This article (below) was posted on the Toronto Star Online today.

I am actually copying it onto this page because it has become VERY HARD to find it now at the Toronto Star Online…I hope it is because the paper is embarrassed.

It is like the writer is encouraging patrons and audience members to NOT come to the theatre…to not be adventurous or have independent thought when choosing a play or musical to see at the festival…to only go to pieces that are endorsed by critics…to not take a chance on something different…to basically go against the whole spirit of what the festival is.

It is ALSO like the writer is turning artists away from trying something new, exciting, dangerous or inde-freakin-pendent.

Have any of us had the good luck to stumble on a show that was unexpectedly interesting or found a show that featured a performer who was amazing in a piece that was may not…by accident?

I have added my thoughts to the article below each part…my thoughts are in italics.

How to spot the duds at the Fringe festival

By Bruce DeMara Entertainment Reporter

Jul 02, 2011

1. Avoid dramaturgy. References in the program attesting that the production has been “dramaturged” are almost always a bad sign. Dramaturgy is the process of having an author’s original work savagely dissected by fellow artists and reinterpreted in ways that make it a contradictory, irretrievable mess. Fringe productions should be fresh, spontaneous feats of derring-do. If you have to dramaturge the darn thing, do it post-Fringe. Dramaturgy often means turgid drama.

SM: Seeing the word Dramaturgy might mean that the playwright went to a professional dramaturg, of which Toronto has many fabulous examples …Iris Turcott, Stephen Colella, Mary Francis Moore…for help to make their show tighter, more concise, have a better flow…for many reasons.

I also didn’t know that the definition of Dramaturgy was “having an author’s original work savagely dissected by fellow artists, etc…” I think professional dramaturgs would disagree.

2. Even decent shows can be a downer if they’re in a crappy venue. So imagine you’re leafing through the program when a show grabs your interest: Low Riders, a semi-autographical musical featuring a troupe of transsexual ex-biker “little people.” Your finger hastily scrolls down to check times and venues and — argh! — it’s at Theatre Passe Muraille’s Backspace (an airless box up a long flight of stairs) or the Factory Theatre Studio (down some stairs, then up some more to another uninspired space) or the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (hard to spot from the street, even more stairs, a few odd turns and a so-so theatre if you’re lucky enough to find it). Other venues can be even less promising. The Ladies Polar Room at the College Street United Church? Venues in church basement settings often feature ancient living-room furniture with broken springs as seating.

SM: At the Edinburgh Fringe last year there were fabulous and INVENTIVE shows in a VW Van, a public toilet and a swimming pool. I have attended fabulous, intimate pieces at both the TPM backspace and the Factory Theatre Studio space. It is the Fringe…not the freaking Winter Garden. We have a limited number of spaces in Toronto. If someone would like to help the theatres get funding to build more, I am sure we would be all for it…but we are creative and work with what we got. That is why we are artists.

3. “Minimalist” production values. No set, no lighting, no costumes. Just two actors on a bare stage, morphing between characters with baffling rapidity. Three steps stage left (or right, it doesn’t matter) apparently denotes a scene change. A change in facial expression, voice or body language would help. Or how about putting on a hat or using a prop to indicate you’ve gone from playing a 7-year-old girl to an ancient Phoenician god? We love theatre but we’re not mind readers.

SM: I find this highly offensive. Maybe the artist cannot afford a set, lights, costumes or props…maybe the artist is new to the business and does not have the contacts to outsource these things…that is what the fringe is for…for the audience to use their imaginations. For artists who might have no other chance to have their shows produced in a space like the Tarragon or TPM. Also, does the writer realize that there are very tight change overs between shows…and artists cannot afford the time to put up a complicated set…sometimes it is 10 minutes. And “change in facial expression”?…Please.

4. Overly ambitious productions. A program that promises an “eclectic multimedia blend of theatre, dance, music, puppetry, visual art and feminist dub poetry” is sending out multiple warning signs.

SM: Our artistic options are getting smaller and smaller. I WISH I could write my dance, theatre, multi media, puppet piece with some feminist stuff in it…that would be fucking awesome.

5. Cheap sets, i.e. those made of Styrofoam, cardboard, etc. Sure, Fringe productions are cheap, dirt cheap. But, with the odd exception, a set that appears to be constructed of material from a discount art supply store or from the detritus of an overturned garbage can is rarely a promising sign.

SM: Again, as with #3, I find this highly offensive. How do you know what an artist can afford…or what we can do with an overturned garbage can? Haven’t you seen “Stomp”?

6. One name everywhere. Writer/director/producer/actor/lighting and costume designer. If one name is ubiquitous throughout the program, someone is usually spreading themselves very thin, too thin for the result to be enjoyable. Steer clear.

SM: Maybe they could use a dramaturg.

7. A variation of No. 6. Two names everywhere. Or three. Two or three co-writers, co-stars, co-directors, co-producers, etc. will often result in much backstage back-stabbing and in-fighting for creative control. Tension is so often the fuel that makes live theatre crackle with energy. Just not this kind of tension.

SM: What the eff does this mean? This just sounds stupid. And this is a stupid, gross generalization. It isn’t like people are cutting each others throats backstage…this isn’t “Showgirls”.

