Dialogue at BAC

A record of the discussion about theatre criticism, held at BAC on Saturday September 22, 2012.

This was Dialogue's second “live outing”, by which I mean our second attempt at staging something that is a bit like a conference, a bit like an Open Space discussion and a bit like a party, something informal where it doesn't matter what your involvement is in theatre, all voices are equally valid and everything contributes to an understanding of what people want from theatre criticism, and what theatre-writing could be.

Jake and I gave a lot of thought to building a frame for the event, which began with choosing the title: For The Love of Theatre. We made clear in our invitation that the event was for “anyone who watches theatre, makes it, or writes about it”; about 40 people came, a group comprising bloggers/journalists/critics and theatre students (including Andrew Haydon, Matt Trueman, Catherine Love, Megan Vaughan, Dan Hutton, Stewart Pringle), people who would variously call themselves makers and directors and performers and playwrights and writers (including David Jubb, Selma Dimitrijevic, Chris Goode, Jonny Liron, Mary Paterson, Andy Field, Hannah Silva, Ira Brand, Greg McLaren, Maggie Saunders, Jenifer Toksvig, Tom Morris), people who work in theatre marketing, producers, plus two women – one who works in the administrative team at the Siobhan Davies Dance Studio, another who works in book publishing – who, delightfully, came as theatre fans.

This was our introduction:

“We called this session about theatre criticism ‘For the Love of Theatre’ because all critics, whether theatre-makers think it or believe it or appreciate it or not, start from a place of love for theatre. We’ve all felt it. That moment during a show when goosebumps erupt across our skin, and our breathing is heightened and we think, yes, this is why I’m here. It’s when theatre rises up inside us and dances a fiery dance that makes us want to shout and scream. It’s when theatre becomes a life support, when the theatre that we see flows through our veins and heart and we can’t help but to feel like we’re witnessing change. This is why we do it. This is the reason we sit, observe, speculate and write. For this moment. For this love.”

And this is how we defined love: as a combination of respect, admiration and trust (a lovely phrase borrowed from the Hal Hartley film Trust). There is – most of the time – respect and admiration in the relationship between theatre-makers and -writers/critics. But what about trust? At the very end of the session, a young director offered a different definition: Love is the ability to sit and listen to someone tell the same story 1000 times, and enjoy it every time. That felt useful and pertinent, too.

We divided the day into three sections, each with an introductory speaker – although again, the aim was to keep the mood informal, so everyone sat in a circle and there was no platform separating invited speakers from anyone else. The first section posed two questions: what do makers – and audience-members – want from theatre criticism? And: how could we rethink the role of the critic? Chris Goode opened the discussion with an extraordinary piece about his relationship with the Guardian's Lyn Gardner, the person who has had the most impact and influence on his career, by writing about him consistently and for the most part positively for the past 12 years. You could feel an electric ripple through the room when he compared the contract between them to that between a parent and a child: the child holding up its painting to its parent, hoping for approval; the parent wanting to like it, wanting to see the good in it. That desire for approval, Chris argued, can be an unhelpful shiver in the mind of the maker embarking on a new work, especially on a new work that might be deemed risky, unconventional, experimental.

He ended with an address not to Lyn specifically, but to:

… any critic who perhaps underestimates how they tower illegibly over the process sometimes, who maybe feels a bit squeamish about the idea of being, as it were, in the room when the work is made: you’re already there. You’re there and you’re silent and invisible and a bit scary, and resented sometimes, and maybe even diminishing the scope of what’s possible. If you wanted, your presence could be something completely different from that, but one way or another your presence is a given and that’s the place we’re starting from. You’re already in the room.

The second section invited everyone to consider the role a critic or theatre-writer might take within a theatre company – and asked: what happens to the critical bit of criticism when they're there? Selma Dimitrijevic, co-artistic director of Greyscale, told us here about her recent experiments with inviting critics into her rehearsals, a decision influenced partly by reading long-form online reviews and being excited by the engagement with ideas she found there, and partly by her own experience as a dramaturg to playwrights, where her role was to “provide a filter through which the writer can see their piece without emotional co-independence”. Unlike theatre-makers, who find it difficult to be completely honest with each other about their work, especially when they are in the middle of making it, critics are not afraid to say what they think: as such, she argued, having a critic as an outside eye, offering a different filter through or view into the work, is good for the company, the work, for everyone.

The third section was led by BAC artistic director David Jubb talking about some of the difficulties he experiences in the traditional relationship between theatre and critics. Press nights tend to be his least favourite in the building, and it troubles him that critics are given preferential treatment: he spends time writing information sheets for critics to build up empathy for the work, gives them free drinks. Why don't we do the same for audiences? Why not make every night press night?

