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.

Scene Changes: Theatre Criticism

As part of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, I spoke on one of the Scene Changes platforms on the subject of theatre criticism. I was part of a panel alongside Michael Billington, Andrew Clarke and Mark Shenton and the discussion was chaired by Dan Rebellato.

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?

Fractured Narratives

Originally written for Exeunt.

As theatre implicitly recognises, our experiences in life are typically defined by the stories we tell after the event. The heightened experience of the Edinburgh Fringe is no different, from the startling encounter in the street to the performance that stole a little bit of your heart, or even just the slurred poetry of intense discussions in the early hours. We package our experiences in small, select slices, reassembled into a mangled but recognisable version of reality.

Perhaps this is why, as we pack away our deflated enthusiasm and file that inevitable late copy between jolting sips of lukewarm East Coast Trains tea, it becomes obligatory to overlay the mad anti-narrative of the fringe with some grand, overarching tale of political or artistic significance. The annual Edinburgh round-ups are scrawled over with trends and a theme inexplicably emerges from the shapeless nebula. Even coffee-fuelled discussions with fellow theatregoers and makers gradually, almost subconsciously slip into comparisons of what the work we have seen is “about” and how it interconnects.

Of course, no piece of theatre exists in a vacuum. Threads can be traced and there is a wider context in which all work sits, comfortably or otherwise. Context is particularly significant to a festival which has itself played host to smaller festivals, miniature curated or partially curated seasons that have carved out shapes within the amorphous whole: Northern Stage at St Stephen’s, Escalator East to Edinburgh, Old Vic New Voices and, arguably, the impressive, internationally-flavoured programme at Summerhall. Each of these programmes has had a distinct identity that has coloured its work – a narrative of sorts.

Yet the kinds of narratives we find ourselves imposing on our festival experiences are unavoidably subjective and essentially arbitrary. As an exercise, one might pluck a theme out of the air, sit down with the now dog-eared fringe guide and quickly circle a generous clutch of shows fitting the bill. Political protest, sexual politics, athletic prowess, urban decay, environmental disaster, eating disorders, the riots, childhood, adulthood, life, death, zombie apocalypse. Take your pick and build your story.

So I could insist on the triumphant glow cast by the Olympics on theatrical stories of sporting achievement, or point to numerous damning indictments of modern politics. I could even make an irritatingly ironic point by dreaming up a ridiculously idiosyncratic theme and using it to battle a pathway through the dense jungle of the fringe. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll surrender to subjectivity in another way by falling back on one particular show at this year’s fringe which neatly illustrates my point. What I Heard About the World, a collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe, is all about stories, employing these as a way to understand the world around us. Gathered from the far corners of the globe, their odd little fragments of narrative are both amusing and revealing, but what the show is always aware of is its incompleteness. Any story it constructs from its many splinters of smaller stories must be limited and selective. A similar point was made by Thorpe’s serving up of exotic tales at Hunt and Darton cafe; you place your order and you taste the dish of your choosing.

If the Edinburgh Fringe could be distilled into any written structure, it would be a sprawling, web-like poem, replete with spiralling references and veering tangents; probably written by T.S. Eliot, with annotations by Roald Dahl. It has stories, sure – it’s overflowing with them. But the beauty of the experience lies in its messy, democratic multiplicity, its stubborn resistance against the narratives that we insist on vainly saddling it with. There is no overarching story, but we still have the stories that each of us tell.

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.