Review of Fringe Festival Forum on risk in theatre (and risk in reviewing theatre)

On Wednesday I went to the third of the Edmonton Fringe Festival’s three free forums: “A Fringe Too Far? What Risks Do We Really Take?” The panel consisted of four playwrights – Marty Chan, Kristen Finlay, Nicole Shafenacker, and Mark Stubbings – and was moderated by playwright and theatre administrator Eric Rice. The panelists spoke to the topic with reference to their own work and their experiences with the Fringe Festival, and the moderator accommodated lots of questions and comments from the audience, which seemed largely comprised of other theatre professionals.

Fringe Festival playbills. (Detail of “Village of the Fringed” by mastermaq, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)

The discussion of risk tended to address three areas of risk in particular: artistic risk, commercial risk, and political risk. I was most interested in the latter, but it occupied the least discussion of these three areas. The discussion of artistic risk focused on the playwrights’ process in writing about (and performing) personally, psychologically, and politically daunting subjects: what subjects is the playwright willing or unwilling to explore? The discussion of commercial risk seemed to predominate the panel discussion: it encompassed considerations of commercial failure, commercial success, and – interestingly – the role of reviews in making or breaking fringe shows. To the point that the panel almost became a session on reviews, and how playwrights respond to them. Playwrights reflected on good and bad reviews, on the changing culture of reviewing in the wake of social media (when a tweet-sized review can travel faster and farther than traditional word of mouth), and on the difference between journalistic theatre reviews and critical reviews. Many playwrights and audience members shared the sense that journalistic reviews (i.e. those in newspapers) aren’t so much about the artistic success of the play as they are about telling a personal story about the theatre-going experience that the reader can relate to – and that the reader can use to decide how best to spend one’s entertainment money.

In light of the perceived prevalence of this kind of review, and the corresponding perceived dearth of critique, a very interesting suggestion arose: for the festival to consider hosting a workshop for would-be theatre reviewers. Festival program director Thomas Scott mentioned previous workshops in which theatre practitioners reviewed reviews, and then subjected their meta-reviews in turn to further meta-meta-review by others. This kind of workshop caught my imagination; it’s the sort of thing I myself teach in an introductory graduate course on literary studies, in which the students are tasked to critique selected critiques of major literary works (rather than critique the works themselves). Such a workshop could encompass a range of different forms and media, for instance: how to review not only for newspapers, but, say, for blogs, or even for Twitter. It might also consider not only the forms but also the content of theatre reviews: is this an envelope that can be pushed, say, in the manner of Vice magazine’s record reviews, or the avant garde restaurant reviewing dramatized to great comic effect in Russell Smith’s novel Noise?

James hung up and typed,

A wine-list of compassion, generosity and near-Proustian comprehensiveness – but a toothache-sweet intra-course sherbet shrivels the more ethereal choices. A gregarious duck in blood orange sauce consorts freely with wild rice, raisins, almonds and vinegary cabbage – a precarious success, arranged with the zest of fauvist painting. Marrakech Tuna steak on soya-sake butter of chocolatey richness (both rice and salt only distant notes, perfectly balanced), plus amusingly proletarian tempura onions. (14)

Despite commanding relatively little comment, the discussion of political risk yielded some important insights. I asked specifically about the potential intervention of our notoriously anti-arts and culture government in the festival: would it or has it ever threatened to pull funding over a controversial production? Not this festival – given its un-juried structure, what Chan called its “free-market, grassroots” character, as a kind of scene for enabling rather than preprogramming specific productions. (Though arts funding was apparently pulled from Summerworks in Toronto once; that event is juried, hence the organizers assume more responsibility for the staged material.) The political risk, then, falls on the individual artist, not the collective event. In terms of the festival itself, the panel and audience seemed to share the impression that politically risky material is less prohibited than promoted; less taboo than tonic for an audience necessarily predisposed (unlike the federal government) to be interested in the arts. “Preaching to the choir,” as one of the panelists put it. While the playwrights spoke frankly and bravely about the political risks they have taken, I think the clearest delineation of the non-negotiable threshold for political – and legal – risk in fringe theatre was starkly and concisely expressed by program director Scott:

No sex on stage.

So that’s the threshold of acceptable political risk for the festival, the line beyond which the cops would get called in. Good to know (in the non-biblical sense).

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