Value Judgements

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Who decides what makes art good? This nagging, age-old question was recently posed once again in the first of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures and was met with a multitude of answers. While debates about the categories of “good” and “bad” are far too knotty for a single piece of writing to untangle, one thing we can agree on is that critics tend to fall within that circle of cultural arbiters. So how do we distribute our approval? And what do we take into consideration when making those value judgements?

Around the same time as Perry was delivering his Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival held an event asking ‘Are Audiences Killing Culture?’ No doubt the title was meant as a provocation rather than a serious suggestion, but the very fact that this question can even be posed says something about how our culture assigns value. If audiences become the enemy of culture, then who is that culture ultimately for? And without an audience, how will it survive?

If art as the beleaguered, exclusive realm of the few sits in one corner, then perhaps opposite it is art that embraces its audience not only as spectators but as co-creators. Increasingly, works of contemporary art and theatre are being made with audiences as well as for them, recruiting participants to actively shape the final artistic material. Here the process is just as important as the product – indeed, for those who take part, it might be more important than what they eventually produce. But this, of course, presents a problem for the critic.

In a controversial essay published in Art Forum in 2006, Claire Bishop challenged the assumed political efficacy of the relational and participatory practices that she saw gaining momentum in contemporary art. In this article, she suggests that these practices are “less interested in a relational aesthetic than in the creative rewards of collaborative activity”, resulting in value judgments that ignore artistic criteria in favour of praising the work’s social and political ambitions. In response to this work, Bishop witnesses a problematic “ethical turn in art criticism”, one that she would see replaced with a more critical and interrogative discourse.

While Bishop has brought such arguments to the fore of art criticism, participatory theatre has not been subject to quite the same level of discussion between critics. As an art form, it also deserves its own theory and vocabulary; the huge difference between visual art and theatre, of course, is that theatre is a live experience that is not so easily reduced to a pure commodity, bringing process and product closer together in that sense. Lyn Gardner, one of the few newspaper critics to meaningfully engage with what is variously labelled as community, applied or participatory theatre, argued that we should not patronise this work by focusing too heavily on its social efficacy. Asking whether a critic should take the process into consideration when reviewing work of this nature, she concluded that “if the project has a theatrical manifestation – if an audience is invited and critics too – then it has to be judged on the basis of the performance”.

But this penetrates deeper than relational art practices or community theatre. As critics, are we always judging a final product? Does the process even matter, or is that not our concern? And if we do focus our attention purely on a finished performance and its supposed fixity, are we in some way complicit in commodifying that performance in a way that runs counter to the social potential of the live moment?

These are questions that I find myself repeatedly returning to as I engage in conversations with London Bubble about their latest intergenerational show. From Docks to Desktops has been collaboratively created by its participants, who have gathered experiences of working life from their local communities over a number of months. The resulting show, stitched together from these various stories, reflects the socio-economic shifts in a specific area of London and its impact on the people living there; it is, essentially, a community discovering and telling its own stories.

While thinking about From Docks to Desktops, I was fascinated to see a conversation between critic Matt Trueman and theatremaker Rajni Shah about her project Glorious,which involved a different group of participants in every area it visited. Trueman initially had what he described as an “allergic reaction” to Glorious and decided not to write about it, but after being approached by Shah he entered into a lengthy dialogue about his problems with the show. Throughout this conversation, Trueman is remarkably honest about his own habits as a spectator, while Shah admits that initially her main focus for Glorious was the participants rather than the audience. As she recognises, the participants get a week with the show, whereas an audience’s time with the piece is strictly limited and therefore they need a way into it. They need, perhaps – just as Trueman arguably needed – an appreciation of the process.

The process of From Docks to Desktops is inscribed in its performance. It is performed by the same participants who helped to gather the material that forms the piece and it is framed by the act of interviewing. This strikes me as a canny choice, allowing audiences that way into the stories being told, while at the same time allowing an appreciation of the work simultaneously on the levels of process and product. It also builds space for the encounter with its audiences – many of whom, of course, will be from the area it is concerned with, and some of whom will have contributed their stories to its creation.

The question of assigning value to this performance, however, will still prove tricky. Is the success of its process alone and the community of people it has brought together enough to make it “good”? Does that little moment of magic glimpsed in a rehearsal or a scratch performance contribute towards a positive judgement? Or does everything rest on one, supposedly final iteration of this collective story? And, to look at it yet another way, should the critic’s role in assessing work like this even be to pronounce an authoritative “yay” or “nay”? Is there not another shape the critic could adopt, as the initiator of conversations around this work?

