November 30-December 17, 2017
Previews November 28 and 29
WHAT IS EMBEDDED CRITICISM?
The traditional model for theatre criticism (and other art forms) involves a separation between artist and critic. The artist(s) create(s) a piece of theatre and present it, the critic attends the performance and writes their review, and never the twain shall meet. In the theatre criticism class at the University of Ottawa that led to the creation of the New Ottawa Critics, our professor stressed the importance of this divide. One show we saw as part of the class, Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box at Great Canadian Theatre Company, included a “salsa dance” component where the solo performer invited audience members onstage for a dance party before moving on with the show. One student took part in this dance, and even though his participation had no discernible impact on the rest of the show, we were all collectively reminded by our professor to keep ourselves separate from the production: if you take part in the show, how can you claim to be objective?
There’s another (slightly more Marxist) reason for this separation as well: in the glory days of print media (particularly newspapers) from the 19th century until fairly recently, the socioeconomic model of how art is developed, produced, and promoted was fairly stable. The critic was paid for their work, but they were paid by the media outlet that controlled the means of production, as it were. The newspaper either owned or had access to printers, and had their own distribution system in place to ensure maximum saturation of the market with their product, which included the critic’s review, among other things. The critic was an expert in their field, but more importantly they were an employee of the media outlet with deadlines to meet. When the next day’s issue goes to print at 2:00am and the show you’re reviewing lets out at 10:30, there’s not much time for reflection before you have to get down to it and write your (limited word count) review. Unsurprisingly under this corporate structure art tended to be considered more as a product than a creative process: the process was what led to the finished product, which is what the critic reviewed (we’ve written before on the question of when theatre pieces are truly “done”).
The internet has changed things. Now that printing and distribution of physical copies of publications is optional for most media outlets besides the brand new problem of trying to make money when most content on the internet is free (we’re keeping our fingers crossed for our American friends on that count), the rules of the game are in something of a transitional phase. The effect of this massive change in the nature of the media has had some obvious negative effects on the reporting of news stories (we can all agree that fake news is out there, but unfortunately not everyone agrees on what is fake and what is not). And this definitely requires objectivity in journalism: when the question is “what happened?” there is such a thing as accurate reporting versus speculation/fearmongering.
This new climate of media coverage, I would argue, is beneficial to arts reviewing, at least in terms of the content of the reviews. Online reviewers have no obligation to keep their reviews to a preset word count, and barring any external agreements with producers, etc, the reviewer also can take as long as they want to write and publish their review. The result is that there are lots of unpaid arts bloggers who may or may not have a formal arts education, but their reviews engage with the content of what they’re reviewing on a much more personal and introspective level than under the previous model of the paid newspaper reviewer, whose goal in reviewing was essentially comparable to that of the Amazon user review: someone who has already experienced the product telling other interested parties if it’s worth their money (a reinforcement of the “art is a consumable product” viewpoint).
Because this newer online model of artistic criticism is still in its formative stages (and considering that the print media industry in Ottawa is about to get a lot smaller), we at the New Ottawa Critics are trying to explore what in the traditional print model is simply conducive to good criticism and what attitudes are vestigial traces of the old (corporate) model. One of these concepts we’re testing out is whether the traditional separation between artist and critic is truly necessary, or conversely if this separation actually detracts from the critic’s ability to engage with the production as a result of the process that gave birth to it. Art is and always has been subjective: no two people, even if they are right next to each other and experience the artwork at exactly the same time, are going to have the same reaction or conception of what the artwork was trying to say.
So here we come to the main point: we’re trying out embedded criticism as well as the traditional detached style of criticism. In embedded criticism the reviewer is present for at least part of the creative process giving rise to the “finished” production. This could be as simple as attending the design meeting where the initial set/lighting/costume designs are presented and the first read-through of the script with the cast in order to determine what changed between the beginning and end of the rehearsal process, or it could any number of other potential arrangements between the critic and artists/producers. Since the model for embedded criticism is so fluid, it’s important to be specific and (ideally) know before going in what it is the critic is going to focus on, but they could always be surprised. There are ethical questions to contend with, but they aren’t much different from the questions raised by ethnographers/anthropologists in their field research (“how does my presence change the way the people I’m observing act?” “How can I avoid sounding like a comparatively privileged person when I write about my experiences?” being some of those questions). Since there’s much up in the air at this point, it helps to be as specific as possible.
