For 11 days every July, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival transforms this city into a hub of kinetic, creative energy. In darkened rooms all over the Exchange District, we can encounter everything fro
m fearless, ground-breaking experimental theatre and harrowing monologues that will make you sob in your seat, to uproarious satire and poignant storytelling.
This year’s fringe, which wraps Sunday, boasted 169 shows. That’s obviously more than any one person can see in 10 days, so every year, the Free Press assembles a team of reviewers who see and review everything by the first Sunday of the festival. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work, and the pace is breathless.
With so many shows to see, festival-goers have come to rely on reviews to steer them in the right direction, whether it’s toward the good or away from the bad. Some performers have taken issue with the way we do it, and there are a few dependable arguments that come up every year: 1) we’re trying to see too many shows in too little time, and 2) our reviewers are not all professional theatre reviewers and therefore have no idea what they’re talking about. (Funny how argument No. 2 only seems to apply to negative reviews.)
1) Tell me about it, but in order to see them all and write reviews that are useful to both performers and festival-goers, that’s the way it has to be done.
2) What regional newspaper employs over a dozen theatre critics?
For our part, our fringe team is composed of all manner of writers, journalists, and columnists who are familiar with reporting and opinions. As well, most of them have reviewed fringe plays before. But I’m going to share two trade secrets:
* You don’t necessarily need to be an expert in whatever you’re reviewing to review something well.
* Star ratings are basically meaningless.
With the advent of the Internet, the adage “everyone is a critic” has never rung truer. People can — and do! — review everything on the Internet. On the Free Press website, readers can supply their own rating for a fringe show alongside the Free Press review.
On their face, the elements that make for a useful Yelp review are not that different from what makes for a useful newspaper review. Does the review display a basic familiarity — acquired through knowledge, experience, or research — with what it’s reviewing? Does it take a clear position? Can it tell me exactly why it’s good or bad rather than merely asserting that it is good or bad? Is it thoughtful, cogent and fair?
See? That all takes a fair amount of work, dedication and, perhaps most importantly, curiosity. …