by Stuart Munro
(Stuart Munro is a senior reviewer at The Charlebois Post - Toronto)
Something strange happened at the Stratford Festival this week. On Monday, theatre reviewer and blogger, Lynn Slotkin, had her media tickets for the remainder of the season revoked. When she asked why, the PR rep on the other end of the line paused before saying “it didn’t look like [she] was a fan/friend . . . of the Stratford Festival.” (Ms. Slotkin admits she’s not sure which word was used.) She blogged about it, the story made its way around Facebook, and behold! A few days later her media tickets were reinstated for the season. The reasoning? “Upon reflection, we realize that critical debate is an essential part of any vibrant theatrical culture and that we should continue to provide you with reviewer’s tickets.”
Now I just want to say that I don’t know Lynn Slotkin. We’ve never met in any capacity and I’ve never read her reviews. The situation has been resolved, and this is not me leaping to her defense. But it isn’t too hard to see that there are potential dangers here.
There are, of course, the obvious concerns. Should reviewers be scared to give honest, sometimes negative, reviews? My own review of Stratford’s 42nd Street was lukewarm, at best. Should I then be worried about never being allowed back (even if my two other reviews were pretty close to being raves?). Printing raves didn’t save Ms. Slotkin, who also gave some positive reviews this season. Rather, it seems because she voiced a negative opinion about the state of the festival under the tenure of Des McAnuff, she was no longer seen as “friendly” to them. I hope I don’t get myself in the same trouble here . . . But even this is not what worries me most about this scenario. It’s the festival’s reasoning for reinstating the tickets that has me really scared. “Upon reflection, we realize that critical debate is an essential part of any vibrant theatrical culture. . . .”
How is it that The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has only, upon reflection, realized that theatre is a two way process that involves actor and audience. Those of us in the seats participate fully in the experience. It just so happens some of us go home afterwards and write about it. No, we’re not going to love everything (it’s impossible to please everyone all the time), but neither should we be expected to love every show, or everything about how a company operates (the current situation at The Factory Theatre is another outstanding example of that).
In a perfect world, theatre companies would look at what’s being written about them (both on-stage and off) and choose to learn from those criticisms. Instead, Stratford chose to be vengeful, and then recanted when they realized that other people were watching.
When Dave Ross and I attended the media luncheon during the festival’s opening week, we were warmly greeted, both by PR reps and incoming Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino. At the end of the lunch, one of the reviewers stood up and praised the festival for how well it has always treated its critics, no matter what they say. I was naïve enough to believe it. I wanted to believe that a prestigious company, now in its 60th season, would understand that criticism is just part of the game.
Maybe I was wrong . . .