Tag Archives: criticism

Shout-outs

Australian Script Centre has kicked off a new series of long-form essays on the state of the Australian theatre (playwrighting, but not just). The inaugural essay has just been published: it is the inimitable Alison Croggon, writing on the state of theatre criticism in Australia. The essay is long, exhaustive, and superb, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Meanwhile, one of the young and promising critics that Alison singles out for praise in the above essay, Jane Howard, has just launched a personal newsletter. (I must say I’m not sure how to link to something that exists via email, so I am linking to her blog announcement thereof, which is perhaps a bit lame.) Jane is in Melbourne to write about about Next Wave, the biennial festival of emerging artists that explicitly nurtures experimental work. From what I’ve read so far of Jane’s newsletter, it is as experimental and interesting as the festival itself. I also highly recommend.

Next Wave has also started, of course. I wish I had the time to engage in either long-form or experimental criticism, or both, of the many, many works that will be showing in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, between the two subjects I am teaching, and the two long commissions I need to finish, I feel like I’ll be lucky if I find time to tweet about them. Many things are going to be published in reputable media, of course – including my review of Next Wave – but with a bit of a delay. Meanwhile, enjoy Jane and Alison’s writings.

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A critic’s code of practice

Just to remind us all that this is not exactly unexamined territory:

“Theatre is among the most interactive of the performing arts. As privileged spectators, theatre critics share with audiences and performers the same time and space, the same individual and collective stimuli, the same immediate and long-term experiences. As working theatre commentators, we seek in our individual ways to articulate these interactions as a frame for discussion and as a meaningful part of the interpretation and significance of theatrical performance. The International Association of Theatre Critics therefore urges its members worldwide to accept as an agreed starting point the core professional guidelines articulated in this document.

1. As writers and thinkers in the media and/or as scholars connected to various branches of academic discourse, theatre critics should always remain aware of normative professional practices, respect artistic and intellectual freedom, and should write in what they believe to be the best interests of the ideals of the art of theatre.
2. Theatre critics should recognize that their own imaginative experience and knowledge is often limited and should be open to new ideas, forms, styles and practice.
3. Theatre critics should speak truthfully and appropriately while respecting the personal dignity of the artists to whom they are responding.
4. Theatre critics should be open-minded and reveal (as appropriate) prejudices – both artistic and personal – as part of their work.
5. Theatre critics should have as one of their goals a desire to motivate discussion of the work.
6. Theatre critics should strive to come to the theatrical performance in their best physical and mental condition, and should remain alert throughout the performance.
7. Theatre critics should try to describe, analyze, and evaluate the work as precisely and specifically as possible, supporting their remarks with concrete examples.
8. Theatre critics should make every possible effort to avoid external pressures and controls, including personal favours and financial enticements.
9. Theatre critics should make every possible effort to avoid situations which are or which can be perceived to be conflicts of interest by declining to review any production with which they are personally connected or by serving on juries with which they are personally connected.
10. Theatre critics should not do anything that would bring into disrepute their profession or practice, their own integrity or that of the art of the theatre.”

IATC.org

A critic’s code of practice

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On Petra von Kant and disgruntled bitching

A particularly mean review of Gary Abrahams’ production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Byron Bache for Herald Sun inspired a response from Daniel Clarke, of Theatre Works, to the Sun, followed by a response from the Herald sun arts editor, Sally Bennett.

Clarke:

I just felt there was a lack of respect for the artists and independent theatre as a whole. Sensationalist remarks undermine the value of the review. You can be critical of something but you’ve also got to be accurate and respectful. There is another way of talking about someone’s emotional range without comparing them to a Hills hoist. There are other ways of talking about people without reducing them to an object.

Bennett:

I am not required to get it. You are required to explain it to me, to connect with me, so that I do get it and, hopefully, have the kind of experience that makes me seek you out again.

Somewhere down the rabbit hole of Facebook, a discussion happened, and I wrote something that I will soon lose if I don’t file it here, on these pages. So here it is, my two cents:

I think reviews such as the one above are important to have, but not for reasons stated by Bache. They are important for a few reasons.

