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

Breaking Rules

We all know that rules are important. Unless you’re hugely optimistic about human nature, most of us accept that as a species we are unlikely to all harmoniously coexist in a state of complete anarchy. I am also, in everyday life, a sucker for rules. As a child, the very thought of breaking even the pettiest of rules had my palms sweating; on the few occasions I participated in the depressingly stereotypical teenage ritual of underage drinking in the local park, I was in a state of anxiety nearing hyperventilation. But perhaps there are some rules that are meant to be broken.

The Stage recently published a piece offering five essential rules for aspiring reviewers, written by Susan Elkin in response to reading and judging entries to a student theatre reviewing competition. I don’t doubt that these serve a perfectly good purpose for those just starting out and looking for some basic pointers, but I’m always slightly wary of any rigid guidelines for reviewing. I was in fact alerted to the piece thanks to a tweet from Matt Trueman, who followed the link with the statement that “all of these need breaking”. Despite my history as a rule following goody-two-shoes, I find myself inclined to agree.

Having recently read Lisa Goldman’s No Rules Handbook for Writers, which takes all those common “rules” of creative writing and if it does not quite throw them out the window, at least tells writers how to bend them, I’m feeling in a similarly anarchic mood towards this list of reviewing dos and don’ts. The full piece can be read here, but I’ve quoted the main points below:

  1. “The best possible training for any sort of writing is to read as many examples of the genre written by experienced people as you can.”
  2. “As a reviewer, your first task is to assess it as a piece of theatre.”
  3. “Reviewing is a form of journalism.”
  4. “Never use a long word if a short one will do.”
  5. “Get your punctuation right.”

Of course, this is not the first time someone has tried to set out a formal framework for the art of theatre criticism. Whole books have been written on the subject, while each reviewing publication will have its own list of style guidelines and critics themselves have laid out their own opinions on the matter, such as Jo Caird’s blog for What’s On Stage. As I’ve already mentioned, such pointers can be useful to an extent, and the five points above have their obvious applications. No one wants to read a piece that defies all sense through incorrect punctuation, employs malapropism after malapropism and lacks any understanding of theatre as an art form.

But I worry that this culture of rules will fence criticism in. It can already be frustrating enough to work within word limits and star ratings, but when emerging reviewers are made to feel as though they must obey a strict structure of guidelines there is a danger of producing bland, parroting reviews. It was a trap that I found myself falling into when I first started reviewing theatre not all that long ago and one that still occasionally snags me now. When I look back at those lifeless, formulaic reviews, I lose all enthusiasm for theatre criticism as a form.

So I would perhaps add my own cautionary, freeing notes to the rules provided in The Stage:

1. “The best possible training for any sort of writing is to read as many examples of the genre written by experienced people as you can.” – This is a rule that I don’t have too much of a problem with, as it’s something of a no brainer that to get better at writing you must be willing to read, and there are some very skilled critics out there whose writing has certainly provided me with direction and inspiration. A note of warning, though: don’t play copycat. Reading too much by one particular critic can make you subconsciously begin to write like them, which stifles individual voice. I can also affirm from personal experience that an excess of reading can produce a version of what Harold Bloom dubbed “anxiety of influence”, paralysing your writing with the fear that you can never be as good as those who precede you and who you look up to.

2. “As a reviewer, your first task is to assess it as a piece of theatre.” – Again, this piece of advice has its obvious merits. Reviewing a piece of theatre is not the same as reviewing a piece of writing; this is live performance, and to ignore the performance aspect is to miss the point. But on the flip side, reviews that are too focused on this purpose of assessment can become a tediously formulaic checklist: direction – check, acting – check, set design – check. I’m as guilty of writing these uninspiring reviews as anyone else.

Elkin goes on to discourage reviewers from getting too sidelined by the themes and issues of a piece of theatre, but in my opinion such investigation of the ideas at play, particularly when reviewing new writing, represents one of the biggest strengths of great criticism. Someone once advised me not to be afraid of trying to get under the skin of what a piece of theatre is doing or trying to say, and it is one of the most liberating writing tips I’ve ever received. The specifics of the performance are important, but I also want to think more deeply about the shape, purpose and inspiration of a piece.

3. “Reviewing is a form of journalism.” – The point of this rule is that thought should be broken up in a review in the same way as it would in any other piece of journalism, separated into easily digestible sentences and paragraphs. There is a lot to be said for this advice – a long, dense block of text is immensely off-putting as a reader – but there should still be a level of flexibility within this. Complex and varied sentence structure is not always a bad thing, and if theatre can experiment with form then why can’t the writing that is responding to it do the same?

4. “Never use a long word if a short one will do.” – This one is taken from George Orwell and will be very familiar to most writers. It is of course worth remembering that commanding a wide vocabulary does not automatically make you a good writer, but neither are long words automatically bad. The one thing to always make sure of is that a word is used in the correct context and that its definition is fully understood (I’m a compulsive user of dictionaries for this very reason), but two synonyms do not convey exactly the same meaning and a longer word may sometimes be necessary to fully, effectively communicate a certain thought.

5. “Get your punctuation right.” – Punctuation is clearly important, and nothing enrages me more than a misplaced apostrophe. This is the rule that, as a bit of a grammar geek, I find it the most difficult to disagree with, but there are instances where there is room for creativity with punctuation as long as the meaning is not impaired.

As I stated at the beginning of this discussion, rules are important and they are usually there for a reason. In this particular instance, they are certainly worth knowing – as Goldman puts it in her book, you have to know the rules before you can break them. But at a time when writers are reconsidering what it might mean to be a theatre critic and opening up exciting new possibilities (more on that another time), it feels limiting to be shackled to strict guidelines. While rules have their purpose, it is vital that we do not let blinkered adherence to these rules hamper a form that has the potential to be exciting, inspiring and creative in its own right.