Over the past week, I’ve been trying to somehow order my thoughts on the Dialogue discussion at BAC last Saturday. I’ve found putting my ideas, questions and answers down in words tough going. In five days, I’d managed the following:
A common misconception about critics is that we enjoy slamming shows and finding negatives, that we get a thrill from being harsh and upsetting those involved. This isn’t the case. At least, not for the critics I’ve spoken to. For all of us, writing about theatre comes from a place of pure love for the stuff (hence the title of Dialogue’s discussion at Battersea Arts Centre). We watch and write about theatre because of an unadulterated passion for the form and its creators (especially for those of us who don’t get paid and for whom writing about theatre actually costs money). The current form of criticism, however, doesn’t really cater to this need for nuance and this mutual understanding. Hence the Dialogue discussion and the need for a new kind of theatre-writing.
I’m particularly taken by Maddy Costa’s description of love as involving “respect” and “understanding”. These things are easily applied to the best writing about theatre. Understanding is easy enough; you are writing about the piece in question because you know enough about the surrounding context and the motives of the creator. Respect, however, is the toughy. If you write from a deep respect of the work which has been done and the efforts which the creators have put in, then it should be impossible to come up with a badly written review. In theory, anyway.
Let me say first and foremost that I know I’m far from practicing what I preach. I regularly (though not frequently) have sudden outbursts in my writing which perhaps don’t give enough credence to the piece in question and those involved, and though I’m fully within my right to not enjoy something, I should give a deeper and fairer analysis to why this is the case. Nonetheless, I’m still writing from a deep-seated love for theatre. Those negative write-ups happen because I’m angry it wasn’t better, not gleeful that it was cack. Every time I see a show, I enter the theatre willing it to be the best thing I’ve ever seen. Granted, that may mean I am more disappointed when it’s not, but it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic and means you are working with the makers, who also want to create a stunning theatrical treat.
I write bad review because I want things to be better (yes, yes, better in my opinion, but that’s another matter). I don’t want to crush the actors and annoy the writer. I am writing an honest account of what I thought I saw, and putting it down on paper (or on screen) for posterity (thanks, Tynan). That’s not to say that theatre criticism should be constructive (I don’t; that’s what chats in the pub are for), but that it should be fair and point out failing where they are, just as much as it should praise positives. If the writer and the maker have a mutual understanding of this, then there should be no problems. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Nonetheless, the focus of the Dialogue discussion was the way in which critics and makers can help one another to create a new form of criticism (and maybe, by extension, theatre). This discussion focussed not around the age-old questions surrounding objectivity and star ratings (though they were both mentioned), but rather split into two parts: what do the different people involved with theatre want from criticism, and how can critics engage more readily with work being made?
The first point stems from an admission from Chris Goode that the critic/maker relationship feels like a parent/child one. Though he understands and is thankful for the input critics have had over his work and their help in shaping his career, he admitted that the critic is “always in the room”, from conception to closing night, constantly judging and assessing, even though they only turn up for one performance. This is a rather terrifying statement, but the makers in the room were completely empathetic with this notion. The maker/critic/audience one is a complicated one, and each want different things from one another.
Maker <-> Audience
This is perhaps the easiest to define; what an audience wants from the maker is a good evening out, to be made to think and to get their money’s worth. Obviously, tastes vary, but on the whole these three things are being thought of. What a maker wants from an audience is engagement and appreciation, allowing their work to be received with an open mind.
Maker <-> Critic
Now, I can only speak for myself here, as both an amateur practitioner and an amateur writer, but I presume there are some similarities with others in these areas. Speaking as a maker, what I want from a critic is an honest account of what they thought of a performance, where its strengths and weaknesses lie and its wider implications (which I haven’t been able to asses because I’ve been so close to the work). As a critic, what I want from a theatre maker is also an honest “account” of their rehearsal process represented on stage, and I want the performers to make this show the best they’ve ever done. I want to experience something new and be allowed to write what I think about the piece honestly and openly.
Critic <-> Audience
Here we get some complexities. Firstly, it should be noted that the audience of the production itself is not necessarily the audience of the maker (though there is crossover), so for the purposes of this argument I’m here discussing the readers of the respective publication. Generally speaking, what a critic wants from her audience is for them to read what they’ve written, weight it up against their own likes and dislikes, and be fairly quiet. But what does an audience want from a critic? If we speak in terms of theatre as a market economy, the audience want to know little else except this: is the play worth seeing? Outside of the theatrical community, little information is needed other than a recommendation and what it’s about. This is the reason why mainstream criticism has endured so long, and will do so for a while longer: it supports the value-based theatre economy which exists currently.
This didn’t seem to be going anywhere, being just a list of thoughts with little cohesion. Then, on the train home from London yesterday, I had a bit of a brainwave. I’m going to set myself a task. I’m going to try something.
Looking at what I’ve said above and my general thoughts on criticism, I’m fully aware that I don’t practice what I preach. Though I think I’m slowly improving, I have a tendency to make value judgements, give an air of objectivity and not give enough space to write about productions. I’m therefore going to attempt to follow these rules over the next few months as an experiment, then evaluate their merits.
