Critic as audience member

Here is a question that has bothered me for a long time: how does one enter the theatre if one is going to publicly write about the event later?

This is a question quite distinct from the usually posed ‘what is the role of the critic?’, ‘what should the critic do?’, or even the more self-indulgent ‘how do I write my criticism?’. (Those are often discussed, for example by Andrew Fuhrmann, Alison Croggon, Andrew Haydon, Chris Boyd, and everyone the quote and link to in these articles.) This is a question of state of mind before the critic gets to do what a critic does.

I’ve been mulling over this question for as long as I’ve been getting invitations to shows, because of the implied reciprocity of this exchange.

It seemed to me that there are two ways of approaching this problem: one can try to be the ideal audience member, or the average audience member.

Here we encounter a difference between a reviewer and a critic, and also a difference between the assumed role of criticism, and the practice of criticism, between, say, the Anglophone and the continental European countries.

The kind of criticism practised in newspapers here, in London and in New York, is something we could call arts reporting. It involves going to a theatrical event, and coming back with a report on how it went; whether it was good; whether it did stuff well. It is, in that sense, clearly a kind of writing that requires a verdict; a judgement; a number out of five stars. There’s a position of authority there. But, because the point of the verdict is basically to tell the reader whether they should spend their money on this event or not, the critic must approach the event by trying to experience it from the point of view of their average reader. In fact, critics of this genus often talk about their responsibility to this reader (see, for example, the comments to Alison Croggon’s review of Baal.

But there is at least one other kind of criticism, which is more commonly encountered in European publications, and which so puzzled Andrew Haydon in 2006 that he wrote a blog post wondering: is it possible that criticism may not need to say whether a piece of theatre is good or bad? I have grown up reading this kind of criticism, which analyses and theorises about the theatrical event, draws parallels between the logic of the work and sciences, social sciences, theories, the world today. Haydon gives an excellent example in his blog spot; Žižek’s film criticism is a similar beast. This sort of criticism operates with a logic of philology, rather than judgement. It’s Barthesian; it responds to the text, rather than assessing it. It reads through the influences on the text, through its lineage, its peers. Clearly, it is done by an ideal, rather than an average reader, and it is read for explanation, clarification, thought provocation, rather than judgement. As Haydon points out, however, excellent thoughts can be had of very bad theatre. A lot of writing in RealTime, in performance journals, and wherever live art is written about, follows this model.

Each genus of criticism responds to its context: in London and New York, a competitive commercial world, expensive tickets, theatre understood as entertainment. In Europe, a publicly subsidised sector, long seasons, theatre understood as a part of the evolving cultural conversation (no different to books, magazines, cinema).

In terms of how they understand the position of critic as an audience member, there is a paradox to both.

Critic-as-judge assumes authority, but needs to channel the experience of the average audience member. She needs to do that while sitting in the best seats in the house, for which she paid nothing. She has, more than likely, seen an enormous amount of theatre, and is therefore attuned to the trends of the place and time (even if she, often, has a very sketchy knowledge of theatre in other places and other times). Criticism here comes from a place of profound juggle, it seems to me, of the right to have authority versus the need not to be more cerebral than the average reader; of the need to have a taste (a good taste) while not having preferences; of not letting one’s theatre education blur one’s sense of what the reader might enjoy. And, most importantly, not to succumb to the bitterness or fatigue that often comes from the lifestyle of the person who goes out to theatre almost every night, and then writes until the wee hours.

Critic-as-philologist, on the other hand, is the cerebral interpreter, her position is the one of privilege: she has read philosophers, theorists, critics, she gets the good seats, she has seen other theatre in other places. At the same time, so often the piece of theatre written about is not more than an initial blip, a catalyst for a piece of writing that may, actually, be more relevant to the critic’s intellectual project than to the work. This approach is so often based on Patrice Pavis’s semiotic analysis, which assumes the work of theatre to be a 3-dimensional text, a kind of semiotic structure, which can be read and analysed and so on, that I think it misinterprets theatre itself as a sort of unmoveable, unchanging thing. And it runs into huge trouble whenever it tries to talk about performance works that should be encountered incidentally, that are audience-driven or -responsive, or that affect the spectator on the level of affect or emotion, rather than intellect.

Most of our Australian critics, with the exception of RealTime, write in the first genre. RealTime tends to be of the second kind.

Both need to be thought about a bit more, however. The ideal and the average audience member. How much should one know beforehand? Should one have read the play? (In Anglophone countries: no. In Europe: yes.) Should one sit in the best seats in the house? Should one pay for the ticket? Both actually become very hard to practice, once you start seriously thinking about the implications of all these factors on your experience.

