Theatre critics have feelings, too

Are Edmonton theatre people a bunch of pussies when it comes to their critics – or is it the other way around?

Just wondering.

The following exploration all started with Facebook. In an effort to get fresh local arts material for, I sent “friend” requests to as many Edmonton musicians, artists, writers and actors as I could. Most accepted immediately. One, however, stubbornly remains unconfirmed. I won’t name the person, but it was an individual whose Fringe play I carved mercilessly in the Edmonton Sun. I sent the person an interview request a couple of weeks ago. Nothing. Nothing but silent, empty, seething hatred – a click of a tiny “unlike” button deep within my soul. Or so my fevered critic’s ego imagines.

Is there a festering grudge here? How long will it go on? How may I atone? Can we put this unpleasantness behind us? Am I a complete asshole for wanting to befriend someone whose personal artistic expression I so blithely cut apart?

I don’t have a clue. There are lots of questions about the thorny relationship between critics and those they criticize – or whether critics themselves have become obsolete – but when it comes specifically to Edmonton’s theatre community, there is a conspiracy of silence. Several interview requests for this piece were turned down or ignored. One could imagine that artists’ egos are more fragile in such an isolated, arts-friendly town – but these things are hard to measure. The opposite might be the case. We’re tougher up here because the weather is so awful.

Consider the evidence. Venerable local theatre critic Colin MacLean, who rarely has an unkind word to say about anything – and when he does you’d best avoid that particular turkey – was walking around the Fringe with his wife one sunny day when he heard an angry voice right behind him. Colin recalls the guy’s exact words: “YOU FUCKING SON-OF-A-BITCH! YOU MOTHER-FUCKING ASSHOLE! YOU COME INTO MY THEATRE, YOU SAY THOSE THINGS ABOUT MY PLAY, YOU DON’T EVEN PAY FOR A TICKET, WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!”

He and his wife kept walking. On another occasion, the former CBC-TV personality had a quibble about puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, about how the marionettes might be more effective in a drama if they could actually change their facial expressions – and the guy flips out. MacLean says, “His reaction is that he did two weeks of jokes about me, which were apparently quite hilarious, and then he didn’t talk to me for two years. I wasn’t very happy about that. I consider him a friend.”

What was it that Lester Bangs once warned – critics should never become friends with their subjects?

Perhaps no one in Edmonton knows this better than Paul Matwychuk. He was in the unusual position of being on both sides at the same time – as a playwright-actor and theatre critic, later an editor, for See magazine. Even more bizarre, he was working for Vue magazine when a negative review of HIS OWN PLAY appeared in the paper.

“For a couple of days there, it was hard to even walk past the Vue boxes on the street,” he says.

As a critic, Matwychuk had other problems. Consider the Curious Case of Jeff Haslam. The veteran local actor has appeared in numerous productions in Edmonton and across Canada, is a regular fixture at the Die-Nasty live improvised soap opera, and perhaps is best known for his work with Teatro La Quindicina. The company runs out of the Varscona Theatre and churns out about one new play a year from Stewart Lemoine – a sort of modern-day Noel Coward whose works are so well-known in this town that they’re just called “Lemoines.” Going to the new Lemoine? Is this Lemoine better than the last Lemoine? Are we Lemoine-d out yet?

Haslam seems like a nice guy – which is why it’s so weird how he’s been freaking out on certain theatre critics in the past few years. Due to allegedly “inconsistent” reviews, both See and Vue are now shunned from all Teatro productions (no comp tickets, no interviews, no press releases). Matwychuk was “saddened and confused” by this move because he’s always held Haslam and Lemoine in the highest regard and says he honestly isn’t sure why Haslam was so pissed. After Matwychuk sent a reviewer to one of Teatro’s shows on the sly – paid for the ticket – the actor even threatened to have See writers “forcibly removed” from the premises.

And that’s why you don’t see Lemoines in the weeklies.

Matwychuk has since given up being a theatre critic to avoid further psychic damage.

