June 4, 2007

Deadly theatre? Deadly reviewing? A duty for critics?

Various                 posted 13 May 2007, 07:27 PM / edited 4 Jun 2007, 01:09 PM

5 posts transferred from the ‘Who owns devised work?’ forum:

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Martyn Roberts:  posted 11 May 2007, 06:32 PM / edited 12 May 2007, 10:44 AM

In his book ‘The Empty Space’ Peter Brook defines the theatre in 4 ways. The Deadly Theatre –  conventional theatre, formulaic and unsatisfying, created within structures determined both by text and the space called ‘a theatre’. The Holy Theatre – which attempts to rediscover ritual and the spiritual aspects of drama, a revaluation of a lost sense of communion if you will. There is also Rough Theatre whereby the immediate environment of the drama is interrupted and contributed to by both other improvising players and audience alike, the space itself can play its part too. (Perhaps Thomas this is where you sat with your pieces? (Rough does not equate with poorly or crude in his definition you understand)). And finally Immediate Theatre whereby the practitioners attempt to find total truth and meaning in every given moment, and seek to reinvent the drama anew every time it is performed. There is more to these simple overviews and I recommend a read, but perhaps if we look collectively into our Theatre past we will find familiar arguments appearing over and over again that try to ‘move us forward’ somehow from a seeming impasse with the status quo. I advocate more doing (go see the ‘hunting of the snark’ crew and their wonderful take of that poem) and less ‘not my cuppa tea-ism’. Everyone is right, there is no wrong, I will see the sun again tomorrow.

“Many audiences all over the world will answer positively from their own experience that they have seen the face of the invisible through an experience on the stage that transcended their experience in life. They will maintain that Oedipus or Berenice or Hamlet or The Three Sisters performed with beauty and with love fires the spirit and gives them a reminder that daily drabness is not necessarily all.”  Peter Brook .-.. — …- . /  .. … / 

Hopeful:  posted 12 May 2007, 10:38 AM

I hear you Martyn and I think that a lot of the problem is actually now with Deadly Reviewing.  When Deadly theatre is encouraged by reviewers who either can’t tell dead from live and/or who pull their punches cos they feel they have to be ‘nice’ and it’s ‘cruel’ to say what they really think, it has a deadly effect on eveything that goes on.  Also reviewers are too often brave in private and cowardly in print – this seems to have been the fashion lately with all types of reporting, and look where that lead to in Iraq!  Deadly results all round.  Let’s have the guts to say what we really think, all of us, not just the official reviewers whose qualifications for the job are often extremely dubious; this site is a great place for practitioners to have a bigger say and counter a lot of the tame stuff that goes into print.  Honest criticism however tough and apparently ‘unconstructive’ nevertheless has the constructive, positive effect of encouraging the really live, ‘immediate’ among us.

Neil Furby:  posted 12 May 2007, 10:59 AM

“Tradition itself, in times of dogmatism and dogmatic revolution, is a revolutionary force which must be safeguarded.” –  Peter Brook

Katurian:  posted 13 May 2007, 07:01 PM / edited 13 May 2007, 07:05 PM

I agree, although with a significant proviso: the best responses are certainly honest, but they’re also well informed. Honesty without any brain doesn’t necessarily result in anything worthwhile (viz. much of the above discussion). The movement beyond Deadly Reviewing requires critical writers who understand that when they are at their most effective, while they might not always seem to have a direct effect, say, in terms of relationship with ticket sales, they do play a role in how we see the work and perhaps even what work could be produced.

This includes preparing the ground for what is to come, and seeing beyond the artistic forms that they are accustomed to (even if they don’t like them, they can at least see what’s at stake). And, on that point – this is fast becoming a new forum topic, with some interesting potential, and probably needs to shift elsewhere. Not long ago, people were throwing around the idea that there was a duty for artists. So, is there a duty for the critics? 🙂

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John Smythe      posted 13 May 2007, 08:29 PM / edited 14 May 2007, 11:42 AM

Personally, ‘Hopeful’, I am not into reviewing as a blood sport. Nor does complacency interest me. This site, more often than not carrying more than one review of a given production, is set up in the belief that each review is part of a wider conversation, and on the principle that critics can take greater risks (e.g. assert or assume certain things to be true) knowing that those who disagree can quickly correct, challenge or otherwise engage with what they write. As you do.