1) Theatre criticism is emotional labour. We all try to remain objective, and should be mostly objective, but experiencing art involves emotions, and every so often one is swayed by great ecstasy or dismay, and sometimes this emotion outweighs the objective judgement enough to fill the whole review. What these reviews then lose in information, they gain in emotional, erm, information. Of course, no critic should write only from emotion. But to sanction a critic from having the occasional emotional outburst is both to tell them to rein in their emotional openness to the art – openness to both profound insight and irritation – and to deny that, if art has the power to provoke deep emotions, we must accept that deep annoyance is on that spectrum.

2) Criticism is not in-house feedback, and not just audience guidelines, but forms part of that dialogue we call culture. As such, it has the responsibilities of being both truthful, non-deceptive, non-navel-gazing and engaging. For criticism to do its purpose, it really must be interesting, on top of being non-incorrect. The number of comments here, the follow-up article in The Herald Sun, and the fact that multiple people have forwarded me this review, all signal to me that this review has succeeded in being interesting. Since a few people forwarded it to me because they felt their experience of the production validated by this review means it is not entirely untruthful or deceptive. And if we get proof of non-theatre-goers reading it and enjoying it, then it is non-navel-gazing, is bringing theatre to the attention of the wider audience, and is ultimately good for us all.

3) The reason why these reviews are so popular to read is because their emotional momentum propels the reader through (I think), and the purity of the emotion gives them a unifying focus that reviews otherwise often lack.

4) Ultimately, as in everything, we can only objectively engage with the content, not the tone of the review. If the review is lying/incorrect, that is what discredits it. The emotional content makes it a good read. It also gives us information as to how at least one person felt the experience. But to debate with this review must start with debating the accusations/critique, otherwise we are not debating, we are silencing.

If I were to engage with the tone of this review, which I would in good faith describe as disgruntled bitching, I think the most interesting thing to note would be how one deals with the ongoing emotional toil of going to the theatre and having to have deep affective responses for money. It’s a question worth asking, because a critic – a good critic – is neither an unfaltering cheerleader nor a merciless marker of essays and assigner of points. A critic, like a teacher, a psychotherapist, or a dramaturg, comes to their work invested, prepared to give to the work, to the experience, but with the added difficulty of then having to turn their emotional response into constructive, coherent, articulated feedback – to other audience members and to the artists. This is hard work. It requires both emotional openness and a preparedness to then dissect one’s own emotional response. Imagine if prostitutes gave a feedback session afterwards, because it is a little bit like that. And not the other way around, because critics come into the theatre building without an agenda, without a plan.

Emotional labour is labour that cannot be done with a closed heart, that requires an empathetic – or at least sympathetic – response, and this emotional component to the work is not only unpaid, it often marks the whole job as unworthy of being paid much, because our culture sees emotions as a mark of femininity, thus lesser in value. (Typical forms of emotional labour are caring jobs (aged care, nursing, child care, teaching) and hospitality and other service jobs.) The disgruntled bitching is an interesting response to a work of art, because it’s both authentic, and stronger than forgetting about the unpleasant experience, but is also, to some extent, self-defensive. The same way in which hospitality workers tell jokes about awful customers, secretaries share stories of bosses who harass them, the way my co-workers, when I worked in a restaurant with a terrible boss prone to fits of rage, made cruel jokes about the man who paid us. It is self-defensive because how else does one process an unpleasant experience? By despairing? By quitting the work? By walking out? I sometimes wonder how theatre practitioners – plenty of whom I have witnessed bitching disparagingly about artworks – understand critics. As full human beings? Or merely as vessels of other people’s humanity?

Of course there are critics who don’t get it. Even worse, there are critics who don’t try to get it, critics happy enough to dismiss entire genres, aesthetic families and art forms because it’s not their thing, critics who don’t read up on the work and then complain of its opaqueness, and I think they don’t do their work properly and are poor critics. But this is a sin of another kind: it is lack of interest in, and openness to, work. To be upset and disgruntled at the end of a theatre show is something else entirely: it is openness that backfired, openness that felt unpleasant.

And I challenge theatre-makers everywhere: would you like a racist to see a work that condemns racism? How do you expect the racist person to react? How do you imagine this encounter? Am I the only one, seriously the only one, who sees disgruntlement as fundamental to one’s encounter with art?

