March 9, 2010
‘FOR THE RECORD’
10 OCTOBER 2009
Introduced by Linda Ashley
Chair: John Smythe
Speakers: Jack Gray, Jennifer Shennan, Francesca Horsley, Nicholas Rowe
SF = Speakers from the floor
Linda: Celine Sumic and I have been planning this for some time now and while unfortunately Celine can’t be here today she’ll be missed and it won’t be the same without her. She’s been the driving force behind this event and it’s a pity she can’t be here to share the fun that we’re going to have today.
We’re very grateful to Creative New Zealand for their financial support of this event and would also like to extend a big thank you to DANZ Tamaki and Susan Jordan, who was there for advice and support throughout. Basically what we’re going to do is look at the different approaches that reviewers have, because I think we are all quite different people and certainly when we sit down and write reviews I’m guessing we come from very different planets. So it’s going to be quite interesting to see what everybody does today.
Also we’re going to hopefully engage in some interplay between dance writers as opposed to reviewers, choreographers and dancers; the different kinds of ways of thinking and what we share in common as well as the differences between us. Your interpretations, well that’s going to be another matter entirely and that I’m going to leave to John to herd the cats later on.
I’m not going to say much more because I’m more interested in what the panel has got to say, but I am going to introduce John Smythe who until today to me was just a person behind a screen, and I did wonder what he would look like in the flesh.
John: I should say I’ve got an identical twin brother in Auckland, so if I’ve met you today and then I ignore you in the street that’s my brother Michael.
Linda: John we’re very, very grateful to have you here today, and I’ll just introduce John and then the rest of the panel. John Smythe’s going to chair the panel today and I’m going to read the details of his amazing experience.
Decades of practical experience as an actor, scriptwriter and director, producer, teacher and advocate for the performing arts. Quote “a born again New Zealander.” He has a bachelor of Dramatic Arts from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts. He has also written theatre reviews for The Melbourne Times, The Australian, Theatre Australia Magazine and The National Business Review. John is the author of ‘Downstage Upfront, The First 40 years of New Zealand’s Longest Running Professional Theatre and also of the ‘Peace Monster’ an historical novel based on the Opo story. To keep his role as a critic in perspective John participates in an annual play reading at Victoria University of Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Inspector Hound,’ in which he and Harry Rickets play the extremely dodgy theatre critics Birdboot and Moon. So a man of vast experience, I’m sure you’ll agree with me on that.
Okay, so from your left to right, that’s because I’m a dance teacher in my other life, I am actually a dance writer and choreographer myself, and I lecture at AUT University, but enough of me.
First is Jack (Gray). Jack is an independent dance writer, choreographer and performer with amazing charisma and I’ll be a testament, I love watching you Jack – thank you for coming today.
Jennifer (Shennan) has come up from Wellington and while not on the same plane as John they did meet up in the airport so they could share a taxi. I’m sure many of you will know Jennifer as a highly regarded independent dance writer, critic and anthropologist of great note; I have admired Jennifer’s work for many years and its absolutely fabulous to see you again, Jennifer – thank you so much for being here.
Next is the lovely Francesca Horsley who has a very busy life juggling her role at McLean’s College, with that as our esteemed editor of the DANZ Quarterly magazine, also writing and reviewing for The Listener amongst other publications – and thank you Francesca for coming today.
On the far left is Nicholas Rowe who works at the University of Auckland and who has written dance reviews for Dance Europe as well as for Theatreview, (of which John of course is the owner, editor and lead dramatic on the Theatreview web site). I’m sure a lot of you have been on the site and read some of our reviews over the last few days, and maybe you have some thoughts you’d like to share with us later about our reviews.
Carrie Rae: They’re also up on the wall in the foyer as well.
Linda: Oh yeah, thanks Carrie Rae. Okay so enough from me, thank you panelists once again for coming and I’ll hand you over to the capable hands of Mr Smythe.
John: Thank you. This event is called “For the Record” and I think the thing we’re recognising in the title is that dance is an ephemeral form, it exists in the moment and then disappears. Unlike theatre, it’s not easily available in script form. Although there are ways of notating it, only experts can read it. So, one of the functions of reviewing is to write an ephemeral event into history. I think I’m quoting from Milton’s headstone or something where it says “their work is written water”. Most of you would agree that even though you can get a video record of a stage performance, it’s not ideal. It may be a good historical record, but it doesn’t actually represent the same experience you have sitting in the live audience.
What I would like today to be is a sort of mutual inquiry into the questions of criticism, rather than us being the experts up here pontificating. We’re here to open up some questions and discuss them between ourselves and then open it to the floor.
What I propose we do is that – there are four questions that we’ve mapped out as starting points, and after that all hell can break loose. Meanwhile if anybody has got something to say on a particular question, please put your hand up and we’ll include you then. I don’t want to limit participation from the floor to questions; I think that’s a bit arrogant to say you can only ask the experts on high so if you’ve got a statement to make that’s perfectly okay by me, but initially if we just stick to the topic of each of the questions and then we can open it up later on.
We’ve got till 4 o’clock so hopefully there will be time to get stuck into some areas we might not have even thought of that are very important to you. I think the overall quest is for continuous improvement, and that would include all of us here on the reviewing side wanting to continuously improve our part. I would imagine anybody who’s a practitioner is onto that quest as well.