8. Flyers. Whether you’re standing in line or lounging at the Fringe Club behind Honest Ed’s, strangers will try to force you to take promotional material for upcoming shows. It may be as humble as an uneven square of plain white paper with blurry lettering or as slick as multi-coloured laminated cardboard. (Your pockets, purse or backpack will soon be stuffed with them. They will seem to multiple like rabbits.) It gets tricky because sometimes the cheapest promo material turns out to be for the best shows and the fanciest ones are for the biggest duds. Look for excerpted reviews, e.g., “Best of Edinburgh Fringe 2010.” And ask around. Fellow theatre lovers are great at sharing both hot picks and train wrecks.

SM: Yes, we must only go to shows that are suggested by reviewers or claimed to be “Best of…”.

How the fuck else do you expect to artists to sell their shows? With ads in papers? With billboards. Everyone knows they will get a flyer at the fringe.

This article seems to mock the very spirit of the amazing Toronto Fringe Festival.

I think Bruce DeMara owes an apology to the Toronto Fringe.

I, with the generous help of many donors, took my show to the mother of all Fringe’s last year…the Edinburgh Fringe. I spen
t an amazing three weeks there and was very proud to trumpet how fantastic our Toronto Fringe was and is.

I saw many shows…the best were the ones that were independent…not promoted by a large producer… had a crappy space (I saw one performer who did her show with a full band on a stage the size of a postage stamp and had duct work right over her head)…had no set…could only afford to bring themselves…was written, produced and performed by the same artist.

Please, Toronto Fringe audience members, pay no attention to this article and be brave and make bold choices about what you are gonna see.

I bet you will be pleasantly surprised.

The Toronto Fringe runs July 6 to 17. Info at fringetoronto.com

Postscript (P.S. I have never officially written a postscript before so please excuse if this is not appropriately fancy)

I have received many emails and comments about this post…which always makes me happy…mostly because it means someone is actually reading my shit. Also because it means that people give a shit about the arts.

I received such an email from a writer from the newspaper in which the offending article occurred. This writer has supported me greatly whenever I have asked for a boost (and it has always been greatly appreciated). I feel it would be only right to do the same kindness. The writers at this newspaper are not allowed to comment on each others articles but this writer wanted me to know that they had nothing to do with the writing of this article, and actually spent a great deal of time opposing it. This same writer felt quite embarrassed that it appeared at all.

Mostly, I am very happy that all of our thoughts about this article have not gone unnoticed and maybe, next time, it will not be written at all. Let us go to these features instead that take about the great things to expect from the fringe.






Commenting area

  1. 1. The guy obviously has no idea what dramaturgy is. Why is he writing about theatre?

    2. Crappy venues are part of the Fringe experience. I don’t especially like them but perfect theatres with perfect temperature settings just seem wrong for fringing. My aging godmother likes roughing at the Fringe (Montreal Fringe, mind you) and she brags about it to her friends.

    3. If Stephen Harper and Rob Ford decide to give artists a ton of money, this situation can change and shows might have more elaborate sets. But what about theatre makers who have resources to make their vision come true and that vision is minimalist? Does DeMara ask for his money back when that happens? He probably does.

    4. I’m the multimedia girl and I must say DeMara actually managed to make me feel bad about myself when I read this. Am I a terribly over-ambitious artsy snob? Your comment set me straight. Thank you!

    5. If the production is good, the rest doesn’t matter. This could apply to all the items above or below. I have no idea where this guy is coming from.

    and so on…

    This was a shocking article. Thank you for responding to it!

  2. HI Sharon: Thanks for posting this article, I had missed it when it was published. Honestly I have to ask where they find these morons that masquerade as “theatre critics”. I particularly took issue with his number three entry. No, we are not mind readers, but the day I go to the theatre and see a production that doesn’t challenge me to use my imagination, that will be the day I stop going to the theatre. I have often thought I should start a campaign to outlaw theatre critics, (well maybe not Kelly N, for I think he does try to be fair). I live quite close to the Festival Threatre and see the actors arrive in early February, and I know a little of the hard work they put in before a production is even mounted. Then opening night arrives and with a few clicks of the keys, a critic can destroy all those months of hard work, it just isn’t fair. Besides, I am not an idiot I don’t need someone to tell me if a play is good or bad, I can make up my own mind. Perhaps these so called “critics” should be putting their energy into finding ways to support the arts, rather than tearing them down with their words, because it is quite clear this government we currently have will not be doing it. Good luck on your fringe adventure in bonny Scotland, but hurry home to Stratford, because I hear that Winners are experiencing hard times without their favourite customer. Donna

  3. Thanks so much for your responses. The article was indeed, gobsmacking in one thousand different ways. But I do believe that by responding it sets up a dialogue, like this one, and attention is paid. It is hard but without reviews, sometimes our work gets overlooked. I BEGGED people to come and review my show at the Edfringe. It was a strange thing to do…but you need the reviews. And, I am trying to be fair, there are a number or wonderful and supportive reviewers and entertainment writers in this town who help an independent gal like myself when I need a PR boost…who believe in the solo/grassroots artists. As a producer of my own work I do have to take the good with the bad…but I (and all of us) don’t have to accept the stupid!!

  4. And Donna, we do have the best Winners in the world…don’t we? I was home for one hour last week..and went.

  5. Oh! And E.C.C….you keep on multi-media-ing like a motherfucker!!! Do your THING!!!

  6. Great blog post. I’m reminded of the difference between a critic and a reviewer – the critic is supposed to provide context for the reader and offer observations on trends and new directions within the art form (i.e. critical thinking), whereas the reviewer provides a summary of what he or she saw.

    It would be a reach to call DeMara a “reviewer”, and an outright lie to call him a “critic”. I believe that places him somewhere on the spectrum between “hack” and “Rob Ford”.

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