By HARRY DUKE, originally published in NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN
What is the point of reviewing theatre?
If you had asked me that question 90 days ago, my answer would be to provide potential audience members some information with which they could make informed decisions on which of the numerous North Bay productions they might choose to spend their discretionary income.
If you had asked me that question 60 days ago, it would be to let potential audience members know about how local theatre companies and artists were trying to stay connected with their patrons via new technology and how that technology worked in comparison to live, in-person performances.
It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with after “attending” the latest live streaming productions of two companies with North Bay connections – the Zoom Theatre production of Anna Ziegler’s Actually and the Left Edge Theatre production of Small Mouth Sounds.
The events of the past few weeks have weighed as heavily on me as anyone, and the questions being raised nationally about the safety and disenfranchisement of people of color, equal opportunity and fairness are being echoed in the local artistic community, as they should in every micro-community.
Artists of color, sick of seeing the platitudes of inclusiveness being regurgitated once again, are rightfully demanding change after too many years of hearing “your idea is great, but it’s just not right for our audience.”
With that dialogue on-going, do I really want my contribution to it be a discussion of the quality of acting and costuming in a particular production? The difficulties of doing a two-person scene with actors 1,000 miles apart? Bandwidth, screen size and buffering?
I believe in the art of theatre. I believe in its power to inform, educate, and entertain. I believe that the North Bay deserves a vibrant theatre community and while I support all theatres’ efforts to stay afloat, the question must now be asked “to what purpose?” It’s a question that companies must now answer with actions, not words.
But words are a start, as long as they are the right words – words of understanding, words of recognition, words of inclusiveness – words that are followed by concrete actions. As much as I’d like to think I have addressed the issues of diversity in casting and material through my reviews, I will put more thought into what my contribution to the discussion can and should be now.
So I’m going to step back from critiquing for a time as theatres do what they must to survive and chart a course of action. I will continue to report on local theatre and through that reporting support and promote those companies that truly embrace inclusiveness (and yes, I recognize there are some that already do) and challenge those that don’t.
I will also challenge the audience to support those companies that are truly welcoming of their presence beyond the price of their admission and for artists to work with companies that value their perspective and acknowledge their artists’ vital role in the commerce of theatre. I will encourage companies to do serious outreach to underserved communities (and, yes, I recognize there are some who do that already, too) and to help facilitate that relationship in any way that I can.
Laurence Olivier once said that he believed “that in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, a great theatre is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture.”
With what we are going through as a society right now, what will North Bay theatre ultimately project?