Thursday, January 28, 2016


Recently I was having a small hissy fit about critics who give away show secrets in their reviews. I was feeling so self-righteous I almost thought I would blog on it. But thankfully I thought better of it. Instead, I decided to interview two great critics I know. Kate Copstick is based in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, and reviews comedy for The Scotsman. Colin Thomas is based in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and reviews theatre for The Georgia Straight. Both wear fetchingly bold glasses, and both were totally generous about giving me their time.

1) What do you love/hate about your work as a critic?

COLIN THOMAS: I get to think and feel for a living. Who could complain about that?
         And, of course, I love going to shows. I think that theatre is the most compassionate art form; it’s about imagining ourselves into the lives of other people, after all. That kind of imagining allows us to let go of the illusion of coherent—and isolated—identity.  I’m all for that. I firmly believe that our interior selves are all far more beautiful, complex, and chaotic than we usually let on.        
       One of the great joys of my job is discovering a new talent—a talent that is either new to me or new to the world. I remember seeing my first Caryl Churchill play, Ice Cream, for instance, and realizing about halfway through that the playwright was fucking with my narrative expectations—with the lie of justice that underlies so many narratives in our culture, for instance, the lie of order. That was so exciting! And I just saw a young woman named Camille Legg play Romeo in a Studio 58 production of Romeo + Juliet (that’s how they rendered the title). It’s thrilling when you see somebody like that and you go, “Oh my god. There’s one. She’s got it. She’s really got it.”        
       I don’t think that I hate anything about my job. Sometimes online comments bug me, but, even in that weird—and annoyingly anonymous—forum, my experience is generally pretty positive.

KATE COPSTICK: I love the fact that my job is to make insightful, interesting, useful comments on a performance/ performer. That is to say that it is a mix of the emotional and the intellectual. I get to consider and opine. Two of my favourite things! Whereas other opinionated people just go to a bar after a show and point out everything that they liked/ hated/ were irritated by in a show, I get to tell the world (well, a bit of it). I love to analyse. I like to know why things work. Why one line will make you cry and another simply seem bathetic. I love that one word in another line can make the difference between hilarity and nothing. And getting to write about it.
        What I hate is the way that the comics (and really only the comics) have turned me into a sort of points system. That is all a review is to them. And I don't like that being a critic makes me wary of becoming close friends with some spectacular people. I cannot review someone I am really close to. I would forgive them things I might not forgive someone else and that would not be fair.

2) How do your other creative pursuits inform how you approach the craft of reviewing? What kind of difference(s) do you notice between critics who are artists, and those who aren't?

COLIN THOMAS: I’ve worked as a playwright and I currently earn about half of my income by story editing novels and screenplays. As a result, I am all over narrative structure and thematic development.
       Because I’ve been a critic for 30 years, I’m in love with rewarding surprises. Let’s hear it for innovation!
       And, way back when, I used to be an actor. When I first became a critic, the dynamics of acting were more alive in my flesh. That responsiveness has faded, but I like to think it’s still there to some degree; I fancy that I can tell, for instance, when a selfish actor is creating a black hole on-stage—not giving anything back to their fellow performers.
       Because I’m familiar with the processes of writing, performing, and rehearsing, I might be able to differentiate the relationships between those processes a little bit more clearly. When is an actor trapped by a script, for instance, and when are they not realizing its potential?
       All of that said, I’ve read terrific critics who don’t have a lot of experience practising the arts forms that they’re writing about. I’m thinking about Frank Rich, for instance, John Lahr, Pauline Kael…

KATE COPSTICK: I think it helps that I have been a performer —all kinds of performer from straight actor through cabaret to stand up. It does make me quite unforgiving of performers who witter on about how hard their job is. It also makes me intolerant of dishonesty in performance. I failed as a stand up because I had no idea who I was then and just wanted to impress people with how clever I was. There was no person there. And so I know a bad comic when I see one. I know a game playing actor when I see one. I know an onstage bully. And I have been a writer and director so I know tricks. I think when you know a game from the inside you know when people are cheating. And a cheap cheat irritates me.

3) How do you feel about the star system?

KATE COPSTICK: I hate it. It is a relatively new thing. And the comics love it because they and their PRs just star count. They do not care where the stars come from as long as there are plenty of them. One female comic demanded of her PR "quantity not quality" in her stars. Also— again in the comedy section predominantly— it makes for laziness. Audiences will look at the star numbers and simply ignore the actual review. I have a huge desire to write a blisteringly scathing review of a show, describing an hour and a performer without merit and then put five stars at the top. See who goes along just for the stars. The stars are good for no one except tour bookers and PR.

COLIN THOMAS: From a consumer point of view, I can understand the desire for a shortcut, but, basically, I find the star system lazy and reductive. It shrinks artistic endeavours into quantifiable and commodifiable products. Thank Christ the paper that I write for doesn’t use star ratings.

4) One thing I appreciate about your reviews is that you give readers a FLAVOR of what they will experience if they see the show, but you don't give anything away. How do you do that? Are you sensitive to the concept of not writing spoilers, or are you just focused on something else entirely?

KATE COPSTICK: Oh I am TOTALLY aware that - with the good shows and performers - the audience HAS to come to it fresh. The surprises and the twists and the turns have to be theirs to discover. If you already know the twist at the end then that will colour the whole show for you. You are negating the writer and performer's work and at the same time spoiling the audience's experience. It is ALWAYS possible to describe the flavour of a piece without resorting to quotes or simply rehearsing the narrative line. The surprises are not yours to give away, the words not yours to fill up your prose. A critic has to have respect for both the production and the audience. And it is MUCH more interesting for me to do it that way. Other wise it becomes a Junior School essay on "what I saw last night at the theatre."