In particular, attending and writing about audience-driven performance in the past few years has made me very interested in this question, simply because the poetic skeleton of such performance is the audience experience. I find myself question my responses: are mine typical responses, or are they specific to me? Is it alright that they are specific to me, can I write about them anyway, or should I keep this to myself because it’s irrelevant to the work? (I think these questions are also more important to someone like me, who often feels like an outsider to the culture, than they would be to a dead white male.) I don’t know that the artist could answer these questions – a lot of the time they are themselves interested in the effects of the mechanism they have set in motion. But the questions remain.

The question remains particularly pertinent because, while I do enjoy audience-driven performance, I find myself inordinately annoyed by works that seem to be only tokenistically audience-driven; in which audience serves the role of the trendy trope, the way video featured in theatre in the 1990s. Performances in which the audience is supposedly given freedom to act, but is actually led around on a leash, are possibly the most infuriating kind of theatre I can think of (far worse than, say, bad opera).

So the quality in such works is inextricably related to the quality of the experience. Or rather, it is impossible, or at least very hard, to judge them impassionately, or in any way objectively. I do see such criticism around, but I do not think it’s possible to analyse, in some semiotic sense, the experience of being bathed by a stranger, being baited by a stranger, being blindfolded and led around, or encountering a performance by accident; they have to be approached as experience. And, while they’re approached as experience, it is absolutely impossible to avoid the question of whether this was pleasant, unpleasant, frightening, annoying, and so on. In fact, these performances are often geared towards an affective or emotional response, and omitting this aspect from analysis is a form of willing blindness.

But again the question: typical or ideal? And what does one do when one has to write about it later?

For example, at Melbourne Fringe 2009 I was going to see Take Off Your Skin. The performance was to happen scatteredly and unannouncedly around the city. Now, how do I make sure I see something I need to see, if it is supposed to be experienced in an incidental manner? The media person at Fringe helpfully suggested that she give me times and places, and told me where the final, larger event would take place. In the end, I didn’t take the times and places of all the appearances of all the performers, and thank God for that. While sitting in a cafe in Degraves St, waiting to go to the final event, a bunch of blue-dressed performers walked through – unannounced, unexpected, incidental. They shook the lane a bit; disappeared. It was beautiful.

The larger event featured a large audience, some cameras, media. In terms of performance itself, there wasn’t enough structure, skill, preparation or spectacle to keep such an audience entertained. I think we were all reasonably bored, on the level of experience (while we might have all been very engaged on the conceptual level, the level of ‘isn’t this clever!’). In fact, the audience cum performers became the event itself for most passers-by. They saw us watching, before they saw the performance itself. I would go as far as to suggest that the audience probably ruined the performance, by severing the link between the performance and the incidental activities around it, the incidental audience, the qualities of the public space in which it took place.

In this case, the typical experience does not exist, or may not have anyway: there was no guarantee of experiencing an incidental performance by accident. On the other hand, the ‘ideal’ experience (knowing where to be at what time, seeing the thing beginning to end) was actually far from satisfactory, even frustrating.

I imagine that this question will become more and more tangled as audience-driven work continues to be made. But I do hope that artists will themselves become more in tune with the experience of their audience; and that the critics may learn to regard their experience as one, too.

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4 thoughts on “Critic as audience member

  1. Hmm. Since I began writing about theatre, I have always, quite explicitly, written about theatre as a member of the audience. I am a member of the audience who is me, with my own questions and my own experiences and expectations; but an audience member is always what I assume I am first. And maybe last, too.

  2. Jana says:

    Hello, Alison. Of course, yes. But isn’t it also somewhat more complicated than that?

  3. Specifically on the question of “how does a critic enter the theatre” if she has to write about it afterwards. Like Alison, I enter as any member of the audience might.

    Here’s a snippet from Schiller’s “On the Use of the Chorus In Tragedy” about how the public approaches theatre:

    “The people need feeling alone, and feeling they possess. They take their station before the curtain with an unvoiced longing, with a multifarious capacity …”

    I think that’s intensely beautiful, and it’s an ideal I try to live up to.

    Interestingly, it also speaks against focus groups and market research being used to determine programming. No point asking the public what they want from theatre in advance. Before the curtain, the spectator’s desire is necessarily ‘unvoiced’- ineffable, inchoate, mysterious even to her.

    How she leaves the theatre, on the other hand …

  4. Wal says:

    I enter as an audience member. Too often I leave as a critic.

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