The New Ottawa Critics is celebrating its 5th birthday this week, so this Dark Day
Monday Tuesday, we’re here to tell you a little bit more about our plans for the upcoming year and why we need your help more than ever.
Over the last 5 years, the New Ottawa Critics and I have been dedicated to covering the local theatre scene to the best of our unpaid abilities. Starting out as theatre students at the University of Ottawa, I founded the NOC because I perceived there to be a great lack of criticism being created by young writers who specialize in theatre arts (with a few exceptions at the Capital Critics Circle). It was not long after our secret inauguration in the deserted Moondog Pub on Laurier Avenue that we received our very first media accreditation from the (recently defunct) Magnetic North Theatre Festival. Shortly thereafter we met Greggory Clarke, the former Marketing and Outreach Manager at the Ottawa Fringe Festival, who would have a massive impact on our organization.
It was Gregg who told me (via email) that although the Fringe didn’t normally give out media passes to a group with such a small online presence, he was willing to give us a chance that year because he believed in the scope and focus of the NOC. We have always been grateful for that chance because, without it, we certainly would never have carved the foothold for ourselves that we did that summer, and our trajectory as an organization would be much different.
From that Fringe Festival onwards, the NOC seemed to be afforded this same recognition and appreciation across the community – not only from Gregg and the Fringe, but also from local independent theatre companies, and even Eric Coates at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. It appeared then, to us anyways, that people liked what we were producing, found it necessary to their creative process and/or experience, and so we’ve kept going and have worked hard to serve our community. So far, 2017 has seen the NOC undertake some major projects that will undoubtedly increase the impact and the volume of content we create. This is why the NOC needs the support of our community more than ever before.
As my colleague Wes Babcock has pointed out in previous DDM articles, critics currently rest in a bit of a grey area when it comes to seeking financial support from arts councils and granting organizations. The NOC in particular are not seen as being traditionally ‘professional’ because we are not currently being paid for our work. Up until the 21st century and the rise of the Internet and social media, theatre critics had a pretty clear trajectory when it came to attaining professional status – find print media organizations (and there were many) that had the budget and readership to take on full-time specialized arts critics. Now, these media outlets either no longer exist or no longer support these positions, and granting bodies are highly reluctant to fund criticism as an art form.
So, how are Ottawa critics and arts journalists supposed to get paid when literally no one is hiring full time theatre critics in this city anymore? I find myself wondering more often than not, about the actual difference between critics like myself, Lyn Saxberg (Ottawa Citizen), and Patrick Langston (former theatre critic at the Ottawa Citizen, now writing for the Capital Critics Circle and the new arts website Artsfile). We are all recognized in Ottawa as theatre critics by virtually the same theatre institutions and theatre companies. We all have a wealth of experience in what we’re writing about – Saxberg and Langston having more cumulative experience, of course, whereas my own rests in my constant training and specialization in theatre – and all write from different perspectives, with our own individual styles, which undoubtedly attract our regular readers and keep them coming back time and again. The only significant difference I can see is that at some point in the lives of Saxberg and Langston, a private company decided to hand them a paycheque for their time and efforts. This, of course, made all the difference in a time before the internet in its current iteration existed, and when print media was booming. The internet has led to a democratization of information, and while obviously beneficial to society at large, this has produced an ecosystem in which professional journalists need to evolve to survive.
Now I ask: in a community where there are nearly zero traditionally professional careers being offered to critics, how can we, in good faith, keep these same standards of defining professionalism? We know that changes to these definitions are, in fact, possible. We have seen as much with the Canada Council broadening its terms for artists to now recognize experience at a Fringe Festival as professional-level experience. While I think this is great news and will certainly open up doors for a lot more Canadian artists, if we value the continued production of high-calibre work by these artists, I think it’s also time to extend the same sort of thoughtfulness to the work of our country’s theatre critics – especially the young professionals.
If we can accept that the cultural landscape is significantly shifting from the confined realms of print media to the vast caverns of the Internet, then we must also accept that there inevitably needs to be a reorganization of systems that can develop and support professional arts writers and critics who choose to publish their work online. Yes, everybody has the ability to start a blog and, in essence, become a critic – but the exact same criticism can be levelled at artists. And what seems to get overlooked in these discussions is that now the artists are the ones to bestow credibility on arts bloggers.
Take, for instance, the NOC’s very first Fringe application: we were given media accreditation even though our online presence at the time was still very small. This suggests that credible blogs must have a sizeable online audience in order to be considered for a media pass. That certainly seems fair, but this recognition by the Fringe, despite our newness, gave us a ‘stamp of approval’ from a legitimate arts organization – a connection which has allowed us to continue forging new relationships within the community, and without which we might not exist. Five years later, we have been fortunate enough to cultivate numerous relationships all of which have allowed us to sustain a professional career in this city.
However, even with ideas of grandeur in our heads concerning all the projects we’d like to accomplish over the 2017-2018 year, there’s always one question that remains in stark realization: how are we going to pay for this? If you think about it, we are actually not that much different that a theatre company: we function collaboratively with a Director (Editor-in-Chief) guiding the mise-en-scene (or the overall content creation) with various creatives and designers (editors, critics, and writers) fleshing out the overall vision of the company. Both artists and critics are creating works that are trying to say something, and both works leave the creator vulnerable to their audience. And, most obviously, both parties want to be paid for their time and work.
Of course, you might say, “But isn’t criticism dependent and/or only responsive to works of art?” Certainly it is an accurate statement, however, much of the same can be said of art and artists who are dependent on or wholly responding to life around them. (Not to mention there is the entire genre of adaptation which would argue that works like Henrich Muller’s Hamletmachine is dependent on its source material.) All that to say, critics and artists have always had and will continue to have a symbiotic relationship- where one cannot really exist (or be as effective) without the other – and so, if we can recognize the practice of dramaturgy as integral to the life of a play in development, we should also accept that criticism and theatre critics play a significant part in a production’s lifecycle.
