Self Isolated Artist
I had the opportunity to have taken two Theatre Ontario workshops on the skill of writing theatre reviews that matter. Both workshops were facilitated by Toronto critic, Lynn Slotkin, for whom I have the utmost respect. The picture above was taken of the two of us at the conclusion of Lynn’s first workshop on ‘Writing Theatre Reviews that Matter’ at the Theatre Ontario offices in Toronto.
Lynn holds an Honours BA in Fine Arts from York University, specializing in Drama Studies, History, Theory and Criticism. Additionally, she publishes ‘The Slotkin Letter’ a newsletter which chronicles her theatre experiences in Toronto, New York, London and elsewhere. From what I understand, The Slotkin Letter is referred to by many professional artists of actors, directors, Artistic Directors and theatre people who are keenly and seriously interested in theatre.
As far as I’m concerned, she is a lady who definitely and assuredly knows her stuff.
Over the years I followed professional theatre, I have read and pondered over many of Lynn’s reviews in The Toronto Star, Eye Weekly and the London Free Press (when I was completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario). I always admired her candid and frank discussion on specific productions, what worked and what didn’t work, and how she specifically encapsulated her comments on the entire production in a manner that made me either want to see it or to avoid it at all cost.
Taking these two workshops from now defunct Theatre Ontario was a tremendous boost to my interest in and love of live theatre and the performing arts. I am proud that I call Lynn a mentor to me as I continue to grow in writing theatre reviews that matter.
She always welcomes online communication so that’s how I conducted this interview:
1. How have you been faring during this COVID – 19 crisis?
Really well. I love being at home because I’m out every night going to the theatre. I still have things to write about but tend to procrastinate. I have to really work on that. I do miss going out when I want to buy stuff at the corner markets, but neighbours are kind in offering to do that for me. That kindness from people is wonderful. I have also been impressed with all the various theatre/arts initiatives for on-line readings, phone-plays, involving the audiences etc.
I’ve also been thinking about the point and purpose of theatre from all quarters and how theatre criticism serves that as best as possible. I’ve spent this time thinking about what truly makes an inclusive audience and theatre practice.
2. What has been the most challenging element for you during this time? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?
Not being able to go to the theatre, of course. I miss the freedom to just leave the house, walk where I want and be with friends rather than restricting my movements, wearing a mask, disinfecting everything etc. And more than anything I miss hugging my friends and family, the tactile connection between people.
To keep busy I’ve been keeping up with e-mails, postings, Facebook, Twitter and the various on-line activities that have popped up; the readings and phone initiatives of various companies (Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, Bad Hats Theatre, Soulpepper, National Theatre, Royal Court, etc. ). I hope not to be a slave to the screen so I am also tidying, tossing stuff I don’t need, clearing off my desk, and ironing. I love doing all that.
3. Do you have any words of wisdom or sage advice for performers on how to weather this crisis?
Alas no, without sounding patronizing. I couldn’t even imagine how performers or any theatre people are coping financially or emotionally in this crisis. I can only speak for myself.
I have never earned my living in the theatre. There is no money in theatre criticism unless the critic writes for a newspaper full time. Even when I charged a subscription fee when I produced my Slotkin Letter in hard copy, the fee was only enough to cover the postage and printing. I have always supported myself with a full-time job as an administrator at the University of Toronto. That salary paid my rent, travel and theatre tickets before I began to be invited by theatres to review their shows.
Because I am always at the theatre or writing about it, this time at home is a pleasure. I still suffer from procrastination—there are theatre topics I can write about—and put off writing about theatre. I hope to conquer that. I am seeing how many artists are coping and using the time. I am impressed with the ZOOM readings of various theatres or the theatre projects on the phone from Outside the March and Convergence Theatre etc.
Artists who are constantly inventing and creating different kinds of theatre are front and centre present in this crisis. The whole area is wide open and offers all sorts of opportunities. All I can say is take the opportunity; create; make your own luck; don’t give in to depression during these hard times.