COLIN THOMAS: In my enthusiasm for an idea or a show, I have given things away a couple of times and, when I realized what I'd done, I felt shitty. So, you know, behaviour modification is at work.
       Mostly, though, I consciously try to give readers enough specific information to support my analysis and, hopefully, to intrigue them. But that’s a tricky dance, especially with comedy: to give readers the flavour of a comedy and make them want to see it, you’ve kind of got to give a way a couple of the best lines. I limit the amount I quote and I count on the fact that the jokes I do give away are always going to be funnier in the context of a live performance than they are in black and white on the page.

5) How would you describe your effect on/relationship to performers: do they notice you in the audience, how do they experience your reviews, what kinds of conversations do you and the artists you review engage in? What advice do you have for those getting reviewed?

KATE COPSTICK: I am always noticed and very frequently pointed out in an audience. I am used to the "Oh god, Kate Copstick's in the audience, now I'm fucked." There are so many new comics that most of them know me by reputation only. And for some reason my reputation is fierce. I am always honest. And if a show has been diabolical then I try to slip away and NOT talk to the performer. When I do the Grouchy Club (monthly in London and daily at The Fringe) we get loads of comics turning up and if they ask me questions I will answer honestly— they ask at their own risk. As I say, I find it hard to get too close to a performer because then it is not fair for me to review them and I do know that my reviews in Edinburgh are wanted. The brave people do come up and challenge me on my star count. I really do not mind that. I am always happy to explain why I wrote what I did. That is only fair.

COLIN THOMAS: Because I want to build better—more informed, more respectful—relationships with artists, every year I go and talk to the whole school at Studio 58. (The Studio is part of Langara University here in Vancouver and one of the best theatre training centres I know of.)
       I figure that mostly my job on those days is to show up and be human. I’ve been a theatre critic for over 30 years and, in the eyes of many, that makes me an institution, which means that I should be resented on principle. I talk to the emerging artists at Studio 58 to humanize my relationship with them. I talk about my biases and my experience. I let them know that I’m sincerely interested in my opinions being part of a discussion— with them.
       I almost always cry at some point during these talks; I love theatre and I love students, so it's a potent combination. I figure it’s a good thing when the scary judge that they’ve come to expect turns out to be a bald, bawling, 63-year-old homosexual.
       I encourage folks who are getting reviewed to look for the things in the review that are useful. Is there a handy pull-quote? Better yet, is there a workable insight? If so, go with those things and ignore the rest. (This is easier said than done, I realize; as an actor and playwright, I have been on the receiving end of both positive and negative reviews.)
       To get back to the earlier part of this question: I hope that I’m invisible to artists when I’m in the theatre, but I realize that often I’m not. All I can do about that is refuse to sit in the front-row seats that publicists sometimes reserve for me.
       I love respectful and engaged conversations with artists and audience members. Disappointingly, artists sometimes respond to reviews with ad hominem attacks: “You’re too old to appreciate my brilliance.” But, at other times, discussions with artists and audience members can be a gift. I reviewed a show called “Broken Sex Doll”, for instance, and, after my review was posted online, the online comments convinced me to change the review before it went to print.

6) How do you think you affect readers' decisions about what they see? How do you think your readers would describe your tastes?

KATE COPSTICK: I know people go to see things that I review well— but I am not sure whether they read the whole review or just look at the stars ... which I agonise over quantifying. My tastes now have been described to me as "out there." And "The weirder the better." I am now known as a big fan of the Free Fringes and the tiny shows. The "the weirder the better" thing is not true. I simply love honesty and bravery in a show and in its performer. And if honest turns out to be weird then I will defend it. If it is performed well. And well written. The Malcolm Hardee Awards (which I judge) are all about the "fringe" acts that don't fit into any niche ... what alternative used to mean. Before it turned into a term for irritating, middle class faux irony and "so bad it is good" nonsense.

COLIN THOMAS: For big touring shows— like when Cats comes to town for the thousandth time— I’m sure my reviews carry virtually zero weight.
       For local shows, I think I’m pretty widely read and I believe that readership is discerning. Still, everybody knows that the most important factor in selling shows is word of mouth, and that’s as it should be: it’s good to make your decisions based on the advice of a trusted source.
       I suspect that the Fringe is the event at which reviews carry the most weight; there are so many shows to choose from, and, especially in Vancouver, where the coverage by the dailies is appalling, there are few sources of information. Fortunately, I frickin’ love the Fringe; it’s my favourite time of the year.
       How would my readers describe my tastes? Geez, I don’t know. When I’m writing review, I assume that I’m talking to a smart person who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of insider knowledge. I’m hope readers think I’m smart— and entertaining. And, if they read the reviews, I hope that the artists involved will find my comments fair. Mostly, though, I just want to articulate my response as clearly as I can.

And there you have it. Cool, right? And how about those fun British/Canadian spellings?!

On days when we're feeling bitchy and low about some shitty review by a shitty writer who doesn't understand us, let us remember and feel grateful for the critics who care, who are deeply thoughtful, who are fighting the good fight to be in meaningful dialogue with the art they love. Fuck yeah great critics! Critique ON!!

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