Talking About Theatre

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In the space of a few weeks earlier this year, I heard two anecdotes about theatre and audiences which have circled my brain ever since. First, during an interview about Fun Palaces, Sarah-Jane Rawlings told me about an encounter she had while running the Royal Exchange’s education programme. After a youth drama session, she asked one of the kids involved if his mum was coming to pick him up from the theatre; he replied no, she wouldn’t know what to wear. Then, at a house event not long after, one of the speakers remembered a man who had to walk around his local theatre three times before he could bring himself to step inside to buy a ticket.

This pair of stories regularly haunts me. As someone who accesses theatre spaces on an almost daily basis, it’s all too easy to forget how intimidating they can be. And right now, those two anecdotes are joined in my mind by a crowd of other statements, stories and assumptions, all making me fitfully turn over my thoughts about theatre, access and audiences.

There’s Maddy Costa, more than a year ago now, making the distinction between “speaking” theatre (with all the specialist vocabulary that implies) and simply talking about it. There’s all the brilliant work that Maddy is doing with Jake Orr over at Dialogue to encourage and facilitate the latter among audiences.

There’s Maddy again, more recently, recalling her encounter with an audience member who suggested that the way she – we – discuss theatre is what makes it seem elitist. Us critics, bloggers, whatever label we go by, are the ones who – to borrow Maddy’s words – “make theatre sound like hard work”.

There’s a similar conversation during a particularly fraught and difficult long table discussion at the festival organised by Dialogue last month. A couple of people go up to the table and say frankly that the conversation that is taking place is intimidating, exclusive and alienatingly intellectual. This sparks a really knotty and sometimes painful debate, during which I wonder repeatedly about whether to take a seat at the table. Aren’t I just part of the problem? Does my voice really need to be heard? In the end, I decide to spend the festival doing more listening than talking, and it feels right.

There’s Tim Walker getting me riled up, not so much with his dismissal of online critics as with his suggestion that theatre and theatre criticism are both products to be sold to the wealthy, middle-class and middle-aged. The implication being that it’s just not “for” most people.

And then there’s Janet Suzman, with her astonishing assertion that “theatre is a white invention”. Beyond the patent and quite frankly racist inaccuracy of that claim, Suzman’s comments seem to me to reveal three things: 1) white privilege still overwhelmingly dictates mainstream cultural discourse, to the extent that someone like Suzman can even begin to believe that theatre is particular to white culture; 2) underlying such a belief, there’s an offensive assumption that cultural tastes – and particularly those of non-white cultures – are homogenous; 3) linked to that assumption, there is too often a simplistic, reductive and patronising attitude towards audience development, epitomised by Suzman’s sweeping remarks about “catering” for certain demographics.

As all those things tumble through my mind, I’ve thought back and forth and back and forth over the last couple of weeks about writing and publishing this (whatever this is turning into). Because – to be brutally honest about my misgivings – who needs another beneficiary of white, middle-class privilege harping on smugly about the need for diversity and inclusion in the arts? Like at the Dialogue long table, I worry that perhaps I’m not the right person to be kicking off about this, that perhaps it might be more useful to listen to and amplify the voices of others (like Naima Khan or Meg Vaughan) who have interesting, urgent, considered thoughts to add to the discussion. At the same time, however – and this is a point that Naima rightly raises – staying silent implies complicity in and wilful ignorance of all those assumptions which continue to haunt and frustrate me and which, more importantly, determine who is included and excluded from certain forms of culture.

As I’ve said before (hard as it might be for me in my enthusiasm for the art form to believe), theatre isn’t necessarily for everyone, in the same way that football isn’t necessarily for everyone. My attitude to the latter is pretty much the rest of my family’s attitude to the former: I’ll happily watch it on the odd occasion, but it isn’t really my cup of tea. And that’s fine. But theatre should be there for everyone: equally available and accessible to all who might – and might not – gain something from it. That means making theatre buildings as welcoming as possible; it means making theatre affordable and easy to access; it means letting people know that it’s happening and that they might be interested in it; it means avoiding lazy, offensive assumptions about different demographics and what they might want to see; it means opening up a dialogue with potential and existing audiences; it means talking about theatre in a way that makes it sound interesting and fun rather than elite and exclusive.