And, of course, on a purely practical level, I am tending to all those things I put off doing while going to the theatre and writing about it: tidying, cleaning, tossing stuff, decluttering, ironing and washing my hands.
4. Do you see anything positive stemming from this crisis?
In all the plays that will be produced dealing with COVID-19 I’m sure there will be a few that will be good and can offer insights into dealing with isolation, disease, awareness, family, friendship and the importance of connection and art in that connection. Perhaps there will be a different definition of what theatre is, or will become.
From a larger point of view, I think theatre makers, creators and company and theatre heads might re-think what is important about theatre and the arts and how to create it and engage with their audiences. Thought might be given to how to expand that audience. Many people spend their time on line and know that world. Can they be engaged to expand their world to include theatre if the theatre is created with them in mind?
And those companies that have been struggling to survive, hanging on by a thread might just disappear to be replaced by others with a stronger hold on what theatre they want to create. The law of attrition?
5. Will COVID – 19 have some impact on the state of the Canadian performing arts scene?
I think question 4 actually answered that. Artists always create stories that affected them personally or even with a larger view. The resultant plays might reflect COVID-19. Or I hope creators take the cue from Shakespeare. During the time of Shakespeare, there was also a plague. Quarantine. Shakespeare wrote “KING LEAR” which is timeless, not a play about the plague, which would be dated after if was over and people were free to move around again. Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare would write a play about a plague that was really about something else, that would make it timeless.
6. Some artists have been turning to online and / or streaming performances during this time. Is there any validity to this performance?
Of course. It certainly shows an artist’s, theatre’s, company’s imagination and creativity, that they continue to find ways to connect with their audience and produce theatre in some form or other that engages them. I don’t care whether it’s a concert, a reading, a filmed rehearsal or a finished show etc. the act of creating theatre is still alive. It also heightens an audience’s/artist’s idea of theatre as we know it, when we all watch it as a community in a theatre. How will we think about that when this crisis is over?
7. Is this the way of the future for performing artists?
I don’t think so. The element of shared community in one place watching the theatrical event is missing. A lot of the Instagram performances, on-line work etc. seems slap-dash, self-serving, self-absorbed. A lot also is excellent showing rigor and quality in the end result. But that shared experience of an audience watching a play in a shared space, where the audience can watch anywhere on that stage, and the actors display an artistic level makes the experience different than watching it on a flat screen where it tends to look flat and not three dimensional.
8. In your professional estimation, why is the role of the reviewer/critic of importance to the future of the Canadian performing arts scene.
I won’t confine this answer only to Canadian Theatre but to all theatre that I review. I can only answer for me. I want to pass on my enthusiasm and love of the theatre through my reviews/critiques.
I see my role as telling the truth about the evaluation of the event in a fair-minded, respectful, entertaining way so that the quality, flavour, story, artistry and the many other elements of a show are conveyed to the reader.
The review establishes a rigor of evaluation in the hopes of keeping the standard of the show high. One hopes this engages the theatre maker, whether Canadian or international, to strive to be the best. There is no place for mediocrity in an art form. And reviews that just praise without reservation, no matter what the show, are not helpful to anyone.
The review not only tells the story but evaluates it and the production that produces it. The review champions aspects that are good, encouraging, enlightening and artistic. Those areas of the show that need to be challenged or revisited to strengthen the execution, story-telling, performance or creation are also addressed.
Finally, I think it’s important to indicate whether or not the event was worth doing—this is not as cut and dried as one might think. A critic who is fair and honest, who expects the best from the artist and from an enlightened audience is how the theatre as a whole improves and strengthens its future.
As a nod to ‘Inside The Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:
1. What is your favourite word?
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
Fake whooping at a show.
7. What is your favourite curse word?
8. What profession, other than your own, would you have like to attempt?
9. What profession would you not like to do?
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like God to say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates? “What took you so long?”
To read Lynn’s reviews, comments, articles and even a rant or two, visit www.slotkinletter.com