An obituary to Theatre Notes, and perhaps to criticism

I was enormously sad when Alison Croggon announced the closure of Theatre Notes, her theatre review blog. I have, in fact, gone through all the stages of grieving (denial, negotiation, etc), but I never thought I would feel like writing something special about Theatre Notes here. I have sent my messages privately, it has affected me personally, I didn’t feel this to be a public occasion. Not until it turned out that, just perhaps, the only obituary to come in print, in Australia, might be in The Age. This I thought an unusually mean-spirited salute. Or, rather, the point is not so much that Cameron Woodhead, the theatre critic for The Age, presented a critical overview of Alison Croggon’s, but that, enumerating his points of disagreement with her style and taste, Cameroon took up the precious space that could have better been spent on more (I say ‘more’ because there is some) impassionate critical analysis of what problem Theatre Notes had temporarily solved, and why it was so important.

The impact that TN has had on the Australian theatre sector has been unoverstatably enormous: a personal blog, run for passion and not profit, covering local theatre in the Melbourne area, by a poet and writer (and former journalist and newspaper critic) gradually became the single most important theatre publication in Australia. This is why Malthouse Theatre threw Alison a party. This is why condolences and goodbyes have been pouring in on TN. This is why Barrie Kosky, an Australian theatre director and now the intendant of Die Komische Oper in Berlin, sent a personal note all the way from Germany. The closure of TN leaves an absence in the Australian theatre sector that her readers from overseas may not immediately presuppose. And it is worth considering how and why this has happened.

THE ECOLOGY OF CRITICAL WRITING IN AUSTRALIA

The first reason why it was possible for a personal blog to come to occupy such an important position, in a for-profit industry employing thousands of people, is the very poor state of the Australian media generally, and its arts coverage particularly. Australian newspapers are of very low quality, neither informative nor analytically astute, and it has become, towards 2012, completely normal (among the rich as well as the poor) not to read them, but find one’s news online, and one’s essays and opinions in overseas magazines (very many educated people I know subscribe to The New Yorker, for example). The arts pages have, in most papers, shrunk to about one page for all artforms (The Age, I believe, still has two pages, but many newspapers have basically none). The radio and the TV offers hardly any arts coverage. And there is, to my knowledge, not a single weekly ‘current affairs’ magazine in Australia, with or without arts pages.

Very little of the national arts is reviewed in daily media, hence, and very very little in more than a hundred-or-so words. In theatre, reviews are almost never written by people with any formal knowledge of theatre, but journalists with an interest in the arts; and they tend towards facile, glib, ill-informed, incorrect, and both conservative (in taste) and overly lenient (in critique). Even when they are written by intelligent, educated and informed people, such as John Bailey or Cameroon Woodhead, the sheer word limit disallows anything approaching a complex argument. (I have, I admit, had a low opinion of Cameron’s criticism until he started a blog. I then realised his thoughts were lucid, interesting and absolutely worth my while – they had only been disfigured in the newspaper editing room.)

I still remember, and I will never forget, the shock I had when I read a very positive review of a theatre production in my first months in Melbourne, in 2005, and booked a ticket to what turned out to be an amateur theatre production of extremely low quality – even judged by the criteria of amateur theatre. The review was written by a certain Helen Thomson, who single-handedly almost turned me off Melbourne theatre forever. If this was worthy of a glowing review in this country, I wondered what bad theatre must be like! In Europe, this would simply not happen – that review would not have been written. Helen Thomson would not have felt obliged to be unrealistically supportive of an amateur theatre group, and multiple sensible editors would have stopped her along the way. I expected that such an apparatus existed in Australia as well, and I didn’t doubt the sanity of Helen Thomson: I immediately doubted the arts.

THEATRE NOTES

It was in this context that TN appeared, and became a popular theatre resource. If the first reason was the abysmal quality of the mainstream media, the second was the high quality of TN. Theatre Notes was reliable and consistent. I discovered TN some months after the above incident, and realised that all of this good theatre had been under my nose the entire time, and I simply didn’t know it from the ‘normal’, print and broadcast media. Theatre Notes was for me, first and for a long time, simply a source of reliable information. Before I knew Alison personally, before I wrote theatre criticism, before my taste developed sufficiently to disagree with her, before I had this blog – Theatre Notes was a guide to what was good, what was excellent, and what was worth seeing despite great flaws. And, judging from the many goodbye notes, not just to me.

