You take all of you: John Coulbourn on the challenges and pleasures of art criticism

JCoulbournIt was around the time of Tim Albery’s Aida at the COC that I started reading John Coulbourn. He was the only critic in any of the big media in town who actually got the Albery production and did not cry for the missing pyramids, so I realized I ought to pay attention. At that time, however, John was already approaching his retirement after 35 years of journalism and performing arts criticism. How could I have missed him before? My own anti-Sun prejudice, I suspect; who goes to the Sun for art coverage, I used to think? It turns out, during Coulbourn’s years at the Sun, the paper has been covering the arts at least as much as the other dailies, and in one particular case even more (“TIFF would probably never have gotten off the ground were it not for the Sun’s early boosterism. The other dailies roundly ignored the festival in its early years,” he recalls.)

A couple of weeks ago, JC agreed to meet me at the RCM Espresso Bar for a kaffeeklatsch and some shop talk. My secret agenda was to urge him to start writing an arts blog, the idea that he very sweetly but firmly rejected each time I re-proposed it. It turns out his enjoyment of theatre has become more immersive and more communal now that he doesn’t have to review what he sees. “The way I use to watch a show was in this fairly stiff posture and bent toward the stage. When I recline back on my chair, you could tell I found the lead. I was doing it all unconsciously, my husband Grant first noticed this and told me about it. The hardest part of writing for me was always finding the lead.” Writing for a tabloid meant, for him, “keeping it tight and keeping it bright”. The reviews of any kind of entertainment should be entertaining themselves. Not light—you can be weighty and entertaining, and that’s the challenge of your job, that’s what you’re paid to figure out how to do.

Coulbourn started as a movie critic, but after a couple of years realized that he didn’t want to “be part of even an alternate reality that gets saved by Sylvester Stalone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Yes, there are good movies, he concedes, but the percentage of good vs. bad is lower than in any other artistic discipline. He’s obviously kept the cheek and has no qualms classifying entertainment/art in order of greatness. He puts literature on top (“I have travelled the world by the time I was sixteen without ever leaving home”), and close to it the performing arts: theatre, opera, ballet, dance, concerts. Down  the spectrum are good movies and “right at the bottom, television, which is basically furniture”. How refreshing to hear this in an age when the media put so many resources into covering TV shows, both here and the US. We are in the Golden Age of Television Drama, we are repeatedly being told. Netflix and HBO have become words of religious import. “I don’t get why the performing arts aren’t the go-to entertainment of our day,” he says. “I want to be in the world where you can have your heart broken by a great story, or a magnificent aria, or breath-taking pas de deux. You go to a performance because it can change your life. And I think we should always go to the theatre with a bit of that expectation. That’s how theatre should be sold.”

II.

And so our conversation returns to the barriers that keep some demographics away from the theatre, opera and classical music. He spent his writing career at a paper perceived to be ‘blue collar’—and we both wondered how accurate that was and wished there were studies of the readership of each of the Toronto dailies. I suggest that beside the lack of disposable income, there’s the perhaps an even more important psychological barrier that prevents the low earning or the less educated audience from realizing that the so called elite arts are for them as much as for anybody else. And that perhaps the first task of arts journalism is this question of class and the opening of the doors. “I couldn’t agree more,” he says. “I was so lucky, I had one of the finest editors in the world—Kathy Brooks—who transitioned from being my editor to being one of my best friends. She’s now retired, but she was Assistant Entertainment Editor at the Sun, and she loved all of the arts, high and low. The one thing that she hated more than anything was when the writers get too inside baseball. When you appear to be writing only for a certain percentage of people who already understand the issues. And not writing like that can be really difficult. I mean, you sit down to review a great tragedy and how could you not be all inside baseball. But that’s what you get paid for.”

“The other end of it is, you can’t review that great tragedy so that people who’ve studied tragedy would dismiss you. So you’re constantly juggling. And that’s the fun. That’s the tightrope walking.”

Why then, I wonder out loud, is it that the Toronto dailies (not to mention the CBC) have stopped cultivating critics. No media in Canada now lets someone spend all her or his time consuming art, studying the beat, perfecting the craft. Opera and classical criticism are assigned ad hoc to freelancer(s) of choice who are either kept on a meagre contract or are engaged pitch by randomly accepted pitch. Coulbourn seems to be one of the last in the generation of art critics who worked and retired at a media organization that was willing seriously to invest in them. “Arts commentary is a really vital component for any art scene”, he says. There is no art scene without the records of that art scene. “And when the Toronto papers reduce space for art coverage, they’re cutting local, Canadian content. They’re cutting the only thing that distinguishes them from People magazine, TMZ and Perez Hilton.”

III.

