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Published on July 4th, 2011 | by Sharilyn Johnson


How to Spot the Duds in Entertainment Journalism

A Toronto Star piece entitled “How to Spot the Duds at the Fringe Festival”, by critic Bruce DeMara, has been making the rounds on Facebook among Fringe performers and patrons.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from it.

Just read my piece from last summer about standup at fringes. Not one extreme generalization in the whole thing! What am I thinking?

And it’s not just theatre criticism he’s schooling me in. I’m learning a lot about the creative process from DeMara.

Like how I shouldn’t have had a dramaturge help me with the development of the script for my show, because she was secretly trying to make it terrible (very sneaky, because she fooled both me and the reviewers).

But here’s the really weird thing about this article: I’ve been working on a piece called “How to Spot the Duds in Entertainment Journalism” that bears a remarkable resemblance to Demara’s piece. What a coincidence!

I would hate for someone to accuse me of lifting content. I’ll let you guys view both articles together, and you can tell me whether it comes across as a cheap knockoff.


“1. Avoid dramaturgy. References in the program attesting that the production has been “dramaturged” are almost always a bad sign. Dramaturgy is the process of having an author’s original work savagely dissected by fellow artists and reinterpreted in ways that make it a contradictory, irretrievable mess. Fringe productions should be fresh, spontaneous feats of derring-do. If you have to dramaturge the darn thing, do it post-Fringe. Dramaturgy often means turgid drama.”


1) Avoid editors. References in the masthead that the contents have been “edited”, either by a “managing editor” or a “copy editor”, are always a bad sign. Editing is the process of having a journalist’s writing savagely dissected by fellow writers and reinterpreted to make it an SEO-friendly mess. If you have to edit the thing, do it after it’s been published. Editing often results in mildly clever wordplay designed to make the journalist appear creative, which fools nobody.


“2. Even decent shows can be a downer if they’re in a crappy venue. So imagine you’re leafing through the program when a show grabs your interest: Low Riders, a semi-autographical musical featuring a troupe of transsexual ex-biker “little people.” Your finger hastily scrolls down to check times and venues and — argh! — it’s at Theatre Passe Muraille’s Backspace (an airless box up a long flight of stairs)”


2) Even decent writing can be a real downer if they’re in a crappy publication. Sure, the Toronto Star might look like a legitimate news source, what with its pretentious broadsheet layout. But have you seen some of the garbage they’ve printed in the past? Like this 2009 piece, “7 Ways to Support Artists”, wherein we’re told some sob story about Canadian artists and how we’re supposed to encourage their development and funnel money towards their work.

HA! Are these not the same so-called “artists” cluttering up the Fringe with their cheap props and obnoxious handbilling? Gimme a break, Toronto Star. We all know that their existence shouldn’t be encouraged, and only Mirvish productions should be given ink. Printing such pabulum just so it will go viral throughout the artistic community is totally irresponsible.

No offence to the gentleman who penned that article, a fellow named Bruce DeMara, who I’m sure is an outstanding journalist.


“3. “Minimalist” production values. No set, no lighting, no costumes. Just two actors on a bare stage, morphing between characters with baffling rapidity. Three steps stage left (or right, it doesn’t matter) apparently denotes a scene change. A change in facial expression, voice or body language would help. Or how about putting on a hat or using a prop to indicate you’ve gone from playing a 7-year-old girl to an ancient Phoenician god?”


3) “Minimalist” story angles. It seems to be all about lists these days. The lede serves only as a snappy intro to an easily-categorized, easily-paginated hodge-podge of bullet points, half of which must include Lindsay Lohan (I believe this is stipulated in the latest edition of the CP Stylebook). These non-stories are easily digested by the short attention-spanned masses whose main news source is the front page of msn.com.

And nothing about this content indicates “journalist”. How about putting on a hat? Like a ‘50s-style fedora with a “press” card on it, to show that you’ve gone from mimicking a Google Analytics report to being the proud owner of a pica ruler?


“4. Overly ambitious productions. A program that promises an “eclectic multimedia blend of theatre, dance, music, puppetry, visual art and feminist dub poetry” is sending out multiple warning signs.”


4) Overly ambitious job titles. An “Entertainment Reporter” that promises to know everything about theatre, film, television, dance, comedy, music… is sending out multiple warning signs. Steer clear.


“5. Cheap sets, i.e. those made of Styrofoam, cardboard, etc. Sure, Fringe productions are cheap, dirt cheap. But, with the odd exception, a set that appears to be constructed of material from a discount art supply store or from the detritus of an overturned garbage can is rarely a promising sign.”


5) Cheap premises. Sure, not everyone can be Bob Woodward. But, with odd exception, a piece that appears to have been cobbled together 20 minutes before deadline is rarely a promising sign.


“6. One name everywhere. Writer/director/producer/actor/lighting and costume designer. If one name is ubiquitous throughout the program, someone is usually spreading themselves very thin, too thin for the result to be enjoyable. Steer clear.”


6) One person doing everything. When one reporter is in charge of the research, the interview scheduling, the writing, the fact-checking, sometimes even artwork sourcing? They’re spreading themselves too thin. Steer clear.


“7. A variation of No. 6. Two names everywhere. Or three. Two or three co-writers, co-stars, co-directors, co-producers, etc. will often result in much backstage back-stabbing and in-fighting for creative control. Tension is so often the fuel that makes live theatre crackle with energy. Just not this kind of tension.”


7) A variation on No. 6. Too many people doing the writing. Beware the quickie news byline that simply reads “Staff”, a name earned by the young journalistic hopefuls who can’t even use the clipping in their portfolio.

Such practices cause a huge disparity between young freelancers and crusty old beat reporters. But look on the bright side: tension is often the fuel that causes the daily newsroom to crackle with energy! (At least that’s the impression I get, based on the 1994 Michael Keaton sleeper The Paper.) Knowing in the back of your mind that you could be replaced in a heartbeat by a Ryerson dropout willing to do your job for a lowballed honorarium really makes that copy shine.


“8. Flyers. Whether you’re standing in line or lounging at the Fringe Club behind Honest Ed’s, strangers will try to force you to take promotional material for upcoming shows. It may be as humble as an uneven square of plain white paper with blurry lettering or as slick as multi-coloured laminated cardboard. (Your pockets, purse or backpack will soon be stuffed with them. They will seem to multiple like rabbits.) It gets tricky because sometimes the cheapest promo material turns out to be for the best shows and the fanciest ones are for the biggest duds. Look for excerpted reviews, e.g., “Best of Edinburgh Fringe 2010.” And ask around. Fellow theatre lovers are great at sharing both hot picks and train wrecks.”


8 ) Flyers. Whether you’re picking up a Globe and Mail at the office, or a Toronto Sun from the corner store, businesses you don’t even know will have put glossy advertisements right in between the pages! Frankly, it’s pretty nervy of them. We all know that if a product or business is worthy, it’ll do just fine on its own without any of this annoying advertising.

It gets tricky, because flyers containing key phrases like “no payments until 2014”, or “inventory clearout”, are absolutely guaranteed to be worth your time. And sometimes the best deals can be found in the smallest warehouse out in Markham. So read the flyers.

No, wait, don’t read the flyers. What’s my point again?

Oh well. When in doubt, just consult Facebook, because fellow artists are great at sharing the media’s bullshit.

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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