In my informal research on critical thinking on theatre criticism, I have come across an open discussion about theatre criticism held in 2009 in Zagreb, Croatia. Here are a couple of interesting quotes from this discussion, translated into English by yours truly (with the Croatian original, transcribed by yours truly as well).
This is a lateral reaction to the (ongoingly unconstructive) discussion about the critical ethics of Alison Croggon on Cameron Woodhead’s blog. I am not interested in participating in flame wars, but the question of theatre ethics is an interesting, and important one: in particular the questions of the legitimacy of a critic and a criticism; of bias resulting from personal and professional connections (and resulting mutual obligations, however unconscious); and of criticism as an ethical act.
As a preamble, the most interesting quote (for me, personally) about the ethics of theatre criticism in Australia is almost a side remark that John Bailey made in the introduction to his blog, A CAPITAL IDEA – which perhaps says something about the state of the critical debate in Australia:
Disclaimer: This site will be riddled with conflicts of interest which will only sometimes be mentioned. This is because I have PERSONALLY MET and even spoken with hundreds of the many thousands of artists working in Australia today. Just yesterday one came into my shop and bought some rainbow coloured kneepads. A few hours later another came in and bought a nice red jumper. Also, I was once walking home when a really good director pulled up next to me and gave me a lift. It turns out that I used to play SPORTS with his girlfriend, who was driving. I also went to uni with a lot of very talented artists who are now achieving the national and sometimes international recognition they deserve. About a year ago I saw Barry Dickins in the street and said hello and he invited me in for a cup of tea and a crumpet. I had an unexpected dance-off with a FAIRLY FAMOUS WRITER ages ago which ended when she threatened me with a pot of water from the stove. And so forth. Such conflicts of interest can be understood by another name – “HAVING ANY INVOLVEMENT WITH THE ARTS IN MELBOURNE” – and are quite unavoidable. But I like to believe that a certain amount of professionalism and even-handednes will also be on display here.
The following quotes come from Nataša Govedić, possibly the most prominent contemporary theatre critic in Croatia. Govedić writes long-form criticism for Novi list, a highly regarded newspaper published from Rijeka, but increasingly distributed nationally. She is also a theatre scholar, and one of the editors (and one of the theatre critics) of Zarez, the most prominent cultural magazine in Croatia.
I have a lot of professional and personal respect for Nataša Govedić, whose scholarly work has focused on ethics, in performance and performance-making, as well as in theatre writing, writing on theatre, and scholarly writing. I have interviewed her for my thesis, own a book of her essays on performance ethics, and have met her in person – all to my great delight.
Govedić opened the conversation with two statements that I will certainly return to in the future: first quoting Oscar Wilde “It is Criticism, again, that, by concentration, makes culture possible”; and then by stating “Theatre criticism is an art that will exist if it creates the conditions for its own existence.”
I think that the critic is a performer. In other words, the critic performs a few times a week in the daily newspaper, and performs in front of the wide audience of such a newspaper. S/he performs in front of actors, in front of directors. The manner of this performance is very important. So, in terms of performativity, values, argumentation, the encounter between the critic and the creative teams is much more frequent than my personal encounter, as a critic, with individual performers of state theatres. Certain actors may perform four times a year, or even less, and I perform three times a week. And if I am on the public stage three times a week, then people will get to know me. And, in that sense, the critic is undoubtedly NOT outside the process of performance/performativity. And thus s/he is absolutely not PR – I would thus never call myself PR, quite the opposite. The longer I am implicated in this process of performance/performativity, the less it seems to me that my role is to inform the public about what was technically going on [on stage, in the theatre].
If we talk about what criticism might be, it could be, in different senses of the term, a cooperation, centred around this joint, co-creating work. Because the most interesting artsts are themselves terribly self-critical, demolishingly self-critical. They cannot form a single sentence about themselves that isn’t self-denial. Just like critics are certainly to some extent people who create. I therefore don’t see at all why we should insist on such a strong division.
The other thing – I don’t see why we would limit the responsibility of critics to the newspapers, or only to ourselves. There are professional organisations alright, e.g. the Croatian Journalist Association or the Croatian Association of Critics and Theatre Scholars, who do nothing – who meet twice a year, only formally, and I don’t see them contribute to the public dialogue, to the creation of a public, to the creation of context, I haven’t seen them accept the position of a performer. I think that the performer’s position is the most humble, and the most radical, and don’t know why critics should shy away from it. On the contrary, I think s/he should be conscious of it. I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values to some extent, has held an ideology, if you prefer – not just the ideology of the newspaper s/he works for – and there doesn’t exist, nor has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is then only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participate in them. Of course, this doesn’t mean to propagate them.
[The question was: “What kind of criticism, or what kind of critic, do we need? What gives legitimacy to a critic?” The journalist offered a personal view: “For me, it must come from the critic’s work.”]
There is an entire category of scientific evaluation called peer review. When experts evaluate the works of other experts. This often escalates into full-blown wars: there are often deep disagreements about one and the same text, work – and it is often completely impossible to reach a consensus, on any level, on what should be fixed or changed in a text. So clearly, the point of criticism is not in all of us agreeing on how a staged work could be improved. The idea of criticism implies the cultivation of difference among critics, and those critics then having a certain credibility – or not, as the case may be. But they have a certain predictability, that definitely. And it makes them serve as a kind of orientation point, and of course such orientation points should be as many, and as diverse, as possible.
In these discussions about whether criticism should be written by people who clearly have no argument to make, who opt for impressionist reviews – impressionist in the sense of writing down [only] their impressions – I also think that kind of criticism does a lot of damage. But I don’t think it should be censored, because there is a place for such criticism, too. I think what qualifies a critic is first the professional qualification – in the sense that the person needs to know and understand the artform [‘poznavati profesiju’ in original: my translation is arguable]. On the other hand, there is the qualification of seeing… The very fact of sitting in a theatre, day after day, and watching shows is a form of labour, labour which definitely leaves a mark. A critic that gets that kind of education, seriously and with dedication, and then stays to talk to people after the show…
It took me a long time to even accept this idea, that it’s important to talk a lot with people. Now I think it’s as important as to write about theatre. When I started to write criticism, 10 years ago, I was strongly convinced that I have to write, and that I must not talk with the artists, that that’s taboo – because the moment we talk someone is already trying to persuade me. Now I think exactly the opposite, I think one must hear all the arguments and only then have a think about it all. Not so that I can be manipulated, but to reduce to minimum my own manipulation with that visit, that single visit, which was surely not enough to encompass the entire production. It’s rude to claim that one attendance of a show could possibly encompass the extreme complexity of its process. Theatre performances really are different from one night to the other, and the more often we can return to a production, the more ethical we are in that sense.
The entire discussion (for that lone 8-or-so million people who speak Croatian) can be viewed here.