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‘It is the criticism that has dated’

Today “Zooey” does not seem too long, and is arguably Salinger’s masterpiece. Rereading it and its companion piece “Franny” is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby. It remains brilliant and is in no essential sense dated. It is the contemporary criticism that has dated. Like the contemporary criticism of Olympia, for example, which jeered at Manet for his crude indecency, or that of War and Peace, which condescended to Tolstoy for the inept “shapelessness” of the novel, it now seems magnificently misguided. However—as T.J. Clark and Gary Saul Morson have shown in their respective exemplary studies of Manet and Tolstoy7—negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work’s originality. The “mistakes” and “excesses” that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power.

New York Review of Books

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Australian Criticism cont.: music criticism

It felt completely deflating when Pitchfork pipped the Australian music press over Go Easy. It’s a fine album, the sort of thing anyone who had even a half-cocked eye on the band knew was coming. So when Pitchfork ran their 7.3 review a week before Mess+Noise even, it felt weird. It makes sense: the band’s label for Go Easy is located in the US and that’s probably where a lot of the promotional push was (if there was much, to speak of). But for me, this moment really hammered home the state of things: Australian music writing is a bit fucked. Here was the biggest, most widely read music rag in the world leading the Australian press on the exact sort of local release we needed to be covering first. When we can’t even keep on top of our own emerging music, what’s the fucking point?

Go Easy is not an isolated case unfortunately. A lot of the Australian music on this list is absent from any broader national discussion. Melbourne’s Kane Ikin released (via 12K) a ridiculously great drone and beats record this year on Sublunar and critique of that album is nowhere to be found at home. I didn’t even know he was Australian when I first stumbled onto his album. Instead we’re lucky to get one or two album reviews a day—of anything, even the centre—from our higher level outlets and almost zero ongoing commitment. Worst still, there just doesn’t seem to be the budget nor the editorial power out there to cover music below a certain watermark—one that seems completely arbitrated by local industry and advertisers—and it’s getting worse every year. If you want to read about anything happening on any of the various margins of Australian music, you’re mostly reading the work of an unpaid volunteer, a blogger or a junior/developing writer or you’re reading about your own culture on an ‘international’ music website. To an extent, that’s fine. But I just don’t want that all the time. I don’t want only that. I also want to look at nice sentences about a wider variety of music, and to hear from people more experienced than myself regarding this music. The intent and interest is there, the money isn’t. And so in 2012, I went from harbouring doubts about this stuff turning around one day to thinking, ‘Oh well, the pay cut isn’t that drastic anyhow.’

Ian Rogers in Top 10 of 2012: THE DEFINITIVE LIST / What The Hell Happened? – Life & pop culture, untangled, at The Vine.

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Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?: a few choice quotes

1. The allure of the ‘personal brand’

In his One Market Under God, Thomas Frank describes how, during the dot com boom, employers encouraged young coders to identify as anti-authoritarian creatives, letting them sport zany haircuts, listen to indy rock in the office and cover themselves in tattoos. Yet because their rebelliousness was purely aesthetic and explicitly individualist, it worked out quite nicely for management, thank you very much: the young rebels disdained collective organisation as irredeemably old fashioned, and so could all be smartly marched out the door as soon as the economy turned sour.

Something similar happens within literature though with worse haircuts and more tweed.

Jyotsna Kapur describes the prevalence of what she calls "an old narrative" about the arts: an idea "that artists are genius outsiders, voices of dissent, rugged lonesome individuals who live on the margins, victims of economic marginalisation and social misunderstanding, with a special, even sacred relationship to their art that must be protected from the intrusions of the world."This sense of artistic endeavour as inherently rebellious — "subversive", if you like — helps legitimise the Dalkey-style workplace, since, Kapur argues, rather than being somehow anomalous, artists are actually exemplary neoliberal employees — especially since they don’t realise it.

Think about how writers are accustomed to honing their skills on their own time. They often pay for their own training, through courses or university degrees. By and large, they don’t join unions; they understand their careers in purely individual terms — indeed, they’re often told to think of themselves as "brands". They’re not only willing to accept short-term contracts, they’re pathetically grateful for them — every creative writing student dreams of a book deal.

Jeff Sparrow in Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?, at New Matilda.