There are a few things I know. I know that I don’t want to think about theatre purely as product. I know that I’m interested in process and I want to think about how an understanding of process might inform my criticism. And I know that I’m excited by the potential of criticism to spark wider conversations about theatre and engage people in dialogue about the culture they engage with.

Talking about theatre rather than speaking theatre, as Maddy Costa so brilliantly puts it. As for all the other questions I’ve asked, I’m not sure that I have any answers yet. But it feels as though these are questions that we, like Perry, should be continuing to ask ourselves. What makes theatre good, who decides, and how do they decide?

Secrets and Surprises

Originally written for Exeunt.

As our huddled group of partygoers shudder upwards in an industrial lift, headed towards the Lyric Hammersmith’s secrecy-veiled launch, a woman behind me compares the experience to seeing a show by Shunt or Punchdrunk. There’s that same sense of an event, of the unexpected. Walking across Lyric Square, we’ve been directed around the side of the building, to its concealed, warehouse-like innards. While waiting in this space, we have an opportunity to see the building – and our relationship with it – from a different angle. The very walls seem to shift.

Artistic director Sean Holmes’ plans for the Lyric over the next few months, announced on Monday night, are about transforming the theatre from within as much as from without. At the same time as the building itself is completely renovated in a huge capital project, a group of theatremakers are occupying its heart. The auditorium, which will remain untouched for the duration of the building work, is to become the flexible home of Secret Theatre, which is exactly what its name suggests. In a bold and teasing move, the Lyric is not releasing any details of the plays it will be producing over the next year; instead, audiences will come to be surprised.

But this is not simply about returning a sense of the unexpected to the theatrical event in a society saturated with information. Mirroring the work that is taking place around them, the Secret Theatre company are engaged in challenging and changing structures. Resisting the rapid turnaround of an industry used to dishing up end products and swiftly moving on, the company of ten actors and ten creatives will be working together in the space throughout the year, collaboratively making and performing and sharing. As Holmes put it in his speech, “the company we have assembled is an attempt to create a new structure that might lead to a new type of work”.

There are a number of ways in which Secret Theatre is shifting the structures of how the Lyric – and many other institutions like it – make theatre. The ensemble of actors is evenly split between men and women and includes black and disabled performers. This immediately erodes the structure of literalism, which has become something of a straitjacket for much British theatre. The set-up is also designed to create a different conversation in the rehearsal room, allowing those involved more time to create work in true collaboration and for a specific space. One niggle is that everyone involved is still assigned a rigidly defined title – writer, director, actor – but one suspects that in rehearsal these roles will be much more fluid.

Surrounded by the vivid red of the Secret Theatre launch party, I’m reminded of the similar injection of colour that has just been administered to the Royal Court by new artistic director Vicky Featherstone. Even the bar is bursting with yellows, reds, blues and greens. The Court is another established building whose existing structures are being challenged, in this case thanks to a sharp burst of fresh air that Featherstone is blasting through the theatre over the summer. Open Court, while guided by different principles and very much organised around playwrights, cultivates a similar atmosphere of experimentation and surprise. The sense is that anything could happen.

As Andrew Haydon notes, it’s clear that, even without the kind of construction work taking place at the Lyric, Featherstone has given careful thought to the building she’s inherited. As well as the changes to the bar, which now feels like a place you might actually want to hang out in without worrying you aren’t wearing the right shoes, the season itself kicked off with a telling reflection on the theatre building. In the first “Surprise Theatre” offering, Cakes and Finance, Mark Ravenhill read from the transcripts of a series of playwrights talking about their ideal theatre, musing on everything from the idea of 24-hour theatre to the suggestion that cats should be incorporated into more performances (surely one of Chris Goode’s contributions).

Alongside the obvious similarities between Open Court’s surprise shows and the secrecy around the Lyric’s new season, there are other shared experiments. Like Secret Theatre, the main house plays during Open Court are operating using a rep system (which is as much a return to the past as a new innovation), with an ensemble of actors rehearsing next week’s show by day while performing this week’s show at night. In some ways this offers the complete opposite of the Lyric’s project, driving at energy and a quick turnover of plays rather than extended rehearsal periods, but it equally fosters that sense of the collective at the same time as bringing a vital roughness back to the stage. Also, while the gesture of Open Court honours the mythology of the Royal Court’s status as “the writers’ theatre” – a mythology that Featherstone’s launch announcement was drenched in – this has been done in such a way that it explodes in the same movement in which it preserves. Clever.