It’s that last point that I’m particularly (sometimes agonisingly) preoccupied with. There is of course work still to be done when it comes to theatre spaces, their accessibility, and who and what gets represented on their stages. But the surrounding discourse feeds into the same set of structures and ultimately influences, in however invisible a way, who gets admitted or shut out by those structures. How is theatre being discussed? Who is discussing it? What is being discussed and what is being ignored? What assumptions is that discussion – knowingly or unknowingly – founded on?

One of the most worrying things about Suzman’s comments is her implication that addressing subject matter that “caters” for different groups – as though everyone of the same race has the same taste, or is exclusively interested in themes related to their own ethnicity – is enough to cultivate new audiences. There is an important argument for representation, but what gets on stage is just one of a complicated web of factors that determine who attends theatre. The assumption that putting on work “about” a particular group (that “about” being a problematic term in itself) solves the problem just lets theatres off the hook, making it possible for people like Suzman and Walker to essentially dismiss the entire endeavour by claiming that only a certain group of (white, middle-class) people will ever be interested. Once you believe that, why would you bother trying to open the doors for anyone else? “Catering” for different audiences is not enough. How theatre is talked about in the wider culture, and thus the popular perception of it, is just as much a part of this matrix of inclusion and exclusion.

So what does that actually mean? In her post, Meg pointed me to something that playwright Vinay Patel said on Twitter in response to the Suzman fiasco: “we need to be talking about theatre like it’s there to be consumed as culture not cherished as art”. The word “consumed” makes me shudder a little bit, but I think he’s absolutely right. Theatre needs to be discussed in a way that makes it seem available, rather than shut away behind a barrier of big, reverent words.

When frustratedly responding to the whole ridiculous Tim Walker thing, I shouted about the need to discuss theatre as if it might actually mean something, always asking the implicit question “why is it important?” As I think more on it, though, I want to add a footnote. Yes, let’s talk about why theatre is important, why it might be relevant to the world outside the auditorium or inside each of its spectators. But perhaps we should also be asking “why is it interesting?” Because “important” can be one of those off-putting words, in the same vein as saying “I really should go to the theatre” (it’s depressing how often I hear that one). That sense of obligation and self-improvement suggests school trips and dull assignments, it suggests the gatekeepers of high art instructing everyone else on what to see. And as I put it at the beginning of the year after seeing Not I and thinking about the discourse of “hard work” surrounding it, framing theatre in this way is only likely to be elitist and alienating.

At the same time, it’s a fine line between opening up the conversation and sounding like a patronising twat. Part of me also instinctively resists the anti-intellectualism that seems to prevail in our culture and society today. Why shouldn’t we dig deeper, think harder, question more? (And yes, if I’m being totally honest, of course it’s nice to occasionally feel intelligent) This is where I regularly tie myself in knots, struggling with two seemingly opposed desires as a writer. Most of the time, I admit, I probably fail at both.

But there’s not necessarily a stark choice between intellectual snobbery and appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s perhaps not a question of whether or not to engage with those more difficult ideas, but rather of how to engage with those ideas. The best thinkers and writers – at least in my opinion – are those who can take the most complex of concepts and articulate them in the clearest of terms, losing as little as possible along the way. It also, like at that Dialogue event, has to do with both talking and listening: welcoming feedback, being willing to enter into a conversation – however difficult – about what might come across as elitist or excluding.

Something that Stewart Pringle once said has stayed with me. He explained (to badly paraphrase) that the way he thinks of what he does, whether making or writing about theatre, is just as sharing stuff that he thinks is really awesome. I think criticism has other roles too – roles to do with questioning the art form, with sitting somewhere in the blurry space between artist and audience – but I wonder if this is the one that we might all aspire towards more consistently. Because who doesn’t want to hear about awesome stuff?