He also raised two brilliant points about the perspective of theatre-writers. He feels that BAC is at its best when its practices, artists and audiences are more at the periphery than in the mainstream, because it's at the edges, the periphery, of a culture that exciting and creative things happen. In which case, are critics – and, for that matter, the staff of BAC, and other similar institutions – interested in pushing the periphery towards the mainstream, or in nurturing the periphery so it exists creatively in its own right? He also argued that when critics – of whatever art form – talk about whether or not a work is good, immediately they diminish their reach. Whereas when critics behave more like philosophers, and involve themselves with the debate and the ideas within the work, it doesn't matter if they're talking about theatre, or visual arts, whatever, they're talking about something everyone can access.

The discussion inspired by and firing off from these provocations was knotty, sometimes frustrating, frequently illuminating, energetic and a little fraught. Unsurprisingly, it darted hither and thither rather than following a linear course, so summarising it is tricky. What follows is by no means comprehensive, more an attempt to gather together key thoughts and themes.

On the subject of theatre-writers watching rehearsals, or being on the inside:
A playwright noted that she is very used to having her work critiqued at every stage of its existence, as she frequently gives drafts to people to read. However, they tend to be other playwrights, or theatre-makers.
A sense of awkwardness from one critic about what he sees as the attempt to wrestle critics into a dramaturg role; his desire not to impact on the show being made, and to reserve the right to say what he thinks about it when it's finished.
More than one person felt that if a critic has spent time in the rehearsal room, they should leave writing a review of that work to other people.
An interest from one theatre-maker in taking advantage of the critic's breadth of knowledge of theatre – because often critics have seen a lot more work than makers have.
One young director felt excited by the possibility of theatre-writers creating stronger artist-artist relationships: although he feels too shy to have a critic in his rehearsal room, he would love to read accounts from theatre-writers of other people's processes, as this would help him grow as an artist himself and perhaps out of that shyness also.

On creative reviewing:
A reminder that writing is difficult, and writing is an art.
An interest in writing about theatre that does more than admits its own subjectivity, writing that is more poetic or lyrical and that comes from within the experience of the work. Writing whose creative voice is inflected by the experience it is trying to describe.
An interest in the potential to disassociate criticism from the act of writing. Admiration expressed for charcoal drawings of theatre work, haiku blogging, pieces of audio made in response to work.
A question was raised: can new forms of criticism find the audiences who will enjoy the work most?
And a frustration expressed: what does an experimental review actually tell you about a piece?
David Jubb wondered what institutions can do to develop creative critics, and for positive collaboration between them.
Mary Paterson talked about a professional development programme she went on at the Live Art Development Agency six years ago: what she and other participants found was that exposure to experimental art made them question whether reviews do the work justice, especially when the temporality of live art and theatre is so radically different to the temporality of the review. She began experimenting with using gestural or notational languages, and with creating different kinds of texts, including: texts to be read by people in queues, to be destroyed immediately after being read, to be read aloud by audiences. She's now thinking about the performance of being a writer, and what it is to sit on a stage while a performance is happening, taking notes.
Andy Field talked about Fierce Festival's Press Gang, which nurtures writers and in doing so nurtures a critical context in which its work can be situated. What about artists reviewing or responding to each other's work?

On the requirements of theatre criticism:
One director argued that theatre-makers want from criticism: publicity, accountability (did I communicate what I wanted to communicate?), a liaison or bridge between the creators and the audience.
One maker wants theatre-writers to uncover a “plurality of intentionalities”: to provide a way of thinking about work that differs from the artists'.
Readers want to be entertained, and they want star ratings. Certainly that's the marketing perspective – but it's a perspective many in the audience share.
A paranoia was expressed, that if you read a review before seeing a show, it will affect what you think of it.
A desire to read not just a response to the piece seen, but a response to its themes and thoughts that encourage the articulation of new thought.
Chris Goode expressed a longing for a paradigm shift in what's wanted from critical discourse, from encounter with individual pieces, to relationships with artists.

As at Dialogue's first live outing, at the 2012 Edinburgh festival with Northern Stage at St Stephen's, the discussion raised several questions that cannot be answered simply and are worth returning to repeatedly. Here are some of them:

Is it possible to write about a theatre piece without assessing whether it's “good” or “bad”?

How can you separate the discourse of criticism from the market, and if you did, would criticism still have a value?

Is criticism in service to marketing and development?

Are you a reviewer or a critic? Are you in the theatre world, or in the world of journalism?

Does anyone think the star-rating system should stay?

For the Love of Theatre didn't end positively for me and Jake. We felt deflated by the discussion, and acutely felt that we had failed – something Jake wrote about on his website a few days later. Partly this was an adrenaline crash. Partly it was a recognition that we had spent so much time building our frame for the event, we hadn't thought hard enough about how to manage what happened inside it: how to make shy people feel comfortable to speak, how to stop strident voices dominating. Greg McLaren has written on his blog of how he found this aspect of the session frustrating. When it comes to the next Dialogue live outing, we'll be doing a lot of things differently.

What we hope won't change is people's willingness to be open, honest, generous and patient with each other in the spaces we create for dialogue. Thank you to everyone who took part in this one, for all the brilliant, valuable, difficult and challenging things you said.

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