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Crisis, What Crisis?

Jim Callaghan was a bad prophet. His (to borrow a certain kingmaker’s phrase) intensely relaxed reply to a journalist’s question concerning the UK’s so called Winter of Discontent in 1979 cemented the image of a dangerously complacent and unrepresentative Prime Minister. The episode led to Callaghan’s downfall whilst the 1970s have since been caricatured as a time of catastrophic decline. The episode illustrates that although one’s lack of foresight is sometimes permissible, denying a crisis when it eventually arrives is to commit the cardinal sin of being “out of touch”. This is as true for theatre critics as it is for politicians. Criticism functions as a means of reflecting the state of theatre as much as it is to review shows, meaning that if critics don’t spot the direction shocks will come from then their professional status is undoubtedly diminished in the eyes of their readership.

The trick is knowing what a crisis looks like. It is a word we who work in theatre are well accustomed to hearing, but preoccupying ourselves with theatre’s drawbacks often prevents us from affirming the work that is being made now. The ways theatre is written about has a significant impact on how audiences judge the state of the industry by offering a contextual framework to determine the quality of performances.  But just as theatre is responding (as it always has done) to a changing world, new schools of thought are emerging regarding the role criticism can play in the age of the visibly vocal spectator. The presence of online communities in our everyday lives has reignited debate about how we can valorise theatre’s identity for audiences in the ubiquitous digital culture we now live in. This process is surely necessary, yet after attending a discussion on the state of theatre criticism today I’ve started to think that any dangers the Internet presents to live art practices are as nothing compared to a lack of faith in theatre’s ability to speak to the concerns of the present as distinct from online forums.

Organised by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Theatre Criticism Today addressed the (potential or actual) crisis online forums have created in theatre criticism. The event was chaired by theatre critic and RCSSD alumnus Matt Trueman whilst the panel consisted of the blogger and former theatre critic for the Guardian Maddy Costa; Time Out Theatre Editor Andzrej Lukowski; and Artistic Director of Camden People’s Theatre and comedy critic for the Guardian Brian Logan.

Matt Trueman opened the evening by asking if, given the ability online forums afford audiences to rebuke or endorse a critic’s comments, the critic’s role needs to evolve in order to remain relevant. The corollary question is how does the purpose of reviewing change when the authoritative opinions of a respected journalist, writing for a reputable publication, is lessened.

Logan began by discussing the parties to whom the professional critic is responsible to when writing reviews in contrast to online reviewers: their readership, their editor, and the artists they are reviewing. At one level the critic’s responsibility to his or her editor is determined by their ability to write and submit copy to a deadline; no easy task if one has a matter of hours to produce a crisp piece that satisfies readers. Moreover, for criticism to transcend the shallowness of knee-jerk judgements and instead offer judicious opinions the critic optimally unearths an essential truth regarding the work she is reviewing, meaning she must possess a keen eye for detail sharpened by the experience of attending shows on a regular basis.

The theatre critic’s task is particularly daunting in this context considering onstage action shifts throughout an evening. An editor’s looming deadline might therefore intensify their powers of concentration and oil the writing machine until she hits send. Logan encapsulated the difference between the professional and the enthusiast by describing himself and fellow critics as people who “know how to watch theatre”. But what is the appeal of reading about a performance if one is not going to see it live?

Irving Wardle states that in one sense the critic’s “only unarguably useful role is that of the tipster”,  which is to say that all readers want to know is if a show is worth going to see or not. The opinions of the critic, which Wardle admits is ultimately determined by taste over cold analysis, might very well influence the shows people choose to patronise, but it does not necessarily follow that this is the sole function of a review.

Maddy Costa spoke of her desire to push criticism out of the realm of reporting into an explicitly artistic field. Her strategy is embedding herself with companies in an effort to integrate criticism within the life of a production alongside every other element, rather than as one that exists at a remove from the staged performance. In this way she is able to gain a far richer appreciation of the diverse range of skills that are employed in any production: Costume designers, stage managers, set designers, and lighting technicians are vital figures yet are rarely acknowledged as artists in their own right in most theatre journalism.

Costa argued that embedded criticism acts as a method of granting audiences’ access to those private spheres of a production by documenting the story of a company rather than reviewing a standalone show. Using social media they are able to maintain contact with a potentially vast online audience throughout the rehearsal process and after the final performance. Having the critic present as a member of a team also combats the sometimes destructive ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary between artists and critics, a culture Lukowski commented was prevalent during the 1990s and early 2000s.

The embedded critic thus subtends the convention of reviewing by acting as a spectator of the rehearsal process who engages in an active dialogue with an online audiences. In this way the critic becomes the means by which the audience achieve a presence throughout all stages of a production.

