By Tamara LaPlante
On November 21, 2011, Iain Armitage posted his first theatre review to his YouTube channel: IainLovesTheatre. He was three years old at the time. After seeing a production of Hairspray at Signature Theatre, Armitage filmed a 34 second stand-up with his reactions to the musical. His channel is one example of the new ways people are beginning to talk about theatre.
The theatre criticism landscape in Ottawa isn’t developing the same way young Iain and his video blog is, but the online theatre community is undergoing a major shift. Debate persists about what constitutes credible criticism, as coverage of the arts in legacy media is diminishing. The topic gained more attention when The Citizen let go of all its freelance writers at the end of 2016. This cut-back included Patrick Langston, who was the last remaining paid theatre critic in the city.
“At one point, the Arts department in The Citizen was a really vibrant place,” Langston says of the paper, which he started working for in 1999 as a freelancer. He recalls there being nine full-time staff members in the Arts department, on top of all the freelance writers. “The place just hummed,” he said.
When he was writing for The Citizen, Langston covered all the theatre productions at the National Arts Centre and Great Canadian Theatre Company; half of the work at the curated professional festivals like undercurrents; 20 per cent of the professional work independently produced at the Gladstone Theatre; and 20 per cent of shows at the Fringe Festival, according to Sarah Waisvisz in her article published in the Canadian Theatre Review.
The cutbacks at The Citizen are part of a larger trend happening across the country. Not only are the size of staffs at daily papers diminishing, but so are their word counts. “Papers have shrunk,” says Langston, “and gotten physically smaller.”
Andrew Soobrian, marketing manager at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, says they haven’t felt the total effects of the cut back. “The Citizen is still reviewing our shows, and are still doing preview articles for our shows,” he says.
Professional theatre companies are still being covered by The Citizen, but the paper stopped covering community theatre in 2008, according to Langston. This means the scope of his beat shrunk, preventing him from capturing all the events he was once able to. The focus became the theatre “big houses,” such as the GCTC and the NAC.
Patrick Gauthier, festival director of Ottawa Fringe, is feeling the drawbacks of The Citizen’s decision. Gauthier says Lynn Saxberg, the Citizen’s music journalist, is now doing her best to cover smaller theatre events like his, but he noted she is not an expert in the area.
“It is the culture of the city,” Gauthier says. “The paper should reflect what’s happening in the city.”
To make up for the lost coverage, niche online publications, and the blogosphere have exploded. In March, Artsfile was launched. The online publication is a collaboration between Peter Robb, a former Arts editor at The Citizen, and iPolitics.
iPolitics has developed a relationship with GCTC in the past five years, and in the last two years, iPolitics has reviewed two of the theatre’s shows. “We’ve being doing some more political theatre,” says Soobrian. With the two audiences being demographically similar, the online publication wanted to generate new content in a creative way.
“The theme that I’m seeing here is smaller outlets cropping up, and larger outlets wanting to diversify their audience,” says Soobrian. The question with these smaller outlets comes down to credibility. While iPolitics and Artsfile are online publications, outlets such as Apt613 and New Ottawa Critics fall closer into the category of a blog.
Langston’s biggest issue with these websites is some writers take on the role of a cheerleader, rather than a critic. “It’s almost as though everything they see it great, and there is no really analysis to it,” he says.
Gauthier compares these young critics to emerging artists. There are “a bunch of young writers who love theatre, but don’t make theatre, and who want to write about it on their own time and their own money,” he says, about writers for New Ottawa Critics. They’re critics who want to be professional, and are trying to rein that in through their writing and content distribution.
These smaller outlets also have more coverage of theatre in the city – both professional and community theatre. In 2015, each show at the Fringe festival received two write-ups, according to Gauthier. Over the course of two weeks, the Fringe festival puts on between 55 to 60 plays.
Gauthier has also found reviews don’t affect people’s decision to see a show. By conducting surveys during the Fringe festival, Gauthier learned that most people research reviews before attending a show, but what was said in the review often doesn’t impact the audience’s decision to see a show.
“Outside of Fringe, it probably works a bit differently,” says Gauthier. “Fringe tickets are cheap, they’re $12. So, you can take that risk.” He compares that to ticket prices of a show at GCTC or the NAC, where tickets are five times the price.
“The review might be more valuable in that case, because the investment from the audience member is two and a half hours and $60, as opposed to 45 minutes and $12,” he says.
For Franco Pang, the critic publishing on a blog is just as credible as a professional critic. The young actor, who performed as part of the cast of Concord Floral at the NAC last year, finds that professional critics have a polished style in their writing.
“The blog critic represents the audience member who comes to see it,” says Pang. He feels more people have access to blogs nowadays, too. While searching a show online, reviews from blogs appear alongside professional critiques.
For Wes Babcock, the core of criticism is creating conversation about art. Babcock has been a critic with New Ottawa Critics since 2013. The change he sees in his work inverses what is happening in legacy media like The Citizen. His initial reviews were shorter, focusing on what happened during the show. “Now, we like to pull apart all the contextual issues with the show,” says Babcock, who has moved towards more in-depth analysis in his critiques.
For Babcock, channels like Iain’s are revolutionizing the way we think about criticism. “He’s hilarious and offers really insightful criticism,” says Babcock of the eight-year-old. Iain is too young to convey his thoughts through text, and has found a solution in video blogging.
Today, Iain’s channel has 5,309 subscribers, and over 750,000 video views. He has covered the 2015 and 2016 Tony Awards from the red carpet for Perez Hilton, and continues to post theatre reviews. His latest review, posted on March 6, 2017, was an insightful and heartfelt take on Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing. If Iain keeps doing his thing, this is probably just the start of a long career as a critic.
Tamara LaPlante is a student at Carleton University, going into her fourth year of the
journalism program. Most of Tamara’s theatre credits come from her work with Sock ‘n’
Buskin Theatre Co., a student-run theatre company at Carleton. Tamara believes – whether
it be on the stage, or in article-form – that everyone has a story to tell.