Dialogue, Associations and Unfinished Thoughts

On Tuesday, after week upon week of mentally penciling it into my diary only for it to get scrubbed out by something else that seemed more pressing, I finally spent a bit of time with These Associations, Tino Sehgal’s current Turbine Hall piece at the Tate Modern. The associations that this performance-based artwork conjures, through playing and gentle encounters and the swarming and separating of human bodies, are many and varied. It hints at social associations, of our engagements with others, of their intimacy or conversely their lack of intimacy; it whispers of the parallels we feel compelled to draw between disparate objects or conversations, the chains we link together in our culture of constant game-playing.

The piece was, for me, a beautiful pause in a week that is threatening to swallow me whole. Starting my MA and reaching a startling recognition of the true extent of my ignorance, combined with keeping all my other various plates spinning, is beginning to overwhelm. As a departure from this jittery panic, These Associations offered a mode of contemplation that was somehow simultaneously active and passive, an invitation to play and to watch. Yet I was also intrigued by a thought that was voiced about the work in my seminar the next day: “the potential for engagement is more exciting than the engagement itself”.

I wonder if this uncomfortable observation, made by Hana Tait, might haunt much of the current work that hinges on interaction with its audience. The potential, tingling with possibilities and anticipation, always threatens to outdo the reality. This same observation might also be applied elsewhere; the not yet elucidated, slippery, anticipatory ghost of an idea, perhaps half-spoken or half-thought, is often more captivating than its concrete explication.

This is all a rather roundabout way, by route of a scenic tour around my current state of mind, of getting into some thoughts that I’ve been kicking around between brain, notebook and drafts folder ever since the recent Dialogue event at BAC. I’ve been holding onto those elusive half-thoughts in the belief of their potentiality, almost scared that, butterfly-like, their wings would tear as I attempted to pin them down. Which is a self-consciously poetic way of saying I was worried that the actual words I was managing to wrench out were a little bit shit. They weren’t in any way doing justice to the event, the discussions or the potentially exciting thoughts I’ve been prodding at concerning theatre criticism.

The event I’m talking about, chaired by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr, was an attempt to cultivate conversations around this topic. For a planned three hours that unravelled into four, a room full of people who make, write about or watch theatre – or any combination of the three – talked about theatre criticism, what it means and how it might be done better. Especially how it might be done better.

This session of conversations and provocations was a larger extension of the informal morning I spent discussing similar issues at St Stephen’s, a discussion that made me question the way I was reviewing theatre in Edinburgh at the time but that spat me out onto the cobbled streets buzzing with possibilities. This latest event, by contrast, was a lot more challenging for me. The conversations were no less interesting or urgent, but I walked down to the BAC bar feeling emptied out, exhausted.

Trying to write about it, I’ve also exhausted myself. I found myself attempting to cover too much ground and in summing up countless conversations I got lost in them. Instead I want to play and to watch, to flit between associations. To curate a highly subjective critical curation of discussions that are far too complex and knotty and far-reaching to crystallize here.

My way into this, like Maddy’s way into the afternoon’s discussions at BAC, is a one minute manifesto. Maddy’s manifesto spoke about love, something which she understood as involving respect, admiration and trust, ingredients that should arguably translate into how we write about theatre. My own manifesto, which first tapped me on the shoulder on a walk home from the station in the gathering, bonfire-scented dusk, says a lot about where I feel I am at the moment and goes some way towards explaining my reasons for being at BAC that afternoon.


The Power of “I Don’t Know”

I don’t know.

It’s not a phrase that often finds its way into public rhetoric. It is shunned by politicians and by all of those individuals in positions of any little authority. It says uncertainty, indecisiveness, perhaps even stupidity. The gormless refrain of the schoolboy staring listlessly out of the classroom window. An inadequate response.

But sometimes it’s the only reasonable response. Certainty, for all that it is prized, is a dangerous quality. Certainty makes blinkered decisions; certainty doesn’t dream of alternatives. Certainty can be entrenched.

It is uncertainty that often takes the biggest leaps, those bold steps into the unknown. It’s that unfashionable admission of “I don’t know” that prompts questions, that looks around at all the possibilities, that is open to discussion. “I don’t know” is the conversation starter; “I don’t know” is a beginning.