2. The sense of ‘devotion to the art’

As we all know theatre reviewing/criticism is in its death throes. For print media it’s all over bar the counting – where I used to get up between 800 and 1200 words when I was at the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake gets a couple of hundred. (…)

The announcement last week that Alison Croggon is retiring her Melbourne-based blog should sent a bleak and urgent warning to the industry. Alison is super-women – not only were her reviews of the highest order, nothing in the country anywhere near like it. She also managed a creative writing career to which is now intending to commit full time. As she should. She has left behind a 9-year legacy – an intimate and informed and impassioned legacy – with a huge local and international profile. Thanks to the help of no-one (officially). Actors complain about co-op rates – reviewing nowadays is one step down to the zero dollars in return. Even successful print outlets like Time Out don’t pay any more. And it shows.

Free tickets to the serious critic come with a burden of responsibilities. They’re not lollies as editors seem to think as they keep their main eye on the financial bottom line.

(…) The relationship between theatre companies and critics has always had its ups and downs. It is to entirely misunderstand the job if publicists think our purpose is to put bums on seats. That can happen – hopefully many many times. But that is the publicists job not ours. On any given show the reviewer is there to represent the interests of the company (at least keeping in mind its goals), but also offer feedback to the artists involved, feedback to the audience who has seen the show, readers who are thinking of seeing the show, and readers who just want at least a little info in hand for that next dinner party. Plus the reviewer keeps a kind of record book – in my view the most important responsibility. To assist with the collation of a history.

The biggest problem about the current situation is this. Theatre lives and dies on the night – apart from the mark it strikes on our souls. The good critic is not the person sitting in row G who sees ‘more and better’ (though the best of us do accrue a certain discernment over time). Our gift is to DESCRIBE in WORDS what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show. (…)

We are entering a time when the theatre industry is relying on the good will and huge efforts of the likes of Alison and myself for its endeavours to be remembered. When will I get to the point at which, like Alison, I say ‘enough is enough’. What will be left to remember of your efforts? Your life’s work as artists – achievements, setbacks and recoveries. There will be no history – not even written in sand.

Theatre is not cinema or a novel. We can’t go back to the opening night of Baz Lurhmann’s La Boheme or Armfield’s Cloudstreet. Imagine someone in 20 years saying: “I never new Cate Blanchett acted on stage – nothing here on Google”. (…) People in twenty/fifty years time will find no meaningful (extensive and reliable) record of what ever happened at Australia’s most renowned venue over these recent years. Very clearly marketing departments sit above publicists nowadays in the hierarchy. And their view would be: who needs feedback after a show – esp if it’s sold out in advance – end of story – job done. (…) And meanwhile the rest of the performing arts gets a few ill-informed grabs from freebie happy wannabes.

James Waites at Alison Croggon Retires Theatre Notes at jameswaites.com.

3. Economic privilege

People from richer backgrounds are three times more likely to have undertaken unpaid internships than those from poorer backgrounds, according to a recent survey conducted by NUS and YouGov. I have managed to support myself with my student loan while working for free, but when I graduate, unpaid work will no longer be an option. Yet I am constantly being told that I should expect to work for free after graduating.

After my seventh internship, I decided enough was enough. I have become actively involved in the campaign against unpaid internships, both at my university and nationally. I have protested outside a famous PR company, and I gave official evidence to the Low Pay Commission, which is currently investigating unpaid internships.

When I talk to students about unpaid internships, one common response is: “But I don’t mind working for free.” What I hear is: “I can afford to work for free.” My involvement in the campaign has made me much more conscious of my individual responsibility. If I were to take on unpaid work now, I would be very aware that, by doing so, I am not just saying that I don’t deserve a wage, but that my peers and friends don’t either.

For every person who can work for free, there are so many who simply cannot afford to. This means that they are being shut out of many careers where internships are an essential part of your CV.

Libby Page in Fight Against Unpaid Internships at The Guardian; via Precarious Workers Brigade.

4. Self-identification as ‘free’, ‘independent’ ‘elite’ and ‘privileged’

Contemporary art’s workforce consists largely of people who, despite working constantly, do not correspond to any traditional image of labor. They stubbornly resist settling into any entity recognizable enough to be identified as a class. While the easy way out would be to classify this constituency as multitude or crowd, it might be less romantic to ask whether they are not global lumpenfreelancers, deterritorialized and ideologically free-floating: a reserve army of imagination communicating via Google Translate.

