Off Script

A dust-up between a playwright and a critic demonstrates the insidious sexism of the Canadian theatre world

Mohammad Jangda / CC BY-SA 2.0

Every summer, at the Girl Guide camp I frequented as a child in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park, a large patch of poison ivy would grow near the communal toilets. The counsellors would warn us away from the low-lying waxy green leaves. They relished describing the consequences of leaving the path—the scalding rash, the weeping sores—but the stakes only made it more enticing. One day, on a dare that I likely goaded into existence, I sat down amongst the vines and confirmed what I had believed all along: I am not allergic to poison ivy.

As a freelance theatre critic, my work sometimes feels like a return to Girl Guide camp, with counsellor figures cautioning me about where I should and should not tread. In April, I wrote a review of the Vancouver premiere of the play Dead Metaphor by Governor General Award–winning playwright George F. Walker, and the warnings turned to klaxons.

In Dead Metaphor, a female politician takes advantage of a down-at-the-heels veteran whose wife is pregnant and whose father is suffering from frontal-lobe dementia. What was missing was an acknowledgement of the show’s gender dynamics. The women were all written flat. The wife was scrappy but otherwise completely dependent on the veteran; the veteran’s mother was barely there; and the politician was Cruella de Vil without the dalmatian coat. Meanwhile, the male characters had specificity, depth, and tragedy. There were also a few jokes that centred on the father shouting, “I want to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore,” and a couple of unearned uses of the word cunt.

I wanted to show others a textbook example of the way men respond to women who they think have spoken out of turn.

I filed my review to the Vancouver Sun the morning after the play opened on April 6 and it was online less than ten minutes later. Around 4 p.m., an email appeared in my inbox from Walker himself. He was not happy. “I guess you know nothing about my work,” he wrote. “How women are treated in my work. How they are usually at the centre of my work. The only others [sic] critic to bring it up was an on line [sic] woman writer roughly your age I think.” He went on, in similarly clipped sentences, to say that his feminist daughters were saddened and disgusted by my review. “Put some of that presumption out of your head before you come anywhere near my work in the future,” he concluded. “It’s just idiotic.” He ended with a list of his scripts I should read before I reviewed another of his shows.

In disbelief, I reread what I had written. Nowhere in my review had I drawn on my experience as a woman or said that I was young, which, at thirty-six, I am. I wish I could say that the next thing I did came from some calculated desire to expose an ingrained streak of misogyny in Canadian theatre—it didn’t. I took a screenshot with my phone and posted the e-mail to my Twitter feed. Here was incontrovertible evidence that my gender was undermining my authority as a critic. Simply, I wanted to show others a textbook example of the way men respond to women who they think have spoken out of turn.

Criticism has long been an unforgiving field for women, but this age of trolls and instant communication has made it particularly complex. In December, The Atlantic ran a story about how the Internet has led to a sharp decline in the number of female film critics, which they argued could be leading to less critical examination of female-centred stories and, in turn, poor reception of the work. More recently, the Guardian newspaper analyzed comments on its own articles and found that pieces written by women, particularly women of colour, attracted the most abuse and dismissive trolling by far, regardless of the subject.

I relish responses to my reviews, even if readers disagree with me. Having someone pound out a point-by-point refutation of my arguments is flattering. It means they’ve read my work—maybe more than once—and it made them feel something. It means they care about theatre, an art form that deserves more attention than it gets. Likewise, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest when other critics disagree with me. I don’t believe that a perfectly accurate or unbiased review exists. Reviewing is a conversation between perspectives, a process of thinking about a work that includes producing a piece of writing at a deadline. In its ideal form, as Charles Baudelaire wrote, “criticism should be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view that opens to the widest horizons.”

What bothers me in the slew of feedback reviewers receive is the whiff of misogyny that manifests as a hint of condescension in tone. A mention of my youth, a reference to an agenda of some sort. My gender is there in my byline, after all. The idea that people are dismissing me offhand because I have an “a” at the end of my given name can be insidious. But, here: an e-mail from a man saying plainly that he had more right to judge the representation of women than I did because he had written some plays about women and had daughters. Here, a man who had looked at the headshot that had recently started to run alongside my articles and placed me in the category of entitled young feminist, gunning to take down all men who landed in my way—even good ones, like him.

In later e-mails, both Walker and a prominent local theatre producer who identified himself as Walker’s friend called on my “agenda.” The friend said he couldn’t find a single review that aligned with mine. A simple search showed that I wasn’t the only reviewer to describe the characters as flat: Martin Morrow had said as much in his 2014 Globe and Mail review. And I wasn’t the only one to point out the harsh language: Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star called it “bluer than a springtime prairie sky.”

Yes, I had been more critical than they had. Criticism is my job.

In his e-mail, Walker’s friend also wrote that my decision to share the correspondence was the act of a teenager. “Your post reads like a smug teen who is saying, ‘hey, look at me– a famous writer is mad at me!!,’” he said. “I want to take you seriously as a critic and yet when you do stuff like this it makes it difficult.” His language is precisely the kind used to discourage women from speaking out. If you say something, you’re a child; if you say nothing, you implicitly allow abuse to continue.

