Writing critical analysis of live theatre up here north of Toronto is a tricky business. The Green Room won’t touch it with ‘a ten foot pole’ for the simple reason that the role of this site is not to judge the work of others but to celebrate the efforts of all those who participate and offer their skills to us, the audience. That is not to say there are not those in local papers who will have a crack at it, even if their individual knowledge and experience with live theatre is limited. It’s their beat and they work it.
However, on a national scale, criticism of any performance art is taken very seriously by the media who publish it and the readers who digest it. The impact of views expressed by critics still to this day has a huge impact on the success of a show, even though the critical analysis may only represent the published views of one person.
Richard Ouzounian is unquestionably one of the most interesting men of theatre one is ever likely meet in this country. His 40 year career includes involvement in virtually every aspect of performance art; radio, television, executive, author, teacher, actor, writer, director and theatrical critic. Richard is a rare breed indeed, a man who has been able to cross the various frontiers of the arts with success. Today he is recognised as perhaps the country’s leading theatrical critic. However, he is also known for his success and ingenuity on the other side of the ledger, the creative side.
As a follow-up to The Green Room’s ‘conversation’ with Richard Ouzounian investigating his recent show, a cross gendered Guys & Dolls at Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, I could not help but broach the subject of his apparent dual life as a critic and as a creator.
Is there any one area of the performance arts that you would call your comfort zone?
It’s probably and ultimately directing. I’ve done the most of that for the longest. I directed my first professional show when I was 21 years old in college. There was a period in the ‘90’s after I made the transition to the media and was trying to figure how I could do both at once when I didn’t direct, but there is not now any year when I do not direct at least one or two shows. Of course, under my contract with the Toronto Start I can’t direct in Toronto because the obvious conflict of interest. I’ve done a show for Arkday (Talk is Free Theatre) since 2006 and I also try to do an educational show; I’ve worked with U of T, Hart House, Sheridan College. I try to do one professional and one student show to keep my hand in.
You manage to move back and forth from theatre critic to theatre director seamlessly. This is very unusual.
In fact George S. Kaufmann who directed the original Guys & Dolls and who was the great playwright, half of the Kaufmann and Hart duo that gave us You Can’t Take It With You was previously the theatre editor and one of the major reviewers of The New York Times. And there was Walter Kerr, a prominent American critic in the ‘60’s who began as a director and became a theatre critic. George Bernard Shaw was a writer and a critic. But I think I’m the only one who is doing a kind of flip-flop back and forth. I’m on a 3-week leave from the paper and have other writers doing pieces in my absence.
I’d like to read you some sections from a little monologue from, of all things, the animated movie Ratatouille. The character is Anton Ego, a food critic in this movie.
In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The ‘new’ needs friends. Last night I experienced something new; an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source.
…….Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.
I’d like your comments on how you think these thoughts apply to theatre, given that you are on both sides of the equation.
It’s true. My favourite part of being a critic is when you go to see something that you weren’t expecting and it turns out to be wonderful, especially if it’s a new actor, a new director or a new writer. One of the most gratifying things I can think of was the occasion a few years ago when there was a young playwright had her first play produced at Tarragon Theatre. I loved the show, and I did this incredible 4-Star notice for it which appeared the next morning. The publicist for Tarragon called me that night and said the entire run had been sold out for to that review. No other paper had published anything on it yet. Mine was the first. There had been no advance sales. That’s the good part of my job.
It’s no fun to have to see La Cage Aux Folles and write how George Hamilton cannot act. Sure, you get out a couple of zingers, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you love theatre, and I think the fact that I keep directing proves I love it. That doesn’t mean I’m nice to everything. Kenneth Tynan, the British critic I respect so much, once said ‘The job of a good theatre critic is to obliterate the bad to make way for the good.’ I will say if something is crappy in no uncertain terms. I’m known to be quite outspoken. On the other, I will go out of my way to praise something that’s wonderful, especially if it’s something I didn’t think was going to get the praise; that new young actor, that new young director.
As an example, this past year at Stratford, Chris Abraham, a very talented young man in his mid-30’s, had been directing small, naturalistic Canadian plays, and they gave him The Matchmaker, which is a big farce (Thornton Wilder) and he did it perfectly. It delighted me to write that in the paper because nobody thought this was going to be a hit, and it was. He walked up to the plate and hit a home run. It’s great to write that! People say ‘Oh, you love writing nasty comments’, or ‘Bad reviews are funny’. But it’s actually better if you can write something that makes people say ‘Hey! I think I’ll go to that!’ It’s better for the people in the show, it’ better for the readers, and it’s better for you to be positive. So I agree with Anton Ego; it’s better to discover something new.