Reflections of a former theatre critic

Herald theatre critic Brian Brennan, TV critic Bill Musselwhite and arts columnist Patrick Tivy were advertised on Calgary billboards and buses during the 1980s

I was appointed chief theatre critic of the Calgary Herald in 1975, when I was 31. I did the job for 13 years and then moved on to other journalistic endeavours. At that point, I knew it was time to try something different. The landscape of arts coverage had changed and so had I. During the 1970s, a flowering of the arts in Canada had brought with it a flowering of arts journalism in Canadian newspapers. By 1988, the primary newspaper focus was on “fun reads.” Instead of exploring and chronicling, arts writers were encouraged to dispense the light, the bright and the trite. One of the Herald’s regular front-page features was a throwaway piece of fluff called the “Daily Dazzler.” Style trumped content at almost every turn.

The theatre beat had been a great gig while it lasted. The Herald portrayed Calgary as a sophisticated modern city with all the cultural trappings. To reinforce this image, the paper had a theatre critic whose job included travelling to such centres of theatrical activity as Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg,  Stratford, New York and London to write about shows that might one day be produced in Calgary. When you consider the size of the Calgary market in 1975 – with only three professional theatres: Theatre Calgary, ATP and Lunchbox – this was pretty amazing. My travel budget was the envy of critics across the country. Aside from documenting the achievements on the local stage, I got to go to these other places and report back. What did I see? Was there anything valuable, useful or important on offer? The local theatres included many of my top picks in their longlists for the upcoming seasons.

There was no Hollywood gossip in the paper back then. Coverage of the pop music scene was minuscule. When Elvis died in 1977, it was front-page news across the country except in Calgary. However, Rick McNair’s appointment as Theatre Calgary’s artistic director did make the front page. The Herald thought of itself as a newspaper for adults, not a comic paper for teenyboppers. Never mind the fact that fewer people were going to the theatre than were cramming into the Corral for the rock concerts. Theatre, opera and symphony concerts reigned supreme in the Herald’s live entertainment coverage.

Another difference between then and now was that the Herald saw itself as a leader not as a panderer. The newspaper bosses didn’t conduct customer surveys or assemble focus groups to find out what readers wanted to see in the paper. They didn’t take their cues from the other media. The editors and the writers gave the readers what they considered important. They did so in much the same way that some literary juries today give prizes to books they think people ought to read. Patronizing? Perhaps. But to paraphrase a later quote from Steve Jobs, we didn’t think readers would know what they wanted until we gave it to them.

Things started to change in the mid-1980s when the Herald allowed itself to become a second-rate player of television’s game. It stopped leading and began copying. Instead of continuing to do what it did best, providing thoughtful, analytical, detailed coverage of the arts, the paper turned into the print equivalent of Entertainment Tonight. The columns became shorter and the graphics became larger. The Herald could never compete with the excitement, the urgency or the energy of television, but it tried. And failed.

There were still some very good things about the arts and entertainment section of the paper. Its coverage of books and the visual arts were still second to none in Canada, though largely confined to one day a week. So too, despite truncated travel budgets and constricted space, were its coverage of theatre, dance and popular music. But classical music coverage virtually disappeared from the paper and opera coverage became essentially promotional. In their stead came celebrity tittle-tattle and an emphasis on pop culture.

Could it be that I had become old guard and failed to move with the times? Perhaps. But as I said in a 1988 article for the Canadian Theatre Review, if moving with the times meant becoming light, bright and trite, then I would remain rooted resolutely in the past. I preferred to think of moving with the times as being aware of what Peter Brook, Peter Sellars and Philip Glass were doing, not developing the kind of glibness that it takes to be booked as a guest on the Letterman Show.

You can read more about that vibrant period in Canadian theatre history as I viewed it from 1975 onwards in my newly published book of memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. If you have an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download a free sample from the book via iTunes.

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Copyright 2011 Brian Brennan's Blog

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