If you open the Hamilton Spectator searching for local arts coverage, you’re likely reading something by Gary Smith. For over forty years, Gary has been writing articles for the paper on theatre and dance. But what happens when a pandemic shuts down many performances that you were planning to write about? And how does one write about the arts when the pressures around print media are constantly changing? Beyond James’ Dawn Cattapan sat down with the Hamilton Spectator’s Gary Smith to talk about the arts in the pandemic, print versus online media and much more. Below is a summarized edition of the discussion.
Dawn: How did you start your path as an arts writer?
Gary: I always wrote. When I was a kid, I wrote poetry; I wrote plays, plays that were produced. And from there, I was just so interested in theater and did a lot of traveling to see theater that I thought, you know, I could write about theater perhaps, and the theater writer The Spectator at the time said to me, ‘why don’t you do some theater writing?’ So I said, ‘Alright.’ And so I went (to a show) on a Friday night, and then I met him at the paper after. And he said, ‘Okay, go ahead, write your review.’ So I wrote it. And I said to him, ‘is that all right?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s better than all right.’ So when he decided that he was leaving to go and write movies in Hollywood, he said, ‘Why don’t you write?’ So that is how I got into writing about theater.
Dawn: And what is the one thing that would surprise people about writing about theatre?
Gary: I think they might be surprised to realize that a person who writes reviews, goes to the theater every time hoping it’s going to be wonderful. And being open to whatever is being produced, and understanding that there are always new things coming along, new ways of writing, new styles of plays, and you have to be open to receive that. And I don’t know if people realize that. A writer, a theater critic doesn’t go to the theater, wanting to write something negative. When I first started, if I had to write criticism- which you do if you’re going to be a theater critic- I would go down the stairs at two in the morning after I’d finished writing it. I’d want to run back up the stairs and change it because I felt, you know, I feel badly for the person that I’ve had to give some criticism to. But if you’re going to do that job, you have to have a pretty hard skin and understand that what you’re doing is critiquing and that you’re hoping what you say is going to be of value and and maybe help the person that you’re writing about.
Dawn: Is that the thing that you like most about what you do, then? That eventually, even if it isn’t immediate, that there may be words of wisdom that can help people?
Gary: I don’t hold myself as someone who has answers to things that people when they work on a show. They spend a lot of time working on it, and they come to an agreement of how it’s going to be produced. . .Cynthia Dale is a friend of mine. And she said to me. . .’if we read a review, we can’t change our performance to suit what the critic has said, because we’ve worked before for maybe five or six weeks on that play, and we’ve come to the determination of how it should be done.’
Dawn: So is there one review that you’re really proud of?
Gary: I’ve written thousands of them, so I don’t know. I think maybe you know, sometimes, you think you got it right. And more right than some other times. You just, you feel like you really felt the show, and you really understood it, I loved it, I pushed for it. And that always makes you feel good. I don’t know if it only happened once.
Dawn: One of the things I’ve been so conscious of. . .is this dynamic between the internet and print media. And so I’m wondering, from your perspective- because you said you’ve been doing this for forty years- how has the internet changed the way that you approach and communicate with arts organizations and with readers?
Gary: Well, it’s changed the way you communicate with readers because they communicate back with you. And if you’ve said something they disagree with, they’ll tell you and you’ll have an email because my email is at the end of my column, and people are not afraid to tell you what they think. And that’s a good thing. And it can happen live as well. But if people disagree with what I write, I always tell them, if I email back to them, which I always do, I say it doesn’t mean I’m right and you’re wrong or vice versa. You paid for your ticket. You enjoyed it. That’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t like it. We just have to agree to disagree on something. And you have a little conversation with them on the internet. We couldn’t have done that years ago. It would have to have been a phone call. So yeah, I think the internet has been very powerful in what it can do.
I don’t do Facebook. Social media, I just don’t do it. But I know it’s helpful in selling plays and getting news out to people. And then columns are on the internet and people send them to each other. So in that way, your work is passed from person to person. I did a piece a few weeks ago, and I had forty-three emails and four phone calls. The furthest away was from London, England, and one from San Francisco. So that is connecting you with people that you wouldn’t have connected to before.
Dawn: I ran a theatre company in the early 2000s. And I recall at the time, the best way to get anything out was traditional media. Facebook wasn’t a thing then, and social media wasn’t beyond instant messengers and whatnot. But I find now, because of social media, arts organizations are able to speak to their audiences directly. Do you find that changes the way you approach and communicate as well?
Gary: I don’t do Facebook or social media. I just don’t do it. There’s a lot of stuff on it that is given out as fact that isn’t fact. I mean, there’s a lot of opinions given on it. And you don’t know if the person has any relevance to what they’re saying. So you have to kind of be aware of what you’re reading on Facebook. I did do it at the beginning and then I stopped. I have enough trouble dealing with all the things I look up and read on internet without another barrage of things to go through. It could take up your whole day.
