The Re-View Project (Linnea Swan) 2014 SummerWorks Feature

re-viewLinnea Swan is candid: her Re-View Project is not going as planned. This ambitious attempt to launch a critical conversation about criticism and its impact upon theatre artists, theatre festivals and theatre audiences is gasping for attention, swamped out by a million and one other SummerWorks projects. (On the night I stepped into her Re-View Booth, I was one of only three names on her four-hour appointment list.)

As she expressed it to me, her project is as much about conversations as about criticism: we already have plenty of forums for artists to talk to and about other artists, but how often do we hear laypeople talking about theatre? When we talk about “audience development”, are we talking about engaging these people in conversation, or just treating them as potential butts for our seats?

Is theatre too obsessed with itself? Does the “wankiness” (my word, not hers) of these one-sided conversations drive us into bad habits and alienate potential theatregoers? Just what do laypeople want, and think, and feel, and how is this reflected — or ignored — in theatre journalism, and theatre media, and the ways in which theatre views and interacts with itself?

These questions are important, and the answers — someone does have answers, right? — will define the trajectory of this industry, yet she’s coming up dry: her videos (the Re-View Revue) aren’t getting the attention they deserve, her Re-View Booth (at the Theatre Centre; look for the TV screen to the right of the bar) isn’t pulling people in, and while she’s got bright yellow Re-View Boxes at virtually every venue in the festival, the results aren’t as juicy as she’d hoped: she’s mostly getting blandly-positive “I loved it, 5 stars!” stuff.

She’s not so egotistical as to blame the festival. Her project needs to coalesce a little and find a clearer purpose and trajectory before it gets off the ground, and she’s already planning better-defined future adaptations. But she’s also insightful enough to recognize that these eyeroll-inducing “I loved it, 5 stars!” postcards are more meaningful than we may be inclined to believe: these yellow-box reviews may not  feel like a conversation, but on her account that says something about our prejudices and our own inability to “step outside the bubble” — and I think she’s right.

Swan is the sort of dynamo this project needs, the kind of person who draws you into conversation, then makes you spill your guts. She also happens to be the best kind of critic: someone who is open to new experiences and perspectives, who doesn’t feel as though she needs to be the cleverest person in the room, and who has a taste and a knack for calling out naked emperors.

Even if you’re a little wobbly on the premise, and even if you don’t think you have much to say about reviews, or criticism, or theatre, or audiences, or anything else, by god she’ll draw it out of you. You’ll leave her Re-View Booth feeling cleverer, yet humbler, than when you entered: like you’ve learned something important about her, about SummerWorks, about theatre, and about yourself.


The Re-View Project runs adjunct to the SummerWorks Festival.

One Re-View Revue video is uploaded daily. Yellow Re-View Boxes have been set up at every SummerWorks venue, with postcards and writing utensils, so that theatregoers can discreetly and anonymously record and share their thoughts; this input will inform the rest of the project, and selections will be used in The Re-View Revue.

You may also visit Linnea Swan at the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen West), where she entertains visitors nightly from 7 PM to 11 PM. To sign up for an appointment, find the video screen to the right of the bar, and put a pseudonym on the clipboard, then meet her by the elevator at your appointed time.

All Re-View Project activities are unticketed and free, but operate on a first-come-first-served basis.

Photograph of Linnea Swan provided by the SummerWorks Festival.

2 thoughts on “The Re-View Project (Linnea Swan) 2014 SummerWorks Feature”