The ways in which Costa defines embedded criticism from the conventional reviewing process is heavily influenced by Andrew Haydon’s blog post Embedded. Haydon contends that the critic’s primary responsibility is to his or her own humanity, meaning that as a critic one “often forget[s] the humanity of those about whom you are writing. Or at least, it’s helpful if you don’t think about it too much”.

Although Haydon correctly acknowledges that the power criticism affords writers should be exercised responsibly, the emphasis on empathising with theatre-makers on a humanitarian level risks diminishing the critic’s right to of come to her own conclusions without fear of hurting the artist’s feelings. Cruelty is not a prerequisite of reviewing but neither is it a barrier to insightful critique. Perhaps a greater danger of embedded criticism is that the critic is transformed into a public relations functionary, an official spokesperson for a company that obscures the artwork by foregrounding the humanity of the one who makes it.

That being said, Costa’s experience of communicating with non-professional audience members online has cemented her commitment to seeing how critics can give value to the voices of the audience by acknowledging the impact individual experience have on the ways performances are interpreted. In this sense the responsibility to one’s humanity begins when theatre audiences are not treated as a silent block but as one with unique life stories that deepen perspectives onto any given art work.

The demands of producing a performance within a few short weeks often means theatre practitioners have little opportunity to sustain relationships with their audiences outside of the auditorium beyond crude marketing exercises. Owing to the fact that text possesses an immutability live performance lacks the critic is able to reach an audience far larger than a company of artists can. In some ways this is nothing new; the potential of criticism to stretch the life span of an artistic process was a function of writing Kenneth Tynan expressed as giving “permanence to something impermanent”. This goal, however, raises an important question as to the type of work critics’ produce: Is a review a record of a past event or material that contributes to the creation of future performance practices? Embedded critics certainly favour the latter.

If this is the case then the critic’s methodology must necessarily alter to become an interlocutor between theatre-makers and audiences, for if the critic is still to critique in a way that reflects how a performance is received, whilst also avoiding definitive judgements, any value we attribute to a review’s permanence rests in its ability to act as a catalyst for a networked dialogue between multiple voices. How these voices can concretely contribute to theatre production, however, remains to be seen.

It seems evident that for embedded criticism to become a visible presence on the theatre landscape new platforms, beyond blog posts and social media, must be designed to avoid the audience’s voice becoming consigned to a repository that has no active influence over what occurs in the rehearsal room. We might assume that these new platforms will be digital yet this is not an inevitability.

In 2000 Michael Kustow wrote, “I can only see the landscape of the expanding ‘wired world’ looking uniform, corporate and mercantile. And even at its most fluid and anarchic, what the ‘information society’ creates is exchanges of information, not sharing of experience.” Fifteen years later and the Internet’s capacity to connect the world continues apace in ways unimagined even at the turn of the millennium. To be offline is in some ways more noticeable than those times when we are on. Indeed, websites such as Twitter and Facebook host digital avatars of our fleshy selves (for anyone who cares to notice) twenty-four hours a day. Digital communities are more real for some than those Kustow asserts engender the sharing of unquantifiable experiences, not bits of information.

And yet theatre continues to survive. Why? Because like the human experience theatre is not produced to a formula but as a response to a world whose identity can be characterised by its impermanent qualities as much as it can by its concrete ones. As Costa correctly argued, the innovations and experiments we have witnessed in theatre over the past sixty years – which have been so fruitful as to necessitate the term ‘live art’ as distinct from theatre ‘proper’ – surely means critics must create new ways of writing about it. It does not follow, however, that the Internet provides the appropriate tools to do this.

Theatre criticism is in no more of a crisis than theatre is. The crisis point will come when those who make and write about theatre stop believing in its ability to effectuate dialogues between peoples that embedded criticism claims to facilitate. Of course the Internet can contribute to this crucial objective, but for as long as there are bums on seats it will never satiate our desire for the specific form of communalism theatre offers.

The task it seems to me is to retain the body-to-body encounter audiences’ experience in the auditorium for as long as possible and to not assume we communicate most effectively online. We must re-learn to trust theatre’s ability to speak to us and to re-affirm the value of enjoining in the ‘us’ of the audience without fear of becoming homogenized into a silent mass. This cannot be accomplished online any more than I can post a selfie on the Olivier stage.

It strikes me that embedded criticism is a response to a lack of confidence from critics in theatre’s ability to tell the stories potential audiences want to hear. If this is the case, then we must surely not become Internet utopians and expect theatre-makers to tailor the processes of production to replicate online communication systems in an attempt to embed theatre into digital culture.

But can embedded criticism, as a method of engendering dialogues between artists and audiences, amplify the mute voices of the public in a way that fosters collaboration rather than confrontation? Let’s keep that under review.

  • Dr Joseph Dunne is a research associate at Rose Bruford College and a member of Tracing the Pathway Collective


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