The critic as priest, oracle or guru is passé; the critic as provocateur is now more valid than ever.

I agree with you, ‘Hopeful’, that critics should write as they truly feel, think and even suspect. Critics, like actors, must be brave as well as generous. Anything else lacks integrity. But I, for one, do not see theatre as an absolute science. Nor do I see it as best presented as an artefact disconnected from its historical, social and cultural context.

When I first reviewed theatre (in Melbourne in my 20s; the mid 1970s) I was much more opinionated, impatient and intolerant than I am now. Having worked professionally in NZ then graduated from NIDA (Sydney) I had worked both in establishment and alternative theatre before making an actual living by writing TV drama. Even then I tended to regard naturalism as the most boring of theatrical conventions (TV and Film can do it better; live theatre must offer something different!). It took me a while to realise that theatre’s ‘liberation’ from ‘the fourth wall’ did not necessarily increase the audience’s freedoms. Too often performers’ egos oppressed them and/or the medium became the trendy ‘massage’, blocking access to any experience that might be more personal, profound or lasting.

Not always, of course. Many counter culture shows were visceral and remain memorable. The revolutionary blowing apart of tired old conventions and structures was as necessary as it was inevitable. And it is crucial that each generation mounts such challenges. But somewhere along the line of my maturation I realised that having sweaty actors climbing over us kept us, the audience, trapped very much in the physical reality of the performance, whereas naturalism – well produced – could transport us to other realms of the imagination that either extended or deepened our insights into the experience of being human.

Which is not to suggest naturalism is the only way to create such magic. I just offer that as one example of how I came to see the bigger picture. There are countless styles and conventions that have great things to offer. And any of them can be used in a way that is, in Peter Brook’s words, “formulaic and unsatisfying”. My preference is to see conventions used as means of engaging the audience in the pursuit of some greater end than the mere appreciation of theatrical craft itself.

I also tend to operate from the premise that committed practitioners have good reasons for choosing to do as they do with any production they mount, so I open myself to what they have to offer. It seems to me that critics who are too quick to judge are a greater impediment to growth and progress to new kinds of ‘aliveness’ than those willing to have their preconceptions challenged and notions of theatre expanded. But without specific examples, I cannot tell whether this touches on what ‘Hopeful’ perceives as ‘Deadly Reviewing’ that pulls its punches.

As always it comes down to personal taste. Many times over the decades I have formed the view that is a certain critic hates a play or film, I’m very likely to like it. I urge participants in theatreview to engage with reviews as part of a wider conversation and to take responsibility for forming – and sharing, if you wish – your own opinions.

Lopezz posted 13 May 2007, 10:31 PM

Personally I would rather the reviewers left the ‘provocateuring’ up to the theatre practitioners and concentrated on providing skilled guidance to the genuine theatre-loving audience out there, so there’s less chance of them wasting $20 – $100 odd (plus babysitter) on a clanger.  In my view critics slip up badly on this basic duty, leaving me often deeply suspicious that they (most of them) have any real understanding of the business at all.

Katurian               posted 14 May 2007, 11:56 AM

Lopezz, I see precious little provocateuring from the theatre practitioners in the Wellington community, and the ones who do tend to get into trouble for “being too academic” (whatever that even means). Hopefully a wider sense of critical engagement (practitioner and critic both) will create the conversations that enable an audience to see what theatre can be as well as what it is at the moment. It’s happened before. (Refer “Waiting for Godot”, for example). In any case, it seems to me that what you’re wanting is a reviewer, not a critic, who just says “it’s good/it’s bad”. I’ve no idea how, by the way, they’ll just be able to give these kinds of blanket judgements in a way that’ll prove useful for what you seem to want.. Could you suggest it? Surely they’re going to be just as unsatisfactory if they say “it’s good/it’s bad” and you simply disagree?

