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.

H.M.S. Pinafore

On Thursday evening Sharon and I went to the Edmonton Opera’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore. The two act comic opera is a famous one by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I’d never been to the opera before, so it was definitely a new experience for me. I enjoyed it for the most part, but I have to say I’m incredibly grateful that there were subtitles. Here’s the Edmonton Opera’s teaser:

Renowned Edmonton playwright Stewart Lemoine teams up with Edmonton Opera to create a brand-new production with a brand-new take on Gilbert and Sullivan. Join Little Buttercup, Ralph, Josephine, Sir Joseph and the sailors of the high seas in a comedy that sings the songs of love and silliness, and pokes fun at society too: British satire at its best!

haslam in pinafore
Jeff Haslam as Sir Joseph Porter

Sharon is an Explorer’s Club member which means that first and foremost, our tickets were cheaper! We also got free pizza and beer during the intermission. Before the show we went to a thirty minute “introduction to the opera” session where we learned a little about the plot in Pinafore and some of the history behind it. That was really helpful, and definitely interesting.

Only one cast member, Monica Huisman who played Josephine, was what I would call “over the top opera.” I couldn’t understand a word she was singing, and her voice was incredibly shrill. My favorite was definitely Jeff Haslam who played the crazy Sir Joseph Porter. I’ve seen Haslam act many times here in Edmonton, and he was excellent again in the opera. He stole the show, without a doubt.

I’m sure opera afficionados would gasp at the idea of subtitles, pizza, and beer, but it made the experience much more enjoyable for a first-timer like myself. Opera is kind of like a musical that you can’t understand, and I’m not such a fan of musicals in the first place.

I never would have guessed that the experience would be educational, but it was. Not only did I learn a bit more about opera in general, but I never quite realized the impact it has on our culture. Heck, there’s an entire Wikipedia entry dedicated to the cultural influence of Gilbert and Sullivan. And I learned this popular exchange:

“What, never?”
“No, never!”
“What, never?
“Well, hardly ever!”

Just as funny now as it was a hundred years ago! That’s probably why Pinafore is still popular – it’s timeless entertainment all around.