. How does hyperlocal news or art resonate with national, international or global issues? Whether you are in NYC or St Catharines there is a tension between local, community-based discourse and a wider perspective. It also means that, if artists aspire to be seen in a wider context, they have to live up to the responsibilities of being conversant in a wider discussion.

It was interesting to hear the diversity of perspectives on the influence of press on the arts. I am still quite adamant about acknowledging the difference between reviewing and criticism: one serving a consumer-advocacy journalistic function, the other serving a critical, discursive function. Often people use the two words so interchangeably that it muddles what they’re trying to say, which is unfortunate because criticism and journalism are different – but they’re not actually competing with each other. There’s a place for reviews, there’s a place for previews and features in general interest publications, and there is also a need for more information all around.

Still it became clear that – from all angles – there was a desire for increased thoughtful critical discourse that truly engaged with the art and the local arts ecology. The issue of reviews and the role that media coverage plays in attracting audience came up frequently. Even in a modestly sized city the challenges of audience engagement seemed daunting. It also sounded that in St Catharines – as elsewhere – there was a significant communications gap between the presenters and potential audiences. The persistent subtext seemed to be that even if the previous media coverage had been spotty, at least it had existed, whereas now the one noble but beleaguered arts writer – who at any moment could get pulled from his arts story to cover a train wreck or any other breaking news – could hardly be expected to fill the gap.

The next panel was called “Embedded Criticism: A New Way Forward, or Criticism-As-PR?”, moderated by Lawrence Switzky, assistant professor of Drama, University of Toronto at Mississauga with me, Maddy Costa, Karen Fricker and Jackie Maxwell who is the Artistic Director at The Shaw Festival. Then panel was followed by a response from Jacob Gallagher-Ross, who you might know from the Village Voice, but is now an assistant professor of Theatre, at the SUNY/Buffalo.

Over breakfast Maddy and I had been fretting a bit about the panel. I have been ambivalent about the term “embedded criticism” for a long time and still want to change it. I was struggling with terminology as I wrote my essay on criticism for the 21st Century and as I recall, I was going to use “digital dramaturgy” but Jeremy suggested using Andrew Haydon‘s phrase “embedded criticism”.

What I was proposing wasn’t meant to be a job description for a “critic” so much as a framework for critical thinking in performance, one where “criticism” is seen as a parallel creative practice to performance making, and which is implemented as Dramaturgy, Advocacy and Engagement throughout the life cycle of an artistic project. This function can theoretically be performed by anyone – not only a self-designated critic – but the practice is yet to be clearly articulated.

I was telling this to Maddy and she said that Andrew had in fact had tongue planted firmly in cheek when he originated the phrase, as he was writing about spending time with ATC in the back of a tour van in Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2012.

We resolved not to bring it up, but eventually it did come up and I think we all had a good discussion on it. You’ll have to check the video. Suggestions are still open for better terminology, btw.

I was also a bit concerned about the set-up since the idea of “criticism as PR” is so deeply grounded in the idea of theater (or performance generally) as an entertainment where the punters must be subjected to a hard sell and then coerced into buying seats, rather than something a little more meaningful and enduring. (Yes, Ranciere was mentioned).

But my fears were for naught! Prof. Switzky ably and intelligently guided our conversation on fruitful paths and it was particularly fun to be able to talk to Jackie Maxwell about how these ideas might translate into a massive enterprise such as The Shaw Festival.

During the discussion the notion of “biography” was raised, and the nature of a biographer’s relationship to a living subject. It seemed fitting, somehow, if we consider a theater, a theater company, a play or any given production, to be a living thing. We incubate it, birth it, and it matures over time – often getting better the more it is performed and as the performers settle into, discovering new things, feeling free to play and explore. The idea that an “embedded critic” is sort of a biographer of this evolving but finite creative process and can share the complexity of it with the audience is very compelling.