Instead of shaping up as a new class, this fragile constituency may well consist—as Hannah Arendt once spitefully formulated—of the “refuse of all classes.” These dispossessed adventurers described by Arendt, the urban pimps and hoodlums ready to be hired as colonial mercenaries and exploiters, are faintly (and quite distortedly) mirrored in the brigades of creative strike workers propelled into the global sphere of circulation known today as the art world.5 If we acknowledge that current strike workers might inhabit similarly shifting grounds—the opaque disaster zones of shock capitalism—a decidedly un-heroic, conflicted, and ambivalent picture of artistic labor emerges.

Hito Steyerl in Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, at e-flux.

5. The belief that the self-exploitation will lead to increased employment opportunities for oneself, rather than decrease them for everyone in the sector.

Why is working in the realms of “culture” and academia so undervalued? Not only by the instutions that hire, but also by the good, committed workers themselves who will step on each other for the next available job? It’s equally worth organizing adjuncts as it is art-workers. he work doesn’t get done without us. Some institutions know this and act on it. When workers in any field collectivize and strategize to confront management, management listens and attempts to compromise. This is just the first step, that often rewards its participants with euphoria. It gets more difficult after that, but a necessary step to make. It is worthwhile to at least imagine what labor unions for art workers and adjuncts might look like. It’s worthwhile to imagine how good things could possibly be, as there are more than enough examples to point to as examples of what is bad.

Open Letter to Labor Servicing the Culture Industry

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What kind of theatre criticism do we need?

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.

Continue reading “What kind of theatre criticism do we need?” »

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Theatre criticism in Australia: what is actually going on?, with some stats

After 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 Australia.

What I hoped would be a productive discussion with Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead turned into an extremely unproductive discussion about who the alpha-critic in town is, and I remembered (from the far, faraway Berlin) that it has been like that for a long time. Cameron attacking Alison. Alison replying back. I don’t know what happens in other cities, but this is the major story in Melbourne, as far as criticism goes. Meanwhile, the entire job definition (not a profession – it’s not a profession) of theatre criticism is slowly disappearing in Australia, attacked by shrinking word counts, diminishing pay-per-word, folding newspapers, amalgamating arts desks, the proliferation of websites that pay little to nothing, and the total collapse of quality on a general level, across artforms, making it very hard for a lot of young people to even know what good criticism should look like. And the senior figures in the profession – or rather, the senior figure in the profession, since Alison is no longer a critic, and there is only one local newspaper – appears to be majorly concerned only about furthering a professional stoush, mistaking it for something personal. There is something both scary and absurd about it, like sweatshop seamstresses fighting for the preferences of the boss, instead of organising into a union. Meanwhile, there is a new generation of young people coming up, wanting to be proper, good critics, people like Jane Howard, to whom we have a certain responsibility: to at least detect the problems within criticism, and inform people, if not exactly to solve them.

I was also starting to wonder if I was right in my assessment of how criticism seems to currently work, since Cameron Woodhead called me ‘dangerously wrong’, but nothing more specific. So I spent the better part of my evening on an impromptu spreadsheet spree, compiling – in a completely unscientific manner – as much data on as many critics in Australia as I could think of and research. (It is entirely unscientific, I repeat, but I didn’t get a research grant for this, I spent a few hours googling people and inquiring.)

And I realise I should have been more specific in my classification of critics as ‘falling between the cracks of disciplines’ and ‘having no relevant training’ in theatre. Both is true to some extent, but not simultaneously. Two groups exist, but don’t actually seem to overlap very much. Of the 48 critics I managed to look up (mostly Melbourne and Sydney, with a whole batch from Adelaide because Jane answered a few questions I asked), there were 16 with confirmed relevant training (in performance, theatre, or drama – I excluded degrees in film, philosophy, geography, and similar), and 20 with relevant practical experience (as playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, directors, or scholars). There was a very high degree of overlap between these two, but only half (10/22) also wrote for mainstream media. And of the 38 who wrote for the mainstream media, almost all were employed as arts journalists, not simply critics – meaning they were doing all kinds of odd journalistic jobs (but not meaning they were working full-time, nor that they had job security – this I simply don’t know). AND, of the 33 employed as arts journalists, only 7 had a relevant degree, and a partially-overlapping 11 a relevant artistic practice.

