Theatre criticism has come to a fork in the road

The practice needs to undergo a reckoning of inclusivity

Joshua Chong

Just over a year ago, Toronto theatre critics became embroiled in a heated debate. The talk of the town was not, in fact, centred around Hamilton — which was making its long awaited Canadian premiere — but rather on Yolanda Bonnell’s bug playing at Theatre Passe Muraille, a small alternative theatre company innocuously located among a row of houses in the city’s west end.

bug, which had its world premiere in 2018, centres around a group of Indigenous women dealing with addiction and intergenerational trauma through resilience and strength. Interestingly, Bonnell made the decision to not offer complimentary tickets to theatre critics who weren’t racialized.

Every time I was asked for my opinion about Bonnell’s choice, I thought the whole debate was making a mountain out of a molehill. Theatre Passe Muraille, an independent theatre organization, and playwright Bonnell — who is part Anishinaabe-Ojibwe — are absolutely free to choose which reviewers should receive complimentary tickets to the production. And, as Bonnell assured, white critics could still review the piece by purchasing their own tickets.

Yet, the affair exploded rapidly. Critics — many of whom were white and did not understand the cultural context behind Bonnell’s decision — began writing opinion pieces criticizing this exclusion. Some felt entitled to free opening night tickets in exchange for a review. On social media, Bonnell received threats and was labelled a racist and a bigot.

In response, she wrote a piece for Vice justifying her decision. “White theatre critics are often the gatekeepers of success, and that’s a problem when they lack cultural understanding,” she highlighted.

Bonnell’s article was widely shared and discussed. Yet, her observation that the lack of diversity among theatre critics impacts the way in which theatre is reviewed is nothing new. It’s just that we’ve never chosen to listen until a pandemic resulted in the closure of theatres, forcing critics to turn their judgemental eyes away from the stage and into the mirror.

Exclusion in theatre

If I asked you to conjure an image of a stereotypical theatre critic, you’d likely imagine this: a white man strutting into the theatre with a notepad in one hand and a cup of wine in the other. As he takes his seat with an arrogant flair, observing the plebeians sitting next to him gawking at the set design, he’ll adamantly believe that he is the sole voice in the theatre who has the capacity to write authoritatively about what is about to be presented.

If this description calls to mind images of restaurant critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille, you have a pretty good sense of what some Toronto theatre critics are like.

Those critics tend to reflect the exclusionary arena of theatre, which is dominated by a Eurocentric understanding of what art is. There are still ignorant critics in this vein who dismiss works simply because their themes seem too culturally distant from their own.

Take the critic whom Bonnell remembered saying that bug would be “better served on reserves.” Or another white critic who clearly had not done her research and chastized the creators of Tita Jokes, a Filipinx-focused musical sketch show, because it was not explicitly explained that “tita” in Tagalog means ‘aunt.’

I’ve read so many of these culturally tone deaf pieces that I’ve almost become desensitized to them. What’s even more appalling, however, is that these critics usually get away with it or, occasionally, receive a slap on the wrist from an editor or an appended editorial note with a curt apology a few days later. But, more often than not, nothing happens.

There are, of course, many critics who are trying their best to fully research a piece and its creators before even stepping foot into the theatre in order to write a fair and honest critique. But we must acknowledge that theatre criticism itself is traditionally elitist, exclusionary, and shrouded in practices of colonialism.

A quick glance at the Canadian Theatre Critics Association’s list of members reveals the sheer lack of diversity. No matter how much reading or immersion into the subject matter a white critic does before reviewing a piece by a racialized creator, the criticism will still be provided through a white lens. That’s not to say that particular perspective is invalid, but it becomes a problem when it is the only lens through which the piece is analyzed.

That issue is only really recently being thoughtfully considered. And even now, the remedy may seem simple on paper: more diversity. But, in reality, it’s hard to put those words into practice. How can you add more racialized critics and those with diverse experiences if your applicant pool reflects a monolith?

To be a theatre critic, you must enjoy theatre. To enjoy theatre, you must first experience theatre. To experience theatre, you must be able to pay for it. Unfortunately, the high costs of tickets — an issue that the industry has been making large strides to change in recent years — means that only a certain demographic of Torontonians can even step foot into a theatre.