This model is also helpful because it gives us the opportunity to consider performance forms that didn’t easily fit into the older paradigm of print media-based criticism such as improv. Improv and other forms of devised performance are very much the product of the individual artists and their rehearsal process and considering the shows are different every time it’s not as easy to review under the older model. When the product is different every time, it’s not so easy to provide a “user” review.
Our entire Residency at GCTC is based on the experimental question of “how useful is this embedded model?” In the new year we will be attending more meetings to get a more complete idea of how professional theatre companies such as Great Canadian Theatre Company make the decisions they do: how they decide which shows to include in their next season, how the rehearsal process and design meetings with Equity members (professional) compares to the same process in non-professional settings, and so on. We were lucky to have an improv, clown-based show as part of the GCTC’s current season, as it allowed for all these different strands of questioning to coalesce into one embedded criticism project (there will probably be more later though. We’ll keep you posted).
What kind of show is it?
Spontaneous Theatre’s Blind Date is an adult-oriented, mostly improvised show in which Mimi, a Parisian clown, invites an audience member onstage to be her date for the evening. Since there’s no formal script and every audience member picked is going to have differing abilities and comfort zones, the show changes every night. Another changeable element in this show is the use of scenography; i.e. there are “scenographers” who move the stage properties around according to which location Mimi and her date go to next.
There is one main performer onstage (Tess Degenstein) as well as the audience member and two scenographers (Kristian Reimer and David Benjamin Tomlinson). There will also be two queer-friendly performances on the Saturday evenings of the run (December 9th will feature a lesbian blind date, December 16th will feature a gay blind date and therefore a different performer: Degenstein and Tomlinson will switch roles, with Mathieu going on a date rather than Mimi). Although Blind Date was originally a one-woman show performed by Spontaneous Theatre Artistic Director Rebecca Northan depicting a heterosexual date, the show was reworked in conjunction with evalyn parry and Buddies in Bad Times to create a queer version, which opened Buddies’ 2016-17 season. These two performances are definitely an attempt at incorporating this version with the original. Besides Ottawa and the rest of Canada, Blind Date has also toured across the US and been presented Off-Broadway and in London’s West End.
How will we be embedded in this production?
We suggested attending a rehearsal where one of us plays the part of the audience member. Since GCTC is presenting this show rather than producing it, we needed confirmation with the producers first. Spontaneous Theatre was unsure about us taking on that particular role, but instead suggested that we shadow the stagehands. GCTC AD Eric Coates further suggested we do so during one of the preview performances.
We were thrilled to be given this opportunity. Our initial conception was to remain on the sidelines, as it were, by involving ourselves in a rehearsal rather than a performance for the general public. To see an incoming company with no previous connections to us take our suggestion and run with it in the way that they did was both unexpected and extremely heartening. The friendly, welcoming nature of both Northan and Emma Brager (the show’s stage manager) through email foreshadowed our experiences with Degenstein, Reimer, Tomlinson, and Brager in person.
What happened during the embedding process?
Due to the improvisational nature of Blind Date there wasn’t much we could do in terms of preparation beyond knowing our call time and wardrobe requirements. Our interactions with Degenstein as Mimi were fairly limited before the show and we spent most of our time with Kristian Reimer and David Benjamin Tomlinson, the scenographers.
After a brief meet-and-greet and a quick walkthrough of the backstage area, green room, and dressing rooms, we were given a rundown of the basic structure of the show, including set changes (though, keep in mind, this structure is always subject to change due to the show’s unpredictable nature) as well as the props and costumes laid out backstage so that the scenographers are ready for anything. We then went back the green room, chatted with Kristian and David, and then went down to the lobby for the Prologue event where local theatre creator Kate Smith interviewed Kristian and David about themselves, the style and nature of the show, and the queer version of the show that opened Buddies’ last season. We learned during this interview that this run at GCTC is the first to incorporate queer performances along with the straight performances that make up most of the run. When asked by Smith why the effort to accommodate the various orientations rather than employing a gender-blind perspective to the dates, David’s reply concerning the need for authenticity in this show became a running theme of the night.
