Among the backpatters and backstabbers

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.

Tagged ,

11 thoughts on “Among the backpatters and backstabbers

  1. Hi Jana – an interesting provocation. I think the situation now is vastly better to what it was even five years ago, when there was hardly any discussion at all outside mainstream newspapers (the single exception was RealTime) and theatre companies were active in repressing negative reviews, to the point of campaigning for critics to be sacked if they were too negative. The difference is blogs. One interesting aspect of the Australian theatre blog scene is that it is pretty much a critical blog culture – there are a lot of reviewing blogs and websites. And among them there are quite a few experienced former or practising mainstream critics (eg, myself, Boyd, Pickard, Waites). And none of those blogs is in the least backwards in negative criticism.

    The tendency towards politeness, or the fear of being disliked for one’s frankly expressed opinion, is more a dilemma of newly emerging critics. And the question of a critic’s position in the theatre is an old chestnut. On this one I agree with Michael Billington: it is much more difficult negotiating the reviewing of one’s enemies than it is of one’s friends, who just have to put up with you. A friend will expect honesty, and is more likely to take it in the spirit of good faith; with an enemy – ie, someone who has publicly locked horns with you – criticism is much more likely to be construed as a personal attack, and has to be written so impersonally and with such objective chilliness that it’s an enormous challenge. Maybe the most difficult time I’ve had on that was when I had to review an MTC play by Hannie Rayson in which the leading villain, Alan Croggon, was named after me (there is a long history of my bad reviews of her work, and of my being villified for those reviews). It was only the second review I did for the Australian, and it threw me into a quandary that made me very angry: I am not in the least interested in personal attacks, but I had to write a review of a play in which my name resounded (it seemed) every two seconds from the mouth of a sadist or as a hypocritical coward. It made it very difficult to watch and assess the play, and I felt the only thing I could do was write a “objective” review which ignored the personal aspect. That’s the only time when I’ve backpedalled on criticism: although I made my negative opinion of the play clear, I was forced to be utterly restrained, to the point where I felt censored. And yet I had no choice: if I had been less restrained, it would have been as a counter-attack, rather than a work of critical response. (I expect what I wrote was considered a counter-attack anyway). But that kind of thing is not about discussing art at all.

    And in fact is much rarer in theatre than it is in other artforms. If you want to see a problematic critical culture, look at Australian poetry reviewing, which is almost exclusively by other poets, and which is almost exclusively “supportive”. I might have been excoriated as a theatre reviewer on occasions, which is par for the course, but that’s nothing like the viciousness and abiding vengefulness of a wronged poet.

  2. Hi Jana, interesting post! I’m a playwright who also writes critical pieces at times about theatre (Aussie now based in the US) but I don’t write about fellow playwrights’ work since we may be vying for productions in the same venue and I just can’t claim “disinterest”. I think this conflict of interest clause actually does matter, in theatre as in other spheres of life (eg. politics, banking etc– best not to get too cozy). I think the problem is also one of theatres’ own devil’s dance for funding and audience support, which tends to dumb down discussion of work to marketing cliches. No accident that countries with more arts funding produce more adventurous work.

    Meanwhile, you might be interested in jeff jones’ article on the relative conditions of art and theatre criticism:

  3. Jana says:

    Hi Christine!, and sorry for the amazingly late response. I know what you’re saying. Theatre, however, is a composite art, with many people involved even in the simplest production. An element of bitchiness, I believe, is eliminated by the fact that one is not a writer writing about another writer’s writing; but may be an actor, writing about light/sound/direction/writing. And still: Alison always notes that poets review each other’s work, and so do novelists. Even for shitting where you eat, a precedent exists 🙂

  4. Andrew says:

    Hi, Jana. I do not think that the only educated theatregoers in Melbourne are theatre practitioners. Nor do I agree that the only educated commentary on Australian theatre comes from said practitioners. I know this was meant to be a post about attitudes within the theatre community, but I think you started out on a wrong premise.

    As Alison Croggon in the first comment points out, there are the blogs. There are, I think, a number of commentators on theatre who are not directly past/present/future involved in the theatre sector. Personal experience and hearsay are poor proof, I know, but, still, I can say that I at least, as audience member and occasional writer, have nothing to do with the theatre sector. The people I see theatre with also are not in the TS. Many of the people I talk with about the theatre *are* TS, but then others are *not*.

