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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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?

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.