Used to be, you’d sing your song or perform your show or dance until your toes bled, and if you were lucky or well connected or the project was high profile enough, there’d be someone out there in the darkened auditorium with a pencil and a note-pad, taking notes, forming opinions and crafting the judgements that would later crystallize into a review of your work. If you cared for such things (or even if you didn’t), there’d be the walk of trepidation to the local newsagent the next morning or two days later (heavens forfend, you opened on a Friday and had to wait all weekend til Monday’s edition) to discover what verdicts have been reached in the harsh black and white of the print media. Am I the only one to have stood in Coles, paper in hand, wishing that the ground would open up as I read that I hadn’t quite made the grade, or who bought 3 copies of the same paper because it said I was “worth taking note of”? When you were waiting for the reviews to drop, you knew it was a lottery- you knew it was subjective, you knew you could get hurt and you waited anyway, on the chance that somebody liked you, that somebody got it, that someone would condense your effort and emotion into a sentence of such blinding brilliance and truth that all your endeavours would be validated and admired. Fingers crossed, heart in mouth, sometimes sick to the stomach, you waited.

Not anymore. We all know what it’s like these days, right? Oftentimes, the reviews have hit before you’ve even had a chance to remove your make-up. Hell, I’ve read my reviews during the interval for a performance that wasn’t even finished and if Sharon from Parramatta’s cousin in Tel Aviv was on-line at the same time, she read them too. Brave new world. Everyone’s a reviewer. Opinions aren’t to be shared in the bathroom, or at the bar at intermission, or in passionate, half-drunk discussions afterward. One must twit. One must poke. One MUST blog if one is to be heard, and nowadays, one MUST be heard, because opinions are important, right? Opinions matter, but they only matter if you share them. They’re like love really; they only count if you give them away.

I’m fine with it. Correction. I’ve become fine with it. Oh alright, I’m not fine with it. It gives me the shits when little Nelly Know-Nothing dismisses my character with 140 poorly chosen ones of her own, or when Jaded of Jacaranda Heights feels the need to inform the globe of my issues with projection or diction. I get it, not everyone is going to love you or love your work or respect your choices or give a damn about your feelings, but is the world really better off now that all of us have access to what some of us are thinking ALL of the time?

I’m not talking about professional reviewers and critics here (they DO exist), those who make a craft of applying an unbiased and informed eye to the theatre/art-piece they are assessing, those who bring knowledge and research and history to their own experience of a piece to try to truly understand why a director made the choices presented, why an eleven’o’clock number was delivered as a dead-pan dirge, why the ingénue was played by a fifty year old. They have a job to do, like it or not, just like we all do and many of them do it very well. Some do not. That’s my review. See, we all have opinions. No, my interest is in the influx over the last decade or so of the invasive and entitled individuals who possess a passing acquaintance with their chosen language and a data allowance. The types who feel compelled to share their version of events, unburdened by any real appreciation for an art piece, an artist or an art-form beyond what they like and what they don’t, and who feel this to be a sufficient basis from which to cast their words of wisdom and of wit into cyber-everywhere and perpetuity.

It’s social media’s fault really. We’re all too damn connected these days, and let’s face it, it’s just plain funny that you can be in conversation with Judy at the Opera House, Deborah at the Enmore and Dave taking a shit, all at the same time. Lines are going to get blurred, everyone knows everyone’s business, and what was the point of going to that Shakespeare play on a Tuesday night unless you could Check-in on FB and let everyone KNOW you were there? Bored during the monologue? Dim your screen and let the world know what you had for dinner? Tenor just cracked? Vomiting emoji should cover it! No one to drink with at interval? Crucify the director with that shiny new Samsung!!

Why does this matter? Well, it does and it doesn’t, depending on your viewpoint, your tolerance for idiocy and your ego. My greatest issue with the “I did a show with him last year and he was a prick to Bobby so I’m gonna slam him regardless of how well he may be doing but she lent me her iPhone charger at the gym on Friday and she seems really nice so I’m going to write something glowing about her while I wait for the train” brigade is that once their edicts have been delivered and your name, or the name of the show you wrote, or the name of the theatre company you just re-mortgaged your house to finance has been typed and sent by their clicky-clacky fingers, you and they are cyber-linked together. You are cyber-coupled in the great cyber forever.

You are in a relationship that you may not even know about, but that anyone can discover by typing the right combination of letters into the search box. BINGO!!! There it is. I see that Credible Sources have it you gave the performance of your life last week, a career defining high. Congratulations! But what’s this? One column down and equally as slick-looking on my macbook Pro, seems not everyone loved your work. Oh, this isn’t good. And here’s another one. And another. Sure were a lot of reviewers at your show. Unhappy ones. Bored ones. Angry ones. Stupid ones. But they could all spell your name (even if they couldn’t spell “excrable” ) and now everyone knows that they were there too and what they thought and I thought I had an opinion but now they’ve had an opinion and now I don’t know what my opinion is and I need a third opinion on this second opinion so I’d better see what else people who clearly know better than me are thinking on this matter. Cheek by jowl, legit reviews, opinion pieces, well-meaning praise, vendettas and vitriol, all vying to be treated as fact. That’s MY issue. If you search hard enough, you can make the internet say anything you want about you. About anyone. Credible source or not, in black and white, or with pink borders and unicorn pictures, it all presents as the truth, and these days, nobody is really fact-checking to verify otherwise. To read it is to believe it. Words have power, and weapons in inexpert hands can truly cause a lot of carnage.