From 2004 until very recently, Alison made an effort to see everything worth seeing, first in Melbourne, and then, increasingly, across the country. If there was a good production, you could find out about it at TN, and you could read a review. If the review was going to be late, Alison posted a recommendation ahead. And the reviews were generous: long, detailed, educated, argued, works of considerable effort. Cameroon criticises Alison’s critical style (“intellectual vanity, her capacity, especially early on, to attack recklessly and without restraint, and various unconscious biases”), and I have often disagreed with Alison’s judgement, but TN has always been a reflection of a coherent, mature, honest, intelligent, very well informed, individual taste – and that is all that a good critic’s work can ever be. This is why we returned to TN week after week: because we trusted that taste. Unlike the print, and then, increasingly, online theatre pages, TN was not a compilation of voices and styles, some excellent and some substandard; it wasn’t reviewing everything from blockbuster musicals to a neighbour’s son’s production, according to vastly variable criteria; and it never went offline, dropped in quality, or even changed its style without at least an apology, warning, or explanation. From 2004 until 2012, Theatre Notes was there, regularly updating in long-form criticism, more consistently and reliably than any mainstream media outlet in Australia.

Gradually, and this is the third reason for the importance of TN, Alison Croggon became a very supportive person to many in the industry. She wrote about small productions, championing artists such as Black Lung, Sisters Grimm, Daniel Schlusser. She was prepared to argue and converse with artists on her blog, creating a meeting point between people who would never dare discuss each other’s work in person (such is, sometimes, the suffocating politeness of a small professional network). She met and introduced people to one another. She spoke on panels and conferences. Many of us have a personal connection to Alison. She has been an inspiration to many young critics, a mentor and support to many others, and a friend. Most of all, she gave up a lot of her time, not just to see shows and write reviews, but to moderate the ensuing discussions. Some of her most memorable reviews are memorable because of the discussions that followed from them, fierce but genuinely productive discussions between artists, critics, and punters. When there was a ‘debate’ about blackface or gender-blind casting in Australian theatre, about the treatment of classics or the success of someone’s artistic direction, that debate largely played itself out on Theatre Notes.

Making this happen takes time. Seeing every worthwhile piece of theatre in any given area takes time; writing about it takes time; responding to comments takes time; sourcing images and checking spelling and making sure the blog layout is working with the latest version of Mozilla Firefox also takes time. And that’s why we won’t have Theatre Notes anymore. Because the primary qualities of TN came from it being, essentially, a full-time occupation – but one that wasn’t earning Alison Croggon a cent.

As Alison has herself written in her last note, the problem for her has been time, more than money: she is going to focus on her work as a writer and poet. But her gain is a huge loss for the Australian theatre, and the complex mechanics of the problem have much to do with the earning-cents business.

CRITICAL LANDSCAPE

Australian journalism is very insular, and theatre critics tend to be arts journalists, rather than trained theatre scholars. This makes most critics in Australia professional writers, their role models usually (although not always) coming from the likes of Kenneth Tynan or GB Shaw. Most importantly, it is expected that theatre criticism can and should be a full-time job: something that defines the ‘professional critic’. In non-Anglophone Europe, this is not the case: for many theatre scholars and practitioners, criticism is one of their side jobs, and it is considered a part of their practice to review their peers’ work, not unlike the practitioner-teacher, or the dramaturg. This has the minimal advantage of ensuring a degree of competence in the job, and of diversifying critics’ incomes. But Australia has developed a system in which critics slip between the cracks of professions: they are often not qualified for practical theatre work, and often also unqualified for journalism. They support the former industry, and are themselves supported by the latter: but both relationships lack mutually supportive solidarity that normally develops within systems. Critics also – this must be the noxious Tynan influence – tend to absolutely scorn the academia, the last logical refuge of the critical thinker on the theatre.

The result? In Australia today, the critic very much stands alone, and in a very precarious position. In the few media outlets that still publish and pay for criticism, both the pay rates and the word counts have dwindled. Criticism offers no job security, no enviable income, no sense of professional belonging – and, to top it all off, faced with a complete disregard from journalism and the theatre industry, it is hard to do good criticism even just for the love of it.

