What is the Factory Theatre up to now?

It seems that for their season opener, Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia’s The Art of Building a Bunker, the Factory will not invite critics until five days after the show opens on October 16. The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Nestruck tweeted in exasperation:

The discussion kind of exploded from there — someone should Storify it all. Lois Dawson wrote a pretty decent summary with some helpful commentary.

I find myself baffled by the Factory’s tactic. Ostensibly, or so it was tweeted, the idea of keeping the media out of the “conversation” was to try out a new “model,” or to attempt an “experiment,” as Aislinn Rose wrote, to see “what happens when initial discussions are driven by artists and audiences.” To which Nestruck objected, understandably, that he is an audience member; and to which Dawson, sensibly, responded that it’s difficult to see how that “conversation” would go much beyond an already established in-crowd of theatre makers and Factory season subscribers, given that the Factory seems intent on shutting down conventional (i.e., not crowd-sourced, social-media-driven) forms of unpaid publicity.

I agree with both of these responses. More specifically, I genuinely don’t understand how the “discussion” is going to be affected by not letting critics in: after all, the people who will come without reviews are presumably the same people who would have come anyway, even with reviews; and from many conversations with Toronto theatre people (and friends of Toronto theatre people), I yet have to meet someone who is especially open to having his or her views shaped by what our critics have to say. In other words: if the show were to be reviewed as usual, the people who will come with or without reviews will respond to the show in ways that ignore, contradict, or (silently) agree with the critics. But no matter whether the show is reviewed or not, those people will come anyway; and their conversations or discussions are extremely unlikely to be shaped by whatever reviews they may have read. However, there’s another, quite different type of theatre goer: someone who might come because of a very positive review, or because of a ridiculously negative review. Someone who never knew about a show but had his or her interest sparked by a critic. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that those audience members will have their experience of a show shaped or even strongly influenced by the reviews they’ve read. But they will have been prompted to actually go and see the show.

I’m also struggling to come to terms with a theatre that thinks of its own power as so weak that its performers could not easily trump any old critic’s words. How is it not the case that any show, no matter how badly reviewed, no matter how tiredly performed, has a much greater power to “drive” post-show discussions than whatever some reviewer may have written? It is, of course, also true — horribile dictu! — that sometimes critics get a show right: that the terms in which they describe, analyze, or critique a performance are precisely the right terms, provide a vocabulary that makes a show comprehensible or opens it up to necessary criticisms, or give audiences a way into the show that may differ from the artists’ intentions but still allows for a richer (or a more complicated) response. But by and large, I find it hard to imagine that many people wind up sitting in a theatre, largely ignoring the actors, and simply focus their minds on the reviews they read — only to then regurgitate those reviews in their lobby conversations. If that’s what actors and producers think happens, I really fear they misunderstand their audiences.

There’s another angle on this. Michael Healey and others suggested that critics could just buy tickets earlier in the run and review away. The reviewers responded that that would pose an ethical quandary. I must admit that I don’t quite understand that. I mean — I sort of do. I understand the point that reviewers should be comped, in the sense that otherwise, some publications might not be able to review shows. It’s also pretty much standard practice internationally, as far as I know. But as an ethical question, I don’t really understand it. Why would a reviewer be more or less likely to be biased if she paid for her ticket? I can count on one hand the number of shows about which I’ve written without paying for my seat; I don’t think I’ve been in any way affected in my thinking about a performance by the amount of money I did or didn’t spend. (Well, except for the brainless atrocity that was the Ethan Hawke Macbeth. That expense rankled.)

Of course, if reviewers paid, the current social contract between critics and theatres would also disappear — if a critic is just another paying audience member, then that critic can presumably review whatever he saw, whenever she saw it. I don’t know how useful a published review of an early preview would be for anyone, but if there is no mutual relationship between theatres and reviewers, I don’t see how publishing such a thing would constitute a violation of anyone’s rights or privileges — as long as the review made it clear that the show being written up was not the finished thing. On the other hand, I quite like the idea of reviews based on a “regular” show, as opposed to a show during which every performer knows that the critics are in the house. That’s always struck me as a peculiar and largely counter-productive convention — just as the idea of critics writing up opening nights doesn’t seem like an obviously good idea to me. If a reviewer serves some kind of public function, surely it’s easier for her to convey to potential audience members what a show is like if she doesn’t watch it on the most adrenaline-fuelled night of the run?