Haslam blew a gasket again last summer, this time at local food blogger Sharon Yeo for her review of the Lemoine of the moment (The Ambassador’s Wives; read Yeo’s review here). Haslam fired off a scathing comment, using words like “snotty” and “arrogant” and “pretentious doof.” He insulted her status as a theatre critic, called her friends “icky” and basically told her to fuck off. She was stung, and so was Yeo’s friend and fellow blogger Mack D. Male. Read his side of it here.

Both Haslam and Lemoine have refused comment on any of this. Jeff politely responded that he has since settled the matter privately, and Lemoine pointed out that audiences for Teatro shows have been growing every year – regardless of what the critics or bloggers say. In short, they don’t need ‘em.

Playwright Brad Fraser has similar feelings. Edmonton’s bad boy of theatre who has since made a name for himself in Toronto has taken his lumps over the years. But he sure can dish it out. He roasted poor Colin MacLean in the National Post just because Colin liked Anne of Green Gables. Legend also tells of a terrible feud between Fraser and the Edmonton Journal’s Liz Nicholls – which she claims never happened. Fraser says he doesn’t remember. He was convinced to offer a few thoughts, however: “The truth is, Liz, Colin and (Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian) and the others who have reviewed me negatively haven’t made a difference in my career. I put my energy where it can do the most positive things now. The critics are ultimately forgotten. The artists are remembered for a very long time.”

On whether it’s tougher in the big city, he says, “Critics aren’t tougher in TO, they’re just more insecure – particularly at the Toronto Star.”

One more shot: “Any reviewer who’s been in the same city longer than 10 years is not doing themselves, their community or their readers any favours. After that amount of time you’re not a critic, you’re a co-dependent and your inability to move forward and break new ground is holding everyone back.”

Sensing some old grudges here?

Liz Nicholls has carved a lot of turkeys in her time and received quite a number of strongly-worded letters to the editor in the process – plus a bad Fringe play in her honour last summer: Liz Nicholls: the Musical. She doesn’t want to talk about it. To the question of fragile artistic ego, she says the painfully obvious answer she learned 10 minutes after taking the job is this: “People don’t like people not liking their show.” My recent interview with Liz doesn’t go well. She suggests I’m “badgering” her for gory details of actor backlash or long-running feuds, adding, “It seems to me that you’ve already decided what to write about and you’re just digging around for evidence.”

Well, exactly.

Since I am only a theatre critic for 10 days a year, during the Fringe, I have little to offer in the way of actor backlash tales. Once I saw a dreadful play that involved gratuitous sex, murder and cannibalism – which wasn’t what made it dreadful – by one Zhauna Alexander. I had the strange luck to sit right next to the fledgling playwright on a sold-out opening night. I secretly scribbled notes while she laughed like a hyena at her own awful jokes. I filed my scathing review and spent the rest the Fringe hiding from her. The critique had no effect. The rest of the show was a sell-out. Zhauna was pissed, I learned later, but we eventually made up. I hope.

Are musicians better able to cope with negative criticism? Again, hard to measure. It has been said that a single review can make or break a theatre production. This is especially true with Broadway and the New York Times. Not so much in Edmonton, at least during the regular subscription-padded season – until you get to the Fringe. Five-star reviews in the dailies spell sold-out shows. Bad reviews can kill – unless the play contains gratuitous sex, murder and cannibalism, of course. The difference with music is that concert reviews come out AFTER the show, so who cares.

As the rock critic at the Sun since 1992, I have been dissed numerous times for being an opinionated wiseass. I’d like to tell critics of my critiques that I’m not being a bastard just for the fun of it, but for the greater public good. If you suck, you’re wasting everybody’s time. Certain musicians take umbrage at this sort of reasoning. I’ve been told, “you suck!” by the Goo Goo Dolls, banned by Tom Cochrane, hung up on by Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, insulted from on stage by a handful of local bands and sent a particularly nasty letter by Amanda Marshall. Where is she now? I’m afraid to find out. She really hurt my feelings.

Ah, the answer to the first question is becoming clear. Liz gets the last word because she’s the smartest critic here: “Reviewers are just as thin-skinned as artists, in this town, anyway.”