I’ve been talking for weeks now about what the critical landscape currently looks like in this country, what the New Ottawa Critics thinks it’s trying to accomplish, and the theory behind that. Now it’s time to talk a bit about how exactly we are hoping to address some of these issues. So this edition of DarkDayMonday is going to have a bit more of a practical focus than usual.
On Friday at a panel discussion hosted by undercurrents (titled ‘Death of the Critic’)[we can’t actually link the Facebook Live video here, unfortunately, but it is pinned on the NOC Facebook page], we announced a new project in conjunction with the GCTC to create a Critical Residency. This project will see the NOC set up shop in the west end, and take on some new projects, including detailed embedded criticism work throughout the administrative and rehearsal process. It’s an experimental program that’s unique in North America, designed to place the NOC and GCTC on the forefront of navigating the new world of theatre and criticism that the internet age of journalism thrusts upon us.
I can already hear people muttering about conflicts of interest. “It seems impossible for a theatre presenter to host a critic without compromising the critic’s impartiality.” The rest of this article is generally going to be in response to ideas like that. Because we agree with you in so far as we think it is already impossible to be impartial and do good criticism.
Impartial is just another word for objective, which doesn’t exist when it comes to discussion about human relationships, which is the root of how we view theatre. It seems to me that by exploring our partiality, and attempting to be as honest as possible about it, we actually get better and more valuable criticism. That was sort of glib. You probably wouldn’t say that. I wonder if maybe it’s more accurate to put these words in your collective mouth: “Of course they said nice things about the latest GCTC production, they work for the GCTC.”
I can honestly say that so far in my “career” as a theatre critic, I haven’t pulled any punches for the sake of my personal relationships with theatre artists. None of us have. If anything, those relationships have encouraged me to be more engaged with a work and find truly constructive things to say about it. Trying to separate yourself as a critic leads to more difficulty in caring about and engaging with the work, not better ability to critique it. I think the same trend will arise from our relationship with the GCTC. I don’t imagine that I’ll only have positive things to say, because I think that art always has room for improvement. That doesn’t even begin to address the debatable idea that noting an area for improvement makes an inherently negative statement about the art.
And from what I can tell, the GCTC isn’t interested in fluff pieces talking about how great everything is. Because they also seem to believe that full and open dialogue is the way to create more engaging theatre, and an engaged community around it. Eric Coates, the GCTC’s Artistic Director recognises the problem, saying “Theatre creators throughout Europe and North America are struggling [with the changing realities of criticism]. [Our organizations] want to address it actively. And if it leads to some strong debate, so much the better. That’s why we work in the arts.” The NOC have been encouraging your participation in this conversation for long enough now you ought to know where NOC stands on dialogue about the arts: more is better.
I would liken this relationship to what happens when a corporation hires an independent contractor to assess its business for efficiency. Even more similar is what happens with journalists who get assigned to the political legislature; they develop relationships with the government and opposition officials to report on them in service to the public interest. And just to be clear, in the case of this Critical Residency, we are distinctly not being hired by the GCTC. We are entering into a mutually beneficial working relationship with them. Their reason for entering this relationship is not to corrupt the media that covers them, but to gain insight from an artistic perspective that is not wrapped up in the creation process while being committed to engaging with it, thinking about it, and documenting it. Ours is to provide you with a depth of coverage that we feel will create a more engaged community. And, for the sake of full disclosure, also because the professional nature of this relationship will put us in a distinctly different light the the eyes of granting bodies.
There are other organizations that have walked some parts of this road before us. Embedded criticism, which will form a significant part of this collaboration, has been ongoing in Canada through efforts by DARTCritics, based out of St. Catherine’s, Ontario. These folks have been reporting from behind the scenes of theatre productions for nearly four years now. It has also been a key part of the practice of Maddy Costa’s work in residency with Chris Goode and Company since 2012. We are going to be following in their footsteps as we engage with the embedded criticism portion of this project. So we can all feel a little safe that things like this have been done before. We aren’t fundamentally insane or unethical.
And we are also moving beyond the path laid out by these critics. We are excited to deepen our coverage of theatre, by including new perspectives from behind the scenes, and broadening the range of voices that are speaking about the theatre that’s already being produced in Ottawa. This residency is an opportunity to deepen the impact of thoughtful criticism, and we need you to make that happen. As I said last week, when it comes to our own blind spots, we rely on your perspective to point them out.
The proof of the success of this venture does not yet exist. Nor does proof of its failure. We are taking strides into the creation of a new world of theatre criticism in North America, and rather than being paralyzed by fear of potential conflicts of interest, we are excited by the prospect of encountering them, and teasing loose their associated difficulties. This is an opportunity for the whole Ottawa theatre community to work together for our collective growth and improvement.
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