Why Edmonton’s Teatro La Quindicina and actor Jeff Haslam will never get my business again

With one exception, Sharon and I had a great time at the 29th Edmonton International Fringe Festival this past weekend. Unfortunately, all that sticks out in our minds is that exception. Before I explain, a little background.

Sharon is the person who introduced me to live theatre in Edmonton. Though the first show she took me to wasn’t a Teatro la Quindicina production, it wasn’t long before we were regularly attending their shows. I don’t write about theatre as much as Sharon does, but I do mention it from time to time, such as when we went to see The Talking Turk back in March 2005. Over the years I have come to really enjoy local theatre, and Teatro in particular. I wrote my Edmonton Story about local theatre, and specifically mentioned the company. In fact, Sharon and I found that we were going to so many of Teatro’s shows that we subscribed to the 2009 season, and did so again this year. We thought it was a great way to support the company.

Though she probably started watching Teatro productions in high school, Sharon only started blogging in 2006, so her first related entry was about Eros and the Itchy Ant in November 2006. Since then, she has written about nearly every local production we’ve ever been to, including at least twelve Teatro shows. She says it better than I can:

The best thing about a personal blog, of course, is that I don’t have to limit my content. I do still enjoy commenting about the arts scene, and in particular, the wonderful plays staged by the theatre community. And so, despite the proliferation of food-centric posts, I will continue to think of myself as a blogger who simply happens to write often about food.

Without a doubt, one of our favorite local actors has been Jeff Haslam. A Teatro regular, Jeff took over as the company’s Artistic Director in 2009. Neither Sharon nor I have been shy about calling him our favorite, and one of the reasons we decided to see Edmonton Opera’s H.M.S. Pinafore was because Jeff was in it. Sharon actually reached out to him in November last year to help with her post on Shop Local Month (he did).

All of this made what happened on the weekend even more disappointing, inappropriate, and hurtful.

It started on Saturday while we were in between shows at the Fringe. Sharon was checking her email on her phone, and discovered a comment from Jeff Haslam on her recent post about Teatro’s The Ambassador’s Wives. We were both shocked after we read it:

You come across as snotty and arrogant. I absolutely despise your pretension that you are “a reviewer” in any professional way. In fact every time I read one of your posts I think “I am not smitten with this weird women like her icky friends seem to be. I wish she’d stop subscribing to my theatre company, because she seems like such a pretentious doof. I wonder if she knows that her endlessly stuck-up self-important little reviews are deeply offensive to those of us who bust our buts for next to nothing to bring a little entertainment to this distant northern city? I wonder if she knows that her crappy 19 bucks goes to less than 40% of what it costs to pay all the artists she isn’t always smitten by? Do us all a favour lady. Write about food and take your entertainment dollar elsewhere.
Sincerely
Jeff Haslam

Had our favorite local actor really written that? Needless to say, Sharon was pretty disturbed by the comment. I refused to believe it was actually from Jeff Haslam (though the email and IP address didn’t suggest anything to the contrary). So because we were friends on Facebook, I sent him a message to make sure the comment was actually from him:

Did you actually leave a comment on the Only Here for the Food blog’s review of The Ambassador’s Wives?

Instead of the “no way” I was hoping for, so that we could take the comment down, I received this reply:

Yes. Yes I did. Sorry if I insulted you and Sharon, but you cannot BEGIN to imagine how offended I am, and we all are are, by Sharon’s "reviews". You people are not, I’m sorry to say, invisible. The Internet stretches far and wide. I do not need or want your money, especially if you have the GALL to review us so sarcastically and with such bile. Your review of our work on Dial M was particularly sickening. Actually there isn’t a single thing that Sharon has written that hasn’t made me wonder why you people even go to my shows at all. I’d prefer you never darken our door again. Sincerely, Jeff Haslam

I received that reply just as we were getting ready to line-up for Die-Nasty. Knowing that Jeff was in it, we decided to go home instead, still confused and upset by his comments. When we got home, I went on Facebook to reply, only to find that I could no longer see Jeff’s account. Evidently he had blocked me. So I emailed him instead, asking for clarification and offering to meet for coffee to chat about his issues. Today he replied, calling us “Internet bullies.”

Jeff’s comments are inexcusable, to say the least. Sharon and I have talked it over so many times this weekend, and we still can’t make sense of it. She has never written anything that could be described as “sickening”. What could possibly have compelled Jeff to write what he did?

Our first question was why he chose to share his thoughts publicly? Why leave a comment on Sharon’s blog instead of emailing her directly? Even though I think Jeff’s comments on Sharon’s reviews are completely unfounded, they’d have been better shared privately first.

