Why Watch? Notes from a Theatre Critic

Adolph Menzel, "Théâtre du Gymnase in Paris"

A few summers ago, I was visiting a friend who was performing in a theatre festival on the east coast, and she invited me to a potluck party with the cast and crew. It was a beautiful August day, and a game of volleyball broke out. My friend and my boyfriend joined in. I did not. As I sat quite comfortably in a deck chair watching the game, a playwright at the festival asked me why I wasn’t playing.

“I’m more of a sidelines girl,” I said. “I prefer to watch.”

I don’t remember exactly what he said next but it was something along the lines of “Ohmygodthat’sawfulthat’ssosadanddepressinghowdoyoulivewithyourself.” I may be exaggerating. But regardless, there was a strong whiff of condescension at the idea that I would prefer to observe rather than to get up and participate.

Look, I hate volleyball, so either way I wasn’t getting off that deck chair. If it were a game of Euchre, I’d be all about it. But in that moment, as a theatre critic talking to a playwright in the context of a theatre festival, there was a professional insinuation under the surface that really struck a nerve. The idea that being an audience member (someone on the sidelines) is fundamentally inferior to being a playwright, or an actor, or a director, or a stage manager, in the alchemy of theatre (someone who gets up to play volleyball) is something I very much disagree with.

After about six years of covering Toronto theatre, I’ve felt that kind of dismissal only a few times. But an assumption that a critic is often a failed artist—someone who has tried, been burned, and retreated into the vast darkness of the audience, often to seek revenge—still sadly lingers in some conversations. I take my role as a professional audience member very seriously, and it’s something I’ve chosen from the start. I have never seen my job as a critic as something I have to do because no other avenues are open to me. It’s something I get to do, almost every day.

This sounds more salacious than I intend it to, but I love watching. I really do. I don’t personally care much for video games, but if someone’s playing (especially if it’s story-based), I’m glued to it. I don’t know what exactly this says about me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not like this because I’m a failed video game player.

Loving stories is a universal trait. And as I grew up, theatre became the storytelling vessel I connected with. Attending an arts high school, where I studied drama, was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. But pursuing journalism instead of a career in performing, writing, or directing has informed my current philosophies as a critic—my work is as a conduit to translate stories to a larger audience.

Judging by the number of times I’m asked (and critics in general are asked) whether I’d like to make my own work, the association between an interest in theatre and a desire to make it is natural. But since I started writing criticism, that impulse has faded. When I do get the odd pang of envy, it comes from the excitement of good storytelling. And I satisfy that pang by writing about it.

Choosing not to make theatre does not mean I’m denying my own voice—I’ve actively chosen to put it where I feel it’s best used. And I’m proud of that decision. If anything, I hope criticism can be seen as a viable choice for other, younger theatre lovers to have their voices shared on a much-needed platform.

So, theatre-makers, keep playing volleyball. I’ll be yelling from the sidelines for those of you who want to join me.

Watch Carly, along with fellow Toronto reviewers Steve Fisher and Lynn Slotkin, talk theatre criticism in our latest In the Round round table conversation.

Written By

Carly Maga is a theatre critic for the Toronto Star, and has covered Toronto theatre since 2010. She has a Bachelor of Journalism from Ryerson University and a Master of Theatre and Performance Studies from York University. She also serves as a board member for the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.

One response to “Why Watch? Notes from a Theatre Critic”

  1. Hey Carly,

    I like the fact that you don’t apologize for being a professional audience member. That’s great. Theatre doesn’t exist without the audience. This often gets reduced to a financial argument, but I think it’s also a philosophically existential one. Unlike volleyball, which doesn’t actually need an audience to be volleyball, theatre simply isn’t theatre if no one is there to observe it.

    Thanks

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