Maddy and I also discussed how working so closely with performance makers and “writing from the inside” lets you see not only what makes it to the stage, but what doesn’t, the choices that are made along the way, who makes them and what the influences are – economic, aesthetic, personal, logistical. This might be a much more interesting way for audiences to engage with work than just some pat program notes.

After a great discussion, Jacob offered a thoughtful response and synthesized the ideas quite nicely. We chatted a bit more and then absconded to Alphie’s Trough (I LOVE CANADA!!) for copious amounts of wine, delicious food and robust conversation on matters both sublime and mundane.

I didn’t think I had any more talking left in me, but before turning in I did an interview with Keith Tomasek, who runs a cool site called The Inadequate Life where he does podcasts  about the creative process “with people whose lives depend on it.” We hit it off and had a great chat. I’m not sure when the podcast will be live, but we’ll share it when it is.

Saturday morning we headed back to Brock for the second day of the colloquium.

The DART students did an intro and welcome followed by a panel on “Bloggers, Critics and Cultural Legitimation” where the students had researched all of the panelists and developed specific questions for each one of them. The discussion was moderated by Karen Fricker and included Jill Dolan; J. Kelly Nestruck, lead theatre critic, The Globe and Mail; Richard Ouzounian, lead theatre critic, Toronto Star; Holger Syme, Chair, Department of English, University of Toronto at Mississauga, and blogger; Odette Yazbeck, director of public relations, Shaw Festival. I was the respondent.

It was a fascinating discussion for many reasons, but most notably because I can’t imagine this happening in NYC.

Ouzounian is  the biggest theater critic in Toronto, arguably one of the most prominent in Canada. Nestruck is kind of like the up-and-coming cool kid who also writes for the Guardian covering all of Canadian theater, Syme is an academic who keeps a blog and – from what I can gather – is a kind of good-natured and perpetually bemused supergenius gadfly who loves to poke holes in everybody’s arguments because he can and Yazbeck is the PR person for the region’s biggest festival. So I’m trying to imagine gathering the few remaining paid theater reviewers in NYC – Brantley, Isherwood, Cote – on a panel with me, Isaac ButlerGeorge  Hunka and the PR person for Roundabout in a panel discussion moderated by Frank Hentschker.

We covered the usual ground – newspapers vs. blogs, reviewing vs. criticism, cultural legitimation, privilege, influence, consumer advocacy, etc. etc. and managed to keep most of the sniping at bay – three cheers for Canadian manners! The generational divide was obvious – those insolent kids and their damned social media! – but when we listen closely to what each person says, we ultimately are trying to do the same thing: share our enthusiasm for theater, encourage more people to go, and encourage theater makers to do the best work possible. Of course we all have vastly different ideas of what makes good theater, how to talk about it and who we are writing for, but at least we share a common goal. And it was really meaningful to hear mainstream journalists be  candid about word count, deadlines and editors, web traffic, budget cuts, and so forth.

What an earth-shattering  breakthrough it would be if old school mainstream media stopped playing this as a binary “us vs. them” thing and came to the table to work collaboratively to build a mutually beneficial system. The independent writers, the long form writers, academics and critics have a role to play, so do reviewers. If you have privilege and power (like, for instance, the NY Times) and you truly believe that inclusion, diversity and robust discourse strengthen an open, informed, democratic society, then why not use that privilege and power to create space and opportunity for more voices?

Ahem. Sorry. Went off on a tangent there. Anyway. That was the thrust of my response, I think. Here’s the pages and pages of notes I took during the discussion:

Andy's Notes

Andy’s Notes

To conclude Saturday’s activities we had a final panel with Karen, Jill, Maddy, me and Rosemary Drage Hale, the Director of the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Brock University. 

This was a delightful conversation and Rosemary gifted us all when she described herself as an “audience practitioner”. What an extraordinary phrase and brilliant idea! It opened up a whole avenue of conversation, including some great comments from the “audience” of the panel expressing a real desire for respect, for being taken seriously, for not being talked down to, but also for wanting to be able to trust critical voices, regardless of where or for whom they were writing.