So there’s a New Year’s resolution – or perhaps more of a challenge. Let’s think more actively about who we’re including and excluding. Let’s stop and ask ourselves who we implicitly suggest that theatre is “for” when we write and talk about it. Let’s try to avoid being elitist without (ugh, another phrase I hate) “dumbing down”. Let’s appreciate the complexity while embracing the fun. I don’t yet know exactly what any of this looks like, and yes I’m bound to fall short a lot of the time, but surely it’s worth a try? And, lastly, let’s hope that we don’t need to write any more of these bloody blog posts about theatre criticism …

Photo: Dialogue’s Talking/Making/Taking Part festival.

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Open dialogue

Colchester 24.4.13 Theatre Arts Society and Frequency Theatre ViTW Reception 2 (2)

Originally written for The Stage.

The post-show discussion does not have the best of reputations. What should be an opportunity to share thoughts and gain artistic insights often becomes a stilted Q&A, a one-sided stream of anecdotes, or an unspoken contest to see who can ask the most intelligent question. But what about a post-show discussion for people who hate post-show discussions?

One of those people – by her own admission – is Lily Einhorn, project manager of the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs community engagement scheme. The project offers free tickets to residents of the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, many of whom Einhorn noticed were attending the theatre on their own. Recognising the lack of opportunity these theatregoers might have to discuss the work they were seeing, and acknowledging that the usual post-show format might alienate or intimidate them, Einhorn set about creating an alternative.

The Two Boroughs Theatre Club is modelled on the book club format: rather than being plunged straight into discussion immediately following a show, recipients of Two Boroughs free tickets are invited back after they have all had a chance to watch and reflect on a production. And just as a book club would never dream of inviting the author, Einhorn is firm that no members of the artistic team should be present for the discussion facilitated by the Theatre Club.

“I thought it would be really nice to have a group where the creative team are strictly not allowed,” Einhorn explains, “because I wanted it to be a comfortable atmosphere where people felt like they could say anything they wanted without fear of offending anyone, but also without fear of feeling like they’re stupid.” She continues, “it’s about unlocking something in them and saying: ‘your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s opinions’”.

Einhorn’s brainchild has been run in partnership with Guardian writer and Dialogue co-creator Maddy Costa, who has similar reservations about the traditional post-show format. “We all kind of hate the post-show discussion where everyone’s trying to ask the most interesting question,” she says. “So Lily and I both agreed that we don’t even go to those things; what we wanted to create was something different.” Their Theatre Club is designed to be as welcoming as possible, doing away with the hierarchies that usually characterise post-show events and creating a space that allows for relaxed, open discussion. The response has been enthusiastic, prompting Costa to try it out at other theatres, both through Dialogue and in association with theatre producers Fuel.

Einhorn and Costa are not the only ones seeking alternative models to the post-show Q&A. Camden People’s Theatre, for instance, has created a format it calls Talk Show Club, in which discussion is led by another theatre-maker who has not been involved with the show in question. China Plate, meanwhile, has adapted the post-show events surrounding its latest tour of Mess to suit the specific needs of both production and audience. Caroline Horton’s show is based on her own experiences of anorexia, opening up numerous issues around eating disorders. In recognition of this, China Plate are currently touring the show in association with the charity BEAT, taking it into schools and colleges as well as theatres and running a tailored series of discussions and workshops designed with psychiatrists from Kings College Hospital.