Finally, I find the Factory’s decision baffling because this supposed “experiment” looks an awful lot like current practice: how is an Opening Night that’s not supposed to be discussed in the media anything other than a regular preview? Previews are “open” to any ticket holder, but there’s an understanding (among people in the know at least — a significant qualification) that what’s on stage isn’t necessarily completely finished yet. The enabling fiction of this system is that after a show opens, it doesn’t change anymore — if it’s still in flux, it must still be in previews. But if The Art of Building a Bunker will be ready to open on October 16 — if, by the logic of the preview system, it will be “finished” by October 16 — then why can it not be discussed by professional critics? If the Factory wants to extend the period when an open conversation between audiences and artists can take place, completely unaffected by any public statements about the show, then why not simply extend the preview period? Because surely, that’s what that time is there for, isn’t it? If previews do anything (and I, irritable and incorrigible continental European that I am, continue to find the very concept of the preview strange and puzzling), then surely they encourage performers and directors to engage in an explicit or implicit dialogue with the audience, paying attention to how the show seems to play and making adjustments — or drastic changes — in response to their observations. Previews, if they do anything, are meant to grant the audience a more interactive role than audiences will play after opening. Preview audiences can profoundly change a show. Now that’s a real conversation.

In other words: to the extent that theatre is about a dialogue between artists and audiences unaffected by the public discourse surrounding a play, there is already a space, place, and time for that, imperfect though it may be. If the Factory is interested in extending that dialogue, they can (and I expect the financial hit they’d take because of the lower ticket prices would not be more significant than the hit they’ll take by staging a show that won’t get reviewed for the first week of its run). But once a show has opened, things change. Ticket prices go up, signalling to audience members that this is now a finished work (whatever that may mean). Unless a show is overtly improvisational in character, one night’s audience won’t affect the shape of the next night’s performance, at least not in the way that a preview audience might. The script can be expected to remain the same from night to night. In other words, after opening, shows are governed by a fantasy of stability — and it is that myth that makes them reviewable, justifies higher ticket prices, and governs audience expectations.

If the quality and the nature of the dialogue between artists and audiences changes in this way after opening, though, the conversation the Factory is interested in is not one that is destined to affect the show itself; it’s a discussion that will affect people’s reactions to the show. And that, then, brings me back to my earlier point: either you believe in your show and its power to affect an audience emotionally or intellectually — or you don’t. If you think a critic has greater power to shape an audience’s reactions than you and your actors, your show is probably not ready to open. If you think it is, then you have to be ready to face all members of the public, and all public responses — whether they occur in the lobby, in the pub, on Twitter, or in a professional critic’s review. That’s what being open means.

5 Responses to Theatre without Critics?

  1. […] and Sumi, and provoked several blogs from other Toronto theatre commentators professing concern and bafflement (and also considered support) indicates that this is about more than five days in the life of one […]

  2. Philip Akin says:

    When you consider the drive by slagging that has been the mainstay of reviews over the last two years it is kind of like an abus relationship. So why not just walk away for a bit. It’s not like most reviews sell your show. If you don’t believe me talk to the foks at Acting Up Stage about their outstanding reviews last season and their box office percentages. Factory already has received more benefit by this action than anything a critic could say so perhaps thats a win for them.

  3. […] To catch up, Factory and Quiptake decided to open The Art of Building a Bunker before the press night. Kelly Nestruck complained on twitter and some hubbub ensued. Two responses/summaries are here:  Lois Dawson / Holger Syme […]

  4. […] Edited to add: If you’re looking for some other perspectives, check out what Mike Anderson had to say at http://www.mikehatedit.ca/2014/09/24/bunfights-factorys-bunker/ or Holger Syme’s take at http://www.dispositio.net/archives/1987  […]

  5. Lois Dawson says:

    Hi Holger – I’ve been trying to do up a storify, but storify & twitter aren’t working together properly and haven’t been since yesterday afternoon (at least on my account). Whenever I try it comes up with a time out error. Let me know if you find someone who is successfully able to create it and I’ll add a link to my post.

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