Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
February 9, 2010, by

The new criticism is blowing the old approach to covering the performing arts away


We asked Kelly Nestruck if he would provide a picture of himself - he said he would prefer to be represented by this picture of Gilles Duceppe eating a whole fish.

by Michael Wheeler

Torontonians like to think the role of a theatre critic is to hand out stars and write the occasional preview puff piece  – try telling that to Globe and Mail critic Kelly Nestruck.

The Windy City is blowing Toronto away

  • Written by Kelly Nestruck
  • Directed at anyone who wants Toronto performing arts to be awesome.
  • Starring the civic and performing arts community leaders of Chicago and Toronto.
  • In The Globe and Mail newspaper.
  • Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

There is a spectre haunting Toronto – the spectre of a World Class Performing Arts City. All three levels of government have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: through funding Toronto arts municipally less per-capita than any major North American city, through inside deals made by provincial government mandarins, and federal prizes created through the use of falsified documents.

Kelly Nestruck’s latest piece in The Globe and Mail can be read as a critique on all of these decisions and a simultaneous wake up call to the city’s cultural leaders that it is an outdated notion that Toronto is “on top of the world” as far as the performing arts are concerned. The argument is presented through a comparison of how Toronto and Chicago stack up against each other in four the four Cs: Civic leadership, Collegiality, Comprehensive Criticism, and Confidence.

In each instance Chicago comes out on top – for the most part because the Chicago community actually views themselves as, and operates as, a community.  They understand fundamentally that all parts of the performing arts are part of an ecosystem – from the recent theatre school grads putting up a storefront show to a Broadway-bound musical. As such, Chicago has become not just a stepping-stone to greater success in NYC, but a place TO BE a world-leading theatre artist or patron. Period. If a show transfers to New York – great for the producers – but the city continues to be a great town for theatre regardless.

Embedded in the article are a number of suggestions I fear will be lost in the simplistic debate about “Which city is better?” so I list them below. Perhaps we will revisit them in several years time to see if any progress has been made in the revitalization of Toronto’s performing arts:

  • Stop using those ridiculous flags along the roadways imploring Torontonians to “Live With Culture”. WTF does that mean? How is that at all helpful? It’s time to divide them up amongst the ACTUAL cultural institutions in the city.
  • Start investing arts infrastructure in the city. Not just big name theatres, but smaller spaces and rehearsal spaces too. Ten years after Mayor Daly began investing in Chicago’s performing arts, not only are they booming, the city estimates it has already made “far more” in increased revenue than the original investment. It’s smart money.
  • Some of the major Canadian theatres (okay CanStage and SoulPepper) oughta stop having opening nights on the same evening. This is probably more frustrating to a critic for a national newspaper than anyone else, but he’s right that it is an illustration of a grander chasm regarding the responsibility the powers-that-be feel towards being constructive community members.
  • The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and The National Post need to start reviewing a much wider variety of shows – including non-Equity ones. It is ridiculous that membership in a professional association should impact whether or not a production is great art. This rule does not exist in Chicago, NYC or London and is the simplest and easiest way to begin the inevitable indie theatre renaissance that our community desperately needs. The thing about ecosystems is that you can’t pick and chose which parts of them to report on.
  • Confidence: We will only be taken seriously, when its clear we believe in ourselves. For real.

Where Nestruck goes astray in his analysis is neglecting to mention the serious ethos of collegiality that still exists amongst the emerging artists in Toronto’s theatre scene despite all these obstacles. I am constantly blown away by the mutual support and willingness to help each other that exists in my generation of artists and I actually think it is our greatest strength moving forwards. Likewise, citing TAPA as ineffective seems particularly egregious as it has 23 active committees all formed by volunteer members from the performing arts community, was the birthplace of The Indie Caucus, distributes a bi-monthly theatre guide throughout the city, runs The Doras, TO Tix, and a variety of programs that make the performing arts more accessible to youth and at-risk communities. I mean, what else do you want from an arts service organization?

On Sunday evening, The Canadian Theatre Critics of Canada hosted a panel discussion with The Tarragon Theatre titled, Reviewing on the Internet: The Rebirth of Theatre Criticism? Because I was watching the Superbowl (in Vancouver) I can’t tell you what happened there, but I can tell you this: The internet made Kelly Nestruck the theatre critic for Canada’s most influential newspaper through his online work for Torontoist, The National Post and The Guardian. And now we’re having this conversation here and in The Globe and Mail – so I’m going to go ahead and give that rhetorical question a “yes”. And the reason it’s different now is we’re talking about what is actually going on, what needs to be done to make it better, and not a fictional reality that serves established old-guard interests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. MK says:

    *Applauds* Well said, Michael. Honestly, I have nothing to add – you covered it all.

  2. Janis La Couvée @lacouvee says:

    Thanks for the blog post Michael, and Kelly for being its inspiration.

