If it’s Factory Theatre vs. the Toronto theatre critics, we are all going to lose

It started this morning with a tweet from Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck:

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If you click on that image it will take you to the majority of the online, public, conversation (though there have been a number of side conversations about it on twitter throughout the day and I’m sure many more conversations held in private). The gist of the issue is thus: For the upcoming show at Factory, The Art of Building a Bunker, the producers are hosting an opening night five days (three performances) in advance of the date that the media are invited to.

Aislinn Rose, one of the producers of the show and the general manager of The Theatre Centre, is supportive of this new experiment around openings & when critics are invited because it is artist and audience driven – a mantra she repeated multiple times over the course of the day.

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In one tweet she wrote, “Full disclosure: I’m on the team, and I support this message” and later in the day she commented that she has been contacted by a handful of people who do not feel comfortable joining the twitter conversation.

Factory’s goal with this new delayed media date seems to be to make the opening about the community – reducing the stress of judgement and engaging with celebration. This idea is the basis of the press night model where media are invited a day or two prior to the gala opening and then embargoed from posting reviews until the official opening date. I know Obsidian is using that model for their production of The Mountaintop later this year and it is common in Broadway.

The main argument I’m seeing from Kelly Nestruck is that until a company believes that a show is ready to be seen by the media it should be considered to be in previews and tickets should be at a reduced rate, while Steve Fisher is arguing that, “You’re attempting to silence (for the v. important 1st week) the ppl who are best qualified to publicly evaluate your show.”

But I think there is a larger concern at play here that I would like to voice. I think that the company is doing itself a disservice. Companies across Canada are fighting desperately to reach a “non-theatre” audience and to expand their brands outside of their existing circles (which I believe is a laudable goal). Steve Fisher goes as far as saying that indie companies are BEGGING him to attend their openings. When companies eliminate mainstream critical discourse (ie The Globe & other reviewers), the initial conversations about the show will be had by a limited group of people, which sounds like the intended purpose of this experiment.  My concern is that those people having the initial conversation will be mostly theatre insiders who know about the show already. The likelihood of that conversation reaching beyond the inner circle seems small.

I took a look at the dates on the Factory Theatre website. From the time that the show begins previews on Oct 11, there will be 8 public performances before the media are invited to see the show (4 previews and 4 full price performances).  After the media are invited there will be another 11 performances. As an independent producer, a sometimes publicist, and a stage manager who works for independent companies, I frequently feel like I AM begging for media to attend openings. Why? Because even a review panning the show in a mainstream newspaper will garner more attention than a rave facebook comment by someone in the community. Maybe we are giving the critics more power than we should, but I have not yet seen a better idea and inviting the media to attend halfway through the public performances does not seem like a solution.

But that said, I wonder if there aren’t additional ways that Factory is planning to encourage critical discourse amongst their patrons at those first three performances in lieu of media criticism? If so, how? An online message board, a newsletter or survey, talkbacks, a social media scheme, or some other engagement policy?

I don’t have the answers. I do understand that the current model isn’t ideal for anyone but I fear that Factory’s new policy is more likely to further divide artists and critics than it is to forge a new system that is mutually beneficial. And ultimately, we will all be the losers if the divide grows.

Edited to add: If you’re looking for some other perspectives, check out what Mike Anderson had to say at http://www.mikehatedit.ca/2014/09/24/bunfights-factorys-bunker/ or Holger Syme’s take at http://www.dispositio.net/archives/1987 or Jacob Zimmer at http://minorexpletives.ca/a/on-the-outrage-over-who-gets-comped-when/ or Amanda Campbell at http://www.twisitheatreblog.com/archives/2381 or Theatre Ontario at http://theatreontario.blogspot.ca/2014/09/ontario-off-stage_26.html or Phil Rickaby at http://www.philrickaby.com/2014/09/27/factory-theatres-opening-night-kerfuffle/.

For some official critic opinions: Kelly Nestruck in The Globe & Mail and Glenn Sumi in Now Toronto  and Toronto Star.