It is often lamented that criticism in Australia is of a low standard (and it really is) – but where is the incentive for anyone to be a critic? It takes both detailed (theatre) and broad (literary and other theory) education to write criticism well. Who will invest that time into their education, if there is no discernible payoff? It takes time to write considered criticism, and, of the quality criticism published in Australia in the last 10 years, I wager more than 90% has been written in unpaid time. It has been written by people like Alison Croggon, like Andrew Fuhrmann, like Adrian Martin – people who earn their income elsewhere. It has been written not even outside, but against existing structures: in defiance of style, length, and mindset of the predominant idea that a review needs to sell a product in 100 words, and sell it well. With artists and theatre houses ready to consider the critic an enemy if s/he reviews them negatively, with arts desks of mainstream publications completely uninterested in the content of a review, as long as it is short, cheap, and inoffensive to advertisers, with microscopic word limits that make the entire pursuit of criticism often seem meaningless – how is one to be a good critic?

To return home: Alison Croggon may have discontinued TN because she has better things to do, but it remains to be seen if anything will fill the gap. The most important theatre publication in Australia for the last 10 years has been someone’s unpaid labour of love, but so have all the other, lesser theatre blogs. In the 10 years since 2004, TN’s bright example has inspired excellent criticism only among other bloggers. We haven’t had the co-opting of a critical voice (as in the Guardian Theatre Blog), but we also haven’t seen a rise of an independent critical culture, or collective projects. We had had a rash of personal blogs modelled after TN, and they have been plagued by the same problems as TN: lack of money and time to keep up the quality and the frequency. Just like Alison couldn’t keep TN going forever, neither can anyone else, regardless of how good, smart and educated they are. Most of us simply cannot afford to work full-time in an unpaid gig – even if there is the will, there is simply not enough time.

I am unsure of how this can be fixed. Many bloggers have managed to find full-time work in proper, print or online journalism, but working for TimeOut, The Age, Beat or Herald Sun does absolutely nothing for one’s critical practice, whilst taking away the time for proper criticism. The impetus to foster quality theatre criticism is not going to come from the mainstream media.

On a few occasions in the past few years, I have been approached with the project of creating a university course in arts journalism or arts criticism. This is clearly attractive to arts writers looking for job security in the academia, but the last thing I want is for arts criticism to become a pyramid scheme.It strikes me as a terrible idea to educate even more critics and arts writers, only to throw them into a shrinking job market.

More interesting examples are high-quality theatre portals sprung up elsewhere: Culturebot in the US, Exeunt Magazine in the UK, Nachtkritik in Germany. These provide very high-quality theatre criticism, funded by advertising, and are all successful – inasmuch as they exist, regularly update, and are reliable sources of critical reflection on the performing arts in their country. But only Nachtkritik pays their writers – the other two can’t afford it. This is unsustainable in the long term. The only way for a theatre publication to keep a pool of contributors working for free is to operate from the academia – where people are salaried and expected to produce writing – but the Australian performance academia has, so far, expressed zero interest in supporting critical writing.

On another hand, increasingly discussed is the notion of public funding for media that fulfill a useful social function. Croatia has for years been funding independent media, together with miscellaneous NGOs, for their role in the development of the civil society. Funded from a patchwork of advertising and public money, these have quickly become the backbone of the national media. There is no reason to assume arts journalism couldn’t work the same way. The German Nachtkritik, for example, is funded through a combination of advertising, donations, work-on-the-side (such as website production for theatres), and the occasional grant. But there has been no recognition of the need for public funding for media in Australia.

In a perfect world, Alison would had used the broad reach, wide readership, and good name of Theatre Notes, and gradually turned it over to new writers and editors, perhaps staying on as an overseeing editor, but no longer trying to run it as a one-person-operation. It would have been tremendously beneficial to the Australian theatre. But it makes no sense to hang the blame for a structural deficiency onto a person who has given so much of her time to the sector already – and it’s also unclear of whether there would be these other, magical people, with free time and enormous generosity, to continue TN forever. I have tried, in the past, to organise the very productive theatre blogosphere into a conversation (some of you might remember the short-lived Spark Online), but neither I, nor the other bloggers, have independent wealth that would allow us that kind of effort. Even just basic editorial duties take up too much time for someone who needs to have a side job AND review theatre. Running Spark Online, it became apparent that most people qualified to write theatre criticism would soon be lost either to paid work within the theatre, or to the drudgery of arts journalism, or to unrelated pursuits. Even if they remained precariously employed as occasional theatre-makers, they perceived criticism as hurting their professional networking. This is a problem.

A better question would be: how is it possible that the entire performing arts industry, which employs thousands of people, in one of the richest countries in the world, is not able to come together, get organised, and preserve and nurture its own critical culture? How is it possible that the entire critical apparatus of a multi-million-dollar profession hinges on one person’s blog for so long? Is it that the industry cannot get organised, or is it that it doesn’t see the value of sustaining a critical discourse?