While numerous practitioners are currently experimenting with different formats, the idea of a model that eschews the post-show set-up of questions and answers is not entirely new. The National Theatre’s Platforms programme, which has been running almost as long as the theatre itself, is decidedly not post-show. Instead, the building runs regular events in the slot before its evening shows, ranging from straightforward discussions about the productions in the current repertoire to conversations that address the programme more obliquely. In the past, for example, Platforms have hosted numerous comedians and politicians, as well as a memorable encounter between atheist writer Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“It isn’t about being immediately reactive, audience wise, to what you’ve just seen,” says Platforms programmer Angus MacKechnie. “It’s either about making a choice to learn more about what you have seen on a previous occasion or coming to prepare yourself in advance of seeing it, usually on that night.” As a result, MacKechnie suggests that “it’s a different kind of commitment from audiences and we get a different kind of relationship with the audiences”. Because of the absence of an educational focus, MacKechnie explains that these events also offer audience members the opportunity to ask questions that they might not normally voice.

The desire to make critical conversations around theatre more inclusive and accessible is a feature that many of these initiatives share. The Theatre Club discussions might be guided by Costa, but the principle is that everyone in the room is equal and free to share their thoughts. “I am not the person with all the answers,” Costa makes clear, “I go in with as many questions as anyone else.” In line with this approach, Fuel’s co-directors Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell make it clear that the Theatre Club events represent “one of the key ways that we are building new audiences and making our work more accessible”. Lorna Rees, one of Fuel’s local engagement specialists and a regular organiser of post-show events, puts her attitude simply: “for me there are no ‘silly questions’”.

Crucially, all of these events are about contact and conversation. MacKechnie insists that at the National Theatre “we don’t just drop the curtain and that’s it, you haven’t got any more contact with us”, while for Einhorn the Two Boroughs Theatre Club is about “prolonging and enriching” the theatregoing experiences of its participants. The conversation itself, meanwhile, is one in which exclusive, specialist vocabulary is exchanged for straightforward, honest expression. For Costa, it all comes down to a simple but vital distinction: “Theatre Club is a place where we don’t ‘speak’ theatre, we talk about theatre, and those are two very, very different things”.

Conversation Starters

  • Maddy Costa and Fuel have found that offering refreshments instantly shifts the mood of a post-show event, transforming it into a welcoming social context. As Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell put it, “you don’t have to spend a lot on hospitality, but you do have to be hospitable”.
  • It can also help to move the discussion out of the theatre space. While the National Theatre’s Platforms have successfully used the stage, Lorna Rees suggests that sometimes the auditorium “can be quite intimidating and not conducive to discussion”.
  • Involving the audience does not have to be difficult or complicated. Costa explains, “I always start by just getting a quick show of hands, did you like it, did you not like it, something very simple like that”.
  • Angus MacKechnie recommends experimenting with the format and fitting it to the context of discussion. “In terms of format, form should follow function,” he says.
  • Fuel point out that it must be clear where and how the event is taking place, so they recommend sending out invitations, putting up flyers and making sure box office staff are fully briefed.

Photo: The Lakeside Theatre, Colchester.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Originally written for Exeunt.

Six days, countless cups of tea and two free mojitos into my first fringe, it might be a tad early to start making any valuable observations about the small phenomenon that gobbles up Edinburgh for a few weeks every summer. One thing that is difficult to ignore, however, is the small army of reviewers who colonise the place, stamping our presence with ratings and pull-quotes as fast as they can be frantically stapled onto flyers. An exploded version of the national theatre ecosystem, the fringe is a beast that is fed and bloated by the star system.

So it feels strange to be sitting in a room, in Edinburgh, questioning what this is all in aid of. I’m at St Stephen’s, the theatrical haven crafted by Northern Stage within the stonework of the old church, participating in something of an experiment. This is the first excursion of Dialogue, Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s project to cultivate and curate discussions between critics and theatremakers. Making a change from the endless tapping at my laptop keyboard, I’m here not to write but to talk.

The loose theme of the morning is the things that we, as critics or as theatremakers, don’t tell one another. While the discussions open in a fairly free-form structure, with individuals posing questions about preparation, objectivity and expertise, this later moves into a series of provocations. In a striking display of honesty, Maddy and Unfolding Theatre’s artistic director Annie Rigby each write down and then read aloud the statements that they don’t talk about, statements that I’m forced to hastily read before running off early to get to a show, but that stick to me like barbs.

