by Sean McQuaid
Fond as I am of poking fun at my advancing years, I don’t quite date back to the very beginning of The Buzz. Like Captain America in the old Avengers comics, I’m an odd historical footnote—the longtime fixture who was around nearly from the start, but not quite.
When Peter Richards and Derek Martin first joined forces to produce a newspaper that chronicled the PEI arts scene and promoted their new alternative movie venue City Cinema, I was still a fulltime UPEI student, little dreaming I would soon ascend from the status of lowly undergrad to lowly journalist.
While Derek concentrated on the cinema, Peter focused on The Buzz and set about enhancing and expanding the newspaper. As part of those efforts he hired me in 1994 as the paper’s editor to help refine the content, recruiting and managing assorted contributors while doing a lot of writing myself as well.
Grizzled drifter that I am, I’ve held many jobs in many places over the years, but that early editorial stint remains a formative favourite. The job introduced me to a wide array of PEI’s creative talents, and the Buzz office itself was a colourful place to work, decorated with local art and host to a shifting assortment of memorable characters.
Albums playing in the office’s communal CD/cassette player sparked my enduring fondness for local musicians like Scott Parsons and Roy Johnstone. My own oft-eclectic contributions to that communal player were embraced or at least tolerated, apart from the time an exasperated Derek popped a particular tape out of the machine in mid-song and handed it back to me, explaining, “Billy Joel only exists to make Elton John look good.”
A unique fringe benefit of those bygone days was Peter’s other side business, Off the Wall Video, with the Buzz office tucked away behind its front counter. It was an independent video rental store, a dying breed even then, specializing in alternative fare like indie movies, foreign flicks, art films and classic cinema.
Hooked on classics, I made some extra cash clerking for Off the Wall in my off hours, and binged on free old-time movie rentals: Hitchcock, Universal monsters, Ed Wood, Fred & Ginger, Godzilla & Mothra, Bogart, Frank Capra, Val Lewton—I devoured it all, even buying some of the shop’s VHS rental tapes for my pre-DVD collection when the long-declining business finally closed.
The Buzz endured, though, as did my connection with same. I stepped down as editor after about two years but remained a contributor, staying in touch during the later years when I lived off-Island and returning to The Buzz’s pages when I finally moved back to PEI.
The bulk of my Buzz writing has been theatrical, a specialty dating back to my days as editor. Already active in local theatre myself by the time I joined The Buzz, I interviewed and profiled assorted stage folk and wrote about theatre in other ways, notably dozens of reviews.
To Peter’s credit, he was always seeking ways to make The Buzz better, to add as much value and substance as possible. It would have been easier for him, especially in a small place like PEI, to steer clear of candidly reviewing local shows. As of the early 90s, there wasn’t much of a theatre reviewing tradition on PEI. When articles on theatre appeared in local papers at all, especially for community theatre or low-budget stuff, they seldom ventured too far beyond praise and plot summaries.
We took a different approach. Boiled down to its basics, I felt every review should include the following points about each show: what was good, what was bad, and what was unique or interesting, if anything. I still follow that three-part formula today. Sounds simple and sensible, but it was controversial at first. In the early days, you never knew when a review subject might offer you a handshake or a hug or literally take a swing at you. There were complaints, and sometimes threats of boycotts or loss of advertising.
Finding additional reviewers was difficult at first. Our only regular reviewer apart from myself went by the old theatrical alias George Spelvin to avoid reprisals, and he/she didn’t last regardless. I handled most of the reviewing myself for a long time. I remember a community theatre show where a friend of mine in the cast later told me I’d been spotted in the audience and some of her fellow performers were terrified. She had assured them I was a nice man with good intentions, but to no avail. “It was like Darth Vader had entered the building,” she laughed.
On a more positive note, I recall talking to the leader of a new young amateur theatre group about his troupe’s reaction to one of my reviews. It was a fairly mixed, relatively critical review and some of his fellow performers were displeased, but he told them, “No, this is good—it shows he’s taking us seriously.” I appreciated that reaction, because it captured the lesser-known half of the twin aims I’ve always had for these reviews: serving not only readers/audiences, but also serving the review subjects by letting them know someone was paying attention to their work and trying to give it careful, thoughtful consideration with honest commentary. If my response to their work isn’t full and frank, then I’m not serving either the subjects or the readers very well.
The PEI reviewing climate has warmed considerably over the years. Quite a few folks review shows in The Buzz and elsewhere these days (especially in the summer), usually sans pen names, and frank critiques aren’t nearly so alien a phenomenon hereabouts as they once were. That’s all to the good, and if I helped along that evolution to any extent over the years, I’m glad of it.
My favourite great play I ever reviewed? The oft-superb Montgomery Theatre’s ghostly morality thriller An Inspector Calls (2011), which I enjoyed so much that I did something I virtually never do: participate enthusiastically in a standing ovation. PEI audiences award standing O’s so frequently as to render them near-meaningless, so I tend to remain stubbornly in my seat lest I help cheapen that gesture any further, but Montgomery’s Inspector was so good even this professional curmudgeon couldn’t help but join in the ambulatory accolades.
My favourite not-so-great play I ever reviewed? Left-Hand Theatre’s Dracula: the Undead (2000). The smart, ambitious Left-Hand gang did a lot of fine work, but this particular production aimed for horror and hit unintentional comedy instead. Some good ideas, moments and performances in the mix couldn’t quite make the show as a whole any less ridiculous, but I enjoyed watching it (it’s probably the B-movie fan in me), and it inspired perhaps my favourite review title: “Stake and Cheese.”
My favourite review? That would be “Red-Haired Girls,” covering the Charlottetown Festival’s Anne of Green Gables (2012). Not so much for the show itself (though it was a good show), but for the fun of enlisting my daughter Elsa as co-reviewer. She makes reviewing—and life in general—much more fun.
Sean McQuaid is…
Sean McQuaid is a freelance writer/ editor whose clients range from PEI publications like The Buzz to international companies like Marvel Comics. He has been active in the Island theatre community as a playwright, director, producer, performer, stage manager, administrator, competition judge and critic. Selected credits include Horatio, Digging for Fire, Diary of Anne Frank, Julius Caesar, A Slight Ache, The Lover, Players, Enemies, The Point, Cookin’ with Gus and The Old Stock with companies such as Theatre PEI, Off Stage Theatre, Cliffhangers, Kensington Theatre Company, Homegrown Productions, Invisible Ink, Loli Productions, Action Figure Manor, On Cue Players and The Old Stock Players. Active since the 1990s as a PEI theatre critic, his most recent hands-on theatre work is as an associate producer, stage manager and writer associated with touring productions of The Old Stock and related projects. Born in Prince Edward Island where he works with the provincial legislature’s Hansard office, he has also lived and worked in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Raised in Poplar Point, Sean currently lives in Charlottetown with his lovely wife Carol, delightful daughter Elsa, oddball cats Book & Buffy and numerous books, DVDs and comics.