Monday, August 23, 2010

Leaping Into The Fray

Okay – I have to weigh in. I’ve been meaning to start a blog for some time, but this has been running through my head for so long I decided that this was the way to get rolling.

There are a tremendous number of issues that have been raised by the whole ‘HaslamGate’ controversy over this past week. Here’s your research, if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.

The blog post and comment.

The blogger's boyfriend's response.

The first local press coverage.

The response of the person in question.

I believe some of the issues have been discussed to death, while some have remained curiously under-discussed. Here are my two cents on the topics. I encourage you to read them, discuss them, get excited or upset about them, challenge them, and above all else, whether you agree with me or not, discuss them. And please remember, wherever possible I’m discussing the issues, not specific individuals.

Wherever possible, that is…

First the obvious issues:

Freedom of Speech - Blogs are Public - People are Entitled to Say what they Want

Picture it as happening in a beer tent. My wife, has just seen a show by a theatre company. She gives her opinion on it to whoever will listen. It’s a generally positive review. In fact, she has nothing negative to say. Now, a member of that company, nay, the AD (Artistic Director) lambastes her from across the tent. You can be sure that like Mack, I would spring to her defense. And you can also be sure that when I got out of the tent, I’d be telling everyone who would listen about what had happened. Now if I pulled that actor aside and tried to get some clarification, would I also repeat at full volume what he said to me privately? I’d sure be tempted, but I probably shouldn’t. So, Mack posting Jeff’s private response email to him may have crossed a line. Especially if we’re discussing what’s public and what’s private. Free speech is pretty clear.

But what Haslam seems to be forgetting is that as AD, he was putting words in the mouth of every member of the company. As AD, he is the spokesman for Teatro. I spent two years as AD of the theatre company across the street, making significantly less money than Haslam (it was a volunteer position, I wasn’t paid a cent) and I had to be careful, strategic and diplomatic about every single word that came out of my mouth for two years. Don't get me wrong - it was an incredibly rewarding experience. But I knew that everything that I said would be viewed as having come from the entire company. This comes with the territory of being AD. So when the vitriol is unleashed on a positive review, people who aren’t in the know (which is most of the people reading a public forum) are going to be making assumptions. Looking at the blog post and the comment in isolation, paints a pretty dismal picture for Teatro.

But as far as freedom of speech goes: Is everyone entitled to it? Yes. Does that mean you should say whatever you want? Another blogger put it best when they said:
"Freedom of speech means you can shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
Common sense means you only shout it when the building’s actually burning."
The whole blog is here.

Role of Blogger vs. Reviewer

We look at reviewers as people who are getting paid to discuss theatre. Some are educated, some aren’t, some do research, some don’t. But they do it as a job, and as actors, we often have to remind ourselves that it’s only one person’s opinion. Bloggers are also only one person. Even moreso. They speak from the heart about their honest experiences without an agenda. There’s a reason Google rates blogs highly – they are the least likely to be influenced by outside sources and agendas. They are different beasts. But just to get a sense of the validity, take a look at the balance and flavor of comments on the blogs. Then look at the few local media mentions. Which are the stronger statements coming from? And where are the safe, try to please everyone statements coming from. Food for thought.

Role of Artist vs. Audience

Here is where I get my nose really out of joint. A blog in response to the issue made this comment.
"Artists are mercurial, unpredictable, and socially unconventional – they don’t abide by the rulebook that governs the grey, protestant lives that the rest of us lead."
Sorry, but artists exist to explore the human condition. The last thing they should have is license to be less than humane.

His comment about theatre goers:
"More importantly, when it comes to the arts, they aren’t customers, no matter how much the good people at the Fraser Institute might want us to see it that way. They’re people who are bearing witness to the work of an artist, and paying for the privilege of doing so."
Horse puckey. Absolute crap. When I go to see a play, I am not paying for the privilege of watching an artist ‘work’ without their acknowledgement of the audience. There’s a term for actors who are exploring themselves without regard to the people watching them, it’s called “masturbating onstage.” (Note, I’m not implying that Teatro is guilty of this – I’m discussing the implications of this particular blog post in the grand scheme of things.) The minute, nay the second an artist charges for their work, there is an exchange. I am giving them money and they are giving me something in return. The beauty of the arts is that they can give me food for thought, laughter, tears, beauty, ugliness, tragedy, comedy, and in fact, the whole gamut of human experience. But they are giving it to me, the ‘bum in the seat.’ This is the difference between live theatre and television, a difference that theatre artists continually espouse. Art, and theatre in particular should be a conversation. Not a lecture.

And I am entitled to form an opinion. In fact, there was a time before blogs when we were encouraged  to have and share an opinion. It’s called ‘word-of-mouth’ and it is the most valuable and intangible publicity tool a company (theatre, corporate, individual, government, you name it) can have. We live in a world where there is now universal access to word of mouth. There are theatre companies that would trade their grants to have someone so prolific, constantly chatting up the shows, all the shows, especially with such a large portion of positivity for so many seasons. And before you get on your horses about criticism, keep reading – I’ll get to that below.