1. Only write about productions I find interesting*
This is a biggy, and was prompted by Andrew Haydon’s recent blog on the role of the critic as an ecologist, in which he says he’s currently “writing mostly/only about stuff that did indeed turn out to be interesting”. It’s a difficult one. If a twenty-first century criticism is to always give the company the benefit of the doubt and take as a given that they know what they’re doing, then how can one write about a production which you think is dreadful? Where is the fairness in that? Speaking as a young maker myself, I am fully aware that a hell of a lot of the time I have not a clue what I’m doing, and need the guidance of those who write about my work to help me figure out those things. I’ve also experienced in my time a few productions where it’s clear there has been little thought put into the piece. Up until now, I’ve thought it okay to write bad reviews, merely because everyone can improve and these opinions which I have I am fully within my right to publish. Thinking about this more recently, however, I’ve concluded that this – I think – does nobody any favours. For a start, it’s not very useful to “posterity” or “the general conversation” or all those things which are talked about in relation to criticism, and publishing that kind of thing online is no good to the company in question. As I go down this route, I may feel more inclined to get in touch with theatre companies personally to have a conversation with them, but for the time being I’m not going to write about anything about which I have no good things to say. The key word here is “interesting” – I may think a work is sub-par, but if I find it interesting enough, I’ll write about it. A review which is considered, thoughtful and discusses wider implications is more useful than a flat-out bad review, even if the overall tone is a little negative. It’s also worth noting that there may be productions which I love but about which I have very little to say. These will also stay off the blog for the time being.
*As far as I can. If I’ve been given a press ticket for a show, the assumption is that I’ll write about it. If it so happens that I see a production which I don’t like on a press ticket, I’ll do my best to stick to the other rules but may have to forfeit this one.
2. Acknowledge my own tastes
If I want this experiment to be of any worth, I think it’s important that I lay out here and now what I think constitutes “good” theatre. There is no such thing as objectivity, and by and large I am measuring the plays I see against what I believe theatre can and should do. The fact I am often surprised by theatre which may not be to my taste goes without saying, and of course I will respond to a production based on its own merits, but by and large I like the following broad areas:
- Political theatre
- Experimental theatre
- Provocative theatre
- Plays which ask big questions
(Just to give you an idea, my favourite productions of the past few years have been as follows: Enron; Three Kingdoms; Decade; Love, Love, Love; Posh; Chicken Soup With Barley, Jerusalem and Matilda). And, on the whole, I don’t take well to these things:
- Traditionally performed classics
- Plays which demonstrate questionable politics
- Actor-centric theatre
- Plays which forget their context as occurring within a theatre
Already I can see admitting these tastes is problematic (by no means is this an exhaustive list), and may cause consternation, not least because the categories are in themselves subjective. I can envisage the ridicule now for being so closed-minded and dogmatic, but if this experiment is to work I must make clear that, when I’m writing about a piece, these are the things I’m thinking about. I will not automatically disparage a production if it doesn’t live up to my ideals of theatre, and I will always enter with an open(ish) mind, but equally I will not apologise for having those tastes.
3. Utilise my own experience as a theatre-maker
I’m quite keen on this one. It’s an old joke that critics are failed practitioners, but if I’m honest I don’t see a problem in being both. If anything, I think it’s actually useful to have people writing about theatre who also make it. Ever since I’ve started writing reviews about theatre, I’ve always found myself slipping into a different guise to the one I find myself in when making the stuff. I shouldn’t. By looking at the piece from the perspective of someone who makes theatre, it means new depths can be found and a new appreciation can be unearthed. Likewise, if I’m in the rehearsal room I can afford to be more critical. I think it’s utter rubbish that people who work in the industry are vilified if they criticise a production; we should be more analytical generally, let alone in the theatrical world, and thus more people with more opinions can only be a good thing. Quite how this point will manifest itself in my writing I don’t know, but for my first few attempts I’ll just try looking at the piece I’m writing about as, say, a director rather than as a critic, and see what that throws up.
4. Never use star ratings
This is something I adhere to anyway, but I think it’s worth reiterating. Star ratings are ridiculous signifiers which commodify theatre, thus I won’t be using them. ‘Nuff said.
5. Write reviews which are interesting in their own right
My reviews can be pretty formulaic and predictable, and though they may be informative with (on occasion) a little bit of insight, the best critics throughout history are ones whose work can be considered as art in itself. As discussed at Dialogue, this kind of engagement with the production in question means that criticism can work in conjunction with, rather than alongside, the wider discourse. Rather than having two parallel arguments, the debate becomes entwined and similar themes, styles and ideas can be discovered or questioned. This will not happen overnight. I’m not really clever enough to write beautiful prose or a poetic dissection of a play, but I can at least attempt to find a voice which is enjoyable to read in its own right. Seeing as my reviews will (hopefully) be long-form, they need to be interesting.
6. Get a wider cultural education
Again, this goes back to Haydon’s views on the critic as ecologist, suggesting that theatre-writers should be able to place pieces in a wider cultural context which extends beyond just theatre and literature. Though I have a kind of basic grasp on a not insignificant bunch of stuff, I need to reach out. I’ll read deeper into the things I’m interested in, try out things I’m not overly keen on and surprise myself with gallery visits. It’ll mean watching more TV, seeing more films, listening to more music and experiencing more art, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to take.
7. Try and embed myself in rehearsals
Herein lies magic. Potentially. I think it’s best to leave this discussion for another post, but it seems to be becoming accepted that twenty-first century criticism is beginning to go down this path. I don’t disagree, but I do need to try it for myself so I can work out my own views and discover how this set-up best works. So, though I run the risk of being a bit to forward and over-enthusiastic, this is a call out to anyone who is considering having theatre-writers as part of their process to get in touch. If you enjoy what I’ve been writing over the past couple of years and have an urge to try something new, give me a shout. We can have a chat and decide how best to proceed. It may go pear-shaped. But that’s part of the fun.
I will probably fail in trying to adhere to these rules. It’s tough enough as it is writing reviews when I have studying to be doing and rehearsals to attend, so setting myself this task could be doomed from the beginning. I will nonetheless try my hardest, and I will worry less about getting reviews up very soon after seeing the show. This could all go tits-up. It could equally be brilliant. Either way, I’ll give a damn good shot at it and see what comes out at the other end. Wish me luck.