In fact, according to a comprehensive survey conducted by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts in 2013, less than 10 per cent of performing arts goers in Toronto self-identify as part of a visible minority.

Arts publications can certainly try to include more racialized critics — as many were compelled to do for a one-off occurrence when Bonnell chose to only give racialized critics a complimentary ticket — but that won’t fully fix the problem. At least not until the lack of diversity among audiences is resolved.  

Changing with the times

It’s time for theatre criticism to evolve and move into the twenty-first century — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because theatre criticism’s very survival depends on it.

In the past, no one would dare question a critic’s word. An actor or producer doing so could jeopardize their reputation if that critic decided to retaliate in their next review. Plus, up until very recently, a show’s success was often tied to the critics’ notices.

On Broadway, for example, producers would eagerly wait to find out whether their show received the highly coveted “Brantley benediction” — a critic’s pick designation from the notoriously hard-to-please former New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley. Receiving his nod of approval all but guaranteed a show’s financial success.

This has fed the omnipotent attitude of certain critics. As a critic myself, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the level of chauvinism some others carry, like their review is the final, definitive word.

In the past, perhaps the attitude could be justified. Most critics have a deep understanding of theatre grounded in the European tradition, crafted by the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the three great Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Most shows produced in the early- to mid-twentieth century fit that mould. With their deep dramaturgical knowledge of those kinds of shows, critics back then were more suited to write a review than the average theatregoer.

But times have changed. Theatre is one of the most diverse sectors of society, and the work produced on our stages reflects that. Knowing the entirety of Shakespeare’s canon like the back of your hand isn’t going to be much help if you are reviewing a play based on the Japanese tradition of kabuki theatre.

Now, however, amid the democratization of theatre and the proliferation of social media, theatre critics wield significantly less power — especially in Toronto, where cuts to newspaper arts sections are almost an annual occurrence and have left us far short from the full roster of theatre critics needed to provide comprehensive coverage of the city’s diverse theatre offerings.

Theatre creators are now rightfully more free to speak up against critics who abuse their power. Theatre criticism could fall by the wayside, and most people today wouldn’t give a rat’s ass. And given the current proliferation of theatre that no longer follows the European tradition, it is more important than ever for us to be able to respond and review that art with care and respect.

How can theatre criticism become more inclusive?

Despite all the background research you could do before viewing an unfamiliar style of work, there are times when the piece just doesn’t land with you. There are instances when I’ve felt completely disorientated about how I’m supposed to respond to a show.

Perhaps it just wasn’t meant for me. After all, most plays nowadays — other than the large Broadway blockbusters — are targeted at specific audiences. They’re not meant to be your typical G-rated Disney fairytales aimed for all.

It’s in moments like those that I accept that I can’t write a review for that show. I’ll close my notebook, lean deep into my seat, and let the play wash over me. Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that you might not be the person in that room best suited to write a review. Maybe it’s meant for the person two rows behind you who has a deeper connection and understanding to the themes of the piece. Regardless, it’s important to know when to pass the mic.

That’s easier said than done, however. For a critic working on a 24-hour deadline for a major publication, that reason won’t be good enough for your editor. It’s in these unfortunate situations, when a critic lacks cultural understanding about a piece but needs to craft an opinion anyways, that the worst reviews are written.

Not knowing how to properly describe the piece, the critic may take cheap shots to cover up for their own misunderstanding of the show’s subject matter: attacks on a performer or calling them too pudgy or too old for a role are not uncommon. The critic may forgo a critical analysis of the show’s themes and instead, grasping at straws, throw in one-line zingers. You know, those “it was a catastrophic dumpster fire of epic proportions” kind of lines that readers love to chomp on even though they do no actual service to the art form itself.

I’m not arguing that critics should refrain from panning a show. But if they do choose to bring out the chopping block, it needs to be justified with an adequate and well-reflected description and analysis of the piece.

After all, the practice of theatre criticism plays an important role for the theatre art form. At its best, a review provides a historical record for posterity and frames the show in the context of society at the time — something hard to find in a 280-character tweet or an Instagram caption. It should spark a conversation with audience members and theatre practitioners — discussions that push theatre to be the best it can be.

Theatre criticism has the potential to be part of the progressive vanguard that helps build up and support the theatre community. Or, it can choose to continue in its antiquated ways. During this pandemic-influenced intermission, it’s up to us to decide what our legacy will be.