Thus, I come back to this burning question of how do we monetize this? As it currently stands, we are aiming to raise $65,000 by September so that the NOC can fully take on the Critical Residency with the Great Canadian Theatre Company. This money would go towards paying three full time staff members a salary that will allow them to live just above poverty line, and also fund honorariums for collaborators and contributors. Not to mention covering all the other administrative costs that are inherent in running a not-for-profit. We are hoping that a vast majority of this will be covered by grant money, but as I’ve already mentioned, this has been proving tough for us given that although funding bodies want to fund “new and innovative” projects, there is still a massive reluctance to accept theatre critics and theatre criticism within theatre arts categories.
Thus the second half of this article comes as a bit of a plea. We are in desperate need of community investors to help us stay operational. We have been volunteering our time, doing something we love, and we want to do more but the reality is we can’t if we are all working 40 hours a week elsewhere trying to pay our bills. We recognize that this is also the struggle of many artists (both independent and professional), though I think we can all agree that in an ideal world this shouldn’t be the case. We want to challenge the fact that arts journalism is diminishing and give Ottawa’s vibrant theatre scene the coverage it deserves. And it’s all a cycle – by helping to support the NOC as a professional critics organization, in turn, we will help enrich the soil that our local artists are growing in.
So, how can you help us by becoming a community investor? The easiest way is by subscribing to our page on Patreon – a crowdfunding website that runs on the subscription model. By adopting a dollar/month format, instead of a dollar/article or even raising a large lump sum (see: Indiegogo), this system allows us to budget funds according to our operational needs in a given month. Currently we are pulling in $14/month which doesn’t seem very significant, but it certainly adds up (and is better than nothing). We like Patreon because it gives the subscriber many affordable subscription packages with the lowest starting at only $1/month. In this sense, a patron has the ability to set a final total donation amount (i.e. $50) and break it down into payments that best suit their needs (i.e. 5 monthly payments of $10 or 10 monthly payments of $5) and allows them to change the amount or withdraw completely at any time – making it both low hassle and low commitment. You can also donate anonymously should you feel that your donation might violate the rules of artistic subjectivity (i.e. think that by donating it will somehow skew our critical perception of the donor’s work) and/or are an individual who desires to protect their identity for whatever reason (we don’t judge).
But perhaps the biggest reason why I like Patreon is that it allows me to cultivate deeper relationships with our subscribers by offering them ongoing perks like early access to our content, ticket giveaways, and Critics’ Salons on Google Hangouts. I urge you to become a subscriber over the next year as the NOC undertakes one of the biggest projects in our career so far. With the help of our community, the NOC (through the Critical Residency at the GCTC) will set new standards for theatre criticism and will take an active role in fostering more new ways to support and develop Ottawa’s future theatre critics.
If significant changes aren’t made to how we support theatre criticism as a necessary part of the theatre ecology within our communities, then we can no longer sustain (or hope to see) long-standing theatre critics. The scene will see a rise in ‘generalist’ writing, where the vast significances of a given theatre performance are, more often than not, sacrificed for simplified plot synopses and an adherence to word counts. These kinds of reviews take on a more promotional tone and seek to advise viewers on how best to spend their money in arts and culture. Generalists are certainly important in a balanced critical ecology, but an abundance of this kind of writing means that no one is looking at the bigger picture, mainly, why a given work/artist is significant to the community as a whole. Any theatre critics that do pop up will by necessity be unpaid volunteer writers and will most likely burn out after a few years – I can tell you from my own personal experience that sitting here at 5 years in, I’m finding it more and more difficult to feel passionate about this career, which requires quite a bit of time and energy on my behalf for little to no recompense.
What this means for the theatre community at large is a loss of artistic standards. It will be difficult for individual performances to stand out as being truly exceptional because generalists tend to paint everything as ‘good’ or at least ‘worthwhile,’ and there will be a significant lack of thoughtful criticism levelled at more ambitious works that will, more than likely, simply be written off as ‘confusing’ or ‘overwhelming’. Compare, for example, Matthew Champ’s review for Book of Why’s 2014 Fringe Show Royal Jelly with that of the NOC’s. Thoughtful criticism requires research and questioning – if you don’t understand something, try and find out why. Generalists generally don’t have the time or expertise to pursue the question of why.
I honestly can’t imagine a community where every single theatre critic simplified their criticism to a mere “pros and cons” list. It might sound extreme, but this is quickly becoming a reality for Ottawa; and thus, our theatre scene will never evolve or grow outside of the small, rather insulated, bubble it currently inhabits where audiences will continue to flock to Stratford or Mirvish in Toronto to see “real” professional theatre.
If we think of the theatre scene like a garden where the city of Ottawa represents the soil, then our artists are all the lovely plants and greenery that are growing in this garden. Certainly this plot is alive and fruitful, but sometimes there are things that the plants can’t get from the soil alone. This is when critics step in as the fertilizer of arts communities (go ahead, make all the poop and garbage jokes you want), where we are directly responsible for helping to continually enrich this soil so that the artists can grow even bigger and brighter. Fertilizer isn’t free, however – you either have to buy it from a store, or invest in the tools and time to make it yourself; and while you could definitely argue that fertilizer(criticsm) isn’t absolutely necessary (i.e. plants/artists can grow just fine on their own), you can hardly deny that constant and considerate fertilization practices have serious long term, positive impacts on the quality of soil for the future. When you start seeing critics/criticism in this light, you realize that we are all part of the same ecology and working towards cultivating the best and brightest garden we possible can.