The aggressive tone of the e-mails made me think about Jo Ledingham, a critic who writes reviews for the Vancouver Courier. A year ago, not long after I had taken over as a regular critic for the Vancouver Sun, Ledingham approached me before an opening and asked if I had received one of the “wicked e-mails” going around. I hadn’t. I was curious but she was cagey—a prominent actor’s e-mail address had been hacked and she didn’t want to embarrass the people involved. A few weeks ago, though, she shared the e-mail with me. It’s a nasty piece of work. It questioned not just her skills as a reviewer but the ability of any “girl” to understand or create theatre. With dramatic flourish, it argued that men in wigs would be better on stage than women.

Despite a police investigation at the time, the true origin of these letters remains a mystery. And although she has a masters of arts in dramatic literature and has been covering theatre in Vancouver since the 1980s, Ledingham admitted that the email stung.

From a young age, many women are socialized to be conciliatory rather than provocative. Decades into her career, even Ledingham still struggles with the directness required to write a negative review, citing the adage her mother used to rattle off: “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

“And then you end up as a critic,” she says. “What the hell are you supposed to do?”

How many have demurred in the face of this kind of pressure, unwilling or unable to fight back?

The conversation my post kicked off, not just on social media, but across the Vancouver theatre community, is part of one that is vital to the future of the art form. In public, the discourse stalled over whether the characters’ class excused their use of the word “cunt.” In private, under promises of anonymity, the conversation was entirely different.

One woman told me about a producer who valued conventional attractiveness far above talent and would send unsolicited e-mails to actors suggesting that they lose weight. Another woman expressed fears that if she got pregnant, she would lose opportunities because she would need time off. Several women expressed fear that work would dry up as they age.

But these are not just whispers—these complaints, and many others, also appear in a report published in April 2015 by Equity in Theatre, an organization run out of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada. The paper reports that women make up only 35 percent of key creative roles (director, producer, playwright) at the highest levels of Canadian theatre. The worst tally was in playwriting—in the 2013/2014 season just 22 percent of professional productions performed in Canada were written by women. The numbers send an unequivocal message: there is a gender imbalance in Canadian theatre.

Much of this is kept quiet for fear of alienating those who control funding and opportunities. In an industry that relies heavily on collaboration, artists who speak out risk earning reputations that cause them to be subtly blackballed.

This is true not just of conversations around gender, but also around diversity more broadly. What’s needed is a lively and open critical discourse where people can engage without fear of gender- or race-based reprisal. Some of these conversations are already happening—in the last year, there have been public discussions around issues of racialized casting inspired by productions of Motherf*cker with the Hat in Vancouver and The Unplugging in Toronto. Last week, the Stratford Festival announced eight of its fourteen productions in 2017 will be directed by women.

But theatre is a collaborative art form where there is a great deal of pressure not to rock the boat. Even now, when conversations around identity are infiltrating every facet of the arts, theatre artists face the danger of looking petty when they are forced to advocate for themselves in this way. People like Walker, who is renowned for his depiction of female characters, see themselves as heroes for the underrepresented and react with anger when someone suggests they might not be getting it right.

Critics, on the other hand, should have no such fear because we don’t depend on those enforcing the rules to pay our salaries and jumpstart our projects. But this also requires a level of flexibility on our part, a willingness to acknowledge what we don’t know.

Though she is of a different generation than Ledingham, Torontoist theatre reviewer Carly Maga expressed a similar sense of uncertainty in her own work when we spoke. I contacted her because I suspected hers was the other review of Dead Metaphor that Walker had referenced in his e-mail, but that didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Her review had been fairly gentle.

Like me, she sees her own perspective on plays not as a final verdict, but as part of a critical conversation. When she feels like she’s gone out of her range, she defers to others’ lived experience. “There’s a certain ownership that you have to take on when something falls out of the realm of your knowledge,” she says. “I feel like I have to be up front about something like racialized casting. I’m a white person and I don’t feel like I’m able to judge the representation.”

This openness to other perspectives is key to addressing imbalances in mainstream Canadian theatre around gender and diversity. As long as the arbiters of quality remain the same and enforce their primacy through intimidating language, the stories told on the big stages will continue to favour their voices, just as they have for hundreds of years. Women actors will continue to be judged by attractiveness above talent, and shunted into the role of ingénue, funny friend, or grandmother, in accordance with their weights and ages. Artists of colour will continue to be marginalized or forced into stereotypes. People who don’t conform to gender norms and people with disabilities will continue to be largely absent altogether.

And so as a critic, I will continue to dare myself to roll around in the occasional bed of poison ivy. I’d rather risk a little irritation than spend all my time stuck on that same manicured path.

Erika Thorkelson
Erika Thorkelson is a freelance journalist and culture critic living in Vancouver. She teaches humanities and writing at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.