John Smythe      posted 14 May 2007, 02:38 PM

Exactly! Witness my review of Deliver Us and the 25 comments it provoked, not to mention the spin-off forums. Nothing is as absolute as Lopezz wants it to be.

The ‘consumer report’ aspect is important, of course, and is usually implicit, if not explicit, in the tone of most reviews. It’s then up to readers to conclude whether it sounds like their bag or not. Meanwhile there are many other dimensions of commentary and enquiry that a critic may usefully write into the historical record.

You may notice this site’s own critics do not attempt to allot ratings by numbers or stars. That would be way too simplistic.   

Lopezz posted 14 May 2007, 06:56 PM 

Katurian, to start with, by ‘skilled guidance’ I didn’t mean “it’s good/it’s bad’.  Perhaps the audience I am thinking about has a little more flair for the theatre than the audience you have in mind.

I agree that exciting, challenging theatre is thin on the ground, but that’s still no excuse for critviewers to try to artificially whip up drama instead, especially when as I say a bit more energy going into insightful critviews is what we really crave. And if the theatre culture is depressed, well they’re part of it, they have to take some of the blame.

Super Dooper    posted 14 May 2007, 06:59 PM / edited 15 May 2007, 11:43 PM

“CritView Connect™

 CritView Connect is The Oak Group’s system integration solution. Presently, CritView Connect is embedded into some of the most widely used case management systems on the market today. “

Sorry, it’s been trademarked. ‘Revique’ is up for grabs though. ‘Theatrevique’ is wide open, as is ‘Theaterevique’ for the American market.

Katurian               posted 15 May 2007, 09:17 AM

Lopezz, I didn’t have any audience in mind. I was just responding to what it seemed that you were saying. After all, you were using the terminology of wasted dollars and something being regarded as a ‘clanger’, which does tend to presuppose foregrounding judgement over all else. My mistake – I’m still trying to figure out what, in fact, you are looking for. Could you clarify?

Lopezz posted 15 May 2007, 11:32 PM / edited 15 May 2007, 11:43 PM

Katurian, OK, to put it another way – I think we have a very lazy bunch of theatre reviewers/critics, with poor understanding of the profession.  Also, unfortunately, the least lazy of them seem also to have the least theatre experience (which is very different from qualifications).  Most people I know take no notice of what they say when deciding whether to go to a play or not.

So, I clearly don’t think much of them – but what do you think?  Are our theatre reviewers/critics good, middling or bad?  How do they stack up against, say, Germaine Greer, in your view?

Moya Bannerman            posted 15 May 2007, 11:59 PM / edited 4 Jun 2007, 01:08 PM

Lopezz, you are pissing me off. Are your posts your idea of good critical commentary? If not, why not? Littered with unsubstantiated generalisations as they are, they’re meaningless. Are you referring to daily newspaper critics, radio critics or website critics? Which ones in particular? Which reviews in particular?

I don’t agree with everyone who writes on this site but I certainly wouldn’t call any of them lazy! As for Germaine Greer, that was a well deserved lash back at an arrogant organisation that clearly takes no notice of the moral lessons embedded in the classical plays it produces, but it hardly stacks up as a comprehensive piece of theatre criticism.

I also feel bound to note that it is decades since any theatre critic I know of filed under a pseudonym. If you wish to pursue this topic with any degree of credibility, may I suggest you do so under your own name? Finally, have you ever attempted to write a review yourself? May we see an example?