Despite emerging from the artist’s perspective, many of Annie’s points strike potently at my own concerns about how I approach and write about theatre. They speak not of anger or antagonism, but of an aching disappointment that we don’t do this better.

“How long do you spend writing a review? How soon after a show do you write it? Are you happy with this?”

“Can we make some space to talk about what you got right and wrong? Like, if you could rewrite one review, what would it be?”

“I’m giving your review 3 stars. Don’t be disheartened. 3 stars is a good review.”

“I know you’ve got a word limit, but now we’re together it would be great to talk about that sentence you wrote.”

But the statement that lodged itself most firmly in my mind was Maddy’s: “it’s not you, it’s me”. Much as it made me laugh, this also seemed to me like a bold and stark unveiling of a widely accepted lie within criticism, an extension of the fallacy of objectivity that I found myself speaking about earlier in the morning. Because sometimes, amongst all the other unacknowledged baggage that finds its way into the auditorium, a critic just isn’t in the right frame of mind to productively respond to a certain piece of theatre.

In Edinburgh this, as with everything else, is heightened. Schedules are tighter, word limits are shorter, synapses are more impaired. With perhaps as little as an hour to wrench out a review and slap on a star-rating, carefully considered analysis begins to lose its foothold. More and more superfluous stuff finds its way into the performance space: fatigue, an awareness of where to rush off to next, a creeping dread of the mounting backlog. It’s not a popular admission to make, despite the evidence of the voluminous bags under our eyes, but sometimes we’re just tired. It’s not the fault of the work, it’s a simple fact.

One of the few certainties that I do have at this early interlude in my fringe experience is a hopeless, head-over-heels, bad-poetry-writing love for the intense, bubble-like intimacy of Edinburgh at this time of the year. I love bumping into people I know, having the conversations about theatre that we usually put off, stumbling into real-life, in-depth discussions with people who I usually only engage with in bite-sized snippets of electronic communication. All of this I adore. It is only the writing, or rather my own writing and its occasional rushed inadequacy, that I am in danger of falling a little out of love with.

So there we are. It’s not you, it’s me. But I’m not ready to give up on this particular relationship just yet. Perhaps we can take a break, or maybe we can still be friends. Perhaps, as I felt in that room at St Stephen’s smashing down barriers and facing difficult truths, we can even start over.

How could technology change theatre criticism for good?

Originally written for The Guardian.

Discussions about the future of theatre criticism seem to be evergreen. It is a debate that continues to impassion bloggers, and one that arose again at the latest instalment of Devoted and Disgruntled back in February, in a session challenging the barrier traditionally erected between theatremakers and critics. One linked but relatively neglected aspect of the conversation, however, is how criticism might fully explore and exploit the growing possibilities allowed by digital developments.

When it comes to digital, I think we’re all still fumbling around in the dark. In the world of theatre comment, this has manifested itself in recurring, sometimes ugly debates between mainstream critics and the blogging community. But what if the technology at our disposal offers more than occasion for conflict? While words alone can create a rich tapestry of critical response, imagine how much richer this might be with the addition of images, video, audio, geotagging, experimental forms such as Pinterest – the list goes on. Despite having such options at their fingertips, the majority of those writing theatre criticism for the web remain trapped in the conventional print review format: a block of text that often tries to avoid spoilers. Myriad possibilities are there, but it seems we’re slow to adopt them.

This is not to dismiss all theatre writers as luddites. Some bloggers and critics are embracing the possibilities of digital criticism and experiments are beginning to take shape. Twitter, for instance, has opened up instant discussion, allowing theatregoers to share their thoughts from the moment they step out of the auditorium. Luke Murphy has taken the trend to another level by aggregating such reviews on one feed – an intriguing idea, but one arguably limited by the tweet’s inherent brevity.