It was a rewarding and gratifying conclusion to a rich and stimulating colloquium. Sometimes it feels like we’re toiling away in obscurity, scribbling into black hole, talking gibberish to an invisible and indifferent public. But being physically together with Karen, Jill, Maddy and the rest of the participants was affirming and invigorating. And meeting the students was – as it often is – inspiring and delightful. Maddy and I joked about how sometimes it feels like we’re living in the future, waiting for other folks to catch up. But these kids are in the future too – which is now. And despite what people may tell you – the future is looking good. And it’s in good hands.

After a few sandwiches and fond farewells, I caught a ride with Holger and Kelly to Toronto, where I planned to spend the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday before heading back to NYC on Monday. I had been fighting off a cold since Thursday, the excitement and adrenaline kept it at bay, but as we drove from St Catharines to Toronto, I felt my energy flagging, my temperature rising and the onset of coughs and sniffles.

But I had been introduced to Torontonian Theater Maker & Man About Town Jacob Zimmer who had graciously invited me to dinner & arranged for me to have tickets to the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times and to see Henderson/Castle’s Voyager at Toronto Dance Theatre. So I got to my AirBnB, stowed my stuff, took a quick nap & hopped on the trolley (!!!) over to Yonge St.

I met Jacob and his colleague Evan Webber for dinner, after which we headed over the Buddies in Bad Times, “the world’s longest-running and largest queer theatre“, for that evening’s Rhubarb Festival program. The Rhubarb Festival is all works-in-progress or short works (no more than 30 minutes) and uses both the main theater and the cabaret space. That evening we saw three shows: Jill Connell’s Since Santino XXX, Henri Faberge’s Henri Faberge on the Lamb and Bridget Moser’s Jagged Canyon.

All three were fun, slightly surreal and surprisingly comedic. Or maybe not so surprising, since Toronto is home of The Second City and a major feeder for the Los Angeles comedy scene.  I usually go into these sorts of things expecting the worst so I was relieved that while the pieces were obviously works-in-progress, they were all enjoyable to watch and showed promise.

Of the three, Henri Faberge’s was the most ambitious and fully realized. Henri (I don’t know the performer’s real name) had a wonderful voice and the songs sounded like, I don’t know, Echo and the Bunnymen or something. A kind of emo/goth gloom that perfectly fit the macabre tale being told. It was billed as a “a new punk rock opera of existential proportions” and “a politically and sexually charged 19th Century rock and roll melodrama.” It was a strange – and strangely moving – story involving a sad boy, time travel, wizards and a dead swan. It was a smart, fun show, I hope he develops it further.

And though I try not to single people out, I want to go on record as saying “I called it” when Kayla Lorette becomes superfamous. She started the show performing from the lighting catwalk behind me, but even with only her voice, I was struck by her presence. Incredibly funny, smart, agile and precise, she basically owned the stage. I am told that Los Angeles has already come calling – but I’ve also heard that L.A. flirts with Torontonians and marries Los Angelenos. So who knows. But anyway, write down that name and keep your eyes peeled.

I had to bow out of the late night (11PM!) festivities as my illness took its toll. I trolleyed back to my apartment and slept soundly until the next morning when I had some breakfast at the unbearably hip Gladstone Hotel. It kind of looks like one of the Ace Hotels, which I guess lets you know what kind of neighborhood I was in – Williamsburg of the North, after the bankers have moved in. I should have known better.

[SIDEBAR: The next morning I also had breakfast there, because it was close by the apartment and was open early, and on either side of me were journalists interviewing musicians. I don’t think there is anything more annoying than listening to illiterate rock journalists interview solipsistic rock musicians. Blagh. Dumb and Dumberer. ]

Anyway, after breakfast I trolleyed over to Old Cabbagetown, which was mellower and prettier. I guess I’m old. But it was sunny and not too terribly cold, so I walked around the neighborhood, making my way to Toronto Dance Theatre for Ame Henderson’s voyager, created in collaboration with musician Jennifer Castle and the TDT company. Taking as her inspiration the Voyager spacecraft,  Henderson proposes to explore “continuous movement as a state of being, and the ways in which never stopping affects our bodies and our relationships.” (Click here to read an interview with Ame Henderson in the TDT Newsletter).