And it’s not just these two venues. While exciting developments have been pushing at the outside for years, it feels increasingly as though some change is beginning to seed itself on the inside. I think of the scarlet structure of the National Theatre Shed, shouting its presence on the South Bank – again, a dash of colour – and of the ongoing developments at Battersea Arts Centre, as it too undergoes building work that will open it and its brilliant work out even further to the surrounding community. It’s not everything, and there’s a definite danger of getting carried away and falling back into complacency, but it is a start. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a rare and much-needed whiff of optimism in the air.

To encapsulate some of that optimism, it feels right to conclude with Holmes’ galvanising words from Monday night. Speaking about the vision for Secret Theatre, he expressed his hope “that even if you hate it, you can’t ignore it. That even if you love it, it scares you. That you will believe it’s an honest attempt to change. To delight. To question.”

Thinking Outside of the Building

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Originally written for The Stage.

At Vicky Featherstone’s first Royal Court press briefing, there was an intriguing statement of intent about the theatre’s direction. As well as reaffirming the theatre’s commitment to writers, handing over the keys of the building for a summer season led by the playwrights, Featherstone made a comment with potentially far-reaching implications for the future role of the Royal Court. She said, with a playful grin, “no space should be safe from theatre”.

As the new artistic director went on to explain, she’s interested in utilising different spaces within the building, in taking shows outside the Royal Court’s home in Sloane Square, and in bringing new audiences through its doors. It’s perhaps not surprising that Featherstone, who has led the nomadic National Theatre of Scotland for the last eight years, should want to look beyond the restrictive and arguably exclusive boundaries of the Royal Court’s four walls. What’s more striking is that she’s not alone.

While “audience development” has long been a key part of theatres’ PR arsenal, this can often be just so much empty rhetoric. Now, however, there seems to be a genuine commitment to opening up theatre spaces, venturing beyond bricks and mortar and establishing theatres as a vital part of their surrounding communities. It’s a development that’s sorely needed and one that might, if successful, ensure a future life for theatres within an arts funding landscape that is looking increasingly precarious.

At last year’s Theatres Trust conference on delivering sustainable theatres, Griff Rhys Jones championed the theatre as a place of public assembly in modern day communities, taking on the civic role once occupied by the town hall or community centre. While a vision of the theatre as the beating heart of the community is perhaps a little utopian, there are ways that buildings can connect with local residents through more than just their artistic programme. Just look at Battersea Arts Centre, where experimental performance jostles alongside yoga classes and tea dances. Artistic director David Jubb is keen to retain this diverse make-up of functions, hoping to achieve an overlap between the venue’s two distinct strands of activity, while ongoing improvement works will make the building structurally more open.

Beyond London, this gesture of opening out is even more essential, particularly as other public spaces are threatened. Rhys Jones has pointed to the example of Derry Playhouse, which is open to local people throughout the day, functioning almost like a community centre. There are other similar if not quite so far-reaching examples. Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff has worked hard to create a welcoming environment that encourages people to drop in, while one of the key pledges made by West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new artistic director James Brining is to open up the building and explore the way the theatre relates to its communities. One of the few things theatres do have is space, much of which lies dormant when not being used for performance. Why not fill it?

As well as inviting audiences in, establishing theatres as buzzing hubs of the community, venues might look outwards. As buildings hold less prestige than they once did, there is the opportunity for theatres to redefine their identity beyond their own walls. West Yorkshire Playhouse has effectively demonstrated this approach with the city-facing programming of this year’s Transform Festival, including a piece of performance made with local residents and performed outside the theatre. The challenge, of course, is to expand this beyond the fleeting festival context.

But does all this shift the focus away from the art itself? There are clearly potential pitfalls for such an approach – particularly if treated as a careless add-on to tick funding boxes – but the community benefits need not be at the expense of the theatre. At their best, each can positively impact upon the other. Fresh influences enter the building, disrupting and invigorating a process of theatremaking that might otherwise become stultified, while new potential audience members are given the opportunity to encounter the work and be surprised.

None of this is to say that theatres should abandon their core activities; rather, as ever, they need to adapt. Buildings have always been one step behind the performances and audiences they host, running to keep up. Think of the exponential growth in site-specific work over recent years, to the point where the National Theatre is now selling tickets for Shunt and Punchdrunk shows taking place miles away from the South Bank. The need from local communities and potential audiences is there, the only question is whether theatres will step in to fill the gap.

In her recent keynote speech addressing the thorny issue of arts funding, culture minister Maria Miller firmly stated that the arts need to make the case for their ongoing importance in economic rather than artistic terms. It’s a statement that has prompted an understandable backlash, pinpointing many of the dangers and inadequacies of measuring the arts’ value in purely monetary terms. But perhaps theatres’ greatest argument for their survival is the role they might play within their local areas – artistically, economically, and as a central component of the community.