After the interview we went back up the green room, changed into costume, and went over the protocol for the first stage of the show, which begins before the audience goes into the theatre: the mingle. Armed with compliment slips, we assumed the persona of Parisian wait staff, approaching suitable-looking men in the pre-show crowd based on Mimi’s description of who she feels like going on a date with tonight (in this case, “young, single, and open but vulnerable”). A few caveats to this selection process: no consideration is given to actors, people who have seen the show before, or people who seem a little too interested in taking part in the audience participation component.
The most important things the scenographers (and Mimi) are looking for are consent (from both the potential dates and their real-life partners if they have one), as well as authenticity (a lack of trying to play themselves up), and a sense of just being a fun person to talk to (and not necessarily the most attractive man in the room). We found a few challenges to this: first of all, walking up to complete strangers and striking up conversation while covertly scoping them out is definitely a skill that takes practice, as well as the fact that this performance was a preview and therefore there were several actors in attendance (one of our main responsibilities during this part was to point out the actors in the room to Kristian and David given our familiarity with the local theatre scene). In addition to creating an atmosphere in which anyone could become a member of the cast (turning the GCTC lobby into a liminal space not just physically, by virtue of it being the space in between the street and the theatre, but also in a performative sense), this part of the show is also the part where the company curates its performance: that is, they’re already performing but also taking on the responsibilities of a casting director while doing so. We might need a few more rounds of mingling before we can handle both the small talk and the curatorial responsibilities of this segment, but Mimi, Kristian, David, and Emma were well-versed in this balancing act.
Although consent was a significant factor in determining possible dates, audience participation can often be uncomfortable for audience members especially since the usual method in other shows of selecting an audience member is, for the most part, to thrust them unexpectedly on stage. This anticipation of onstage discomfort manifested in at least one interaction: one woman, despite our assurances that she was in a safe space, refused to accept a compliment slip, believing it to be a sign that she would indeed be thrust on stage against her will (the compliment on her slip mentioned how she was “the centre of attention”, so her interpretation that accepting the slip was some sort of verbal contract with the production that she was willing to come up onstage was understandable if a little unrealistic. The date does in fact sign a form at the end of the show, but it’s a very standard waiver of liability/media release in the interest of keeping the company in good legal standing). We milled around, giving out compliment slips, while Kristian David, Degenstein in character as Mimi, and Emma did the heavy lifting in terms of date selection. The show cannot start until Mimi has at least one or two potential dates, and once the “maybe” list is completed, the doors to the house can be opened.
As the audience was let in, we stood at the front of the stage making secret notes of where the potential dates were seated (we had two: Tim and Andrew), before heading backstage and preparing ourselves for the show itself. Mimi chose Tim, and during the initial segment, the cafe, we took notes of any interesting things that came up during the conversation in case Mimi came backstage later and needed to refer back to earlier conversation topics. Tim was an editor, didn’t have facebook, and lived on a commune, so that was definitely taken down as a point of interest.
During the cafe segment there was some kind of snafu regarding the background music – the music cut out for several minutes before returning, and there was a sudden burst of a different song at one point as well. Vanessa Imeson, who was the backstage crew for this performance, communicated with Kristian and David but we weren’t quite sure what was going on. It seemed to have been resolved by the end of the cafe segment however.
We also got to be onstage briefly: during the cafe segment NOC Editor-in-Chief Brie McFarlane played the role of the “Junior Photographer” who takes a photo of Mimi and her date. We also assisted with set changes, removing the drinking glasses from the table and pitching (i.e. holding open) the curtains to ease the transition for Kristian and David.
As Mimi and Tim decided to leave the cafe and continue their date, the show seemed to be following the usual trajectory. We were completely set up for the next segment of the show until Mimi “had trouble” starting her car, necessitating a lightning-quick decision on Kristian’s part to assume the persona of a friendly passing motorist. Afterward we continued with the planned next segment, in which I was given the role of a note-taking police deputy (no more hints).