    It would be interesting to know how arts and culture is helped or hindered in Victoria and Vancouver given the cuts to arts in British Columbia.

    Do our municipal and provincial politicians appreciate the role of the arts? Are arts groups working together?

    Victoria was named Cultural Capital of Canada in 2008 and yet we still don’t have a 400 seat multi-functional performing arts space.

    Will our emerging artists start to flee as investment in their futures drops? Or, can we band together as artists and advocates to create the world class performing arts cities we all want to live in.

  3. Michael says:

    MK – Thanks as Janis pointed none of this is mine really.

    Janis – I’m sitting in The Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver right now and just asked your question of a recent grad of Studio 58. She tells me all her classmates are staying to fight to get their money back and build the community they want….BooYah!

  4. Megan Mooney says:

    Nicely put!

    I was kind of blown away by the attacks on Nestruck for that piece. I mean, yeah, it wasn’t perfect, but it basically seemed like a wish-list for improving theatre in the city. It wasn’t an attack on the theatre industry, it was a call for more support of the industry.

    So, yeah, thanks for this.

    Also, kinda loved the caption for the pic.

  5. bfg says:

    Hello Comments! I am the soon-to-be-officially-announced Praxis tweeter, and I just wanted to share some of the dialogue happening on Twitter about this post.

    @nickkeenan (, a Chicago theatre maker, had this to say:

    “Interestingly, I wouldn’t make those assertions about Chi-town theatre as strongly as he has. He’s not wrong, but Chicago definitely shares some probs as Toronto still.”

    I asked, “What would you say about Chicago theatre? Where has it succeeded or failed?”

    And he said:

    “Its not success or failure, it’s just more “in-progress”. We’re just beginning to agree on where we’re going, for one. In this way, much of Chicago has its eye on the real ball – we need to build a sustainable theater ecosystem. The ranking of the ‘greatness’ of that ecosystem next to London, NYC may make great pullquotes, but is beside the point. Those rankings are about one thing only: Theatre tourism, not about a theater community’s relationship to its city.”

    I think the question of a theatre community’s relationship to its city is a really interesting one. And I would argue that there isn’t anywhere that has totally figured this out. But I think having the conversation is the first step…

  6. Nick Keenan says:

    [hey guys]

    Yeah, so to continue these thoughts above, as twitter seems to be super-down for me right now…

    From a sustainable model perspective, you’re right on – the true test of success these days as big-box high-ticket-price theatre has a crumbling subscription base is what is the health of your small-scale independant theatre playgrounds in your city. These playgrounds manufacture future stars, generate future great plays, support a livable artistic lifestyle, and if they lose the little funding & press coverage oxygen they require, your large regional-size theatres lose their connection with locality and they start over-importing art from NYC or London.

    This is Don Hall’s central political point for Chicago theatre – it’s largely about real estate. That’s what Chicago has devoted *some* of but needs *more* of. We need to be spreading a portion of the comparatively-massive-but-still-tiny budget and overhead to create a downtown arts community around to much-much-much-lower cost neighborhood venues.

    The #1 cost for theater is space. Remove that cost through city funding, partnerships, grants, etc for many small-scale venues instead of the flashy one-stop downtown megatron and suddenly you have a theater / arts engine that generates hyper-local arts loving communities, supports many many many companies and allows them to move rental funds towards artist fees, and by extension provides a diversified income to keep and develop your in-town talent.

    This is where I think Chicago’s discussion is right now: not everyone agrees about this. Our central critical infrastructure and the city government pretty much thinks this idea is bologna, and here’s why: The giant exports that we’ve done – Addams Family, August: Osage County, David Cromer – those things equal hometown glory, and the investment is following the glory. But that’s really shortsighted to much of the community – not to speak for them, but most of the producing theaters, League, and the storefront community agree here but aren’t heard by some critics and the city – you don’t get David Cromer without all the opportunities and experiences he had in Chicago: Famous Door, Columbia College, Next Theatre, Hypocrites, and I’d wager 40 other companies he directed for. Each one of those ‘playground’ shows gave him dozens of directorial skills, and it’s that forge that you want more of. You want many, many theaters, and many, many approaches, and many, many neighborhoods, and all of them able to pay their bills and a little bit more.

    That’s what a modern renaissance looks like.

    So… Chicago is in progress. We need to agree on what the central goal is – which I think is creating a model that’s a bit more sustainable as we’re closing mid-sized theaters down now too, and will continue to do so until we reengage with our local audiences on a bigger scale. Once we agree on what the central goal is, our initiatives will start to align more and more, and I think you’ll start to see them fit together.