What was his approach to reviewing, I wanted to know. I tell him that I don’t review a lot but when I do it’s usually for my blog, where I allow myself wildly idiosyncratic reviews meant to be read by my couple of hundred returning readers and subscribers. In order to avoid lambasting somebody, I skip mentioning them at all. In a big, mainstream media review, none of this is allowed. You’re performing public service, and you simply have to cover all the principals of the cast and the creative. What are his principles of reviewing?

“My saving grace might have been the fact that I learned very early on that you should never write anything that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.” In other words, when buttonholed at a party by somebody who disagrees with you, or is the person’s sibling, or is the person himself, you need to be prepared to stand by your argument. “That, and the fact that in what we do, there is no right or wrong.” And there’s no true and untrue, I riff – maybe we should even drop fair and unfair in artistic judgment? “I think we should keep fairness as an ideal,” he demurs. “I can’t think of any critic who’s been consistently fair, but some of the best have always tried to be.”

And what does he do about going negative? “If you absolutely hated somebody’s performance, I’d try to express it in the fewest words possible in the funniest way possible. Do it briefly, and soften the edge with humour.”

Coulbourn is currently mentoring a group of young people interested in becoming art critics: he’s collaborating with the National Ballet and a dance magazine in a program for the emerging dance writers. They’re often told to read everything they can about dance, and to that Coulbourn always adds “Read everything you can”, period. “If you want to review a dance performance, and your only frame of reference is dance…you’re going to miss a lot,” he says.

And you won’t just be taking your knowledge of theatre (opera, or ballet) with you–you will take all of you, and you will use all of you to write the review. Which is excellent but also occasionally gets in the way. He remembers his impassioned reaction after seeing the musical Carousel for the first time. “I’ve reviewed it then and will never ever review it again. It’s got some beautiful music and a most hateful story. The short story on which it’s based is about Billy Bigelow who gets a second chance, comes back to earth, hits his daughter, and goes to hell. Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that wasn’t American, so they did a rewrite or two. In their musical, the daughter says to her mother, ‘Is it possible for someone to hit you and for you not to feel a thing,’ and the mother: ‘Yes, if you love them.’ The logical thing would be to do away with that part if you’re staging the piece today. Because you can hear every wife abuser and child abuser go, “SEE? I told you” after that scene. My dad loved me, but that’s not the point, he damn near killed me on numerous occasions. I was an abused child and I know that even if the person who’s hitting you loves you, it still hurts.”

Did he manage to say any of that in the review, I ask him. “That particular review I think I blew,” he says. “I just said this should never be done. I was so upset. Like I said: you take all of you.”

IV.

Oftentimes the readers who disagreed with his opinion would write letters along the lines of “Mr. Coulbourn obviously didn’t see the same show that we did”. His response to that is always: of course not. “Everybody saw a different show. Theatre happens half way between the stage and the person in the seat. The actors do the broad strokes, you do the shading.”

What about managing praise, how is the critic to control his or her enthusiasms? JC recommends staying away from hyperbole. Anything along the lines of “Best in the world”, “best in the country” or even “best within a very specific category X” is silly and just about always baseless. “One of the worst fights I had at the Sun was when they asked me to do the Top Ten Canadian Plays of all time. To which I said, Fuck you. But how hard can that be, they asked. It’s impossible, I said, I haven’t read, let alone seen all Canadian plays. Oh but the movie critics didn’t give us any grief, they said. Well, that’s their problem. It’s presumptuous to say top ten of anything. If really pressed, I can choose top ten personal favourites. And one of them would be singing ‘O, Canada’ before the National Ballet performance the day after the 1995 referendum, when everybody in the audience really noticed the line ‘God keep our land’ and gasped and sighed collectively. Life is theatre.”

 Toronto, November 2015

I did press JC for a handful of his personal standouts, and this is what he said:

  • Death in Venice at the COC, directed by Yoshi Oida. I was riveted. I’d see that again tomorrow.
  • At Stratford, the rock’n’roll Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1991-92. Colm Feore sliding down plastic inflatable penises, Lucy Peacock in a bustier, and it was just delightful from start to finish.
  • Robert Lepage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in London’s West End, set in a mud puddle. Which was completely different, but amazing.
  • The very first musical I ever saw: You Two Stay Here, The Rest Come With Me, in Calgary. I grew up in a village of 36 people smack bang in the middle of Alberta, so I didn’t get to see a lot of professional theatre, and went to see this musical. It was fantastic.
  • The National Ballet’s Nutcracker. I’ve seen it every year, and every year I find something new.
  • Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, the original production. I was living in Calgary at the time, just coming out, and hadn’t heard that much about AIDS. I was visiting NYC and I bought the ticket at the half-price booth. I’d never heard of the play. Well, I was so devastated at the end, sitting in my seat crying, that a couple approached me to ask me if I was alright and took me out for a drink. Never saw them again, but they were a wonderful couple of New Yorkers. I went back to Calgary and told my friends about it, and I think because of that we’re all still alive. I can honestly say that theatre saved my life.

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