It’s an interesting premise that reminded me a little bit of Open Movement, the still-running contact improv jam that started at Byrd Hoffman Foundation in the early 70’s moved to PS122 in 1979 and then to 100 Grand in 1999, and led to DD Dorvillier’s Hot House event/platform that featured works developed through these long form improvisatory processes.

Over the course of 60 minutes the dancers moved throughout the space as Jennifer Castle improvised on piano and spoke/sang a mix of texts from pages in front of her and spontaneous observations of what was happening in the moment. While the movement vocabulary mostly hewed to the familiar, it was fascinating to watch each dancer and familiarize yourself with their distinct, particular, habits and tendencies. While trying not to repeat any gesture and move continuously, different dancers – like all people – had distinct personalities, body types and attitudes. The piece started out sedate, almost somber, but lightened up considerably to the point where it as frequently playful and funny. You could literally feel the room warm up as the dancers warmed up and settled into their bodies. You could see and feel their muscles stretch, their posture and movement become more flexible, more limber, more animated and agile. There seemed to be an organic rhythm from the contemplative to the frenzied and then back again, as the dancers tired.

Part of what I found enjoyable about voyager was that it reinforced the uniqueness of live performance, dance in particular. With so much going on at any given moment and so much space (three dimensions + time) in which things could happen, the audience was always choosing where to direct their gaze, with no right or wrong answer. This is such a direct opposition to the tyranny of television or film, watching (or, really, experiencing dance even as a spectator is a kinesthetic activity, you find your body responding to their bodies, you find yourself wondering what they’re thinking when they smile, or frown, or look puzzled, or grimace, when they hold tension and then release.

It also reinforced the idea of body as a site for both labor and knowledge – the body as lived memory, as repository of experience, as explorer and “knower”, our mind’s vessel through the space/time continuum.

Still, it felt more like the beginning of an investigation than a fully developed idea. There’s a lot to explore in randomness, constant movement and improvisation. I’d be curious to see what a future iteration might look like. I found myself wondering what the work would be like if you changed the audience/spectator dynamic from the familiar seating/stage setup and made it in the round or an installation.

Nerd that I am, I also found myself wondering what might be possible now, in the age of Big Data.

When Voyager launched in 1977 we didn’t even have home computers. In this day and age would it be possible to design a choreography that was not improvisatory but literally mapped out continuous motion on separate paths for each dancer? Would it be possible to use algorithms or some kind of mapping or data visualization technology to recreate the Voyager journey – and/or other journeys – on three axes, calculate the rotation and position of the object in space and use that as the foundation for the choreography? And what would it sound like to create a random music & text generator that was based on algorithms related to space travel?

The show concluded at exactly 60 minutes and I found that I had fallen into a very meditative state. I was also feeling the effects of this cold, so I wandered off in search of some food until it was time to head back to Buddies in Bad Times for the Fun Palace Radio Variety Show, a live radio show directed and produced by Jacob Zimmer with a cast and crew of exceptionally talented writers, performers and musicians.

I gotta say it was a real treat. Smart, funny, self-aware but not self-satisfied, it was great live theater that also makes for excellent radio. The show I saw/heard isn’t online yet, but here’s  one that they recorded a week or so before:

After the last song and joke, after the applause died down and they began to strike the gear, I realized how flu-ish I actually felt, congratulated Jacob put on my tuque and dragged my coughing, sniffling self back to the apartment to drown my pain in cough medicine and fall asleep.

By Monday evening I was home in Brooklyn and safe in my bed, but my spirits were buoyed by all the wonderful folks, thoughtful conversations and fun shows of my Great Canadian Adventure. Looking forward to returning sometime soon!

5 thoughts on “Culturebot’s Canadian Adventure”

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