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About Lois

I am a Vancouver-based Stage Manager and frequent theatre goer. After graduating from Trinity Western University I spent two seasons as the resident stage manager at Pacific Theatre. Now I am working as a freelancer with various companies in Vancouver.

7 Comments

  1. Lois, what a great post!

    I agree with your point of view.

    1. There are many audiences out there beyond the traditional Factory Lab audiences, that is for sure.

    2. IMHO, there is no bad press; so all press is good. So bring on the press at previews, mid-run, and end of run.

    I think FLT is shooting itself in both feet with this experiment.

    Because, at the end of the day, the audience will decide all by itself. (This is why there are so many revivals ob Broadway, IMHO)

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    Susan Weiss

  2. Mainstream press do draw wider attention to a production; a bad review will hurt box-office. It’s a crap shoot.

  3. Hey Lois. Thanks for posting this.

    I’m not sure the experiment is about either critical discourse or getting people to come to the theatre. Rather it sounds like it wants to ask the question “What happens to a conversation when it is started by audiences?”

    I cut my teeth making theatre in a small community where there were no critics and none were really wanted. The discussions were driven by the community and, hence, they owned the work more. And people bought tickets — without good or bad reviews.

    I find this experiment quite intriguing and, perhaps, exciting. And I respect Factory for potentially putting their box office returns on the line to ask this question and see what happens. It’s an artistic vision that’s not about bums in seats.

    Cheers,
    Drove

  4. A brave and crazy experiment by Factory. They are sure pissing off the critics, but maybe they believe “any publicity is good publicity”?

  5. Hey Drove – thanks for commenting!

    I think ultimately my biggest question about this whole thing (which is not clearly outlined in this post, but has come up in a number of the one-on-one conversations I’ve had about this subject) is more about how this experiment was implemented. I watched the initial conversation unfold on twitter and wanted to drive a conversation about it that wasn’t limited to the people who are on twitter which is why i wrote the post.

    As an artist I also find the experiment intriguing, but I think that the method of implementation was perhaps not the most effective. Factory has continually (and now in an official statement) said that this is about making opening weekends a celebration and allowing those initial audiences to drive discussion. These are both things that I like the idea of (though the publicist part of me really wants those initial reviews). I just wonder if the critics’ response would have been different had it been framed differently and could have built a less antagonistic public conversation now. I’ll post the links in a bit, but both Kelly Nestruck and Glenn Sumi have written articles about this in their respective papers this weekend in a way that I think damages the public image of Factory.

    I guess I’m of two minds about the whole thing, but I hope that when the experiment is over Factory shares their findings publicly because I’m definitely curious.

  6. Lois,

    I agree with you that the antagonistic atmosphere instigated by Factory is not helpful.

    Perhaps Factory might have been counting on the good review notices this play received at summer works to drive this experiment.

    Factory also might have invited the critics to participate in this experiment.

    In my long experience in the performing arts, all over the world, it does not pay to alienate, and/or piss off critics.

    And, furthermore it may lead to demoralizing the actors and creatives who are out front there for the run of the show.

    C’est la vie, c’est la guerre…..

  7. Branding. All press is good press. Those who are best equipped to evaluate are being left out. Insider vs. outsider.

    There are a whole set of unquestioned assumptions in this so-called discourse.

    On further examination I think you will find most of them don’t hold water. There isn’t even any data to support these claims. In fact you may find, when you get below the “broadway musical” level of mass production and mass consumption, that most of these ideas around audience building and the value of critics/reviewers can not be supported by any data.

    Who are these “insiders” and “outsiders” spoken of here. These are just convenient and misleading labels.

    Small “independent” companies may be desperate for critics, but maybe the social media outlets actually offer more bang for their buck that traditional platforms. Maybe the corporate model of theatre production that has been promoted by funding agencies around “capacity building” notions doesn’t work for “independent” theatre companies.

    I think the anti-Bunker argument revolves around treating theatre art as a consumer product, the company as a corporation with a product to sell, and the critic as a consumer reporter.

    Oh and by the way, it is the norm in France to run a show for a week or more before critics can attend.

    I agree with Steven Dover’s comments.

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