Photo: Richard Davenport

Where is the Audience?

Originally written for Exeunt.

The question that forms the title of this column might sound like a strange one. The audience are out there surely, in the dark, occasionally punctuated by the odd surreptitiously scribbling critic. They are a vital part of the circuit, without which theatre and performance would not be able to fire. They constitute theatre’s purpose, its immediacy, the second half of its violently beating heart.

Yet I wonder if the audience, robbed of light, are failing to be seen. On Monday evening I attended the latest Platform event as part of the Bush Theatre’s RADAR festival of new writing, an event entitled “how is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the terms in which this question was framed, the contributions – from Sean Holmes, Andrew Haydon, Ramin Gray and Maddy Costa – were centred on interrogating the directions in which both critical discourse and contemporary theatre might be heading and how they might or might not be in step with one another. And those contributions were thoughtful and nuanced and exciting and made me want to start new conversations.

In all of these many heady conversations that I and others have been participating in over the last few months, however, there is a nagging absence. It acts as a black hole, the latent subject around which all our discussions revolve and to which they are irresistibly drawn, but that does not quite show itself. Just as they find themselves shrouded in darkness in the auditorium, the audience have remained barely visible in these discussions, a constant yet silent presence whose lack of visibility only became fully clear to me after it was raised in two separate conversations following the RADAR Platform. Where is the audience in this dialogue?

Being a big fan of conversation – as my friends can no doubt exasperatedly attest to – the thought that critics and theatremakers might be starting to talk more to one another can only be a good thing. But while we alternate between knocking heads and sharing ideas, the very people for whose benefit we’re loudly wrangling might be hovering awkwardly over our shoulders, struggling to find a way in.

At another panel talk I recently attended, I sat stranded in the tides of discussion, uncharacteristically tongue-tied and unable to navigate a route into the conversation. That wasn’t the fault of anyone speaking, but I’d hate for my own excited immersion within the current bubble of critical discourse to make others feel that same sense of marooned dislocation. The bubble is delicate and beautiful, but it might also be exclusive and eventually stifling. After all, there’s only so much air to go around.

It strikes me as ironic that the Platform at the Bush, in which the audience were curiously quiet, was followed later that same evening by the inclusive powerhouse of Kieran Hurley’s Beats. An exhilarating mash-up of storytelling and techno music set to the backdrop of the rave culture of the early 1990s, Hurley’s play hinges tantalisingly on the idea that a live gathering of people might be something inherently radical. It’s an act of immediate togetherness that seems ever more subversive in an age of digital connection that has both expanded and fractured human relations. Set against the emailing, the tweeting, the blogging, the simple idea of collecting in one physical location to share a fleetingly live experience becomes something that breaks the norm, interrupting the electronic noise at the same time as it contributes to it.

As I felt while watching Beats, a belief in the power of theatre must also be a belief in the potential of the shared space and the collective experience. At an earlier Platform event as part of RADAR, which responded to the provocation “one idea that could change our theatrical landscape”, Chris Goode offered up the possibility of “making the space for something to happen in”. Since being generously invited into rehearsals by Greyscale earlier this year, I’ve come to agree with Chris that the site of process is often more interesting and exciting than the “finished” (note the scare quotes) work. I’m utterly, giddily seduced by the fragile magic of the rehearsal room. Setting aside my own desires, however, perhaps what we ought to be looking for is a space – either literal or figurative – that can include everyone; a space that might, as Chris suggests, “scuff the distinctions between process and product, and artist and audience”. Isn’t that the space that we (in which I include both critics and makers) should be really interested in creating?

But before we all berate ourselves too much, perhaps the kernel of a solution to this issue of including and engaging the audience was already there, in the speeches and provocations at the Bush and the enthusiasm- and wine-fuelled conversations in the bar afterwards. At one point during her contribution, Maddy Costa highlighted the US site Culturebot, its guiding concept of “critical horizontalism” and its dedication to a response that is “the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist”. That dialogue that the artist has initiated is surely a dialogue with the audience of the piece, a dialogue in which the critic has a role as both a participant and an enabling force. Critics’ conversations with theatremakers, whatever form those conversations might take, are not exclusive duologues; for the health of the discussion and of the art form, we need to get everyone talking.

