Dialogue at BAC

- Jake Orr

Devoted and Disgruntled

At the annual Devoted and Disgruntled event at York Hall in London this year I was feeling particularly deflated. The previous year had been my first D&D, and I felt energised and enriched by the experience. There was something within the open participation, the radical questioning and conversations that emerged that made me realise that I was not alone in my beliefs, and more connected than I originally thought. This year however the excitement was minimal, the conversations taking place weren’t for me. I flitted between them, never settling. Yes, the rules of D&D state that if there is something not being said that you want discussed you should set up a session, but my problem was I wasn’t sure what I wanted from D&D. It turned out that on the second day, the answer to my lack of question became apparent.

Maddy Costa, the Guardian journalist, had proposed a session called ‘What new dialogue can we set up between people who write about theatre and people who make it’. Maddy and I hadn’t met before, although Lyn Gardner had mentioned her to me earlier in the year because of a project Maddy was undertaking with theatre-maker Chris Goode. Maddy was observing Chris’ making process from within the rehearsal room and writing about it. I was about to undertake something similar with Dirty Market, a south London theatre company, during their residency at Ovalhouse Theatre. It seemed fitting therefore that Maddy’s session at D&D looked at this question of new dialogues.

It was a thrilling session, but also a frustrating one. Maddy wanted to find new ways to engage writers and makers, and to fill the gap between them. The session showed that there were those that wanted to engage in this new proposal, and those that didn’t. Which, to be honest, is fair. The rehearsal room for any artist can be a sacred place, but the divide that was beginning to form between ‘the critic’ and ‘the artist’ was tangible, and it was sickening. There has to be more to being a critic than just attending press nights and moving onto the next one.


Out of this session Maddy and I began to dream. What better place to imagine what the future might be than by closing your eyes and letting your mind think of the impossible. After many a late night email exchange or excited meeting in Maddy’s living room, a project began to emerge. It was originally going to be a new website, but as yet the website of this project only acts as a calling card for the project itself.

We’ve called our work Dialogue. It is a project born out of a need to find how theatre-makers and writers (with audiences closely following suit) can do more, can work together and find a mutual language. We want to dispel the idea that we are ‘theatre critics’, and instead replace it with ‘theatre-writers’, but if we’re being completely honest, we’re fed up of labels altogether. Limitations can be found when a label is applied. We wrote a manifesto:

Welcome to our playspace.
Dialogue is for everyone who is passionate about theatre and live performance.
Everyone who is curious.
Everyone who has something to share.
It’s a collaborative space where artists, writers and audiences can meet on mutual ground.
A fluid space where live performance is uprooted from time.
An evolving space that adapts to the changing landscapes of theatre-making, participating, watching and writing.
Dialogue is fuelled by the desire to explore new ways of communicating with and about the work we love.
It is a place where the act of communicating is an art in itself.
Welcome to Dialogue.

We built a loose website: www.welcometodialogue.com and we began to engage with people who might share our vision. We set up meetings, we frantically emailed late into the night. It was a frenzied time, where our dreaming suddenly became reality. We met with theatre companies, with individuals, with theatre-makers and theatre-writers and we attempted to carve out what Dialogue could be, could mean for the ecosystem of theatre criticism and theatre making.

Battersea Arts Centre

This led to a meeting at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) with its then co-artistic directors David Jubb and David Micklem. We told them of our idea, and in return they told us of their troubles with theatre criticism and how the work they produced in their building crashed and collided with critics and critical reflection. Despite this they listened to Maddy and me, and they asked a simple question: “What do you need from us?”

A few months later and Dialogue was to be a resident company at BAC, working between audiences, makers and other theatre-writers. BAC sent us some internal documents related to their work, in particular to their scratch work. Scratch being those work-in-progress pieces that are developed within the building, put in front of an audience for trial and error before being developed further (or indeed scrapped). Scratch shows are never reviewed by members of the press. BAC however set us a challenge. How can we, as writers of theatre, attempt to write about scratch without hindering the delicate nature of Scratch performances? Peter McMaster, David Sheppeard and Greg McLaren

Early into my time at BAC I requested from our producer Richard Dufty the chance to observe rehearsals of some of the artists present within the building. I’d previously done this with Dirty Market, spending two weeks writing about their work as they were making it. It had proven to be a challenging and rewarding experience, but also troublesome: there were moments when my own writing was blocked because I hadn’t allowed myself space. I learned how crucial space is for an artist, and for a process to develop.