    Do we have a different notion of what constitutes an ‘educated’ audience? What does constitute an educated audience? Do you mean ‘educated’ in the way that Jeff Jones means it in the post just referred to in the comments by Christine? That is, taking the instance cited by Jones, do you mean an audience capable of sitting through a “weird, unpleasant, irritating, aggressive, manipulative” piece of theatre and seeing that it is, for instance, in fact “a theatre of absence and withholding rather than presentation and presence”? In other words, an audience ready (prepared for, educated for) “the Shock of the New”. That is what I think you mean.

    This is not my notion of educated (which is not to say I disagreed with anything Jones said). An educated audience is *not* an audience interested only in novelty and the evolution of new theatre. It is an audience that is interested, intellectually interested, in its own delight.

    Theatrical innovation is not the responsibility of audiences. It is the responsibility of practitioners. But this does not mean that practitioners are therefore the only ones capable of writing critically about the theatre. Much educated criticism, much that is constructive, can be written by the ‘lay critic’ if he or she is focused on an analysis of his or her own delight in the theater. This kind of criticism from this kind of audience does exist in Melbourne, I think.

  5. Jana says:

    Hello Andrew, lovely to have you here.

    This is a bit of an old argument here; I’ve had a chance to change my opinion many times, and while I sort of agree with you that there are people who love theatre, see theatre and can write coherently about it without being practitioners – and they are the most precious people we have – they are excessively rare. I am one of them, and I would love not to feel so alone, but there really aren’t many. People still get surprised at finding people in the post-show foyers that are simple and plain audience. I was greeted with surprise and delight more than once for ‘seeing theatre just for fun’.

    This post was really aimed at all those who remain: the furiously networking artists in a sector that’s constantly teetering on the edge of losing whatever social relevance it may still have. A sector that puts so little effort in cultivating an audience it’s a wonder it’s as strong and beautiful as it is.

    If we did have a strong critical body, there would be no need to discuss who the educated audience is or isn’t. Again, this critical body barely exists outside blogs, and do keep in mind that blogs need to be googled, found, bookmarked, returned to. Blogs don’t exactly jump out at you to educate, not the way one still cannot help but be educated on the matter of visual arts. I do agree with Jones, and the visual arts model is often brought up as the model theatre should strive to emulate. Schlock audiences are not schlock-wired by default, as a friend of mine once pointed out when I was having my annual critic-crisis. At the moment, however, there is just about no-one doing it. I love that you defend yourself (and myself) as a solution to the problem: it makes me feel great about my work, your work, Melbourne. But we are so rare. How long do you think you’ll keep writing your blog? Compare this with the mass of people working in the sector, people whose first priority should be doing what Jones suggests they do: explaining in simple language, promoting their work as important-and-this-is-why. It is very frustrating that it often feels they are shooting themselves in collective feet, and outsiders (like me, like you) are trying to correct this.

    My notion of educated audience… I agree and disagree with you. I think a working knowledge, or rather experience, of an artform is usually the prerequisite for intellectual curiosity you bring up. The two go together, although by artform I do mean music, literature, visual arts (in theatre, in particular, all knowledge is relevant).

    What I see happening, in the society more widely, on the other hand, is a retreat towards less and less knowledge of any kind. I’m back in contact with university students this year, and the sort of ignorance we now take for granted from 20-year-olds is beyond laughter and beyond tears. (The other day, a student didn’t know what aristocracy was, nor where it stood in regards to bourgeoisie; this while we were trying to discuss the class conflict in Ibsen’s Norway. In one of my other classes, discussion of Brecht is completely crippled by the fact most students cannot even approximately date WWII – 1930s were mentioned the other day.) I love the idea of a noble dilettante. But you are a dying kind, and this happens because, at every point, we are giving up our right – or social duty – to transmit knowledge.

    Australia is very different from Europe, where an educated person not only has a working knowledge of theatre, classics and recent, but also a general education that allows them to engage with the broader world as discussed in any work of art. For me, now, an educated audience is, very humbly, whoever can make sense out of any given piece of theatre to the point of conducting foyer chat. This person is more rare than you may think.

    What you do is great, and very important. But the theatre sector should not count on unpaid enthusiasts to keep it relevant. Sure, instead of writing themselves they could have critics-in-residence, as recently suggested. But it is, I believe, ultimately the responsibility of the practitioners as a community to keep the critical commentary flowing.

    The other question, perhaps sidelined, is that the theatre sector still doesn’t seem entirely sure that it needs honest criticism at all.

