Linnea 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.