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Why Does The Province's Theatre Critic Use a Fake Name?

And more strange tales from today's blurry frontiers of arts coverage.

Shannon Rupp 30 Jul

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Bagging an audience: What would the arts consumer learn if published reviews came with labels as required on food?

Due to a disability that took him out of the world for much of the last decade, my friend Michael Groberman has a curious way of existing outside of time. He's often wide-eyed over things the rest of us take for granted: Facebook, smartphones, and newspapers that don't carry news or exist on paper.

The latter is of particular concern to our Rip Van Michael, as he spent a dozen years working as a theatre critic on two major dailies before dropping out. A year ago he surprised us all by announcing he was ready to return to work. All he needed to know was who was hiring arts journalists these days?

After the laughter died down, we informed him that theatre reviewing had disappeared as a profession along with labour reporting and a few other things. A handful of jobs lingered, but even in the union shops their days were numbered.

But I promised to ask around.

What's in a byline?

"Who is Paul Durras?" I wondered, after the byline began appearing over theatre reviews at The Province last January. But no one seemed to have heard of him. Or seen him.

Eventually I managed to track down the real Mr. Durras -- although, real may not be quite the right word, in this case.

Durras is the nom de plume of Alan Twigg, founder of B.C. Bookworld, a 27-year-old newspaper about the book trade. Durras also contributes to, the site run by the Province's regular freelance critic Jerry Wasserman.

Twigg-Durras, who was recently awarded the Order of Canada, says he has personal reasons for writing under another name.

"I have a small piece of turf, some presumed influence. Many people are none too generous. They don't like it if people can succeed or seemingly advance in more than one sphere," Twigg-Durras said in an email.

The mythical Durras is achieving some of his success in Twigg's own paper. There, Twigg has published his theatre criticism under the Durras byline.

Still, if that's Twigg's explanation for hiding his identity, then fair enough. But since the practice of pen names fell out of favour in the mid-20th century, after newspapers began promoting themselves with their new brand of ethics, I wondered why any daily newspaper would go along with it? Unless Twigg-Durras's reviews were earning him death threats. (Not unheard of for arts reviewers.)

The Province's Dharm Makwana, digital city editor, said there were no death threats, but he understood Twigg-Durras's need to "keep his literary self and theatre self separate."

"It's a distinction he feels is valuable when travelling between the two, sometimes overlapping, arts circles," Makwana said. "Seeing as how nom de plumes [sic] are a long-standing tradition, I didn't see any problems with granting Alan his request to file under a pen name."

And with that, Makwana confirmed what I have suspected for some time now. In the newspaper world, it's more like 1914 than 2014.

Until the 1920s, pen names were common because writers often had something to hide. Frequently, it was being female. In her fascinating history of the origins of the Canadian Women's Press Club in 1904, The Sweet Sixteen, Linda Kay notes how tracking down 19th-century women journalists is a historian's nightmare. Most used pseudonyms, and many used more than one. Kate Simpson Hayes, a prolific writer who began her newspaper career in the 1880s, was better known as "Mary Markwell" and "Yukon Bill."

There is no way of knowing how many pen names there were, or how many men's bylines were actually women's, or what else the writers were hiding. Sometimes it was done to obscure their other enterprises, including moonlighting as press agents. Journalism paid so badly that many people simultaneously did what we now call PR.

Professional promoter or critic?

I was reminded of the first half of the 20th century's blending of press agents and reporters when I noticed that 24 Hours, the commuter giveaway owned by Sun Media, had added Vancouver arts publicist Laura Murray, as an "arts columnist."

Publisher Jane Atherton says she isn't concerned about the obvious conflict of interest, since Murray has agreed to provide "unbiased" coverage for 24 Hours -- even if it includes her own clients. Because the column is new Atherton says the paper hasn't had a chance to link to Murray's PR site, making it clear she's a publicist.

"[Murray] vets the topic of her column through us in advance each week as we wanted to ensure that she didn't write about her own clients, although we may allow it from time to time given newsworthiness," Atherton said in an email.

Since freelance publicists often work together on projects, it's conceivable that it could lead to Murray writing for a client who is, officially, represented by someone else.

"We've never come across that situation and so have not included it formally in our freelancer agreements," Atherton said, adding that they wouldn't allow a columnist to take a fee to promote other people's clients. "If we were aware that this was happening, we would discontinue our relationship. The intent of the column is for an unbiased covering of local arts events."

Various hats

Over at Vancity Buzz, an online magazine, Cecilia Lu is billed as the arts and culture editor, but it's her other gig that's interesting. She sits on the board of directors for a local company, Neworld Theatre, and she has reviewed one of their co-productions. Glowingly.

But it was different when she took in a play by a competitor, the Arts Club's "Bomb-itty of Errors". That show was running at the same time as her company's co-production, "Mrs. Warren's Profession", and Lu panned the ACT show after walking out.