The tragedy of TN closing is not simply that we all loved reading it, but that it anchored the entire critical discussion in the Australian theatre. Australia doesn’t have reputable theatre monthlies, such as Germany’s Theater Heute or Theater der Zeit. It doesn’t have a quality web-magazine, like Culturebot or Exeunt. It doesn’t have a TV show on theatre, or a radio show. It has a very good bi-monthly, Real Time, but its publication schedule and editorial format don’t allow discursive activities to take place. For the people who work in the theatre, who make theatre, who see theatre, who love theatre, there will now be no place to go and check what is good, why and how, what is bad, why and how, how to gauge the difference, and what one should strive towards. The art will still be there (it always will), but the agora, that place where one could go and say, ‘hey, you guys all hated it, but I loved the show’ – and discuss with people, while this dialogue gives shape to a theatre community – that was TN, and is now no longer.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

As long as criticism is understood as a practice external to the the arts, critics will be subjected to the same precarious work conditions, same reliance (for both income and professional standards) on a completely extraneous industry, and the critical output of the country will remain of low volume, and abysmal quality. And, as long as writing criticism is seen as hurting one’s standing within the arts industry, the ability of criticism to attract the most educated, insightful, and articulate voices will be further compromised. Theatre criticism in a country cannot function entirely as a kamikaze operation.

The future of criticism is almost certainly not in full-time employment, and very definitely not in writing for newspapers and magazines. It is also not in microblogging, not on Twitter, not in ‘vox populi’-style surveys, and definitely not in different aggregators and miscellaneous arts portals that have sprung up in recent years, combining advertising revenue with no writers’ fees, and producing criticism no longer or better than the average newspaper. Criticism requires long form, a critical culture requires dialogue. As Scott Walters wrote recently, in response to George Hunka: “Facebook and Twitter (especially Twitter) are not a place to have a conversation. They are places to chat, which is what theatre people much prefer to actually thinking through issues that pertain to the art form and the way art is created. Twitter rewards glibness, Facebook rewards sharing. Blogs promote the exploration of ideas, and that is becoming an increasingly scarce element.

The only credible future vision we have right now is of quality criticism as a sometimes-job or part-time job, done by people who receive the majority of their income somewhere else, people not writing criticism for the glory and influence (a la Kenneth Tynan), but out of a sense of responsibility towards the theatre sector, and out of writerly joy. If it exists, it will be funded by a patchwork of different sources, public and private – or it will continue to be funded by self-exploitation.

Culturebot have launched a crowdfunding project, the first of its kind in the world of theatre criticism. It is something to watch quite carefully: its success or failure will send a signal to all of us, scattered across the world.

What Australian theatre needs, very acutely needs, is to train a generation of knowledgeable, skilled, and ethical critics, and find funds to pay for their critical writing, for the editing and commissioning of such writing, and for its distribution. These need to be people coming from within the industry, people who can write criticism as a part of their practice, and part of their responsibilities to their professional milieu. The future criticism of Australian theatre needs to be accountable, consistent, ethical and reliable, as was Theatre Notes – otherwise nothing has been learned.

Theatre Notes opened up the insular, closed and intricately networked theatre sector of Australia to argumented critique, and it was only a good thing. If nothing gets built now on that success, we will probably return to gossip as the main form of analysis. Or, in the words of George Hunka: “Many people within theatre communities believe they are besieged and lacking engagement with their larger communities, yet continue to engage in intellectual exclusion. How they expect to evolve into anything but continued solipsism is hard to see.

Critics are important. (Cameron Woodhead says, accurately: “[A]rt and criticism have a symbiotic relationship. Creative culture thrives in the presence of a vigorous critical culture – artists tend to excel when they know their work is being taken seriously.”) But not just for each and every artform. The artists who make work, the curators who exhibit it, the critics who review it, the publishers, editors and producers who bring critical conversations together, the media who transmit it, the conversations that ensue, and the tickets that get sold as a result of all of this – that’s the ecosystem that makes a culture. It is easy to forget this in Australia, such is the insularity of each part of what should be a system, but isn’t. Culture is what happens when the work of artists is seriously analysed, assessed, recommended, spread, promoted, read, discussed, responded to with other art/commentary/public discussion. Culture is a result of people talking to each other. As Alison Croggon has said elsewhere: “Without culture, we just have a lot of art.”

