We’re at the point where a brand new year is around the corner and we find ourselves asking “what did we do this year?” In the spirit of a round-robin Christmas letter, we thought we’d let you know what our 2017 has been like…
January proved to be an exciting start to the year for us. We were invited for a meeting with Eric Coates, Artistic Director of Great Canadian Theatre Company, for… we weren’t really sure, actually, so we were pretty nervous. It turned out to be a good meeting though: he wanted to extend to us the opportunity to set up and take part in, under the GCTC’s guidance, a sort of residency program where we would get to attend select meetings and rehearsals and explore what it means to review theatre in an Ottawa that has fewer opportunities than ever for arts critics in traditional publications. We were floored and couldn’t stop talking on our way back from the meeting about how excited we were.
After brainstorming for a period of time, we came up with several ideas for potential initiatives that this Residency might undertake- all of which stemmed from the various functions a theatre critic can perform. One of the more obvious ones was engaging in embedded criticism. We had explored embedded criticism before with the GCTC’s 2015 production of Angel Square, but we were fortunate enough to dive into the recent Blind Date in a way that we hadn’t previously experienced. Others were exciting ideas that required a more significant funding structure, among them: a road trip documenting the touring Fringe circuit in Canada; setting up an online database of Ottawa theatre info (featuring profiles of the major houses and companies as well as articles detailing Ottawa’s theatrical history); publishing an annual or semi-annual print edition with exclusive content, and on and on. Eventually we figured out a structure that would allow 3 people to work full-time on our residency. First, however, we had to figure out how to acquire funding.
Delving into the world of grant applications, as you no doubt know if you work in the arts, is an intimidating process that involves reading through scores of different funding programs and trying to decide whether or not your project fits the usually vague description of what that program is meant to fund. There’s a lot of money to be had through grants, but since funds can be disbursed at all levels of government (including municipal) there are a lot of platforms to go through.
So far the process hasn’t been encouraging on our end: the delayed relaunch of the Canada Council’s online funding portal didn’t help, but on the provincial level we’ve also had issues based on the nature of our project. Our residency at GCTC has several facets to it that could qualify us for grants: professional development on our part and extending media coverage of what is very arguably an underexposed artistic scene being among them. The main problem that we’ve had so far come from two words with hard-to-agree-upon definitions: “professional” and “artist”.
“Professional” isn’t usually a hard word to define, but in an arts context there are other questions to grapple with besides whether or not we’re getting paid (have we been formally educated in the field? Do we have accreditation by professional associations such as the Canadian Theatre Critics Association? In these respects, we are and mostly are, since the CTCA accredits individuals rather than organizations and whereas my colleague Brie McFarlane is now a member, I still have to get on that train myself). “Artist” is also a problematic term for us: while there is certainly a case for criticism being an art form unto itself, considering it on the same level as the theatrical performance it reviews is dicey, at least for now.
Our main problems with Ontario Arts Council funding stemmed from the notion that critic and artist are separate and funding for one should not go to the other. It makes sense, but the lack of financial support for critics in outside of private media corporations is frustrating. We haven’t given up hope on securing funding: we want to be able to work on this full-time and pay contributors, but it seems we need either a new approach when it comes to grants (looking into journalism rather than arts or media, since Canada Media Fund and Ontario Media Development Corporation seem primarily interested in television and gaming) or an outside-the-box solution. If you have any thoughts or suggestions don’t hesitate to let us know.
On the professional development side we’ve managed to make some developments beside the lack of funding: shortly after our meeting with Eric Coates in January we incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation and set up a business banking account, so when the time comes that we’ve broken through to ‘professional’ status and we can start receiving grant money, we’ll be ready for it. I’d like to thank our supporters on Patreon, who have collectively donated over $200 this year to us. Your support means the world to us and helps us feel that we’re doing something worthwhile.
As for reviewing, we started off the year by continuing in the same vein that we’ve been in for some time: very much inspired by the traditional format and tone of the traditional print media review, with the main difference being the lack of a limiting word count on our part. We’ve explored a little more into different types of criticism too: the most obvious would be our first foray into the world of embedded criticism with Blind Date at GCTC, but we’ve also been continuing with the Dark Day Monday series (I know, the first two of those pieces were published last December, but most of them were this year) in which we have explored more philosophical questions examining the way we conceive of and perceive the development, presentation, and reception of theatre (and by extension the arts in general).