Lopezz posted 16 May 2007, 09:19 AM

Hey, Moya, steady on.  No, my post wasn’t supposed to be “good critical commentary”, it was supposed to be a statement of my point of view followed by a few simple questions, which I hoped would lead to an interesting conversation.  I was trying to be as straightforward as possible in the hope of steering Katurian away from his “lets define every term ad nauseam before we actually discuss the issue” path.  Thanks for your response, I think I know where you stand!  If anyone else cares to address my questions I’ll be happy to try to address theirs.

Ms. Katurian       posted 16 May 2007, 11:22 AM

Moya – I think what Lopezz is driving at is that they think the standard of writing is lazy. It’s a slightly different accusation from literal laziness. I agree that it would be good to have some more substance in their discussion. However, I think it’s completely irrelevant whether they’ve written reviews or post under their own name. They’re trying to initiate a constructive debate, even if the tone’s fairly negative. It’s fairly standard netiquette in some of the best theatre criticism sites worldwide to not have to post under your own name, and it certainly doesn’t seem to harm the extremely high standard of their debates. For my part, I don’t believe that it harms their credibility in any way: besides, I don’t know you, so your name may as well be a pseudonym, if you see my point.

Lopezz – there’s quite a difference between asking someone to explain what they mean, when neither their viewpoint nor “the issue” is at all clear (note the number of politicians who say “let’s discuss the real issues”, which are…?), and asking for a definition of every term. Just a thought. So, as you say, steady on.

Germaine Greer is an interesting point, because she writes forthrightly (and very well) here. Then again, her theatre criticism is grounded in a mode that isn’t really at all interested in the profession, or in how the work is made. As Moya correctly observes, it’s not really theatre criticism at all, in some ways. I think, nonetheless, that there’s a combination needed here, perhaps: critics who write from a slightly more detached, but culturally literate perspective, and those who are grounded in the medium. It’s in this latter area that I do agree with Lopezz we often have a problem with people critiquing the production they would have liked it to be, having made it themselves, rather than attending to the world that’s in front of them.

Moya Bannerman            posted 16 May 2007, 05:52 PM

My point is that Lopezz is intellectually lazy, and socially irresponsible come to that, in posting his/her moans (that’s all they amount to) with nothing to back them up, and in making no constructive contribution towards improvement. He (it sounds like a he) can’t even clarify whether he’s talking about the reviews on this site, in the wider media or both. Until he manages some basic levels of clear communication I will continue to be pissed off with him.

P.S. I’m trying to work out whether it’s fascinating or tedious that he wilfully dumps his steaming negativity into this space then comes over all wounded when challenged. Karma-mate, karma-mate … Geddit? Geddit?

Jan         posted 16 May 2007, 07:45 PM

Lynne Freeman’s reviews are lazy. Why bother posting them up on this site? They are short, the prose is messy and you don’t have to look too hard to find grammatical errors (perhaps she could blame the editor of her paper?).

Girlfriend must be just tired, she needs a long holiday.

barry shakespeare           posted 16 May 2007, 09:39 PM

I agree she needs to up her game

John Smythe      posted 17 May 2007, 12:10 AM

I too am bemused as I try to discern what exactly Lopezz is trying to say, let alone what s/he wants.  To ask, “Are our theatre reviewers/critics good, middling or bad?” can only be answered by saying examples of each can probably be found if you throw the net wide enough. So what does that prove?

May I ask you, ‘Lopezz’, to lead by example: make your points by posting your own scintillating Comments – about the production, preferably – to any review you feel falls short of your standards.

It seems relevant to add that in recruiting critics around the country my strong preference has been for people with practical experience in making theatre and with a passion for the craft/art. Of course their ability to write well in sharing both their experience of a production and their assessment of it is equally important. But good writing is at its best when underpinned by a working understanding of a craft they love to see practised to a high level of excellence. While each is free to express themselves as they wish, those are the priorities I have imposed by giving them space as reviewers.