"Vancouver, please DON'T go and see this play," Lu wrote, adding that she walked out early. "Over the hour I spent in the theatre, I can't think of a single marginalized audience that wasn't ridiculed and stereotyped."

In Twitter, Lu said it was "just her opinion" when I wondered about her minority view. (Apparently, the show was a hip-hop take on Shakespeare, and disinterested commentators were inclined to call it "bawdy" and Bard-like.)

Elvy Del-Bianco, chair of the board of Neworld Theatre, said he was unfamiliar with Lu's work as a reviewer, adding that he has no interest in reading reviews himself. "[Lu] was brought onto the board last winter because of her marketing skills: to revamp our website and present Neworld in a more effective light."

Artists often tell journalists that reviews have an impact on funding. But Roger Gaudet, director of arts disciplines at the Canada Council, explained that is a misunderstanding. He says the council invites companies to send reviews as an "option," but they have no impact on the juries-of-peers that award the grants.

So why do artists send reviews to the council?

"[Arts groups] want to show how they interact with their community; they want to show who they are," Gaudet says.

He added that when it comes to grant applications, "We ask all applicants to sign a statement that their information is provided honestly and in good faith and that it is accurate."

New job sector?

I predict that soon every theatre company, art gallery and opera will have its very own reviewer, and possibly a whole magazine devoted to covering itself. That's what the Chicago Symphony is doing. Tired of the declining arts coverage in old media it launched its own brand journalism site called CSO Sounds and Stories.

So I suggested this could be just the niche for Rip Van Michael, who looked at me with undisguised horror.

But I say: if it's good enough for newspapers, then it's good enough for bloggers.

I've never been clear on why journalists were expected to uphold so called ethical standards when the employers are so often the ones undermining them.

For example, during this summer's contract negotiations, The Globe and Mail was asking its journalists to join the custom content staffers and freelancers in writing advertorial. The journos resisted. It was among the issues that prompted a strike notice.

But from my perspective as a reader, the problem isn't who is writing what, the problem is transparency. Consumers don't like being misled. But we can solve that problem by just labelling the copy clearly.

Arts journalism getting to be an oxymoron?

If journalism is defined as information gathered and analyzed on behalf of citizens, then arts journalism has long been an oxymoron, since most writers work under obvious conflicts of interest.

The U.S.-based National Arts Journalism Program has done a series of research studies since the mid-1990s documenting the collapse of arts journalism. It's clear newspapers have saved money for decades by hiring freelancers who are arts insiders and are often willing to write for a pittance in order to promote themselves or their field.

It's particularly prevalent in the visual arts, where a 2002 study found about two-thirds of the "critics" are insiders, simultaneously producing catalogues and brochures for the galleries they review, or even producing art themselves. Which puts some of them in the position of reviewing and writing features about cronies and competitors. A situation that is also common for theatre reviewers, in particular, who are often playwrights.

Given that most reviewers' lives are intertwined economically and professionally with those they cover, I've long argued that it is unfair to present them to readers as "critics" or "journalists" like any other.

Since it is now also a fact that most outlets can't afford journalists assigned to write on behalf of the public, why not just label the content appropriately, as we label food?

The one thing most consumers want is the right to make an informed choice.

Jacob Loves Theatre

I proposed Rip Van Michael become a professional theatre blogger in the 1914-style, but he decided to be a writer-for-hire on anything but theatre reviews. Those he does for his own satisfaction.

He blogs at Jacob Loves Theatre, a satirical romp in which he plays a sort of Dr. Watson blogging on behalf of one of Canada's foremost authorities on high culture, Jacob L. Kravitz. Jacob is a big league arts insider, with a penchant for name-dropping, and a sideline in ghostwriting Broadway musicals. He is currently working on Anna Karenina, which the producers are hoping to reinvent as a comedy.

Yes, Jacob is a literary device, although it isn't always easy to tell courtesy of Groberman's slyly comic writing. And lately Jacob has taken to disagreeing with Groberman's conventional reviews at Huffington Post, turning the whole enterprise into a postmodern gag.

Meanwhile, we've begun discussing Jacob as if he's real, in much the way we talk about Lizzy Bennet and Shylock. But recently we realized that not everyone knows that Jacob, like Bridget Jones, is satire. A journalist friend trained in the 20th century worried that we might be playing fast and loose with the truth -- a sin, in our youth.

"It's one thing for Michael to have an imaginary friend," he said. "But now all of us have an imaginary friend."

Which is when I had a brainwave. Maybe we should just introduce Jacob to Paul Durras?

I can see it now. They could convene one of those journalism conference panels to discuss it all. I even have a title.

The Imaginary Critics: From the fin de siècle to the future.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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