    At a certain point, it tips. At a certain point, you get to say “the broadway model doesn’t work,” and now it’s tiny hot-ticket but low-cost storefront shows that giggling high school students flock in from across the continent to see and quote awesome lines from to their friends. Exporting your work to other towns just happens, because 500 people have heard of you in Poughkeepsie and you’re like an awesome indie rock band now, so they call you up and you hit the road. Then, it doesn’t matter who is 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Then you have something that actually keeps you making better and better theater and not building nothing but debt while you do it.

  7. Nick Keenan says:

    Realizing I may need to be more clear about what actually is happening in Chicago as far as city support right now – In 2000, a giant amount of city investment went into creating a downtown theatre district, which is centrally located in the Loop but largely convenient mostly for tourists. That city-supported scene – about 6 companies including Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Lookingglass, Broadway in Chicago – which operates several touring venues – and the more edgy DCA Storefront & Chicago Cultural Center which provide free space to several companies a year, including Don’s WNEP theatre – is pumping out (and importing) a large amount of theater that you hear a lot about outside of the city. Except for DCA, Chi Cultural Center, and Lookingglass’ $1 annual rent – which are 100% city supported and an amazing model I’d like to see xeroxed all over high heaven – that investment ended with real estate and construction help, and the above theaters are doing more or less pretty great on their own steam now. Great success! However, there has been very very very little investment in the venues that support Chicago’s 250+ OTHER theatres which pump out the VAST amounts of theater that the city is actually uniquely known for. Those companies and venues are the ones spending 60 – 90% of their budgets on rent, and they have much smaller budgets and support structures that put them in frequent danger of losing space, staff, and production budgets.

  8. Michael says:

    Thanks Nick,

    This is excellent context. It seems there are a number of similar problems our two cities share. Chief amongst them seems to be that it is possible to get funds committed to fancy high profile projects with ribbon-cutting opportunities, but funding the actual 90% of the iceberg that supports that work is a different story. That’s why I keep using the word ecosystem to talk about this.


    I think if we repeat it over and over hopefully we can change the lens that’s used to inform some of these decisions.

  9. Nick Keenan says:

    Yup. If you really wanna save the whales, you gotta stock up on algae, sunlight and nutrients to feed all the krill.

  10. ben says:

    In an earlier post I advocated a self-sustaining approach to theatre free of the restrictions and “chance” of grant dependency. While I was commenting in regards to the individual theatre company dutifully waiting 6 months to a year for 3 grand to put on their show and the inanity of such situations, there is no doubt that theatre is in the public good and funding for the arts and arts institutions is money well spent and vitally necessary for all. I still hold as an ideal the concept of theatre or any art being able to maintain it’s existence on a self-reliant basis, but it is a direction to move towards, and a concept that sometimes is manipulated by those who wish to wash their hands arts funding. However, there is a fine line between moving towards a personal goal, and telling a community to screw off, no more money. It is hard to define why theatre and art is necessary, and perhaps that lacking definition for those who make the decisions on how public funds are dispersed is at cause. It is all well and good to say that money invested in the arts returns more than the investment, but maybe trying to talk to them on their line of thinking (purely money) is not the best way to go. As an idea, what if we were to explain exactly what a city, or country would look like without arts. Now maybe that touches some hot buttons and might give some the willies, but arguing to them or protesting will only possibly get them to not make cuts, or at best to reverse current or pending cuts. But what about going further to clarify why arts are needed on a human level, so that maybe if an understanding could be reached, arts funding and serious investment could happen. There are many levels to every urge, and a clarification of all things related could only help. As a side-note, I live in Tokyo at the moment, and arts cuts are happening here too. Something on the social level of global consciousness is occuring, and it needs to be put in plain and simple terms, that human interaction and storytelling was not replaced by the internet or anything of late, and no amount of technology or innovation will make it obsolete. To the contrary, innovation and technology is constantly making things cheaper and faster, which should give us more time and money to focus on things like art. Maybe it’s due to the turn of the century, but we need to focus again on the long term. What do you want the future to be like?

  11. Michael says:

    Ben thanks for this. Especially the link. It’s interesting to see this is an issue that is developing globally. I also like this point that you made:

    “innovation and technology is constantly making things cheaper and faster, which should give us more time and money to focus on things like art.”

    This is one of the contradictions of unchecked capitalism – efficiency and low cost at the expense of any other benefits – someone should write a piece that references the communist manifesto in that case….

  12. Michael says:

    An interesting article that references this discussion on the deadthingsonsticks blog run by TV writer and producer Denis McGrath:

  13. […] Michael Wheeler on the vital­ity of ecosys­tems. First, you should read this arti­cle by J. Kelly Nestruck about “how the Windy City is blow­ing Toronto away” as the third-biggest capi­tol of the­atre behind New York and Lon­don. Then you should read Wheeler’s response, as an artis­tic direc­tor in Toronto. And finally, you should scroll down through the com­ments and check out Nick Keenan’s thoughts as a the­atre pro­fes­sional in Chicago. A fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion all around. […]