Consider the Context of the Critique

There’s been a tempest in a teacup this week: the Edmonton blogosphere meets the Fringe Festival. Brittney wrote a good summary.

The too-long, didn’t-read version: Blogger writes what seems like a positive review of a Fringe theatre show produced by a local company. Artistic director of said company posts a rather catty comment on her review. Mack weighs in, and a long conversation ensues. Brittney did a follow-up interview with the rather loquacious artistic director Jeff Haslam.

You can identify the heroes and villains of this little Albertan farce on your own. I wanted to highlight what seems to be the crux of this situation. First, an excerpt from Brittney’s first post:

I won’t say that I’m a qualified professional reviewer. I’m not. But I’ve been seeing plays since I was little and saw a high school production of Oliver. Since then, I try to go see plays whenever the opportunity presents itself. Although friends of mine are active in Edmonton’s theatre community and can tell you about technical flaws, lighting, sound, direction… I can’t. But I don’t want to. Because, I feel, the average theatre-goer doesn’t necessarily know all that. We just go to things we like. What we hear friends and family speak highly of.

And here’s part of a comment on that post:

I think Haslam is venting a particular frustration many people in the arts industries feel. They are unhappy with the new role bloggers have taken in their business. It is true that most bloggers are not professional reviewers and don’t have the vast experience and training that writers for respectable publications do, however, I think they serve some purpose. They present a view of a regular person and their opinions aren’t useless.

It’s often said that the web is disruptive, and this is a classic example. Artists–the subjects of criticism–have had to re-contextualize their understanding of and response to criticism as the ranks of critics have broadened.

Once, artists lived in a world with only two kinds of critics:

  • Friends
  • Professional critics published in mainstream media

A Critical Continuum

Now, of course, that dichotomy has become a continuum, with friends at one end, bloggers (and Twitter users and Facebook fans and so forth) in the middle and professional critics at the other end.

Artists should (and many do, certainly) understand that they have different expectations and get different benefits from different critics on this continuum. Friends may provide unfettered approbation, while bloggers can offer anything from friendly word of mouth to professional-level criticism. And professional critics can be hit and miss in their analysis, too.

If artists only expect professional criticism, then they’re not going to know how to react when they encounter other responses to their work. This seems to have been the case with Mr. Haslam.

I regularly write theatre reviews on this site (I used to write theatre reviews for a Victoria newspaper, so I have a little mainstream media cred). I work hard on reviews, because I want to be thorough and fair. I was slightly dismayed then, when I heard from a local director earlier this year that he’d enjoyed a review of mine, but found it “oddly incomplete”. Lo, the tables are turned. The critic gets critiqued.

Read the Body Language of the Blog

But, again, I think this is an example of changing contexts. Not all of my theatre reviews are carefully crafted pieces that seek to emulate the reviews I read in the Globe or the Straight. Sometimes I’ll just write a shorter piece describing my immediate, less-measured response to a performance. Such is the fluid nature of this site–I don’t have many rules.

The lesson? It’s that hoary old friend “don’t comment in anger”. But there’s a subtler lesson as well: consider the context of the critique. Read the body language of the blog (the bloggy language?). Recognize whether the critique is friendly or chilly, professional or amateur. And, of course, be gracious.


  1. An excellent, well-reasoned, level-headed response to an issue that was blown way out of proportion from the very beginning. Haslam may have acted like a jerk, but he deserves his own opinion. Sharon may be a victim of an unjust attack, but she and Mack overreacted. And because they are fairly high-profile individuals, a large portion of the Edmonton blog community followed suit.

    Now let’s all just drop it and move on with our lives, shall we?

  2. We have this discussion often at Plank Magazine.

    Our reviewers have various backgrounds, some with reviewing experience while others just “like to see plays”. We believe that it doesn’t matter who does the reviewing as long as they say what they feel, treat the artists fairly, and don’t write worthless comments like: “this artist likes to eat babies and kill small animals”. Any discussion drawn from a review should follow in the comments and we encourage artists to voice their opinions about reviews on the website.

    I am unimpressed with artists who feel any criticism of their work by “non-professionals” is invalid – and I call shenanigans on such attitudes. To me, it reveals a lack of respect for the audience.

    You cannot have a creative industry where all commentary is merely internal, written by “friends”, or penned by other artists. Audiences should have a voice regardless of their background.

    Anyway… enough said.

    1. Hmm…I hardly think it’s notable enough for Wikipedia. I might lobby to delete that material.

      That said, Haslam’s entry needs some third-party sources, full stop.

  3. @penmachine That is so true.

    My feelings on the whole thing are that many of these artists have become so dependent upon public funding in Canada and have forgotten about the people they should be attracting – those individuals who are not already involved in some way with the arts community. Movies have been killing the number of bums in seats for years… but with public funding it made it easier to make the art and present it because you didn’t have to show an overall profit (in general, anyway).

    I am all for public funding but when it breeds an attitude that artists must always cater to other artists, it gets a little crazy.

    Blah blah blah.

  4. The whole thing has been really interesting to watch. I object to your comment “Little Albertan farce”. We have enough bashing in our direction, thank you. I get tired of that attitude.

    1. Perhaps my reference was a bit clumsy, but the play in question is a French farce. I supposed I should have gone with ‘Edmontonian farce’.

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