Matt Trueman, meanwhile, played with structure in his clickable review of Constellations earlier in the year, an experiment that had its flaws but asked fascinating questions about how the form of theatre criticism might reflect the form of the theatre being critiqued. A rich and ever-increasing variety of digital formats offer the opportunity to go even further. Might we begin to see purely visual responses to theatre through platforms such as Pinterest, or more video responses along the lines of blogger Eve Nicol’s refreshingly enthusiastic YouTube reviews?

Beyond experimenting with form, and returning to the discussions initiated at Devoted and Disgruntled, the digital space even has the potential to set out a whole new model for how critics might engage with the theatre they write about. Theatre writers Jake Orr and Maddy Costa are beginning to do just this through the creation of Dialogue, an online playground where theatre makers, writers and spectators can open up new conversations. Thanks to the flexibility allowed by online criticism, where page space is not an issue and responses can go further than words, the role of the critic could in future go beyond reviewing to play a greater part in the space between theatre, creator and audience.

The possibilities raised by digital technology pose more questions than they answer, but these are questions that beg to be thrown open for wider debate. How might digital experimentation impact upon mainstream criticism? How can we play with form and structure to create the theatre criticism of the future? And, crucially, what implications does digital innovation have for the evolving role of the critic?

Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/EPA

Reviewing Reviewed: An Attempt to be Honest

I’ve been thinking a lot about honesty. Not in the overall, broad sense of that word and what it encompasses, but in terms of how it relates to my writing and more specifically my writing about theatre. This blog post, therefore, is an attempt to tell the truth, to strip off the usual protective armour that coats the writing I release out into the world and allow myself to be a little more open, a little more vulnerable. What follows may simply be seen as indulgent self-analysis, but I hope that it also connects with bigger debates that are currently taking place about theatre writing and the direction it is being taken in, or should be taken in.

As I say, I’ve been thinking about this question of honesty in theatre criticism a lot and for quite some time, but this attempt to articulate my thoughts was prompted by Jake Orr’s reconsideration of a review he wrote for A Younger Theatre. In an admirably honest and heartfelt follow-up, Jake admitted that the judgement he passed on the production in question (Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer, which I haven’t actually seen myself) was perhaps unfair, an admission that fed into regrets about how quickly critics must file their review and move on and asked wider questions about the shortcomings of what we might call mainstream or traditional theatre criticism.

This resonated with difficulties that I had personally been experiencing over the last few days. In a possibly foolish move, I went to review the first two of Edward Bond’s Chair Plays at the Lyric Hammersmith on Monday, followed by Making Noise Quietly the next night, effectively giving myself the task of processing five plays in the space of 48 hours – and all at the same time as working my day job. I enjoyed the plays to varying degrees, but they were all teeming with ideas that resisted being pinned down. Tied to deadlines and starved of sleep, I thought and struggled a lot, cobbled together some responses and reluctantly moved on.

But my uncertainty continues to chip away at me. How could these works be reduced to a few hundred sleepily composed words and a hastily slapped on star rating? I do sincerely believe that a review at its best is a thing of beauty and that criticism can be creative in its own right, and for the most part I try my best to strive towards those ideals, but there are also lots of occasions where I fall far short and simply let it go. I sum up a piece of work that has been the product of weeks, months, perhaps even years of hard work and careful consideration in no more than a few hours, using a severely flawed barometer of quality; it seems a ridiculous imbalance.

These thoughts are not entirely new. Theatre criticism, the forms it takes and its inherent limits are all things that I have discussed before, sometimes at length, but looking back self-critically at the reviews I have accumulated over the last couple of years, I can see a disconnect in my thinking. I’ve begun to wonder if I’m failing to practice what I preach and whether the blame for that can be wholly attributed to the restrictions of the traditional 500 word review or if I need to put my own hand up. I think that the answer is probably a bit of both.