I hope you understand that these are SUPER-unreliable numbers, but there is currently no data on the Australian critics. There is no representative body, no union, no club, no professional organisation, no transparency, and no real insight into what work conditions are normal or not. I was making ad hoc decisions on what to consider what. But still, it seems reasonable to take from this that there is, indeed, a total lack of overlap between two kinds of critics: those with theatre training, who have either a scholarly or an artistic practice, and review on the side (they do indeed exist); and those who review for the mainstream media, and who are employed as arts journalists. The troubling bit is this: all arts journalists in this country are currently facing pretty bleak job prospects; and the critics with theatre training are largely reviewing for non-mainstream media, and I suspect (based on what I know of that landscape) that they’re not getting paid much, or at all, for their critical work.

In fact, the more I was tweaking my spreadsheet, the more clear it appeared that NOBODY in the country was earning their keep exclusively from theatre criticism; that only a few were living solely from writing (usually a combination of criticism, arts journalism, and editorial work); and that the vast, vast majority seemed to have many very oddly combined jobs. In fact, the rising question seemed to be: does anyone earn anything from criticism, and, if so, what share of their total income? And then, while shooting off questions to people, I spoke to two young critics, who both expressed hope to become more ‘senior’ and more full-time in the coming year. And I suddenly realised that they don’t know. Nobody has told them. Just like I didn’t know, because nobody had told me. *

*EDIT/CORRECTION: When I say ‘nobody’, I mean ‘two’. Following an email exchange with Chris Boyd, I realise I need to correct myself on one thing: there are critics who work only as critics. Chris Boyd is one, and has been one for a very long time. Cameron Woodhead is another. They both write the occasional feature, but otherwise write only criticism. (The complication here is that Cameron reviews books as well. I am thinking that perhaps shouldn’t count…) Unfortunately, only these two critics, out of my pool of 48, had anything approaching this ratio of theatre criticism to other work. It seemed like a very low number, so I went all glib and said ‘NOBODY’. It was technically incorrect. Apologies, Chris and Cameron, and apologies, dear reader.

The best overview of what is happening to the profession of criticism in Australia has been coming from other disciplines – because every kind of criticism in Australia has the same problems; indeed, Australian criticism is one big problem in itself. Andrew Ramadge, in an insightful article about the music street press in Australia (the most common kind of criticism that any young Australian will encounter), writes: “The facts are street press pays like shit, discourages creativity and walks a fine line between editorial and advertorial. Quality journalism or criticism that appears in its pages owes more to the uphill battle constantly fought by staff than to the model itself.” Gideon Heigh, in a piece published 2 years ago, blames the “sheer dullness and inexpertise” of the Australian book reviewing on the familiar set of problems: capsule reviews, no pay, getting staff journalists to review books. Lucinda Strahan found that 97-98% of arts journalism in a sample of Melbourne newspapers carried public relations activity. While Strahan didn’t find too much of a problem with that – in her words, arts journalism is different from normal journalism in that it’s partisan and supportive – that is sort of a problem of its own kind: an arts journalist isn’t really a journalist. Ben Eltham, probably the best journalist for both arts and policy in Australia, summarised the economic reality of art criticism really neatly:

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful. Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money.

I think it would be really useful to find out, first, what actually goes on in criticism in Australia: in terms of pay, workload, work conditions, the kind of people attracted to the job, how long they last, what makes them stay or quit, etc. We know this kind of information for artists, because Australia Council actually researches artists. But nobody has bothered with arts journalists or critics yet. And how are we supposed to make proposals, if we don’t know what is going on right now…?

In this situation, it is simply absurd to fight for power among us. The question of who reviews for The Age or The Australian is becoming slightly ludicrous, because those positions are rapidly losing their prestige. First, the reviews they get to write are increasingly insulting to a critic: short, tiny, simple, and ever more often of musicals. Second, there is less and less certainty that those positions won’t simply vanish in the next few years.

And then it really won’t matter, who the last person on top was.

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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.

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Moral Order of a Suburb vs Critical Dialogue

Dear reader, please bear with me while I am having German hayfever (in mid-summer, also, due to the endless cold we have had here when we were supposed to have spring and summer) and am incapacitated from all writing.

Meanwhile, I have been doing some research on something called ‘suburban mentality’, trying to find out whether it exists or not. I have compiled lists of ‘crazy NIMBYisms’. All this was done with another goal in mind, something urbanism-related and not directly theatrical. But, while finding out that ‘suburban mentality’ is (at least in sociology) a Really Existing Fact, I have also found vast swaths of material on how it shapes attitudes to conflict.