We probably won’t ever fully retire the traditional style of review, but as we move forward more embedded criticism pieces and essay-style reviews may make up our output. Another initiative that we’ve started this year, Community Voices, features members of the Ottawa theatre community sharing their knowledge and experiences. So far this segment of our site includes an article by Gabbie Lazarovitz on the psychologically abusive tactics that theatre schools can inflict on their students, and on the lighter side we also have a tutorial from Dead Unicorn Ink producer-playwright Patrice-Ann Forbes sharing tips and recipes for making your own fake blood. Not to mention, we’ve been keeping regular correspondence with our transatlantic pen pals Theatrefullstop. We hope to post more pieces like these in the new year and give artists a platform to impart their knowledge of the ups, downs, and practicalities of living and working in theatre.
Before starting our residency in earnest in September, we sadly said goodbye to long time collaborator Wes Babcock. Wes initially wrote for us primarily covering festivals like Fringe, undercurrents, and Fresh Meat, as well as being a consulting editor for our other reviews before this past year when he launched Dark Day Mondays and prepared budgets, project proposals, and the like for the GCTC residency. Wes started writing and producing Your Princess is in Another Castle with Nancy Kenny last year which premiered on the Fringe circuit this year. Wes still reviewed for us at this year’s Fringe, which is no picnic even when you’re not also writing, producing, acting in, and also promoting your own show at the same time. Burnout is a very real risk in the arts, and being able to balance all those responsibilities for one 10-day Fringe is not a sign that you should keep doing it. We are sad to see him go, but we wish him the best of luck on his creative future endeavours.
With just the two of us, we started our residency at GCTC in September. Up this point we’ve been spending Mondays and Wednesdays in the lobby of the GCTC, working on content and organizational development. One of the main things that has struck us so far is the effect that having a dedicated workspace can have on your process and output: although we’re only at GCTC for about 8 hours a week (not counting the time we spend seeing/reviewing shows) we’ve noticed a sharp uptick in our productivity. It seems that when you’re starting any kind of small company, it’s better to be physically close to your colleagues or at least to have a physical space in which to work besides the virtual space of dropbox or Google Drive.
The sharing economy and technological advances are changing the way we think about workspace: with the slow decline of paper-based record keeping many of the traditional accoutrements of office life are no longer necessary, and with property values being what they are (we’re comparatively blessed in Ottawa though, in contrast to other cities like Toronto and Vancouver) even a permanent office space is no longer a hard and fast requirement. Businesses like Workwell Cafe in Toronto offer workspace for very affordable rates (for $3/hour Workwell will give you space with a variety of seating options including communal table and semi-private booths, outlets, fast wifi, and access to their full cafe menu without memberships or even reservations most of the time), and while I don’t believe we have any sharing spaces in Ottawa of a similar nature yet (maybe the Art House Cafe?), the amount of laptop-staring denizens in any coffeeshop in this city suggests that there’s an untapped market.
Besides the basic psychology of having a space to go to and work, the lobby at GCTC itself is a great place to get serious work done: the space is full of light and relatively uncluttered, the hydroponic towers growing lettuce, basil, and kale by the front doors add a green touch to the glass-and-concrete space even in winter, and there’s plenty of tables and chairs. GCTC staff members and working artists often stop by for a brief chat, which gives the space a community feeling as well. This is the same area where the GCTC’s Prologue, Chefs and Shows, and the beginning of HIVE workshop events take place, and coming from someone who’s spent hours reading academic articles about absence and presence in theatrical spaces, it’s nice to absorb all that leftover energy.
So, what do we hope to accomplish in 2018? Well, we’re going to continue at GCTC to the end of their current season, we’re going to keep reviewing shows from all over the community, and we’re going to augment our content. This means more reviews, more editorials, more Community Voices posts, more embedded criticism, and in general more examination of how theatre criticism can and should evolve with the changing media climate and technological advances (more videos!).
There are still the upcoming undercurrents, Youth Infringement, and Fringe Festivals to consider as well as regular seasonal programming. We also hope to attract more people to come write for us (free tickets and the opportunity to seriously up your writing game!) We’ve laid some good groundwork in 2017 and we’re going to keep building in 2018. We do need your help to do this though: don’t forget to like and share our posts if you think we’re onto something (or not, all publicity is good publicity), and if you want to join in the conversation beyond that leave us a comment or message us. If there’s something you think we should be writing about, let us know! And, as always, our Patreon page is there if you would like to support us more directly as well.
Happy Holidays everyone! We’ll see you again in 2018.