FRINGE: Revenge of the Reviewed!

Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival GigCityFringe artists have had a tempestuous relationship with their critics since there was Fringe.

It’s symbiotic. Artists need critics. Critics need things to criticize.

As local theatre guru Kenneth Brown says, “Intelligent criticism is a vital part of theatrical culture.” Artists court the media’s favour to drum up ticket sales. They depend on favourable reviews to draw audiences, while fearing and loathing the bad reviews. Yet in time we hate what we often fear. Many artists secretly hate critics – in the manner of impoverished natives at a luxury resort in a third world country serving on rich, blithe, white tourists who refuse to tip because it’s an all-inclusive. Fucking entitled bastards.

It’s no secret anymore. It’s only natural these oppressed artists would eventually strike back by (metaphorically) lopping off their heads and sticking them on (symbolic) poles. Viva La Revolucion!

Fringe artists suffering from the slings and arrows of outrageous reviews at least have an outlet to vent their disgruntlement in the Late Night Cabarets that happen every night at midnight in the Fringe Cabaret Lounge. These “reviews of reviewers” segments rarely hold anything back. One artist recently unloaded on a critic at Vue magazine: “It would seem from his useless hyperbolic scribbling that this article was not scribed on keyboard and screen, but rather by the means of dipping his erect penis in ink and masturbating his idiot ideas into his readers’ brains, by way of their butts.” And so on.

And this for a five star review!

Ah, we laugh, but there is no pain quite like the pain suffered by an actor who gets a bad review. These artists complain that some Fringe critics are unqualified to review theatre. Some critics counter that innocence can be an asset. Others are actually incompetent, or blissfully unaware of the havoc they wreak, or in firm denial, like a high altitude bomber who never sees the faces of the bombed. After all, most critics aren’t being dicks for the fun of it, but to serve a greater good – to save the Fringe-goer from a bad Fringe play. Making matters worse is how everyone on both sides is addicted to the star system. A lot of artists hate these handy consumer ratings – but then are the first to brandish a five star review like a badge of honour. Because it can sell out shows, that’s why.

What does one random critic know? It’s so subjective, dependent on mood, overwork, crankiness or getting stuck in the Fringe’s hottest venue C103 for three consecutive plays on a hot evening – let’s see how you wretches feel after six hours in THE BOX! It’s no more than most critics deserve, according to some.

An Australian street performer earning mixed reviews for his one-man show this year put it nicely, “Fringe can be a cruel beast!”

This sort of material doesn’t make it into the entertainment media very often, for obvious reasons: Everyone who works in entertainment media in this town is turned into a Fringe critic for 10 days and thus ripe targets for withering backlash. You can almost hear sphincters slamming shut. Reporting such an insider slap fight is like shooting oneself in the foot and blowing one’s own horn at the same time (an Australian street performer actually did this on an outdoor stage). For the purposes of having to live into this city, most of the subjects in this story have been left anonymous.

Most of them. Vue editor Paul Blinov jumps into the thick of it. In fact, he does “reviews of reviews of reviews” as a guest of the Late Night Cabaret. And then his head explodes. Maybe the space-time continuum will collapse when he does it again. Who knows? It may seem that way at midnight on DAY NINE of North American’s largest theatre festival.

It can get serious. Reacting to a ONE STAR review in the Edmonton Journal, one prominent local actor (who isn’t even involved in the play) posted a rant on Facebook (used by permission here): “Shame on you, [reviewer]! This is a pointlessly cruel review, shoving your opinion down the throats of people who are trying to make an educated decision of what to see at the fringe. Your job isn’t to insult artists, you are supposed to offer an unbiased report of what works or does not work in a show.” And so on.

Is there any point in repeating more?

Paul Blinov has concerns: “I worry a little that letting Fringe performers review their reviewers is gonna get pretty personal and vindictive. If it’s just artist reviewing reviews, I’m all for it, sure. There’s a fun, cathartic vibe to taking the piss out of someone’s opinion that you disagree with. (And I don’t really see criticism as some ivory tower, either, so it also doubles as good reminder about that.) But if it’s just letting artists pick the reviewers to review (who will obviously pick the ones they have the biggest beefs with/got the worst reviews from), I worry it’ll just turn into a big ugly hate-on.”

It’s even been suggested there be a special Fringe website devoted to reviews of reviews. Can’t wait to review that one.

Rob Gee, yet another funny Brit doing evolved stand-up comedy at the Fringe this year, says he remembers a soccer match that was organised between reviewers and performers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He says, “I think it ended in violence.”

Don’t give us ideas.