Granted, decisiveness has its place. Decisions do, after all, need to be made. But I’d also like to champion the power of “I don’t know”. I’d like people to look around, to challenge the way things are, to be able to answer the question of whether this is right with an expression of doubt. To examine the status quo with fresh, unblinking eyes and say, with crinkled brow, “I’m not sure about that”.

There are lots of things that I don’t know about. I don’t really know what I’m doing or what kind of person I want to be. I don’t entirely know where my life is going or where exactly I stand on lots of debates. While voices are shouting around me, I’m holding the arguments in either hand and shrugging my shoulders. It can be scary and intimidating and can make me feel small and stupid.

But it can also be exciting. It can hum with a thousand unuttered possibilities or present paths that I’d never have imagined treading. It can also be powerful.

The end. Question mark.


I frequently feel horrible about not knowing. It’s a position of ignorance that my age and the relatively brief amount of time I’ve actually spent interrogating theatre and performance make inevitable, but one that has been highlighted to me yet again in the last week or so. But I’d like to turn around that ignorance and uncertainty into a way of looking at criticism, as I pick out the splinters of discussion that had buried their way under my skin and start to think about ways of moving forwards.

I think that perhaps uncertainty and self-examination provide a useful starting point. At the very end of a largely optimistic piece written in response to these same discussions, Andrew Haydon raises the spectre that has recently been haunting me of the critic’s training. He puts forward the fascinating suggestion that the reimagined critic might have a role within the theatre landscape as an ecologist or curator, but questions what level of preparation that responsibility might entail. The problem is that there are no real qualifications as such for being a critic.

Which brings me onto the question of “professionalism”. To be a professional critic essentially involves being paid for criticism, in the sense that Michael Billington is a professional whereas I – at least most of the time – am not. As Andrew begins to go into, this professional status dictates the critic’s activities, as they become absorbed into the economic system under which theatre operates. They are required to pass judgment on productions that are considered “newsworthy”, either driving or dwindling ticket sales. Like it or not, they are a cog in the machine. This kind of criticism requires a certain kind of approach and experience which perhaps differs from the demands on the emergent “critic as curator” role, a role that seems to ask for the kind of knowledge that I’m rapidly trying to acquire at the moment.

For me, training and a different kind of professionalism, one that sits if not completely outside of then on the edge of economic relations, is all about context and connections. Fresh in my mind as I embark on a course that identifies itself as interdisciplinary is the arguably interdisciplinary nature of the way in which we study and understand theatre and performance. Theories borrow and feed from areas such as literature and visual art, as well as less obviously connected disciplines, in the same way that theatre is also flooded with outside influences. As Andrew suggests, there’s something to be said for breadth and for an appreciation of the fact that theatre exists within and is shaped by a wider cultural ecology. If the critic or curator is to undertake any kind of training, it should perhaps be in this. It’s a widening of scope that is also recognised by Daniel B. Yates in his call for theatre critics to engage with other forms of cultural criticism, itself the product of conversations had at Edinburgh and since.

Albeit in a very different way, I feel that the architecture of context could also house some of the “embedded” practices that are currently the subject of much discussion. While there is another function of this role from an artist’s perspective, which was discussed at BAC by Selma Dimitrijevic and which I’m personally very interested in exploring further (a more dramaturgical role is perhaps the best way to describe it), I think there is something to be said for simply gaining an understanding of process. This does not necessarily involve valuing process over end product, which can be dangerous and risks eliding an aesthetic judgment on the work, but rather informs a kind of criticism that is aware of and sensitive to process and which might as a result inspect the choices of a piece more deeply.

Alongside and in addition to this desire for context, in all its many forms, I want to reintroduce Maddy’s idea of love. Criticism is – or should be – an act of love, as Andy Horwitz defines it in his excellent essay on the 21st century critic (essential reading). Stewart Pringle said one of the most brilliant things of the whole afternoon at BAC right at the end when he explained that his relationship to theatre, be that making it or writing about it, is all about showing other people amazing things (I paraphrase, poorly). It was a pertinent link back to the title of the event: For the Love of Theatre. I’m interested in intricate analysis and interdisciplinary connections, but I’m also doing this because I love theatre and I feel compelled to communicate that love to others.

