Giulia Merlo’s recent article for Spark Online – a read I recommend to everybody – has made me think about a certain problem with the Australian culture of theatre criticism. While wondering why Giulia, a relative outsider to the theatre practice, regularly outwrites most local reviewers, whether it has to do with her living in an intellectually bolder culture, her Italian education, or simply immense writing talent, the challenges we face, on our island, have become a little clearer.
Let me explain. For better or worse, the only educated commentary on the theatre in Australia comes from those directly involved, in some capacity, in the sector. Professional theatre theorists being exceedingly rare (what are their employment options, after all?), and our media coverage laughable, the only educated theatre audience in our country is the theatre sector itself. What commentary we have is largely penned by current, former or future theatre practitioners. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it is often pointed out that a good critic should have some practical experience if they are to assess the success or failure. It also creates, in the best possible world, an environment of constructive, informed, and in-depth criticism. It is only a good thing that, unlike the UK blogoscope, Australian web-landscape is not dotted with prospective newspaper reviewers. As much as I enjoy reading, say, the West End Whingers, this kind of witty, catty, user-oriented coverage doesn’t provide a great starting point for any discussion.
However. Lately, while trying to expand our field of theatre commentary, I been noticing a peculiar problem. The moment a good theatre reviewer looks like they may turn into a great theatre reviewer, more often than not they seem to stop, give up. The fear cited is always the same: they are worried about the public-ness of their writing. It hurts their networking (networking hereby defined as the applied art of convincing as many people of one’s loveliness with the smallest expenditure of time and energy as possible). Colleagues may dislike them.
While some of them don pseudonyms, more often than not the result is a vague sort of semi-assesment, neither positive nor negative, descriptive rather than analytical, something akin to written networking, the equivalent of the afterparty small-talk. What I notice a lot is a certain refutation of criticism as effort, as practice. Instead, theatre practitioners focus on making performance. This is the part of the equation they choose to take seriously.
I have had a lot of sympathy for this position – after all, theatre business is not quite one in which milk rains and honey flows abundant – for the need to cultivate ties. However, faced with the sad fact that the best criticism currently published in Australia seems to be coming from a woman in London, who does not, to my knowledge, have any formal education in theatre as a discipline, it has become a troubling position to sustain.
Is it really possible to be serious about your own practice, and completely give up, strip of credibility, the critical side? Is it really possible for theatre to work as a system, if everyone makes, but nobody assesses with any credibility? Are we not shooting ourselves in the foot? If theatre artists, one after another, give up the task of genuine feedback, if the duty of criticism is not taken seriously at all, how can anyone expect to receive serious feedback for their own, ostensibly serious theatre practice? The system, as I see it, collapses. At a certain point, quality is simply not rewarded anymore.
This has to be the reason behind so many ills currently facing this world (which I love and care for). In the absence of seriously enforced aesthetic and intellectual standards, everyone is a great artist. And it sometimes seems so, doesn’t it? The only problem, ostensibly, is that there is not enough money for everyone. How to distribute what money there is, however, becomes another set of problems. Without this feedback loop, every assessment is looked upon with doubt. (And I’m sure everyone has had, heard or overhead one of those conversations in which who-got-how-much is discussed with great bitterness.)
It would be wonderful, and easy and friend-winning, to assume that, just because people are so honey-mouthed about each other’s work, this is a nurturing, supportive theatre culture, but the truth is far from it. Of the countries I have lived in – and here is another case in which the Australian mythical national character lets reality down – I do believe Australia is an exceptional case of a society of backstabbers. Even the vilest people I have met seem unable to do harm in one’s face, and prefer a thin semblance of in-yer-face civility to cover their machinations behind. Alison Croggon’s blog commentary, all too often a playground for anonymous bile, testifies to that. Not that nobody disagrees, of course. There is no place, in a certain sense, where people are more thoroughly disillusioned about the intrinsic worth of human beings than among the theatre folk. It all strikes me as generally rather unhealthy.
To qualify, I do think the situation is similar in many other sectors. Education is certainly an activity in which frank criticism has become a faux pas. A friend of mine, who teaches creative writing, has noted that any attempt at genuine workshopping results in his students complaining upwards that he is “making them doubt their ability as writers.” On the other hand, both arts journalism and arts administration are, in some broad sense, career-based activities, in which the results are not measured in the quality of the art they support. Real improvement, aesthetic and intellectual, seems to be not much of a common goal.
It all ties in with another problem, often expressed in more professionally-differentiated theatre places, of whether critics should befriend artists. In Australia, I imagine, one has no choice. One would need to be tremendously unpopular (as either) to avoid doing so. Yet I don’t think that reviewing the work of friends or acquaintances is quite the problem some people make it out to be. If the purpose of the review is to assign stars, elegantly massacre a production for readers’ pleasure, show off eloquence rather than insight, perhaps. However, if the purpose of the review is to explain, engage, work with the performance, being aware of the existence, in flesh and blood, of the person under scrutiny makes one only more aware of one’s accountability. Keeping in mind that there is a person behind the work, one becomes more cautious about making unfounded statements. To return to the quandary faced by bright young theatre things, I don’t think pseudonyms solve the problem. Putting a name under a review is still the best way we have of avoiding unsanctionable viciousness, backstabbing.
On the other hand, as anyone involved in a creative practice can attest, constructive criticism is an act of extreme generosity. To receive honest, informed and in-depth feedback is invaluable if one is to grow as a practitioner of absolutely anything – and it often requires knowledge of the person, the artform, the conditions of production. It is a more incestuous relationship than our image of the ideal critic allows. Last summer in Vienna, at ImPulsTanz’s program for educating young dance critics, I spoke to a couple of people from Serbian dance organizations about their selection process (in the program, dance companies nominated critics – the young Belgian was quite surprised, having been chosen by Ultima Vez although he reviewed their work negatively). Dalija Acin, from TKH (Teorija Koja Hoda), told me how appreciative they were of the chance to send young people to ImPulsTanz, “to educate our cadre.” Critics were not seen as the enemy, or as a superfluous part of the sector, but a necessary link between an artform and an audience, both an arbiter of taste and an interpreter. As pointed in a comment to Chris Wilkinson on The Guardian Stage blog, it was Lessing’s involvement in professional theatre that resulted in the creation of the important Hamburg Dramaturgy. Douglas McLennan, similarly, wonders wonders why arts organizations don’t have residents critics. These are unusual models, yet what they have in common is the understanding that objective criticism benefits the artist and the form.
Finally, the state of affairs in which everything is great, and everyone wonderful, lets the audience down in a very serious way. The readers stop paying attention to unreliable information. Australian film criticism has the same problem: if, as Paul Martin has pointed out, we praise mediocre local films as very good, than there is no way to set an excellent film apart. (When I moved to Melbourne, and Helen Thompson was reviewing for The Age, I stopped going to the theatre after the first few productions she praised were absolutely terrible. I have a number of educated friends who love theatre, but don’t go for the same reason.)
A big hurdle, however, is this tradition of backpatting in the light, and backstabbing in the dark. And since we are raising a generation completely unaware of what constructive criticism even looks like, I am not sure that the things are going to get any better. Against all statistical odds, the future may be uniformly wonderful.