While there are many differences between a theatre company and, for example, a clothing store, both are businesses when you get right down to it. Both rely on delivering a product to customers. And if you want those customers to return, you need to treat them well. There’s a reason everyone has heard the phrase “the customer is always right.” From a business perspective, what Jeff said is unfathomable: “take your entertainment dollar elsewhere” and “never darken our door again.” In what world does that make any business sense? And why did he decide to say this now, after happily accepting our money as subscribers for the last two years? It certainly sounds like Jeff has been reading our posts for quite some time.

For some reason, Jeff is really offended by what we’ve written in the past. Here are some of the specific posts he mentioned in his email reply: On the Banks of the Nut, East of My Usual Brain, The Big Kahuna: Day 2H.M.S. Pinafore. As I said, I don’t think anything we’ve written has been unfair or overly negative (quite the opposite actually). Read the posts for yourself and tell me if you’re disgusted. You’d think that someone like Jeff, who has been in theatre for so long, would have thicker skin. You can’t please everyone, after all. On the other hand, it seems as though Edmonton’s most visible theatre writer, Liz Nicholls of the Edmonton Journal, has never written anything negative about Jeff or Teatro (seriously, look it up – you can search The Journal’s archives here if you have a library card). Maybe he’s gotten used to that. Here’s what Liz wrote in a 1998 profile of Jeff:

“Audiences at every theatre in town know the Lethbridge-born 34- year-old for his smart, stylish, inspired performances in Lemoine’s comedies, in Citadel musicals like Hello Dolly! and Lady Be Good, in new Canadian plays, in classics. There’s a certain panache la Cary Grant or Warren Beatty about Haslam onstage in a romantic comedy.”

In her review of Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Liz said of Jeff: “Haslam positively cavorts through the intricate footwork of the role…it’s a juicy performance.” She called the production “a marvellous night of theatre.” Sharon (and I) felt somewhat differently. It seems only natural that some people will enjoy a show while others will not.

Theatre, like food, is subjective. You can come up with checklists and guidelines and look for techniques and planning and passion, but none of it really matters. The result will be interpreted differently by different people. Here’s a recent food example. There’s a well-known restaurant in Paris called L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. It has two Michelin stars. In one recent review, a blogger described it as “a totally stunning meal.” In a different review, it was described as “very disappointing.” It’s all about personal opinion.

If Jeff wrote what he did because he feels that Sharon’s reviews as a blogger are somehow less important or relevant than Liz’s reviews as a writer for the paper, he’s in for a rude awakening. It’s 2010, and everyone has the ability to easily publish online. Everyone can share their opinion, and increasingly people turn to the thoughts of other people like them, who paid full price and got the typical experience, rather than the “professional” reviewer who got it for free and likely has an existing relationship with the restaurant or theatre company or whatever it is that they’re reviewing. That’s why sites like RottenTomatoes, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Epinions, blogs, and heck even Twitter, have become such popular destinations for people looking for reviews.

If Sharon’s reviews have done anything, I think they’ve increased awareness about Teatro and its cast members. If you search for Teatro la Quindicina for example, Sharon comes up third. Searches for “Mark Meer” and other Teatro stars regularly appear in her incoming search keywords. People increasingly turn to the web when they want more information about something, and for Edmontonians looking for more on Teatro, Sharon’s blog has been an important destination.

That’ll change after this, no doubt. You can bet that we’ll never give our money to Jeff Haslam or any production he’s involved in ever again, even if that means we miss out some otherwise great theatre. Given that this is how he treats his customers (fans even) I would encourage you to also think twice before you part with your money. When he says he wants you there, he clearly doesn’t mean it, especially not if you’re planning to write about it. We’re saddened and hurt by this turn of events.

So Jeff, while you can take comfort in the fact that we won’t be writing about your shows anymore, sooner or later you’re going to have to wake up to the reality that others will.

You can read Sharon’s post about this here.

UPDATE: Apparently SEE Magazine was banned from attending Stewart Lemoine plays about two years ago. Thanks to Sally for the link.

UPDATE2: Brittney over at iNews880 interviewed Jeff for his side of the story today.

UPDATE3: I’m rather surprised at how many people have written about this. Here’s an article in the Globe and Mail, and here’s Todd’s piece in the Edmonton Journal.

UPDATE (August 26, 2010): Sharon and I received a handwritten apology from Jeff Haslam in the mail today, along with a signed copy of Stewart Lemoine’s At the Zenith of the Empire and a refund for the unused portion of our season subscriptions.

  • Aly

    @Jason, just gonna jump back in and respectfully disagree. It may not be fair, but she’s a blogger and he’s the head of a company. He, unfortunately, has more of a responsibility to the community that supports his company. He didn’t just attack her, he attacked the community, basically saying he’s doing them a favor by offering them a little culture. If he and Sharon want to duke it out, that’s one thing. But there was no need for him to insult his entire audience. I think other supporters, after reading his post, will be afraid that he could turn on them at any point, as well.