But wait a minute. Doesn’t this internet thing work both ways? Incoming and outgoing information? It’s not all passive, roll over, take it and learn to love it even if it stings, crying in Coles anymore. What’s that big qwerty thing in front of you for? What does it do? Oh yeah, it makes words out of YOUR opinions and there’s a comments box at the end of THEIR feed. A feedback form, an invitation to be rated, noticed, validated. Why don’t you write back? Why don’t you STRIKE Back?

This is where the water gets muddied to the point that I honestly don’t know which is the right way forward. History teaches that very few have achieved their aims by answering back to critics, and we are taught from our very first days in the industry that it’s a big no-no. Naughty naughty, sour grapes and all that. But these are different times and again, I cite social media as a major catalyst for the change. In an age where anyone with even a basic social cyber profile can be accessed and addressed personally, performers now deal with the reality of coming home after a long night’s toil in the theatre to encounter strangers sitting in their inboxes, waiting to drip honey in their ears or spit poison in their eyes. How do you best ignore a personal FB message from a random to whom you apparently just gave an aural orgasm? You don’t, of course- you believe every word. But then the next punter wants to let you know that you single-handedly butchered their favourite show and you’re an effeminate wreck, just for instance. Try overlooking THAT one.

We recently had the greatest fun of our lives writing and performing a smutty little cabaret entertainment which we deliberately crafted to be in your face, gasp-inducing, thought-provoking, controversial and seat of your pants stuff. Like real, original, authentic cabaret used to be. We had some preconceptions to destroy and we did a pretty bloody good job of it according to our friends and families. And yes, the critics too. We were expecting some backlash, we planned for it and we got it, in spades. From individuals we had never met. In our Facebook Inboxes. It was gratifying and amusing and we read every word that was written about us, on line and in the press. We took every observation on board, but we didn’t change a thing about the show as a result. It was OUR show, we were ( and are ) proud of it and we stood by every choice and poo joke we’d included. If you came along and watched, you were as entitled to your opinion about those poo jokes (or whatever) as we were to include them. It’s not up to us to dictate your response- we serve the meal, you ultimately decide how it tastes and feels as you digest it. All good.

But do you have the right to track me down personally, and let me know, person to person, just how my work affected you, positively or otherwise, via the relative anonymity (on your part) of the internet? Reviews and online blogs are one thing, but increasingly (and certainly very noticeably after our work concerning topics such as bestiality and paedophilia hit the stage), we find people compelled to conduct a little cyber-sleuthing in order to gain a private ear, a one on one debrief with us, audient to performer, where no opinion or observation goes unexpressed. This seems odd to me. I don’t enjoy this level of communication with the public, however well-meaning it may be. I like my show to end when the curtain comes down and I don’t particularly feel the need to defend myself in a relatively intimate forum if I didn’t provide you with the experience you bargained for. Tell your husband. Tell your friends. Tell the world , if you must, but please don’t track me down or look me up personally with the express purpose of making sure that I feel worse about myself after we’ve communicated than I did before you typed your way into my consciousness. Are other people experiencing this new anti-fandom (or fandom, it works both ways and the fanatics can be as crazy and invasive as the nay-sayers!)? Where does the ingrained, turn the other cheek, grin and bear it, don’t answer back approach get us when people are starting to invite themselves into our lounge rooms in order to be heard?

As much as anything, it’s the forever-ness that bothers me. I really don’t want to still have to read, in 10 years, what Amanda from “Treading the Boreds” found to disapprove of in my performance, and I’ll wager she doesn’t want to either. But once it’s out there, it’s out there. I’m not against having an opinion (hell, this is an OPINION PIECE), but I think I’m against setting them in stone and haplessly carving them where they can do the most damage. Why does having an opinion these days mean shouting it from the virtual rooftops? Expressing it rarely changes anything anyway, so it’s kind of a pointless act. A great many people aren’t going to know or care what you’re banging on about and frankly, in the case of arts reviews, apart from you, your Mum, your agent and the author, who actually reads these things? So why do so many feel so compelled to go ahead anyway and become a public, published clanging bell? What’s going on here? Does the price of a ticket really entitle anyone to start writing permanent proclamations (positive or negative) about the worth of the human beings and their strivings in whose company, ultimately, YOU CHOSE to be? We seem incapable of leaving ANY aspect of our existence unremarked upon these days, as though the commentary on, and not the experiencing of an event is what informs it’s worth.

I’m not solving any problems here, and the issues under discussion are hardly catastrophic, but something about members of an audience feeling they’re in a position to dictate to me what I am and am not allowed to do on stage whilst they are in the auditorium seems vaguely noxious. Write your own damn show and perform it in front of a mirror if all you wish to see in front of you is you looking back, saying the words that you want to hear and singing the tunes that set your toe a-tapping. But if you want to hear about someone else’s life, someone else’s brain, someone else’s story, then stop mentally writing letters of complaint, or messages of admonition the moment someone strays from your version of the script. Maybe try and figure out why something you saw/heard/witnessed gave you such a strong reaction, and see if it doesn’t have a great deal more to do with you than the person you are about to dump a great, steaming pile of blog on. IMHO.

Kanen Breen will be performing with his Opera Australia partner in crime Jacqui Dark at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in their bawdy show of distaste and smut – Strange Bedfellows on the 5-7 June and again at the Queensland Cabaret Festival at Powerhouse 14th June….and again at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival at Chapel off Chapel on the 19th and 20th of June


Kanen Breen looking somewhat snarky… But with good reason.