Embracing Our Critical Side

Ink Stained Wretches. Photo by Jeff Eaton / CC BY-SA 2.0

When May, Maija, and I were starting Intermission, one of the things we decided on was that we wouldn’t review plays ourselves.

It wasn’t because we didn’t feel theatre criticism was important, but because we felt that reviews were well-represented in Toronto media, and it was other theatre coverage that was badly underrepresented.

Since we launched in the spring of 2016, we’ve published a wide range of content: artist perspectives, Nappoholics Anonymous, video roundtable discussions, spotlightsinterviews, exclusive casting and production announcements, in-depth arts journalism, and more. We’ve always known our readers were interested in reviews, so, since day one, we’ve linked to all major reviews in our review roundup section on our homepage.

Last November, we shot an episode of our “In the Round” series that was centred around the state of theatre criticism in Toronto. It was a round-table discussion with Toronto theatre reviewers Carly Maga, Steve Fisher, and Lynn Slotkin. I was the moderator of that discussion and I was struck by a lot of what they were saying. I hadn’t quite realized how fragile the state of theatre criticism was in our city. How was that possible considering the vibrancy of the theatre scene here? I knew mainstream media was facing enormous challenges and that overall arts coverage was trending down—that was the reason launching Intermission was so important to me. But I thought reviews were the mainstay of theatre coverage and would survive even the most drastic changes to the media landscape.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. In recent months, Toronto has faced an avalanche of bad news regarding the state of our theatre criticism. The legendary NOW Magazine reviewer Jon Kaplan passed away, leaving a void impossible to fill. Respected critic Robert Cushman announced that he will no longer be reviewing theatre for the National Post. And, most recently, Steve Fisher announced that his column in the Torontoist had been cancelled.

As a theatre artist myself, I’ve had the obligatory love/hate relationship with theatre reviews and critics. They represent one person’s opinion, and theatre, like any art form, is extremely subjective. What puts one person to sleep may change someone else’s perspective on life forever. And really, how can months—sometimes years—of work be given fair, objective criticism by someone who’s watched it once and quickly written a reaction that needs to fit into the neat confines of a column or an online post?

But even when I didn’t agree with a review or didn’t respect a particular critic’s opinion, it was clear that a healthy, thriving theatre community should include a diverse group of passionate, informed critics. The only thing worse than a bad review is not being reviewed at all. Reviews keep artists honest by challenging them to be their best. They inspire audiences to discover new artists and explore new plays and companies. They help make theatre accessible to potential theatre-goers who may be overwhelmed by the amount of choice out there. They do what we are all about here at Intermission: generate great theatre discussions. And theatre discussion of any kind is welcome, as it keeps theatre in people’s minds and inspires more people to see more plays.

Our reasoning for not bringing on a theatre critic back when we launched doesn’t make sense anymore. It has become clear that we can best serve our readers and positively impact the theatre community by having our own full-time theatre critic. We’re thrilled to announce that Lynn Slotkin, a mainstay of Toronto theatre, is joining Intermission as our lead theatre critic and regular columnist. Lynn calls herself the passionate playgoer and has lived up to the title, dedicating the better part of her life to seeing theatre in Canada and internationally. Few people have the wealth of knowledge about Canadian theatre and theatre artists as she does. Lynn is also unapologetically Lynn. She has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to voice them.

It’s this combination of experience, passion, and originality that has made her one of Toronto’s most respected theatre critics. She is not only passionate about theatre, she’s also passionate about theatre criticism. Our partnership with Lynn is founded on a shared desire to elevate the critical discourse about theatre. Working together, we’ll be able to broaden Lynn’s readership to ensure her reviews have the greatest possible impact. We’ll also be working with Lynn on ways to develop the next generation of theatre critics, helping build a diverse group of talented, devoted reviewers.

Starting the week of October 16, Intermission will publish regular reviews written by Lynn. She will also contribute a regular column, “Views from the Dark,” which will feature shorter reviews and other theatre thoughts and observations. And, of course, Lynn’s Tootsie Awards—where she recognizes her favourite theatre artists and productions from the past year—will live on and be published on our site.

As a platform dedicated to theatre coverage, we want to do our part to ensure theatre criticism remains a healthy part of the Toronto landscape. And we couldn’t be more excited to welcome Lynn to the team.

Want to learn more about Lynn Slotkin and why she decided to join the Intermission team? Check out our news announcement here.

One response to “Embracing Our Critical Side”

  1. I think this is a well-written, thoughtful explanation for this change of policy, and I can certainly see your point. Like many artists (I suspect), my feelings about theatre critics and reviews are a mixture of frustration, admiration and (yes) respect. I do take exception to one thing, though: the assertion that theatre critics “keep artists honest by challenging them to be their best”. This is not true of my artistic practice and I don’t think it is true of many artists. I don’t think most artists are trying to get away with anything. It is not fear of a bad review that drives me to do more text work, or dig for a deeper truth in my work as an actor or a writer. I simply don’t have time for that. I think about the story I am trying to tell an audience, I think about serving the director’s or the playwright’s vision, I think about wanting to support my fellow performers in their scenes and performances. I don’t really think about what a critic might say about a particular moment or a particular take on a scene or character, and I can’t imagine that many artists do. I also don’t think critics would be surprised or chagrined to hear this. We (and they, I imagine) want us to be exploring whatever topic/theme/challenge/story we are exploring with rigour and bravery and creativity. They want us to be good, and so do we. We want to surpass ourselves just as much as they do. That really is, or must be, the juice for most theatre artists – because it’s certainly not the money, or the fame, or the prizes (debate me on this if you will), and most probably not the elusive thrill of pleasing a critic. Clearly there must be exceptions to this, but as a general rule, I think that’s true. And that’s no offence to anyone. I do agree that critics provide many valuable functions, and are an important part of any theatre ecology. I am just wary of language that suggests artists are looking for easy ways out, or looking to rely on lazy choices, or content to put out work that is sloppy or “dishonest”. I hear that kind of language about artists all the time, and I just think it’s inaccurate and ultimately reductive.

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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.