Which is what makes Megan Vaughan’s concept of bottling an aesthetic experience such an attractive idea to bring into this mix of what criticism could or should be. As she does, it’s helpful to bring in some Kant, and I think it’s worth quoting this element of his thinking on aesthetic judgment in full:

If we wish to decide whether something is beautiful or not, we do not use understanding to refer the presentation to the object so as to give rise to cognition; rather, we use imagination (perhaps in connection with understanding) to refer the presentation to the subject and his feeling of pleasure or displeasure. Hence a judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment and so is not a logical judgment but an aesthetic one, by which we mean a judgement whose determining basis cannot be other than subjective
Critique of Judgment

As well as unveiling the fallacy of objectivity in a way that I find particularly appealing, there is a suggestion within this understanding of aesthetic judgment about how such aesthetic experiences might be communicated, as Megan goes on to explore. How do we share, nurture and sustain a passion for theatre as a whole and for particular pieces of work? A quality within criticism that captures the visceral thrill of seeing a truly stimulating piece (as Megan’s review of Three Kingdoms does better than any of the many, many words I wrote on that same production) is something valuable and vital. I also like Kant’s implication, inserted within parentheses, that this might be married with “understanding”, hinting at a kind of criticism that could conceivably combine the elements I have so far described.

Another way in which these different elements of criticism might be linked is through the idea of conversation that is at the heart of Dialogue’s project. Whether as a way of opening up a productive dialogue between critic and artist or as a starting point for post-show chats in the theatre bar, criticism should be able to get people talking, whatever form that conversation catalyst takes.

Mention of form finally transports me to the point that I made when my turn came at the end of the session at BAC. I didn’t put it particularly well at the time, but chewing over the myriad conversations that had made up the afternoon seemed to throw up a loose connecting thread of the form that criticism takes or could take. My feeling was that a lot of the discussions and indeed the disagreements revolved around different ideas of what criticism should do, who it’s for and what it should look like, three points that are all messily tangled up with one another.

If one thing is clear from the dialogues that have been opened up, it’s that it’s unlikely that we’re all going to agree on any of those three things in the foreseeable future. Which makes me think that the kind of criticism we’re attempting to reframe shouldn’t be a “model” at all (someone else, I can’t remember who, protested against the rigidity of this term) but something more flexible, more malleable, more open to the number of different purposes that criticism can serve. It needn’t even, as Andy Field suggested, take the form of writing at all. Why limit ourselves to just one form of critical expression? I’m not quite sure how, but it strikes me that we need to reconsider and open up our idea of what criticism entails and the many different guises that it might take, guises far more sophisticated and varied than the traditional designation of a “review”.

To attempt some kind of summing up, I suppose that there are four main strands to what I’m rather convolutedly saying: the requirement for the critic to question his/her position, the desire for a greater awareness of the context in which both theatre and theatre criticism sit, the need to express and share an inherent love for theatre in a way that starts conversations, and the suggestion of a more flexible and open idea of how that might be done.

My sketchy vision of the critic is of someone who collects beautiful and/or interesting things (note interesting – that could just as easily mean ugliness with a grain of curiosity), holds them up against other beautiful and interesting things by way of examination, and then communicates those things to others (be those others audiences or artists) in a way that is beautiful in its own right and that opens, channels and curates conversations, together with an awareness of the critic’s self-constructed identity within those conversations. (of course, this vision might just be down to the strange pleasure I take, both in theatre and in writing about theatre, in observing the creation of something beautiful that then turns itself inside out).

So what next? Moving forward involves asking questions, being able to accept the fact that there might not be ready answers and being willing, like Dan Hutton in his response, to set ourselves the task of trying out these new kinds of criticism and very possibly failing. So let’s say “I don’t know”. Let’s ask the questions, let’s look around, and let’s translate that electric current of potentiality into something actual. As Dan says, this could all go tits up, but I figure it’s worth a try.


3 thoughts on “Dialogue, Associations and Unfinished Thoughts

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