    (Now, having said all that, I really like your writing. Do you have a blog, by any chance? And no, I’m not being facetious!!!!!)

  • Jason

    @aly – sadly I can’t argue with you there. He should have kept his comments focused on Sharon. Even if he had though the backlash probably would have been the same.

    – I don’t keep a blog… Too much stress 🙂

  • John B.

    @Jason (comment 146)

    I agree with your hypothetical restaurant scenario (i.e. had I been making mean comments for 5 years, the chef would have a right to be angry and a right to bawl me out). I was only bringing up the restaurant metaphor to refute the argument that some have made that “because there are other people who work at Teatro who work very hard for not very much money, one should ignore Haslam’s comments and continue to patronize their theatre to support those artists/workers.” You seem to agree with me that this is a spurious argument, at least as far as my personal patronage would go. I think this could extend to any business: a hotel where the desk clerk is rude, for example, or a beauty salon with a rude stylist.
    I think where we differ here is in how we perceive the degree of insult suffered by Mr. Haslam. Reading Sharon’s past reviews, I detect no “sarcasm” or “snarkiness,” as some others claim is evident. Yes, she mentions small things that she felt were not up to par, but no work of art is perfect, and I’d say a reviewer (more on this later) is obligated to point those things out.
    So, to twist your hypothetical restaurant example a bit, let’s say I do have the meal, I do go home and write about it and say, “the meal was great; I licked my plate clean. I’ll be heading back to this restaurant again, because the food is fantastic. The only thing I wasn’t getting was the vegetables on the side: they didn’t seem to go with the rest of the dish. But still, great food: be sure to go and visit!”
    To me, this seems innocuous enough, and very positive, but maybe others see it in a different light? Certainly, if ANY reviewer gave my theatre that sort of review (i.e. uniformly positive except for one negative comment) for five straight years, I’d be inclined to thank them, not erupt. Not to mention, did Mr. Haslam ever consider the reviewer might be on to something? Maybe the metaphorical vegetables DIDN’T go with the dish and it’s time to think about switching the preparation. The best reviews make one think, “aha!” because they give insight into some truth about the production that even the artists missed. Anyway, I’d be interested to hear what you think on this.
    Getting back to the “reviewer” aspect of things, another point of contention seems to be whether Sharon is, in fact, a “reviewer.” Not sure how one quantifies that (in fact, in my city, the theatre critic for the local paper started as a food critic: she has no theatrical background or training), but for my money: she has a blog on which she posts reviews of local theatre productions; she is therefore a reviewer (I can see how others might see it differently). As a reviewer, I feel she is obligated to review the play as she honestly perceived it (whether this is an “objective” or a “subjective” review is also open to debate…can there ever BE such thing as “objective” reviewing?). And if that means saying that actor A seemed to be having more fun than actor B, or that she didn’t understand the ending, or that actor A seemed miscast, I think that’s her right, but she shouldn’t be subjected to PERSONAL attacks, which is what I take issue with. If Liz (who I assume from these postings is the local “professional” reviewer) had written the exact same words as Sharon, would that be okay, because she is designated a “professional reviewer?” Would Mr. Haslam have felt justified in responding the same way to her (“icky friends” and all)? I know Sharon has said she isn’t “a reviewer,” and that she only writes a “personal blog,” but I disagree with her: she REGULARLY writes reviews in a public forum: she is ipso facto a reviewer.
    Anyway, thanks for your opinion and feel free to comment in return.

  • Aly

    @Jason: LOL!!!!

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  • chris

    wait a minute. you are free to blog publicly about this man’s art but you expect his comments to you be made in private?

  • I’ve admired Jeff Haslam and his fellow Teatro actors for many, many years. My opinion of him hasn’t changed at all. I’ve no reasons to boycott his work or that of the company and I intend to keep being a loyal supporter.

  • For the record, I am glad that Sharon writes about theatre and not just about food. Her reviews of Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre were incredibly useful to me in my academic work, and I quote her several times in my thesis. Please, Sharon, keep writing.

  • Eva

    I’ve really happy to hear that you guys got an apology from Jeff Haslam.

    I think it says a lot that he took the time to hand write and send it through the post as it takes more time and effort these days to do that. That’s why they say if you ever write to your member of Parliament about an issue that matters, hand written letters sent via regular post are counted more than emails.

    Glad you guys got a happy ending!

  • Icky Friend

    And to think… all it took to prompt the apology was two weeks of unrelenting negative publicity across North America!

  • There now Jeff, was that sooooo hard??

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