Disclaimer: I write for Exeunt Magazine and Real Time, and know personally just about everyone mentioned by name in the text.

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12 thoughts on “An obituary to Theatre Notes, and perhaps to criticism

  1. Thanks Jana. You sum up the larger questions and problems very cogently, I think. As both you and Cameron have said, criticism does matter; and the question of how it can be nurtured and sustained here has been my primary worry over the past few years. I have no answers, but like everything in the arts, it will come down to drive, vision and passion. What I don’t doubt is that there is an audience for quality discussion, and a palpable need and desire for it in the culture. And that there is talent to meet that need. Can’t wait for your return! Melbourne needs you. x

  2. George Hunka says:

    An excellent critique, Jana, of the Australian critical environment for theatre, and not without its applicability here in the US.

  3. Peter Willis says:

    The other problem with Cameron Woodhead’s article was that it was blinded by his ego. It’s like that story of the critic sitting behind a lady wearing a very large hat. He asked her to remove it which she refused, so he ended up reviewing the hat.

    Except Woodhead prefers to look at the hat (his ego) instead of the broader picture just beyond his view.

    This makes Theatre Notes’ departure all the more saddening.

  4. Jana says:

    Hello, everybody, and welcome.

    Alison, I think it will really come down to the ability of people within the arts media sector to work together, and the availability of funding to support it. And my own ability to work for little money, because I’m young and passionate and love theatre, is also coming to an end.

    Peter – I agree, and that’s what prompted this (very, very long) text. But it’s also worth remembering Woodhead was writing within a very strict word limit. That’s a constant problem in what we’re doing here…

  5. [...] A few others have appropriately longer-form responses, the most thoughtful of these being Jana Perkovic’s essay at her blog Guerrilla Semiotics. She takes a long view of the ways that the critical blogosphere [...]

  6. Hi Jana – I think the one lesson to take from TN (aside from all the things you’ve teased out above) is what a difference it makes in a small but vital performance culture when you pay serious attention to what is in front of you, on its own terms. I never outsourced TN because its strength was that one eye, (or two eyes), but it’s the nourishment of further eyes and ears and minds that strikes me as the key question. It’s not as if there are not people out there. Totally, why would you take up such an exhausting task for no reward? There’s absolutely no reason to. I do think there are opportunities opening up in terms of funding, and maybe it’s time to put a serious and smart argument together and approach some bodies.

  7. AL says:

    Thanks Jana, read this with interest, much to take note of. In Sydney, the main blogs providing long-form responses to theatre are written by two ex-print reviewers (one of whom has closed up shop for the time being), an actor/director/ex-NIDA tutor, a producer/director and a high-school drama teacher! All passionate, educated, knowledgable, informed, insightful, engaged critical thinkers – and unpaid. I believe TN inspired them all, which isn’t a bad legacy. But goodness, she’ll be missed.

  8. Jana says:

    Hello AL. How am I guessing if I put names to the Sydney reviewers you mention like this: Diana Simmons, James Waites, Kevin Jackson, Augusta Supple and Jane Simmons?

    There were also the guys behind The Perf, who were performance students at the time; and Nick Pickard, who has trained as a theatre director. Both were good blogs, and both are defunct now. It is both sad and completely understandable – people can’t keep it up. The amazing and valuable thing about TN is that it kept an incredible consistency of quality and quantity for an incredibly long time. What I (and I think some other bloggers) have discovered was just how hard that is.

  9. That was fantastic and sad at the same time Jana. Hopefully a passionate and informed eye such as yours and others quietly working at the practice will take on the challenge of filling the void Alison has left. It is almost an invitation for the hungry, and those for whom devilishly hard things hold strange and irresistible appeal…

    Regards

  10. sarah miller says:

    Wow – I must have been living under a rock! How did I miss that news? Theatre Notes ended – that is hugely distressing. Jana – that is a great piece of writing about an old old problem in the Australian arts sector. Alison – your intelligence, knowledge, stamina, integrity and wit have indeed been inspiring. Thank you.

  11. [...] my last post, on the closing of Theatre Notes and on Australian theatre criticism more generally, I have been thinking more, rather than less, about theatre criticism in [...]

  12. [...] some very pertinent questions about the future of Australian arts writing on her blog in an obituary to theatre notes, and perhaps to criticism, and in theatre criticism in australia: what is actually going on?, with some [...]

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