This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
For the 43 years that Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Rhubarb Festival has been running, there has been a no-review policy.
The festival, which ran from Feb. 4 to 13 in Toronto, is an experimental arts event for established and emerging artists to play with the boundaries of live performance art.
According to the festival director, Clayton Lee, the lack of reviewers and arts coverage in Canada is why the no-review policy is in place; it also allows the artists to experiment without the fear of reviews.
“If anyone Googles your name, it’s like that [one review] comes up and kind of haunts you. As a kind of strategy to avoid that is having no reviewers,” he said. “Just make something. And then whatever comes with it will come with it.”
Lee said the long-standing policy challenges the industry to rethink how to archive the arts for future generations.
Carly Maga, a communications and marketing manager for Arts Commons and former theatre critic for the Toronto Star, said criticism plays an important role in providing audiences an insider’s perspective and a greater context of what’s going on in the industry.
“All those details that may be lost in future years exist because there are critics or reporters doing those things and making sure that documentation happens,” she said.
It’s one of the concerns that Lee said he constantly grapples with: how to promote artists’ work without reviews so their work is not forgotten.
“My ongoing questions with it are around the nature of memory and legacy in performance in this country,” said Lee. “How do we actually have a document for what’s happened, instead of it existing in an oral tradition?”
Last year, The Rhubarb Festival released a limited-edition book, called The Rhubarb Festival, that sought to capture the festival’s essence and recreate the live performance experiences with contributions from more than 20 artists.
Maga said it’s beneficial for artists to have spaces like The Rhubarb Festival where they are not subjected to formal criticism and that companies can establish boundaries with public outlets.
“It’s not that it’s free from criticism because anyone can give criticism. It doesn’t always have to be a literal critic who’s covering for a public outlet that offers criticism,” she added.
“If we had even more reviewing and critiquing and there was an abundance of it, the way that we talk critically about work would be much more normalized,” said Clarke Blair, a freelance dance artist from Toronto. “So each individual review would potentially carry less weight because it exists amongst other reviews and other opinions.”
She said that critic’s role in the arts industry is “super vague” these days because so many voices can contribute to an array of outlets, whether in an official publication or on social media.
“I think that to the general community, dance reviews are not super valuable, which is why there isn’t a lot of it,” said Blair. “I think that to make more people understand its importance and believe in its importance, we need more of it to happen in easily accessible public publications.”
As criticism continues to evolve, Blair said she hopes the world of arts criticism will include more perspectives from people outside and within the industry.
“Reviews and critiques are ways to advance the community to have critical discussion about what’s being created and how that shapes the next things that get created,” she said.
“Giving platforms to younger emerging artists who are part of marginalized groups is going to help move the kind of work that is being created in a direction that feels more inclusive.”