I’ve already written about the ecosystem that has been making (theatre) writers into bloggers. A lot of people complain about this transition, and fall into the timeless trap of glorifying the place criticism has historically occupied. I believe the transition to online criticism actually marks an important opportunity for us all to redefine and re-democratize the art of criticism.

        Being online makes us infinitely adaptable. This may sound like a cliché of the new 21st century: you know, bricks and mortar costs capital with a limited local customer base, and online presence is flexible and has a huge reach without overhead blah blah blah. But this isn’t what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the radical way being online allows develop programs and content to meet the changing world around us, and for you to contact us directly, instantly, and tell us what you think about it.

I acknowledge that this is a highly simplified depiction of a very complex issue, but bear with me; I’m drawing it in order to make a point by contrast.

        Newspapers have a long history of institutional recognition, and are established as a sort of habit for both individuals and businesses; people subscribe, drink their Sunday morning coffee and read them, and many advertisers still think of purchasing space in print before they’d ever advertise on a blog. Of course, this is changing.

Something that gets mentioned with somewhat less frequency is that the vested interests that own and control the paper are principally concerned with making money, and the coverage inside the paper reflects this. Papers don’t want to risk offending their subscribers because if they get offended enough, they’ll stop subscribing.

It’s worth mentioning that some free daily and weekly papers are less reluctant to step out on a limb and make some controversial statements. By focussing on the community angle, which is what most of these papers specialize in, they are able dedicate more space to things like arts coverage, that major dailies ignore. These papers serve a crucial role, and they often do very good work that the (arts) community needs. It seems to me, however, that they are still strongly influenced by their owners and advertisers when it comes to selecting what to cover and what angle to cover it from. It is more risky for them to cover something off the beaten track or that offends people exactly because their business model is based on community appeal.

This has led papers towards one of two choices; the first option is that they water down their arts coverage in the pursuit of something that appeals to everyone. This sometimes gets called “being objective,” or “balanced,” but it ends up losing the specificity that makes people want to read it as the voice of a real human about things that are happening in the world. The second option is that papers move towards polarized coverage of the world. This risks offending a greater number of people, but since the voices papers carry always reflect the interests of the organizations (read: businesses) that own them, the only people who get offended by this don’t have much pull to do anything about it as individuals. They could, of course, cancel their subscription or write complaints. Letters work, if there are a lot of them, or they make it past the editor (read: employee of the paper) and into print. Similarly, the departure of a single subscriber doesn’t make a noticeable impact, though the disatisfaction of subscribers generally seems to be a significant part of the reason print media is in the troublesome state it is. The inflexibility of physical journalism seems to be hurting it when it comes to adapting to a reality where fewer people subscribe to the paper. And this, somewhat ironically, leaves aside the whole group of people who aren’t subscribers, and whose voices aren’t represented at all.

Enter online media. I might offend you with something that I say. In fact, at some point, I hope I do (maybe I just did?). But I intend to do it with the utmost respect for you as a human being. I am always willing to discuss the reasons my statements offend you. In fact, that discussion is precisely what this medium is built on; individuals interacting as equals. Further, because I’m beholden only to myself (and my editor: Hi Brie), I’m unlikely to get fired. So I have a much greater freedom be a real individual voice; to say things that challenge the things you think you know and the status quo of the world at large. Let me be clear: I am not saying you don’t know things, or that facts are impossible. I am saying that you (and I) will never learn anything new if we don’t interact with parts of the world that make us uncomfortable (read: don’t already fit inside our world view).

Plus, because my editor believes in me, I am free to play with form and content if I feel it serves my point. I can put in a whole bunch of asides that comment on the main point of my article (or do they embody the main point of my article?). I can put in a poem (like I did last week) if I feel it serves my purpose. I’m not limited by what anybody else thinks an “article” has to look like, or talk about. I am free to push the discussion where I think it needs to go.

And you are free to engage with me on an equal footing to present a different perspective if you want. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m waiting for the day that someone writes a whole article detailing the reasons why they disagree with every single thing I say. What a glorious opportunity to explore our understanding of art together!

Now, that’s what I like about publishing online. But I think the strongest point in favour of online media, beyond the fact of print’s decline, and the freedom that exists in this form, is with an eye to the future. We get to shape the future of the theatrical ecosystem as we build it in real time. We have the freedom to engage with you moment to moment and shape our collective path forward.

The New Ottawa Critics have big ideas about what this looks like; keep an eye out for new voices cropping up in the future as contributors. This is hard, because many of the voices that need our attention the most, and have the most important things to say, are the least able to afford the time to dedicate to making themselves heard. It’s a really powerful feedback loop of privilege that has been detailed extensively. As much as I’d like to be paid for the work we do, I have a dream of paying contributors to write for us. I think this is even more important than paying ourselves, both as an example to other organizations, and to make sure the conversation continues to develop in a way that is truly equitable. We need to acknowledge that our perspectives are highly privileged, (even as we aren’t paid, we have accessed education and realistic employment opportunities, not to mention a platform and audience, that many people don’t because of financial, racial, and other discrimination) and then we need to do work to use that position for good.

How would that work? It definitely requires the support of our community. All our efforts do. We are dedicated to improving theatrical and artistic work through increasing the potential and actual engagement with it. This would be drastically easier to do if we could focus more on this project, and less on how we are going to eat or pay rent, which is doubly true for the voices that you haven’t seen yet.

We are working on this through a bunch of channels, and our recent mention in the Canadian Theatre Review gives us the sort of legitimacy that granting bodies like.

But grants are slow, not guaranteed, and not representative of community engagement. More important to us, is that if you believe in the work we are already doing, there are lots of ways to show your support. Sharing our reviews and articles on social media is easy and free and extremely appreciated. You could also become a patron online and support us through monthly or one-time donations. This would allow us to do things like solicit contributions from a broader spectrum of voices, improve the quality of the website and its content, and devote time to expanding our projects to make them more relevant to you and our community. I know you’re probably an artist or employed in the arts if you are reading this. Thanks for your time and dedication.

The final and most important way you can show your support is by engaging in the dialogue we are trying to foster. If you have thoughts about what we’re saying, post a comment. If you or someone you know might have an interesting perspective on the role of art and criticism and theatre in the larger cultural context, send us a message. We would love to hear from you and talk about developing or featuring your ideas.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Freedom to Engage

  1. POSTED WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR:
    Hi all,
    I just read Wes’s latest article and I am pleased to see the determination to shake things up. One thing that is missing, however, is an discussion of how the old platform of newspaper reviews offered a reliable timeline to the reader. As a theatre-goer and as a producer, I am frustrated by the lack of consistency when it comes to the timely posting of reviews. I recognize that volunteer critics have the freedom to post their work according to their own schedule, but as a reader, I have no incentive to visit the website if current plays are not reviewed within a few days of opening. Please understand that I am grateful to have volunteer critics plying their skills, but if the advantage of online reportage is immediacy, then it would make sense to take advantage of that quality.
    Thanks again for supporting theatre.
    Sincerely,
    Eric Coates

    1. Hi Eric,

      Thanks for mentioning this. We definitely try to get to things and write as close to opening as possible. We have been working on the ‘regularity’ angle with these weekly #DarkDayMonday articles. It’s not quite the same thing as the reviews, but it’s a step in the right direction, from my perspective.

      As for the future of publishing reviews early in the run, now that we know your concern, we will definitely take it into consideration. As we move ahead, we are putting a lot of energy into increasing our presence and impact, so thanks for the valuable suggestion.

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