Lopezz posted 17 May 2007, 01:08 AM

I’m not trying to prove anything; I repeat (sigh) I’m just trying to start a chat about our local theatre reviewers because I feel they fall short and would like to know if anyone else does.  For heaven’s sake, there’s only about five of them, what’s the big deal?  Why does everyone get so pouty and hysterical?  This seems to me a pretty valid topic for a theatre website, and I don’t understand why such a lot of energy is being put into trying to prove it isn’t.  Sure, I understand the actual reviewers might feel a bit put out but actors cope with it all the time and accept it as part of the deal.

And I have ‘lead by example’ by the way elsewhere on this site, commenting on a review I found particularly wide of the mark.  As for Lynn Freeman, as far as I’m concerned she was the only one who watched this particular play with her eyes open.  Give me wakefulness over grammar any day.

Lopezz posted 17 May 2007, 01:53 AM

Ms Katurian –  in a rush to respond to the latest post I overlooked your supportive  comments and positive input. However I’m still puzzled at the various requests to define ‘terms’ and ‘issues’ because wouldn’t it be better for these to be clarified by the discussion itself? I don’t want to set any rules, just push a boat out.

Also I completely disagree about Germaine Greer – I feel she IS extremely interested in the profession and the way the work is made, and demonstrates a keen understanding in her reviews/commentaries whatever you want to call them.  She has the kind of keen nose for theatre bullshit and the courage to name it as such that is sadly lacking in our lot.  For me she represents the ideal combination you describe, culturally literate and grounded in the medium, but with that nose and those guts as well.

Chesapeake       posted 17 May 2007, 02:29 AM

Hey check this out, critiquing the critics is all the rage.


Hopeful                posted 17 May 2007, 10:31 AM

Chesapeake – great site, such a civilised exchange compared to us, great points made, I’m embarrassed for us

Thomas LaHood                posted 17 May 2007, 10:49 AM

As soon as you sign yourself up to post public reviews you open yourself up to broadsides from the Lopezzes of this world.  But I, as a reviewer for this site, don’t feel any need to prove my credentials.  You make your choice whether or not you like my approach, but it’s not aspiring to great art or anything.  If you have strong opinions about the theatre yourself, then great!  You don’t need a reviewer to tell you what to think, what to see!  Make up your own mind, or accept others’ opinions as different perspectives on a greater whole.

Moya Bannerman            posted 17 May 2007, 12:18 PM

Reviewing reviews and reviewers is not only welcome, it is clearly one of this site’s major reasons for being. And as Thomas points out, each contribution is part of the greater whole that allows us to arrive at our own conclusions.

I think we can now deduce, from “our local our local theatre reviewers … there’s only about five of them” that Lopez is located in Wellington. But how are we supposed to know what s/he means by “this particular play” when he defends (quite rightly) Lynn Freeman? This is what I mean by “lazy”. (The same applies to plays that think obscurity = art but simply leave their audiences trying to work out the who / where / what / why of it all, to the exclusion of engaging with anything of greater substance.) 

I do agree the Capital Times is shocking on the proof-reading front. Sometimes Lynn gets her facts wrong, which is slack. But I’m constantly impressed by her ability to say a lot in the few words she is allotted (writing for print media as she does – and having to meet a deadline, I suspect, right on top of delivering RNZ National’s ‘Arts on Sunday’ show.

Given Lynn is one of the Chapman Tripp Theatre Award judges, I think it’s essential her reviews are included on this site. Likewise those of Laurie Atkinson and Melody Nixon (Lumiere reader) who, I am told, is also on the team this year. Which leaves Harry Ricketts (The Listener). I’m told The Listener won’t release his reviews because they do run and archive them on their own website. Even so, it would be good if they could do a reciprocal link thing like Lumiere does.

peter hawes       posted 4 Jun 2007, 12:29 PM

I write plays and I perform in them. I also review them insightfully and in excellent prose. Anyone who doesn’t agree can fuck off. That’s why I’m a good reviewer.

jan          posted 4 Jun 2007, 02:00 PM

don’t rest on your laurels. your review of the farm was garbled and confusing. not excellent prose. keep on trying though.

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