Put in my place

This article was printed in the last issue of Noises Off, the daily magazine of the National Student Drama Festival. It was written by Imogen Clare-Wood, a very good friend of mine, and I will post a riposte in due course. Imogen would like me to point out, however, that she had been drinking before writing this and meant it in an entirely jovial matter. I thought you should all have the pleasure of reading it.

Reviewing is a tricky business, and one that I haven’t lent myself to before today (mainly for fear of revengeful company members). But today marks a change in my critical ethos, partly due to the sudden influx of alcohol, and partly due to the increasing belief that reviewers should pay for their crimes (bit harsh, but there you go). The subject I choose for this is Daniel Hutton.

Dan has marked himself out to be at the forefront of NSDF reviewers. He has unfailingly (apart from the ‘accidental’ loss of his writing by the NOFF staff in yesterday’s issue) delivered his point of view on every piece of theatre at this festival. Sadly it has often been not kind. When thinking of Dan as a reviewer, imagine a Peter Pan-esque figure (complete with enormous grin and hair with a life of its own) – disarmingly boyish and with a belly laugh to put a hyena to shame. But unbeknownst to the companies of the plays he views, he is secretly carrying a massive fuck-off axe behind his back – he is without doubt utterly and totally cutthroat. This perhaps is what makes him in my professional opinion a decent writer – he is totally honest and unapologetic about his views. But from a personal standpoint I hate him and everything he stands for (this is probably a good time to point out that I know Dan, so I’m not just aimlessly attacking a poor defenceless aspiring theatre critic. And he can definitely take it). To quote a few of his recent NSDF opinions, there have been “weak and unoriginal plots”, shows with “too much going on”, performances “underplayed”, and plotlines incomprehensible (that one’s a paraphrase, but it’s too painful reading the actual review. Plus I can’t find the right copy of NOFF).

I think this Festival, brilliant as it is, has encouraged a trend in overly nit-picky criticism, and audiences look for a reason to fault rather than praise the productions they see. And I think Dan Hutton and his ilk are greatly responsible for this. NOFF is brilliant, and a fantastic opportunity for those wanting to write about theatre, but there seems to be a tendency to take things too seriously and writers representing themselves as too professional. When Dan writes he does not ever use the term “in my opinion” or “personally”, which in a genuinely professional setting is acceptable, but in a situation where (to quote our slightly bizarre opening speech) “we’re all in this together” seems out of place and inconsiderate.

Perhaps this is bitter resentment, perhaps this is too much white wine, but ultimately I think there has been too much criticism and not enough praise for the frankly brilliant and extraordinary theatre at this Festival, and Dan should take a step back and remember that he is not writing for his ridiculously popular blog but for a publication allowing anyone and everyone to represent an opinion. In this situation he needs to take more responsiblity for his writing, and represent himself less as an all-knowing, all-seeing theatrical deity, and more of a singular audience member.

Theatre at this Festival prompts debate, and there is no such thing as a definite opinion. No matter how high your Twitter following is. And if nothing else, I hope this article serves to remind him and others (naming no names but calling yourself a reviewer and then falling asleep in a show, Henry Ellis, is unforgivable) to be less wanky – you are not professionals yet. Which is summed up by the fact that any professional reviewer would never be able to say “Is NSDF this year perhaps going to be the boldest yet? Why yes, of course,” because no one is allowed to be publically that much of a pillock.


4 thoughts on “Put in my place”

  1. Hear Hear, Miss Clare-Wood…although I do think you take your personal attack on Dan possibly a step too far.
    Unfortunately, it’s not ALL Dan’s fault, and I agree with his general arguement that theatre, and particuarly a theatre festival should involve a certain amount debate and criticism. However, this years NSDF did seemed to produce an unhealthy amount of negative feedback. I was only in Scarborough for the first three days this year, and have never been before, so by no means am I professing to be an expert on the festival, and I certainly havn’t won the ‘Noff’ award two years running (selfish really isn’t it Dan?), but I was hoping for a much more celebratory atmosphere at the Festival.
    The selected shows were selected for excellence, (and even if certain shows we feel should have got in didn’t), such excellence should be celebrated, not actively torn apart by fellow students. Debate, yes. Disagree, yes. ‘Constructively criticise’. yes. But what was on show at NSDF ’11 was a refusal by many to look at any positives. Audiences were coming out of shows (Dan is not the only person guilty of this, I was doing it, and pissing myself off at the same time), and were already tearing it apart.
    NSDF is supposed to be about student theatre-makers presenting their work in a forum environment, recieving feedback, learning from eachother, and consequently being able to create better, more informed pieces of theatre in the future. But the overly competitive atmosphere, in my opinion, (hope this satisfies, Imogen?) gets in the way of any constructive learning environment, and boils down to 600/700 (however many it was) students competing against eachother for professional attention, actively seeking to knock other students work down in the process.
    The theatre industry has a reputation for being ‘dog-eat-dog’, and NSDF justified this reputation. Such a competitive mind-set can be a good thing if it inspires hard work and excellence, but from what was on show at NSDF there is a distinct danger of such an attitude creating an industry of back-stabbing, every-man-for-himself, down-right bitchiness. Possibly exaggerating? Maybe, but I would have thought, especially at a time when student theatre-makers are stood on the brink of an industry being stripped of funds, that co-operation is more important than ever. When making any sort of living out of theatre is going to be so hard, surely working together, positively and constructively is a possible way forward (even if it means slightly less individual limelight!)
    In terms of the discussion going on your other post Dan, about ‘risk’ in student theatre, I would remind you of a certain WUDS production earlier this year that tried to be clever for the sake of being clever. For me, over-conceptualising is a very dangerous thing when it comes to student theatre – don’t take risks just because you feel you need to. At the end of the day, there’s nothing better than a good play well done.

  2. I’m going to jump in with a quick reply to this which I didn’t allow to pass into the actual magazine.

    The reason Henry Ellis dozed during that particular show was that he’d been up every night until 7am (or later) putting together the magazine, and making reviews by people like Dan and Imogen look great. He wanted to review as many shows as possible, and I think his honesty in admitting he fell asleep is admirable – much more so than a reviewer dozing but reviewing anyway. And actually, critics (even professionals) do fall asleep in shows, sometimes admitting it – and it’s entirely forgiveable; in Henry’s case, it demonstrates how much time and effort he’s put in for other people (including Dan, Imogen and the two Warwick shows).

    Richard T. Watson

    1. Just wanted to chime in to second Richard T’s comments. Henry works as hard if not harder than anyone else on the magazine, he really does care about getting stuff right which is why would fall asleep, and why he wouldn’t lie about it.

      Having said that, there’s some good points in there and I think NSDF and NOFF are always taking steps to try and improve the atmospher and attitude of fest goers and reviewers. The easiest way to help is by going back next year and being the sort of reviewer that you want to read.

      1. Before this gets any further I just want to say that I massively respect Henry Ellis, and the mention of him in the article was purely because I was a bit miffed that he gave my show a very brutal review. Had I been sober when I wrote it, I wouldn’t have said anything. Sadly, I wasn’t. So apologies to him and I honestly mean no offence (now that the wine has worn off).

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