I would say that I don’t pretend to be objective, but when I take a closer, harsher look at myself I’m not so sure that’s true. I certainly haven’t made a secret of the fact that I think the concept of critical objectivity is a cracked facade, something that I have explored in my writing here before, yet I wonder whether my reviews themselves contradict this standpoint of honesty. When in a review have I simply admitted ‘this isn’t my cup of tea’? I like to think of myself as fairly open and receptive to all work, but it’s not as though I can eschew personal taste. Similarly, there are certain writers, companies and artists whose work I will inevitably approach in a different way because of my own admiration for them, a fact that is rarely recognised in my finished review.

Beyond the inescapable yet unspoken subjectivity of my writing, I’m aware that I’ve also avoided transparency about my own ignorance. Because, a lot of the time, I do feel fairly ignorant. This is probably to do with being 22 and still feeling like a relative rookie and being aware of how much more there is out there – how much to read, to see, to experience. Constantly meeting others who are far more well-informed than I am, not to mention terrifyingly intelligent, together with being always surrounded by books still to be read, provide continual reminders of my own failings.

When inadequacy or ignorance is admitted by a writer, though, it is seen as a cause of embarrassment for both writer and reader. We are supposed to know everything, or at least think that we know everything, which is often more accurately the case. I don’t expect any of my editors would be particularly happy if I blithely confessed inexperience at the opening of my reviews. No matter how out of my depth I feel, I continue to fumble for a foothold and try to speak from some position of authority, however weak. But there is still that nagging voice at the back of my mind that taunts, ‘who are you to make this judgement?’

Who am I to judge? Who are any of us to judge? Perhaps judgement is not the right word; perhaps we need to rethink the vocabulary of theatre writing. Because I think that what I’m really searching for and what really attracts me to writing about theatre is not cold, calculated judgement, a glib thumbs up or down, but careful analysis, a delicate picking apart of ideas, getting under the skin of a piece of creative work. That’s what also excites me about speaking to theatre makers on the occasions when I am fortunate enough to interview them; I want to pull back the curtain and peek at the inner workings, the beating heart of the piece and its complex, intricate network of veins.

This brings me back to Jake and what inspired this increasingly lengthy blog post in the first place. As a result of some of the thoughts expressed in the piece I have already mentioned, alongside a whole host of other inter-connected thoughts, he and Maddy Costa have launched a project that plans to get closer to what I was beginning to describe above. DIALOGUE, described as a ‘great big playground’ for anyone involved in making, watching or writing about theatre, aims to open up new channels of communication and foster an environment of generosity. As the name suggests, it is intended to start up conversations between those creating theatre and those who usually critique it. It feels urgent, important, exciting.

So, in the adventurous, innovative spirit of Jake and Maddy and all the other theatre writers and makers who are also beginning to question their way of working, I want to do better. I want to engage with a piece of theatre beyond the two hours or so it takes to watch it and the few hours in which I have to hastily formulate a review before work or deadline or both. I want to enter into a dialogue with those who are making the theatre that I consume and to give the act of creating the respect that it is due. I want to avoid falling into lazy assumptions and casual criticisms, even if I am frantically writing away in the early hours running on nothing but caffeine.

Because I’m being honest, I write this in complete anticipation of failure. I will fail. Perhaps my failure will be to a greater or lesser extent, with any luck the latter, but failure is pretty much inevitable. I have other demands on my life, I have a day job and a need to make ends meet, and – dare I say it – sometimes I’m just a bit lazy. I am also bound by the expectations of my writing, which vary from subject to subject and publication to publication. I would say screw it, let’s chuck out the rulebook regardless, but I’m not that brave. Perhaps I’m not that idealistic.

But the one thing I promise is that I will try. I’ll try to connect with the work I see on a deeper level, whether within the restrictive limits of the traditional review format or, as will most likely be the case, through other means. I might write a 500 word review to deadline, but I’ll also try my best to make sure that the work has a life in my thoughts and my writing beyond that. I’ll try to keep questioning what theatre criticism means, or if perhaps we need a completely different terminology to describe the relationship between theatre and what is written about it, even if I don’t have any forthcoming answers. I’ll try to stay alert and open and creative in my thinking.

Most importantly, I will try to be a little more honest.