Festival reviews take centre stage at professor’s blog

With world-class theatre just down the road, chances are you’ve already enjoyed a production or two at the Stratford Festival. And though the myriad of plays each season presents at least one worth seeing for any taste, it’s not a bad idea to consult a review or two before deciding which is worth the $100 seat.

Here, Keith Tomasek could help.

Tomasek, who teaches in Western’s Journalism program, as well as in Media, Information & Technoculture, runs stratfordfestivalreviews.com, a site where he aggregates reviews of Stratford productions. While the Stratford Festival is in its 60th season, Tomasek’s website is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.

“I started it when I went to see a show at Stratford; it was expensive and I saw a great review. I looked at other reviews and thought, ‘I can’t be the only guy who feels this way,’” said Tomasek, who studied theatre during his college days in Montreal.

“Often, people will read a review to go see the show, and if after the show they have lingering questions, a good review will help them contextualize and think of the bigger picture. If a director makes an interesting choice, a good reviewer will help you understand that choice.”

The reviews Tomasek publishes on his site come from major publications such as The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star as well as from smaller papers, and even other blogs dedicated to reviews.

“It’s kind of like a Rotten Tomatoes for the festival. I appreciate good writing that goes into a review,” Tomasek noted, adding there’s another motivator for maintaining the site.

“It’s the importance of good arts journalism. Arts journalism is on the decline. Twitter and Facebook give everyone a voice, but what we get on social medial pales to good journalism. The (site) drives traffic to newspaper websites and supports arts journalism. It reminds people that people are still interested in this type of writing.”

And for what he considers a relatively small site, it gets an average of 1,300 hits a day during the festival season. He doesn’t write any of the reviews himself but encourages visitors to the site to engage with posted reviews and share their own experiences and observations on the productions they see.

Recently, Tomasek has expanded the site to include restaurant reviews, a blog featuring deals and discounts in Stratford as well as options for non-theatre fun in the city. And this year, he has added a podcast, The Inadequate Life, just approved by iTunes.

The podcast features interviews with playwrights and actors, as well as other artists, focusing on “people who rely on their creative muse to make a living, where they question their own existence and value in society,” he explained.

The podcast’s title comes from a 1932 German play, The Mother by Bertolt Brecht, in which he tells the reader, “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.”

“We question what we’re doing – especially as it applies to the creative life,” Tomasek said. “I’m not doing the podcast to sell the show or promote something. I do it for the love of the arts, not money. This is just for fun.”

Tomasek has also recently incorporated minor advertising on the site, still dedicating it to promoting the arts and smaller, local and community theatres. The revenue doesn’t cover even his operating costs, but that’s not a concern for him.

“It’s a chance for me to help other arts organizations get some exposure. We’re all supporters of the arts and hopefully, there’s a trickle-down and people (who come to Stratford) will go back home and enjoy theatre (in their communities),” he said.