How? Badly. According to one classic text, M. P. Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb, it fosters avoidance at all cost (not merely conflict avoidance, but person avoidance). If this does not make the conflict disappear, the next tactic is ‘waiting for someone to move away’. If there is a stranger involved, the next step above is calling the authorities; if it is a neighbour, an anonymous report (even if the anonymity reduces the chance of successfully solving the conflict); if it is an intra-family conflict, bereaving the person of something important (such as grounding the child). If the conflict has not been solved by now, the remaining two measures are both extreme and non-confrontational: “A party to such a dispute may show signs of emotional distress, such as depression, agitation, poor performance in school, or self-destructive behavior.” Or, the ultimate sanction, the ‘permanent avoidance’: the spouses divorce, the child moves out of home.

The other text I found looks at how this suburban space provides no public space (what it provides is ‘common space’, a utilitarian, aesthetically neglected, affectively poor, space for getting in an out, collecting rubbish, etc), and, in turn, no ‘public reasoning context’ – the lack of which shapes a non-discursive culture, which leads to a non-conflictual culture.

The importance of conflict in social as well as individual ego-development cannot be overstated. When I use the term ‘conflict’, I do not mean violent or in some way threatening forms of confrontation but forms of sociation where individual interests and world-views confront one another. Conflict is generally seen as dividing segments of any population, but this is generally not the case. More likely, as Georg Simmel pointed out in his analysis of the phenomenon, ‘Conflict (Kampf) itself resolves the tension between contrasts. The fact that it aims at peace is only one, as especially obvious, expression of its nature: the synthesis of elements that work both against and for one another’ (Simmel, 1955: 14). In this sense, conflict gives the individual a stronger sense of self; it develops in tandem with challenges to the way he thinks, reflects, and forms his identity. Lacking conflict, one seeks privacy in order to avoid the public realm which can be a place of conflict. Therefore, conflict performs an integrating task: the individual becomes more integrated into social life through certain forms of conflict and antagonism. In avoiding these forms of conflict, the individual becomes detached from the pulse of public life (Baumgartner, 1988; Greenhouse, 1992). He does not wish to engage it, to enter into it, but rather to shun it creating a more atomized society as well as a deeper sense of anomie within
the subject himself (Sennett, 1974).

Michael J. Thompson, Suburban Origins of the Tea Party: Spatial Dimensions of the New Conservative Personality, Critical Sociology 2012 38: 511

With a relevance and incidental accuracy that is absolutely fantastic (considering that Thompson is theorising about the Tea Party in the US, and I am applying his theories to the Australian theatrical debate), Thompson concludes with the concept of ‘anomic provincialism’:

This detachment from others is not absolute; rather, what happens is that individuals form narcissistic senses of self where their social relations also become linked by what is familiar to them – closed structures lead us not only to avoid public life, but also to forms of self which are alienated from public life and become under-socialized, lacking the capacities needed for public life.

This has an important impact on group-affiliation. These forms of self will seek protection but also a reflection of themselves with others who share similar world-views. As a result, group affiliation becomes tighter, limiting itself to the known. Relations need to be personal; the impersonal (i.e. public) is shunned and feared (Sennett, 1971). The maintenance of certain world-views can therefore be maintained by homogeneous kinds of group-affiliation. Disruptions in the ways of life, in the world-views held in common by such communities, will be seen as existential threats and, many times, provoke strong personal and communal reaction. When individuals are prevented from diverse forms of interaction, unaccustomed to conflict and challenging the self and its predispositions, and relate to one another in ways shaped by anomie and alienation, we begin to see a more genuine picture of the self that emerges within suburban space.

Suburban life can erode the democratic capacities of citizens because they contain, or better yet, are specifically designed around the notion of closed social space. This is very different from mid-nineteenth-century urban planning which placed a primacy on public space. The result of this is a set of spatio-structural constraints upon forms of interaction and intersubjectivity which then lead to a limiting of interpersonal consciousness. The specific character of interpersonal consciousness, as I argued above, therefore leads to an under-developed or mal-developed reflexive consciousness thereby rendering public consciousness either non-existent or so underdeveloped as to be almost practically useless.

Lacking these forms of public consciousness, public reason too becomes impossible and, with time, democratic capacities of open discussion, public debate, toleration, and inclusiveness are all
undermined.

I have been observing the strange trajectory of the Queen Lear debate, and it seems to me too many speculations from above apply, for sociology not to be relevant.

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