- In Search of an Ignorant Critic
At a panel on diversity and theatre criticism at the Modern Times Stage Company's Beyond Representation symposium in April 2017, three Toronto theatre critics apologetically read passages from reviews that they regretted writing. The general consensus was that they had mischaracterized or somehow misunderstood the works that they were discussing—or, as J. Kelly Nestruck observed, his particular review was "ignorant" (qtd. in Alvarez and Knowles 13). These responses were not planned in advance but were brought in by each critic individually to the surprise of those assembled. The fact that three different critics independently thought to reassess their old work in light of ongoing conversations about representation exemplifies an underlying problem in theatre criticism. As Nikki Shaffeeullah observes in Canadian Theatre Review's recent issue on theatre criticism, the problem is that "mainstream theatre reviews tend to support the status quo of theatre creation" (34), often to the detriment of creators and their audiences. In seeking to address this problem, this article picks up on some discussions featured in this recent CTR issue and pursues a question raised at the Beyond Representation panel: How can cultural difference inform critical practice?
In Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception, Susan Bennett extends Stanley Fish's concept of "interpretive communities" to theatre criticism and highlights how theatre reception is communally shaped by shared beliefs and viewing strategies (42–44). The value judgments stemming from such shared interpretive strategies are based on "horizons of expectation," which measure new productions against both pre-existing works and individual spectators' social expectations (53). Bennett particularly notes that interpretive communities have "inevitably political underpinning[s] and relationship[s] to the dominant ideology" (42). In this model, an interpretive community of theatre critics (say that of Toronto, or of Canada more broadly) is shaped by shared horizons of expectation against which all performance is measured and which cover areas like form, subject matter, and which stories get told. The danger with such shared beliefs is that work can be unconsciously rejected if it diverges from these expectations, sustaining a "low tolerance for artistic risk and cultural difference" (Shaffeeullah 34). Or, as Bennett puts it, interpretive communities of critics "are … not necessarily helpful, either to the companies reviewed or the public seeking their opinions" (42).
One of the main assumptions underlying mainstream criticism is that of a homogeneous audience that reflects the reviewer's experience. Helen Freshwater highlights this problem, noting that critics often anticipate audience members' reactions, and so "discursively produc[e] the audience the critic would like to imagine rather than accurately reflecting the complexity and potential diversity of collective and individual response" (8–9). Canadian interpretive communities of critics are particularly shaped by what charles c. smith describes as the "Western Eurocentric project that still dominates the Canadian (and the North American) stage" (5). In this context, cultural difference can disrupt the homogenizing forces at work in criticism and offer enriching perspectives on performance.
The Beyond Representation panel highlighted the effects of these normative forces when critics (who tend to be overwhelmingly white and often male, coming from privileged backgrounds) encounter unfamiliar performance forms, often based in or inspired by unfamiliar cultural traditions and/or understandings of performance. While the panel discussed ways to offset some of these forms of implicit bias—with useful tips such as "educate yourself" and "be more open" shared (Alvarez and Knowles 13)—I believe a more comprehensive approach is needed to get to the root of the problem. The critics on the panel can be commended for their openness to critical self-reflection. Yet their realizations seemed to be tied more to outside intervention or exposure to differing reception—for one, a long and successful run of the show in question and, for another, being publicly called out on some problematic phrases—than to changes in their approaches to unfamiliar works. These examples demonstrate how—regardless of good intentions—normative forces in criticism prevail unless strongly challenged, and highlight the high probability that more of these reviews exist, as yet unnoticed by their creators.
This state of affairs begs the questions posed by Cahoots Theatre's Artistic Director...