Now, the under-discussed issues:

Implications Towards Arts Funding

Here is the largest under-discussed ramification of this event, the one that scares me the most:
"I wonder if she knows that her crappy 19 bucks goes to less than 40% of what it costs to pay all the artists she isn’t always smitten by? Do us all a favour lady. Write about food and take your entertainment dollar elsewhere."
That statement has set the battle for arts funding back to the stone age. Show me a dyed-in-the-wool Albertan, who isn’t necessarily a theatre supporter (there are a lot of them and they vote) who won’t read this and make the following assumption:
"More than half the money these actors make comes from grants. In fact, so much comes from grants that they don’t care if the audience comes or not. So my tax money isn’t going to help artists make ends meet. In fact, they live off of it so much that they’d rather not have audiences, so they can do anything without being accountable to anyone. No wonder they complain about arts funding, we’re not subsidizing them, we’re supporting them. I’ll be damned if they’re getting any more of my money."
This is particularly dangerous coming from an AD. My guess, much of this will fade over time, but this… This is the element of this event that will haunt artists across the province the longest.

The Role of Criticism

And just a final note on criticism. Thick vs. thin skin has been discussed to death, so I won’t go any farther on that, but there is something about criticism that not many people know, yet it affects us all. An opinion with a measure of criticism has more credibility. Especially when it’s coming from a patron/customer.  People are suspicious of undiluted enthusiasm. Reviews for products or services on websites strike us as peculiar if there are pages after pages of ‘Five out of Five!’ Nothing is perfect. No performance can ever please everyone who sees it 100%. The few negative notes that Yeo made over the years actually increased the validity of her glowing reviews.

This is especially so in theatre. If someone ever wrote a show that was designed not to offend anyone, anywhere, it would be the most boring piece of work on the planet. The day we stop getting criticism is not the day ‘We’ve arrived.’ It’s the day we die as artists. It’s the day we no longer take risks. It is the day our growth is stunted. Why do we need arts funding? Because we cannot please everyone. We cannot create material that is perfect. But by pushing the envelope we stretch, and learn new truths, and develop. We grow. And by hearing what our audiences have to say, we learn how to grow further.

Criticism should be viewed as a reward for our risks, as a learning opportunity. Keith Johnstone, improvisation guru and creator of Theatresports, said that during an improv show, if you haven’t failed miserably in at least one scene of the night, you weren’t trying hard enough. You weren’t taking risks. Reward lives behind risk, and criticism is the gatekeeper.

I could go on. Hell, I could talk about this for hours, but there is one conclusion that needs to be made. This situation could be salvaged with some humble pie from all parties involved. People make mistakes. Mistakes live online forever. (I know of social media professors across North America who are trying to fit this into their curriculum for next year. Eeek!) But people love a good story, and if this one ends with everyone smiling and shaking hands, that part of the story will be the note people walk away with.

It’ll only happen if everyone comes to the table though. Hell, I’ll brew the coffee.


  1. A most excellent review of the situation and the situation of the arts in general Mr. B! You have definitely arrived in the blogosphere!

  2. Thank you Randy, for the thoughtful analysis. I think that there is the aspect of Jeff being a big fish in a small pond(I mean no offense here to the many dedicated theatre professional who labour to make theatre come alive in Edmonton, simply that it is, after all, a small city).
    The original review is wonderfully supportive of both Teatro and the production. Jeff's response is breathtakingly arrogant, and comes from a feeling of entitlement. Jeff is a talented Actor and a hard-working AD, but we are Entertainers, and without an audience we are a hollow sound in an empty hall.
    If all Jeff wants is the people who already love him then he is welcome to them, and in a few years when numbers have dwindled and his current audience have moved away or simply moved on, he can reflect that welcoming new people and appreciating their support is always a good thing.
    Oh... and if you think that was a bad review Mr. Haslam, then you have indeed led a very sheltered life.

  3. Hi, Randy. I'll confess that I may have gotten a tad....overwrought in my description of the relationship between the performers and the audience, and the nature of the artistic personality.

    But I maintain that treating art like a simple commercial transaction, and grafting the ethic of customer service (customer servility, really) onto it, does far more harm than good. Yes, artists are obligated to mind their bottom lines, and responsible for building productive relationships with their audience. Jeff's outburst, obviously, did nothing to achieve either of those.

    And, I worry about the leveling influence of populist interpretations of the relationship between the two parties. Yes, the performers have a duty to respect their audience, but so too does the audience have a duty to respect the performers. If they're going to play the role of amateur reviewer, that duty is an even higher one. That, I think, is what Jeff was responding to, however obliquely.

  4. Hey Max, I totally appreciate your comment. In my heart of hearts, I agree with what you're saying here. I do worry about diluting artistic purity with audience expectation. The last thing we want is to limit our expression solely to make other people happy.

    However, we (as theatre artists) are in trouble. Ticket sales for live theatre have been slowly but steadily dwindling over the last number of years. All our entertainment is on-demand. Why go somewhere, to see something at a specific time when we can watch a YouTube video of it on our phone whenever we want? Theatre is a destination activity. Part of the very appeal of theatre is based in the fact that you can't turn it off, or push pause. But entertainment consumption in the modern world is inexorably drifting away from that. Which as a theatre artist causes me grave concern.

    Therefore, although we can't let the audience expectation distort our artistic vision, we must be smarter about how we engage with the audience, outside of the 'play' itself. We can be 'challenging' onstage, but not offstage. We're fighting an uphill battle here, and the hill is getting steeper. So an interaction with an audience member outside the theatre must be handled responsibly. Especially from the AD - who becomes the spokesperson for the company, at all times, whether he's 'on the job' or not. His comments as an actor, though overly wrought with emotion, are explainable. (Still far more of a personal attack than I would ever unleash.) As an AD he has painted his entire company with that brush, and his comments about arts funding have painted the entire community with an even more dangerous brush.

    Being cognizant of these things is how we will keep our audiences coming. Theatre is both a personal and a shared experience. And the respect which governs that must be upheld by all parties, on and offstage.