The remainder of the show went off without a hitch. We pitched the curtains for another set change, but the main work for the scenographers was basically done at this point. One last bit of “performance” that I was invited to participate in was holding out a bathrobe for Tim through the curtain, in a manner not unlike the disembodied hands from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.
Our final involvement was a brief walk onstage when Tess acknowledged us as the production’s special guests and we got a brief bow (after missing our initial cue – but hey, we’re not actors). Afterward we decompressed with Tess, David, Kristian, and Emma and helped set the stage for the next performance’s cafe segment. We asked about the differences between the queer performances and the straight, and David gave us a brief rundown although we hope to catch the performance itself from the audience perspective. We went back up to the green room and changed back to our everyday clothes, we all thanked each other again, and we made our exit.
What did we do/learn from embedding ourselves in this show?
One the main takeaways from this experience for us is the difference between the demands of an improv-based show on its actors versus that of a “traditional” drama. The actor playing Mimi/Mathieu needs to be a strong improviser to be able to draw out meaningful, authentic conversation with their date, while also having a reasonably good sense of humour in order to make the whole thing watchable. Kristian and David as the scenographers also needed to have a strong improvisational ability: there is a planned trajectory for the night’s performance, but things could always go in a different direction. Rather than going back to Mimi’s place, the date might decide to go to a completely different location and the scenographers need to be able to cobble together something to suggest that setting from what they have assembled backstage. Much of the performance from our point of view was spent backstage waiting, but the fact that we had to keep listening in order to be ready for anything made the whole experience both a little more tense but also way more exciting than any experience I had in high school or my undergrad waiting backstage for my cue – and in those shows I actually had an onstage role!
Our eyes were opened to the nature of improv outside of the traditional notion of reviewing the performance as a finished product rather than the result of its generative process. Besides a willingness to be silly and the ability to make up jokes on the fly, one of the most important contributing factors to improvised performance is a mutually respectful and friendly (dare I say loving?) relationship between the performers. I suppose you don’t really have to like each other to make a good improv performance, but it is important to be on the same page as each other. Since the creative process in improv is so organic and instinctive, having a strong interpersonal relationship with your co-performer is one of the simplest ways to ensure that that happens. And when you genuinely like your co-star, something magical happens: you have fun onstage. If you’re having fun onstage, there’s a much greater likelihood that the audience is going to have fun watching you perform. Fun is infectious, and that’s a good thing. We often talk about the “magic” of theatre, but fundamentally it’s simple: concentrate on the thing and have fun while doing it, and people are going to have a good time (stay tuned for our upcoming article on how to have fun in tragic performance). There are also demands placed on the technical side of the production in terms of improvising sound and lighting choices: again it certainly invites stress, but the constant focus is exhilarating.
There are also many types of improv performance. In Ottawa we have our own fair share of improv troupes: Crush, Grimprov, Crystal Basement, Elgin Street Improv, and Improv Embassy among them, each offering their own brand of improvised performance following slightly different guidelines. Considering how much variety there is within the world of scripted drama, the possibilities for improv are limitless: you could spend your whole life studying and documenting various types of improv performance and die having only scratched the surface. Embedding ourselves in one performance certainly doesn’t make us experts on what makes good improv, but our eyes have at least been opened. We’ve seen other performances that rely on audience involvement to determine the trajectory of the show (Red Bastard at the 2013 Ottawa Fringe, the upcoming Snack Music at the 2018 undercurrents festival also seems to exist in this vein), but the differences between Blind Date and others at least begins to give us an idea of the massive variety within the wider range of improv shows.
Another important lesson we’ve taken away from this experience is a fundamental truth in comedy: you can’t force a joke. I mentioned earlier that authenticity was a running theme of the night: Tim, Mimi’s date, brought authenticity in spades. The performers and stage manager, despite their best efforts, ultimately can’t predict how the potential dates they meet during the mingle will act once they’re onstage. It can be nerve-wracking to spend what you think will be a fun night at the theatre only to end up providing (part of) the entertainment, and being the focus of attention can change the way people act in unexpected ways.
