In the Round: On Criticism with Carly Maga, Steve Fisher, and Lynn Slotkin

There’s something really interesting about how closely theatre criticism seems to reflect theatre-making. There are indie reviewers who some people think are useful and others are totally frustrated by. Critics can barely make a living doing what they do. There’s a diversity problem in the field. There’s a real question about what criticism is worth to the city of Toronto.

We brought together three Toronto theatre critics to dive into these issues.

Carly Maga

Carly Maga studied journalism at Ryerson, and theatre and performance at York. She has been covering Toronto theatre since 2010, and previously wrote theatre criticism for Torontoist. She’s currently a critic for the Toronto Star.

Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher is an arts and entertainment critic who writes about theatre for Torontoist. His writing has also appeared in Post City, NOW Magazine, The A.V. Club, and CBC Music, among others. In 2016, he won a Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Critical Writing.

Lynn Slotkin

Lynn Slotkin is a theatre critic who runs her own website and newsletter, The Slotkin Letter. She’s also the theatre correspondent for CIUT’s Friday morning arts and politics show. Her work has previously appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Performance Magazine, How Theatre Educations, and the Hollywood Reporter, as well as on CBC and TV Ontario.

On Independent Reviewers

Steve and Carly think people who review theatre on their own blogs generally help the city’s arts ecology. Lynn disagrees completely: “There’s no place for mediocrity.”

On Working for Free

Toronto only has one full-time salaried theatre critic. How much are we willing to pay for theatre criticism, and what will that do to the community?

On Diversity

There is unanimous agreement that more needs to be done about diversity in theatre criticism in Toronto. Do they feel they have the responsibility to help change that, and what can be done?

On the Toronto Theatre Scene

What does theatre have going for it, and how it can be better? Steve, Carly, and Lynn challenge each other with thoughts on whether or not theatre should be more event-like.

Interested in more from theatre critics? Carly Maga penned this piece on why she chose to be a theatre reviewer.

5 Responses to “In the Round: On Criticism with Carly Maga, Steve Fisher, and Lynn Slotkin”

  1. Keep at it…please ….all of you..and thank you for your love of the art. Lynn …..thank you for your years of informed service. As designers we all had other jobs …certainly at the beginning to pay for our theatre habit … . but I never know you did that as well…. Bravo! Informed and intelligent criticism is so essential. An informed critic helps build an informed audience as well as keep theatre creators on their toes and in line with an historical perspective.

  2. It’s interesting that this discussion, and others recently, are talking so much about Mooney on Theatre without inviting them to the table, or linking to any of their reviews. Mooney’s reviews are some of the most accessible to the general public. Not everyone is a theatre major with the capacity to understand academic language. It’s nice to have a volunteer-run publication — which is also the MOST diverse (something this seemingly white-only panel neglected to mention) — that not only covers almost everything, but covers it in a way that almost anyone can understand.

    As a theatre lover who is new to the world of stagecraft, I read Mooney because it gives me a sense of what to expect (when I don’t have huge amounts of disposable income) whereas the often grandiose and technical languages of professional critics can be confusing and overwhelming (and frankly, a bit boring). To ignore grassroots pubs like Mooney is to ignore and alienate a lot of current and potential patrons.

  3. This was an interesting discussion that raised a lot of different issues.

    As a theatre blogger myself, ( I write reviews, previews, interviews and articles) I can tell you that the decision not to monetize my blog was a deliberate one. I didn’t want my readers to have to deal with a bunch of ugly-looking crappy ads.

    I thought about only taking theatre and dance ads, but then I felt there was a chance of being influenced (consciously or otherwise) by being paid by some theatres, and not by others. I’m still on the fence about it. I think many of us remember what happened to Kamal Al-Solaylee during his tenure at the Globe and Mail. Is it worth it to be pressured to speak favourably about a not very good show because the company is a regular advertiser? How much is a small blog going to earn from a few ads?

    Then there’s the “star” system: most places that pay reviewers grade plays as if they were a grade one school assignment from back in the day. I hate the star system. Writing my own blog means I never ever have to assign a grade to a show. If someone wants to know what I thought, they’ll just have to break down and read the review.

    I have been paid to write: as a playwright, a television researcher and a screenwriter. I’ve also been paid to teach writing.

    As far as I am concerned, I am paid to blog. The artists share their work with me and I share my writing about their work in the form of reviews, articles and interviews. To me, it’s an equitable trade: akin to a Bunz theatre zone.

    It’s challenging: I don’t blog full-time. I can’t cover everything I’d like to cover. I work full time for a paycheque. I also have a play in development with a theatre in Toronto.

    Many former newspaper reviewers: Christopher Hoile, Paula Citron, Deirdre Kelly have written blogs about theatre and dance. Hoile still does it with regularity at Stage Door. You can’t dismiss every arts blogger out there as an amateur with no skills or credentials.

  4. You are missing an important addition to the arts criticism scene in Toronto, It could be what you call a blog. But it has more than 4.5-million page views to date and features award-wining critics from across Canada and the U.S. and some of the best theatre criticism published anywhere on the continent. See for yourself.

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Philip is co-artistic director of The Company Theatre. He's mostly an actor, director, and producer, but once in a while he's also a curmudgeonly but loveable softball coach leading a ragtag group of adult misfits to rec-league mediocrity.

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