Drivel Passing as Reportage

by Lynn on April 30, 2009

in The Passionate Playgoer

Anika Noni RoseNot that long ago, the Toronto Star was a reliable source of quality theatre reviews. You could read a thoughtful, fair-minded, well-written critique from the likes of Nathan Cohen, Urjo Kareda, or Vit Wagner.

Cohen and Kareda have passed away, and Vit Wagner now has another beat. Reviewing theatre at the Star these days is Richard Ouzounian, whose reviews I often find short on substance. I’m not sure they much help your average Torontonian find the best value for his theatre dollar. Mr. Ouzounian seems happier to report on Broadway, and the buzz that surrounds the glitterati, than on the homegrown product. Particularly disappointing are his interviews, barely a scratch on the surface.

But his latest article, on how things are looking up at Stratford despite the recession, sinks to a new low.

A teenage usher is quoted as saying that every preview of West Side Story gets a standing ovation. The female lead is ‘awesome,’ he adds. And both the Artistic Director and General Director are confident that the season will close in the black!Excuse me, but what else are these people going to say?

The box office had ‘a substantial increase in sales over last week,” according to Administrative Director Anita Gaffney. That can mean they sold ten tickets instead of five. Remember, this is the same festival that – inconceivably – cancelled 31 performances in the fall because of weak sales now.

This is what press agents do: create the best buzz possible, no matter how flat the prospects. In publicity you never, but never, admit that the sky is falling.

As a journalist, however, you have a responsibility to the truth – to tell the real story as best you can. This means you ask probing questions. While you cannot ignore the publicity machinery, you are skeptical about it. As a journalist, you place the interests of your readers ahead of the interests of your friends. No one said it’s easy.

Mr. Ouzounian urges his readers to buy their Stratford tickets now ‘instead of waiting’ because he predicts ‘sold-out shows later in the season.’ This is not good advice, and it weakens our trust that upcoming reviews will be balanced. If Mr. Ouzounian writes gushing four-star reviews for the Festival this season, will anyone believe him, or be surprised?

Readers of the Star deserve better than this.