Of all the speeches made on the stage of the Bush Theatre on Monday evening, the one in which the audience figured most heavily was given by Sean Holmes. Based on his experience at the Lyric Hammersmith, he spoke of audiences that were hungry, starved of something that British theatre is not currently providing them with – a ravenous desire that is not reflected in mainstream criticism, but that perhaps in fact those audiences don’t mind about not seeing mirrored there. It’s a hunger that theatres and makers should be striving to feed, and that for the most part I think they are striving to feed. But that shouldn’t let theatre criticism off the hook. How do we turn on the lights, get talking and find the food to satisfy that appetite?

Ecologies and Economies

Originally written for Exeunt.

Money. It’s quietly accepted as something of a grubby word in the arts. Tangled up with funding decisions, disputes over pay and that even dirtier word “commercial”, many of us would prefer to ignore the part cash plays in our encounters with culture. It’s a financial relationship that much theatre itself actively seeks to elide, masking what is essentially an economic transaction with the romance and illusion of invented worlds; the relationship is elegantly shifted from service provider and consumer to the infinitely more palatable roles of artist and art lover.

But while attempts have been made within both performance and academia to interrogate, unveil and reverse this shift, little effort has been given to examining the role of the critic in this project of economic disguise. Asked for the purposes of a recent seminar to reflect on my own economic relationship with theatre, I realised for perhaps the first time just how complicated that relationship is. It’s a fraught and tumultuous affair, in which the boundaries are ever-shifting.

As a critic, I’m in the fortunate position of rarely paying for tickets – or at least not paying with money. But if the transaction is not a financial one, just what is each party getting? Are the performers in front of me rendering me a service, or are we engaged in some vague form of in-kind exchange? And how does that exchange shift in its value depending on the nature of the words I proffer up by way of payment and on the inherently commodifying collection of stars I decide to award at the top of my review?

Such thoughts were also spurred on by a conversation I stumbled upon on Twitter – that evergreen source of column inspiration – in which Megan Vaughan stated her adamant belief that no critic should receive free press tickets. It’s a belief that is emphatically reinforced in her blog’s manifesto, in which she writes: “tickets given in exchange for words are not free and will not be accepted”. It’s a principle that, even as I read it again now, makes me squirm a little with the knowledge of how much I blithely accept for free and how that absorbs me within a larger economic system.

Of course, theatre criticism has its own set of economics. The much contested star rating acts in conjunction with the words below as a form of currency, with the stars often functioning as pounds to the prose’s pennies when we might hope for the reverse. Editors speak of being economical with language, of squeezing as much value as possible out of a necessarily limited word count. And that’s not even considering the money involved, when there is money involved, although the circular arguments about writers being paid or not being paid hardly need retracing.

What I’m more interested in probing is how the accepted structure of theatre reviewing, tweaked a little to accommodate digital media but essentially the same in its convention of giving press comps, reconfigures the relationship between spectator – now critic – and performance. If the audience member who is suddenly made aware of the performer’s labour experiences discomfort, where does that leave the critic? In that moment, can we identify with performers in the knowledge of both being workers in the same industry? Or are we irreconcilably divided by another kind of economic relationship, in which critics act as the bestowers of value?

Briefly playing devil’s advocate, I’m also tempted to question this value itself. Realistically, casting aside any hopeful delusions about the level of influence I wield, my cash is probably still worth more to theatres than my words, at least in purely economic terms. But in a non-monetary sense, I believe – as a critic surely has to – that the discourse around theatre has a value of its own. By seeing work, by engaging with it and its aesthetics and ideas, by drawing intelligent, astute links, and by assessing the overall shape of the landscape, a critic can, as Andrew Haydon has suggested, assume the role of “ecologist”. Without accepting free tickets, however, the vast majority of critics simply wouldn’t have the means to take on this role. Do we therefore buy a non-financial stake in the theatrical ecosystem through an implicitly financial agreement to be part of that same ecosystem’s economy?

I offer uncertainties rather than answers because I’d prefer to leave this column as an open question mark. I’m not even sure these are the most important questions to be asking right now, as many other unresolved debates cluster around the horizon of contemporary theatre criticism. But as we attempt to map new critical contours, perhaps we should be aware of the restrictions of the established cartography. If we accept that theatre, as much as it might attempt to hide it, exists within a web of financial exchanges, then we also need to accept our place within that same web.

I’ll end, appropriately, on one last question – one that I’m at a bit of a loss to answer. Given this acceptance, should we as critics be attempting to move beyond our current entanglement within a surreptitiously economic system? Or perhaps, instead of “should we”, the real question should be: until we find a model that eschews the concept of an exchange of anything other than ideas, can we?