The rules of engagement

15 April, 2011 by 5 Comments

There’s a rather sad and, at times, hysterical (but not of the amusing kind) fall-out on another blog about town which reviews amateur as well as professional productions in Brisbane.

Briztix, which also sells tickets and provides a very useful theatre resource for Brisbane, published a review of Blue Fish Theatrical Productions‘ Jekyll and Hyde. It is fair to say that it was a savage criticism, and the reaction it caused has raised some issues that are worth consideration.  The comments extend for pages and they make for not very illuminating reading. Of course, blog comment panes are fair game for anyone who has an axe to grind – just check out some of the media sites if you want a sample of the kind of vitriol, lunacy and also quite marvellous insights by readers. On a theatre blog it’s also a logical way for supporters and critics to have their say – part of what the glorious democracy of the web is all about. As to the review in question, the commentary includes partisan name-calling which resorts to picking over the reviewer’s grammar and fitness to review plays as well as more level-headed commentary of the ‘back to your corners now people’ kind. It’s hot under the collar and defensive and, frankly, does no one, and especially not the local theatre community much good. It’s also a good case for not reading reviews until after a show closes.

Blue Fish Theatrical Productions is a new company – they did Spamalot last year – and they are aiming high; good for them. Whether or not they ‘bit off more than they could chew’ – a phrase found in some of the commentary – is not for comment here. Greenroom has not seen the show. In any case, this site does not review amateur productions – that’s our choice. It is not a judgement on the often remarkably fine work being done by amateur companies around S-E Queensland.

I guess the question at the heart of all this is whether or not reviewers should apply the same rules when discussing an amateur production as they do when taking on a professional work. What do you think?

And when does an amateur company cross the very flexible line into independent territory? Some time ago on my personal blog I mulled over what was meant by independent and professional when it comes to Queensland’s theatre. What is clear is that labels are a problem, and we don’t like them. Do they actually mean much any more? From the review postings mentioned above it seems they do.

What’s very clear, whether or not we reject labelling, is that when it comes to the recognition and reviewing of the broad range of work produced by the theatre sector in Brisbane, it’s time to agree on some ground rules.

The rules of engagement … what are they? Have your say below.

On Criticism (4 June, 2010)


5 Replies to “The rules of engagement”

  1. Hi Kate. Just to clarify, I’m referring to the actual population size in terms of potential audience, rather than positive or negative growth (a ‘decrease’ from 4m to 2m compared to Sydney or Melbourne). I’m aware of how quickly Brisbane’s growing, and that can only be a good thing for its theatre scene.

  2. Kate Foy says:

    Hi Christian. Look, there’s probably a bit of truth in this, of course. I’d also add ‘lack of venue’ to your list of reasons. This is one of the real bugbears in Brisbane right now and probably the biggest contributing factor. QPAC gets booked out fast by the home companies as well as the big touring shows. As far as the more unsafe and/or ‘smaller shows’ you mention – and I agree, some of these are some of the best coming out of NYC and the West End – Next to Normal may well make it up here yet though I’ve not heard, and we did get Guys and Dolls a few years back. I would say though that ‘population decreasing’ with a resultant ‘viable audience pool’ doesn’t make the cut. The population is increasing up here and musical theatre is very, very popular in Brisbane – perhaps also a contributing factor as to why there are companies like Blue Fish and Harvest Rain and Oscar and, and …

  3. Hi Kate. I’m perhaps making a little assumption in that paragraph, but I’m referring to the tendency of producers to not bring shows beyond the two larger capitals, for whatever reason. The Lion King, Billy Elliot and Priscilla? Too technical & expensive. Rocky Horror and Guys and Dolls? Too many unavailable stars. So Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth tend to get the relatively safe or inexpensive touring productions.

    If they want to see Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone, Urinetown, etc etc – the smaller scale musicals of the last ten years (and in my opinion, many of the best) the show generally needs to be produced locally, and in some recent cases, this has been done very well.

    Unfortunately, as the population decreases, so too does the viable audience pool for these shows and for many of them, getting the word out to an audience beyond the musical theatre faithful is a huge challenge. Hence, I was excited to see Bluefish attempt Jekyll and Hyde. Not because I think it’s a good show (because Lord knows, I don’t) but because it’s outside that safe box, and to me, that’s worth supporting.

  4. Kate Foy says:

    Hi @twitter-162668318:disqus. Thanks for taking time to comment on this particular post. The issue of the recent Blue Fish production seems (mercifully) to have faded away, though I suspect the aftershocks are still being felt in some quarters. I’m more interested in the final paragraph, and curious as to your claim that ‘the professional industry is limited in its ability to make bold choices, particularly outside Sydney and Melbourne.’ Really?

  5. The line between amateur and professional has grown increasingly blurred in recent years. Many professionals continue to work gratis in order to stay within the industry. As a result, companies such as Sydney’s New Theatre are often subjected the scrutiny of professional criticism – they’re typically the work of a professional cast and creative team. In addition, the line between the professional and amateur critic has been blurred almost beyond recognition in the age of blogging. And is an ‘amateur’ opinion any less valid than a professional one? There seems no definitive answer – particularly with so many ‘amateur’ critics bringing at least some formal arts training to their assessment.

    Then, sadly, there are those who feel ‘criticism’ entitles one to be a reactive troll. An unfortunate scourge, but they’re there.

    Regarding Bluefish allegedly biting off more than they can chew, I don’t buy this for a second. I had the pleasure of interviewing founder and Musical Director Julie Whiting during last year’s season of Spamalot. We discussed the reasons for that choice, as well as the lines that remain drawn between amateur and professional theatre. Spamalot remains the kind of crowd-pleasing, self-referential musical that attracts community interest – an ideal choice for an inaugural show.

    Jekyll and Hyde is a terrible musical. The score is a dismal series of pop cliches and the book is perpetually cringe-worthy. But it’s also a very successful show, with several breakout hits to that score. It’s still with us 20 years after its debut. In his book ‘Let’s Put On A Musical!’, Peter Filichia lists it among the contemporary commercial classics, claiming ‘If you produce it, the Jekkies will come.’ It boasts a broad enough fanbase to spark public interest, yet remains unseen in Brisbane. In other words, love it or hate it, another ideal show for the Bluefish format.

    The professional industry is limited in its ability to make bold choices, particularly outside Sydney and Melbourne. I absolutely support any company willing to take the plunge if it means a wider variety of shows reaching our theatres – even the bad ones.