One of the ways the performers get around this is to provide as much of a support system as possible during the performance: Mimi lays the ground rules very clearly at the beginning of the show, and during the few moments when Mimi and her date come backstage during scene transitions the scenographers offer encouragement when they’re not moving furniture. The goal is really to turn the audience participant into the romantic hero of the night. When you consider that clown is really just a theatricalization of what we deal with in everyday life, the need for authenticity, for the date to just be himself, makes much more sense than to present a slapstick show where the audience member is at the mercy of his clown date. There is some silliness and the show does throw a few curveballs the date’s way, but you can’t have a clown show without some silly and these portions balance out the more “human interest” segments such as when Tim mentioned that he lived in an “eco-village” (although these parts do highlight the fact that you can never guess someone’s life story just by looking at them). By the end of the performance everyone fell in love with Tim: I think the part that really did it was his shyness when Mimi asked him how he would feel about sharing a kiss, followed by his acceptance and the embarrassed admission “Sorry, I don’t usually giggle before I kiss someone.” We should all be so lucky to have a date like Tim.
How did the performers/producers react to our involvement?
Everyone involved with this show was warm and welcoming. David and Kristian were especially friendly (though we spent the most time with them, so that might have something to do with my perspective), and even though they clearly have an excellent rapport with each other (no doubt from doing the scenographer duties together), we never felt excluded. Considering that we arrived that evening with basically no idea what we were in for, that we felt at home with them almost immediately speaks once again to authenticity, behind the scenes as well as onstage.
Everyone working on this show knew it inside and out, which also greatly helped our anxieties. The portions that we spent onstage were freely offered up to us before the show, but the best example would probably be the part where I stuck my hand out of the curtain as a hook for a bathrobe: we’d already been told that the show for us as scenographers was pretty much over at this point, and so we were quietly waiting around backstage, listening to Tim and Mimi. Kristian, in his usual position looking through a crack in the curtain, suddenly looked over at me and waved me over, and quickly handed me a bathrobe, telling me to stick my hand through the curtain. The laugh that the bathrobe and the hand-hook got was unexpectedly huge, and it all happened so quickly. Not only do the performers have this show down, they also knew exactly when we could take part and how. Most of the people in theatre I’ve met have been lovely, but even as we continue with embedded criticism projects in the future I’m not sure if we’ll encounter people so disarmingly wonderful.
In 5 years of the New Ottawa Critics, we’ve never done anything like this. The main question I have coming out of this experience is “why didn’t we do this sooner?” Had we simply sat in the audience for this preview or for opening night, our review would probably have been about a quarter of the length of this article and would doubtlessly have come from more of a “user review” perspective (hopefully this article was still readable despite its length). The loss of objectivity that came from developing a personal rapport with the performers (particularly David and Kristian) also means that this article couldn’t really be considered a review in the traditional sense. This wasn’t the goal anyway: rather than assigning subjective good/bad evaluations to an experience that is fundamentally impossible to communicate using only written words, all I can do here is say what happened, how we reacted, and how we saw others react. In so doing, hopefully some of the authenticity that runs throughout Blind Date is recreated here.
Besides getting an in-depth look at the show that we would never have gotten from the more typical audience perspective, this experience also provided us with professional development opportunities: networking with professional performers to be sure, but also a look at how the logistics of this kind of show work at the professional level. The meaning of the word “professional” when applied to arts critics is increasingly up in the air especially in the Canadian theatre scene, considering how few media outlets in this country still employ paid critics. As what it means to be a “professional” critic acquires new meanings in the brave new world of post-print criticism, educating ourselves about how theatre is made on all levels by putting ourselves on the front lines as it were certainly gives us more chances to sound like we know what we’re talking about. We’ve received a formal education in theatre theory from the University of Ottawa, but there’s no substitute for practical experience.
TL;DR: We became stagehands for a night for the current show at GCTC. It was our first embedded criticism experience, but it will certainly not be our last.