  1. I think Linnea Swan’s project ingenious in that she has discovered the elephant in the room. She has done this by addressing the question that needs to be answered at most theatre events. Who reviews the reviewer?
    In other words, what really is the quality and competence of the people providing the reviews? I know this will be a question that makes you squirm in your seat a bit. I did, as a former reviewer, when I read what Linnea Swan was doing.
    Of course she does it here mainly be providing a parallel channel where ordinary members are able to react to shows which reveals their response is regularly diametrically at odds with the “official” reviews.
    This may be a way for Linnea to go with her project in future. Make a discussion of reviews of ongoing shows a fixed feature of her own audience interactions.
    I know we already have media rating sites etc. for the public at most Fringes and other theatre events but it seems we need an in-depth corrective to common reviewer failure from time to time. Such times may include unknowledgeable comment on subjects which require a special kind of knowledge which the reviewer may not have. The other is the even more common failing of reviewer fatigue.
    Just one case in point- there are many more- is Mike Anderson’s review of Ardith Irvine’s “One-Legged Dancer” at this year’s Fringe.
    It was a discussion of the performer’s personal experiences with MS. If a reviewer has no personal experience with the disease he runs the risk of being harmful rather than helpful. Even if he has this experience he may not be up to his usual game and do the same harm. Mike disclosed that he had seen a number of shows based on personal suffering which may have well made him a victim of compassion fatigue. After all- how many tales of suffering can the average person take in a day?
    Doctors and psychologists have co-counsellors who watch what they do and review their work notes. Who has the reviewer got to tell him he is slipping. A concerned editor if he is lucky. In these days of instant media there is usually no-one.
    Of course there is always the opportunity to print a correction- something the editor will certainly make note of. Many of those and the reviewer sets himself up to get the sack.
    Linnea’s project certainly has an important niche to fill. Plays about personal suffering are commonly attended by others with a special empathy for that specific complaint. Their reaction is much more significant than that of the reviewer who drops in out of curiosity but is still able to publish his reaction to thousands.
    Linnea’s project can find the spokesmen for that specialist audience and make their highly pertinent response to a show know more broadly.
    This way a theatre event can become a more relevant vehicle of communication between people than an another art for within aesthetic alien to most people.
    I am happy to note this seems to also be what this reviewer is reaching for.

  2. Hello Ahti,

    As it happens, I wrote both of the pieces to which you refer.

    Ordinarily we would keep this dirty laundry in the closet, but as we’re specifically attending to review culture and the mindsets and practices of reviewers, let’s air some linens.

    Between you, me and the internet, the Mooney on Theatre editorial team agonized over whether or not to review “One Legged Dancer”, for precisely the reasons you identify. My reaction to this show was not altogether positive, and I expressed similar concerns to the ones you’ve raised here (What if I just don’t “get” it? What potential harm am I doing to this cause by publishing a negative review? Is there not something distasteful or discomforting here?) to my fellow editors.

    In fact, my own initial position was that my review should not be published: that a second opinion be sought before we publish anything, or that — accounting for the importance of being fair to the show’s subject matter — if we couldn’t coax forth something at least blandly positive to say (something I could not do in good faith after my own experience of the show), that the show simply not be reviewed at all.

    The conclusion we reached, as a team, was that my reaction to the show was well-founded: that my concerns went deeper than “not getting” the show, and spoke to its technical and formal quality far beyond simply having or lacking an understanding of its context and the specific issues it addresses. With this in mind, so long as pains were taken to ensure the review was written in good taste (nothing gratuitous, nothing unduly unkind, etc.), I would just have to suck it up and publish.

    I believe — despite my initial objections — that we made the right call. The opinions I expressed were echoed in other reviews from other publications, and a number of people have approached me privately to commiserate about the awkwardness of having the same reaction: we wanted to like this show, but we just couldn’t.

    It’s clear that you have a different view of this piece than I do, and that’s fine: at Mooney on Theatre, all of our work is done with the understanding that an experience of a piece of theatre is a personal response, and no experience is more valid than any other. We provide a (relatively unmoderated) comments section for precisely this reason, and we also accept and respond to feedback from community members when appropriate.

    And we take our work very seriously: our editorial process is actually more intensive than the system used at many “real” publications, and the editors routinely huddle in order to resolve some difficult or awkward situation. We aren’t just twenty-odd people sharing a blog, we are a coherent, cohesive team who hold ourselves, and our writers, to remarkably high standards.

    In fact — and, in closing — this is something I discussed with Linnea Swan when I visited her Re-View Booth. This editorial process serves to protect not just reviewers and publications, but also the artists: editors exist not just to correct errors and tighten up syntax, but to ensure that the content is tonally-appropriate and does justice to the effort and exertions of the artists and creators. This seemed to take her by surprise; in my experience, it takes a lot of artists by surprise. But as with Ginger Rogers and ballroom dancing, an incredible amount of effort goes into making a review look casual, and even, and fair, and sensible.

    And that’s not something the public always sees.

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