  6. Jana says:

    Whoa that was huge.

  7. Jana, I think you should get about to theatre on nights other than opening nights, when you will see plenty of audience members who are not “industry”. And I’d be curious to know how you can claim that theatre companies put no effort into audience development, when audience development has in fact reached the status of an obsession. What do you mean by that? That there are no such programs? (there are) or that they need to be improved (subject for discussion)?

    And I can’t help feeling there’s an awful sense of condescension in claiming that the average person who ends up in an audience is incapable of “foyer chat”. Is that the measure of education anyway? How do you know? Do you speak to everybody there? What kind of literacies are we speaking of? I know a number of “non-sector” young people who are very smart and read like maniacs. Those seriously (I’d say, spiritually) drawn to art are always in a minority. In any society, at any time. It’s probably worth remembering Jarry, who said there were 50 civilised people in all of France…

  8. PS – I love Andrew’s notion of criticism as an analysis of delight…

  9. Jana says:

    Hi Alison. What about criticism as an analysis of frustration? Because it gets there, doesn’t it?

    As of how many people, I am basing my current frustration on the interaction with the cross-section of the population I encounter at university, who have astonished me this year. It does, unfortunately, get to my head count versus yours – no one can really win this sort of argument. But I have discovered great ignorance in the young ones across the board. It’s a pessimistic moment for me, for sure.

    And I truly don’t know about non-industry audience members. I mean, how does theatre compare to cinema? What percentage of each audience are expected to be “industry”? What do we mean when we say ‘few’ or ‘many’?

    As of audience development, please tell me more.

  10. Well, I guess the great danger is to take personal experience and generalise it out. We all do it, but it shouldn’t occlude the more complex picture…I guess in the end, when people complain about lack of literacy among young people, I think that, yes, we are arguably not so good at transmitting culture through education as once we were (although there are always exceptions, and there are ways in which education now is infinitely better than it was 100 years ago); and on the other hand, we’re still miles ahead from the time when the only people who read books were the aristocrats and ecclesiastical classes, and everyone else was reduced to stained windows. How does one measure those differences? You can even argue (some do) that the end of illiteracy means the end of human memory… I guess my question is, when was that golden age when everyone was so educated?

    What’s changed in the past few years has been the digital revolution and all the competing media; but what that actually means is that I keep meeting young people whose literacies, when I compare them to mine at the same age, are totally precocious: once you had to wait for some occasional Cinemateque screening to see Tarkovsky or Fassbinder, or go to great trouble to order certain books, if you even knew they existed; now all that is simply avialable, to an extent it has never been before in human history.

    I find this a fascinating fact, and it’s a counter intuitive weight against those claims that, for example, the internet means the end of books, or the more depressing tendencies of junk celebrity culture. It does mean change, but not necessarily in the ways that people sometimes predict. It might mean that people are post post post everything, but it also accounts for a number of things I see going on that are the opposite of ennui: revisitings, revaluations, returnings.

    Re audience development: there’s an Ozcouncil site with some useful stuff –

  11. Jana says:

    I am worried that that’s tipped over into a sort of informational torpor. When I was in high school, when internet was developing and Napster had just appeared, there was a sense of Renaissance approaching: that, if only we could reclaim information from the narrow channel of mass media, this knowledge would be power. But it seems to me that there is now a wider shift towards this knowledge being a)assumed, taken for granted and b)not empowering at all, first because a young mind, who grows up on myspace, doesn’t necessarily have the mental maturity to make sense of this enormous amount of information, filter useful from useless (I’m talking about current teenagers here), but also because they receive so little education that they really don’t seem to have organizing frames to fit the information in. Somehow, that promise of emancipation through knowledge has turned into all information becoming less relevant.

    And anyway, the shift now is towards user-generated content. Instead of TV giving way to internet, now web-surfing is giving way to Twitter. The future may consist of lots of people talking, writing, vlogging, and no one there to listen, read or watch.

    Thank you very much for the link: I can never find anything on the OzCo website. It’s a fascinating area, and I’ll be reading up for the next few days. However, I’ve noticed that there are articles like this one that advocate the commonly done thing: bringing theatre to the audience, rather than audience to the theatre. Simplifying, rather than explaining. And again, it does seem that audience development is left to individual companies, rather than the sector as a whole, or at least as a system. I wonder if that doesn’t mean that they end up trying to steal spectators from one another.

Comments are closed.