But I think there is a big difference. I personally do not do a blog, although I’ve been asked ‘why don’t you do one.’ It’s too much work. I don’t have enough time. But publications like yours (Beyond James) are different. It’s like a magazine to me; you can include a great many things, whereas at the newspaper, I can include the one thing I’ve been allowed to do for that day or that week. And the work can be edited and cut down, so it’s different. I don’t think you have as much control writing for a newspaper. You have to follow the pattern of the paper, which is probably different than the blog. . .and I think both serve different purposes in a way.
Dawn: Part of the reason I started the blog is that I recognize the (Hamilton) Spectator- and all print media for that matter- seems to shrink more and more every year.
Gary: I agree with you. . .except in the very major cities, like New York, Chicago, maybe San Francisco and London, England. Other cities don’t seem- their papers don’t seem to be as concerned with covering art. And if they are covering the arts. . .it will be TV, movies, perhaps pop music- stuff like that. It’s not going to be dance, it’s not going to be theatre so much. I think the Spectator at least has coverage of quite a lot of what happens in the theatre in Hamilton. A lot of papers would not cover shows that were amateur, and I don’t mean amateur in the performances, I mean amateur in the designation that the people involved are not members of Actors Equity or any union affiliate that says they’re professional. But they could be very professional in their performances, and I think the Spectator covers that quite a bit.
Dawn: Before the pandemic hit, I was publishing twice weekly. But I was going to ask you about your approach to COVID-19. . .because there have been less shows to write about because there is less happening. But now, people are imagining their work and things are starting to come back in a different way. But I think there’s going to be a shift and it is going to take some time.
Gary: It will. As soon as everything shut down, the theatres all shut down, I said to my editor, ‘I want to cover theatre, because I want to keep theatre in front of people.’ I want them to remember things they went to, and I want them to know what is happening with the actors that worked in theatre and the production people. So I’ve done at least one column a week on some person involved in theatre. Pretty much they were Hamilton people, though I have done some from outside of Hamilton. And I tried to talk about in the stories, what they’re doing and how it’s affecting them and how they feel theatre will come back and what it will be like and how it will be different. Or will it be the same. And what they are waiting for, and how they still believe in theatre.
And I have also been doing a series on performers that I remember, and everybody has a collection of these memories of people that they saw perform, or shows they saw. The first one I did was on Judy Garland and Judi Dench and Marlena Dietrich, and about my having met them and what they were like, and how those memories sustain you through the day when we have no chance to go and see people like that.
Dawn: As somebody who has been in this industry for so long, what advice do you have for young artists that you might be seeing onstage, or even for myself as a writer?
Gary: Well, I think you just have to keep going. You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to believe in what you’re writing about. And you have to be honest in what you write. And if you’re really touched yourself and moved by the things you’re writing about, it will come across in your writing. For young actors, I think they have to be entrepreneurs, too. I mean, there are a number of them that we know about that have made work for themselves.
There is a closing down of arts coverage. And it didn’t start with the pandemic. It started way before that with putting less and less. And then- in another instance, taking one review of a show written at say, Stratford, and then using it in about six or seven different newspapers, instead of having different voices giving different opinions because we all have different opinions!
Dawn: I know you mentioned that you’re not on Facebook. But I wonder if you were made aware that there was a Facebook thread recently that criticized some of your work by individual artists.
Gary: Yes. I didn’t know who half of them were because I’ve never met them or written about them.
Dawn: You may have just inadvertently answered my question. My question was if artist feedback like that impacts or changes the work that you do.
Gary: That’s a difficult question. Someone sent it to me, and I didn’t read it all. I read some of it. And as I said, I didn’t know the names. I know they accused me of some really not very nice things. And I don’t think any of them were based in truth. But I’m always careful about what I write about people. And in fact, I tell people, if I interview them, I say, ‘Don’t tell me anything you don’t want me to print.’ Don’t tell me something is off the record, because there’s no sense. And I also say to them, ‘think what you say because it looks different when you see it in print.’ It’s entirely different. So, you know, you have to think, when you’re being interviewed, if the interview is good, you just think you’re talking to somebody. You forget that it’s going to be printed. So you’re not always so careful what you say.
But what I will say about that whole issue- and I’ve tried to stay completely out of it- because I don’t think it’s something I should get involved with. As I told you, I didn’t even know who half those people were. I hadn’t interviewed them, but they were accusing me of things in interviews, and I wondered if maybe they had a bad review or something. But not one of those people contacted me.
Dawn: I’m glad that me mentioning it and asking you about it here is not the first time that you have heard about it. I’m glad that somebody at least reached out and mentioned it. I mean, it was a little while ago, I think, at this point. So as a followup, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding was that it was a specific article that sparked all of this. Did you have any thoughts or comments about that article that you want to note?
Gary: Well, everybody who has read it thought it was perfectly fine. I didn’t think there was anything in it. I couldn’t find anything that was demeaning. And why would I want to bother? It was my idea to write the article. Why would I want to write about somebody and then demean them?
Anyway, you have to be able to take the heat if you’re in the kitchen, right? If you’re a reviewer of people’s plays, or a critic, not everyone is going to like you. You have to get that idea pretty quick. Most people don’t like to be criticized, and most actors don’t like to have a bad review. And I don’t blame them. If you’re going to put yourself out there, and you’re going to invite people to come and review you, then not everything is going to be positive.