Richard suggested three artists who would be developing scratch performances during their residencies at BAC. Glasgow based Peter McMaster as he developed his new piece Yeti; Brighton based David Sheppeard with his piece Holocene; and Greg McLaren with Atomkraft. Three male theatre makers who have a tendency to create work as solo artists (although in Greg’s development he worked with artist Sara Lehn). Several cups of tea later I’d made agreements with the three artists that we’d figure out a way of me working with them, be it popping into rehearsals, discussing their work or from watching their scratches.

Cafe / Bar

We knew Dialogue would be resident in the building: what we didn’t know was what our artistic practice or output would be. This is partly why this documentation is coming several months after Dialogue at BAC has taken place. (Which makes me think of something I’ve questioned for the last few months: the immediacy of reviewing. I can’t dwell on theatre, I have to write and move on, but this has proved troublesome at times. “How long do you spend writing your reviews?” was a question that Anne Rigby wanted to ask critics at our Dialogue experiment in Edinburgh. Shouldn’t critics or writers spend a greater time digesting work before responding?) With little certainty of what Dialogue would produce while in residency, but with some rough idea it would evolve around the three groups that interact with the building, namely writers, artists and audiences, Dialogue was given the cafe/bar space as our place of working.

You might find this an odd place in which to work. Artistic development and creating of work at BAC happens behind the series of closed doors across the building. It takes place in so many nooks and crannies that even a seasoned BAC-goer such as myself can’t quite figure them all out (I later learned that they have 70 licensed spaces). The decision to put Maddy and me in the café was actually one of the best for our work. Where better to be than the place in which all three elements of our focus would at some point come together?

The BAC cafe is open throughout the day and evening (when shows are on). During the daytime it is a mass of mothers with their children using the Bee’s Knees (a soft-play area of BAC that brings a sense of community into the building), staff members holding meetings and a throng of producers filling tables with collaborative ideas. In the evening, the dynamic changes, the space turns into a somewhat hazy mist of audiences, artists, and drinkers. A shared space. A meeting space. A space for dialogue and Dialogue to inhabit.

Reflecting back on our time at BAC, our position within the cafe space was vital to some of the discussions and ripples of impact that we had upon both the staff and the artists. As a communal shared space, with open access, Dialogue found a home.

Ephemeral Discussions

Being based at BAC had an effect on the staff. In their eyes we were two theatre critics in the building that they would only really encounter on press nights. But here we were in their meetings, in the cafe space, in the rehearsal rooms, engaging with artists. They began to call us artists, too.

At times Dialogue took on the role of sounding board. There were producers who felt frustrated with the reaction of critics towards their artists’ work. There were angry artists frustrated that their work had been mislabelled, misunderstood or just torn apart because the critic has the power and ability to do so. There is a frustration that critics and the current model are too distant, too hierarchical, too judgemental. There were staff members who didn’t understand but wanted to understand why we as Dialogue were based in the building. (Perhaps questioning what right we had as people who review/write about theatre to enter a space designed for artists.)

There is something calming and reassuring that Dialogue allowed these discussions to happen. Leading or guiding someone through their concerns or anger in order to move on. I’m not saying that Dialogue is a form of therapy, that’s not our aim, but people feel that they can direct things our way based upon our associations with the critical practice as a whole.

Dialogue showed that there needed to be a demystifying of the role of the critic, and that where critics were entering a building on press nights they left behind them frustrated artists. Thinking about it now, I wonder how many of those artists or producers would find frustration at a critic who had given their work a good write up, or the luxury of five stars. But it does worry me that there are so many frustrations and so many unanswered questions that trouble artists and facilitators of work. It’s almost as if these dialogues between critics and makers or producers have never happened before. Heaven forbid that artists rock the boat too much and miss out on being reviewed.

The tension isn’t felt by critics, I don’t think, partly because I wonder if they care. But artists care about their work and they care when someone extends a judgement on their work from above without, at times, fully engaging, or understanding the purpose of the work.

And the problem is, reviews sell tickets. (Or do they? A big question, not sure I actually have the answer. From my marketing experience certain publications have an impact on ticket sales, others less so. Depends on the show, on the work, on the venue…) How can you want to change something that ultimately supports your work and box office intake?

Reflecting back, all those conversations Maddy and I had with artists or staff members of BAC may not have appeared to have much impact from the outside, but they did help create a slight shift on the landscape. If we were listening to what the producers were telling us, they were listening to us in return. If the artistic directors wanted change, wanted to see something new, we were offering the start of this.

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