What I would like to be able to answer at the end of this is “what is it that makes critics critical?” in every sense of the term. Are we important at all and critical in that sense? Jennifer pointed out that critical is also a medical term that means that ‘close to death’. Of course there’s the critiquing dimension of it too.
So, the first area is the question of the two extremes of the importance of a critic as being expert, or ignorant; a blank sheet or someone with a whole lot of preconceptions. It’s quite an interesting span to investigate. I’m going to ask Jack to lead with that one, Jack being a practitioner as well obviously you have some expertise.
Jack: Yeah, I think when I started writing I went to Europe and my writing was a way of being able to get into the communities over there as an outsider, and to make comment and understand part of the culture. Not knowing a lot of the different cultures that I was going to see. I was seeing Dance Theatre that was talking about, say, Croatian history, which I knew nothing about and they were speaking in different languages, and I couldn’t read the programme. I didn’t know anybody to tell me anything about it, and I didn’t know these people, so it created a way that I had to perceive what was happening on another level without actually knowing the details of what it was, and finding a way of translating and communicating that.
Coming back to New Zealand to live, to choreograph and to work, writing about dance is an off-shoot for me where I can bring that level of expertise from the practice of doing, and then commenting on these social and political cultural issues, that I know from being a New Zealander, that may or may not be within the world.
Sometimes it’s quite difficult in that I know everybody and I know people who I’m writing about. So maybe last week we went to a party together, and now I’m sitting back and I have an immense sympathy for the artist, knowing the struggle as choreographer and performer to being in an intense period of creating a work and then and then putting it out there in the public arena.
While I think it’s an incredible process, and that’s totally why we do it, as a performer when I talk to people after shows, about things that they’ve seen of mine, hearing different responses, sometimes I feel like they’re totally off track, or maybe they’ve seen things that I don’t see – and so it’s from the space in-between that we inform each other.
I’m interested in not being judgmental or critical of that person or their ideas but in trying to further through my writing ways in which we can connect with what they may be doing.
John: You’ve raised some interesting (points). So Jennifer where do you stand in terms of the issue of ignorance or expertise? How do you …?
Jennifer: Well that word “expert”, I found a quote from Oscar Wilde that “an expert is a person who’s often in error, but never in doubt,” so I thought there was something there.
I really hear what Jacks saying about a Croatian performance when all he can get is what he can see and feel. And the other extreme, of knowing your cousin’s brother’s classmate is in a performance that you’re writing about, and you just go with all of those things, it’s a bit like knowing people who’re not even performing now. I look around and I see some very dear friends from a long time back, students and colleagues and so on, and yet others are new faces to me. We’re all here to try and see and hear and do something together this afternoon. So what am I saying?
If you’re going to write about a performance, you better do that, and if it involves a word count and a deadline you have to work within those guidelines. Other times it’s not so constrained, and it’s all better the more voices that can be heard. It’s not great when one voice alone appears in a daily paper and it’s typed and done in 20 minutes. No excuses for that, it’s just the chips, but that’s – it shouldn’t be the only voice. It has to be its own voice, but the more people who can discuss that, perhaps,
We have to credit John Smythe for running Theatreview, that’s a phenomenal pioneering and soldiering-on thing to be doing, unfunded for ages, progress congratulations etc. But its a forum where you don’t want to write a review of the review and be sort of just throwing stuff back and forth, but you can be motivated by something you saw and if you thought “oh it’s not what I thought” you can say something more.
So, just – many voices, and Linda and Celine’s enterprise today for this discussion is just another way to help us see that there is something called a crit, and it’s a pity that the word has to do so many different duties. It sounds negative, critical in some context – to be critical of someone say “oh you didn’t clean your shoes and didn’t blow your nose” type word. It shouldn’t be that. Critique is sometimes a bit hard to take, sometimes a bit hard to write, but it is a form (of reflection on a performance) that will last and help you to remember your (experience of the work) longer. If the option is to have had no crit at all then I’m not sure that’s a comfort I would choose.
John: Someone pointed out that critic and criteria are from the same root, so you comment on the basis of criteria that you set out for good or bad I suppose; on some spectrum between good and bad there are certain criteria that you intuitively or consciously bring to your criticism.
So Francesca, where do you sit on this question of coming, not so much with ignorance, but with an open mind I suppose to a review as opposed to a set of, if not preconceptions, a body of knowledge that you’ve got?
Francesca: Well, just to look at the second quote, it says, “The first tool for a critic is not knowledge or research but sensibility.” I didn’t have a chance to look up the word sensibility but I always think of Jane Austin, (sensibility) as opposed to sense.
John: Sense and /or Sensibility, yes.
Francesca: But thinking about the processes I bring to (a review of) a dance performance, I was thinking in terms of the word senses and I think that you can’t really be a critic unless you have senses, the open senses.
From my point of view I starting loving dance long before I had any research or knowledge. I had an open heart to dance and it reaches into my senses, so in a sense that’s the first element that I bring to a show I see.
Because I’m not a dance practitioner, although I have danced myself, and studied and taught dance, I am also a trained writer, so that’s the other aspect that I bring to it. So I marry those components; writing, the senses and research, which I always try and do. If I’m reviewing ballet or something I do a lot of research before I see it if I don’t know it really well or (I draw on) the research I’ve gathered from my (previous) studies.
So I looked at the question (of ignorance vs expertise) and was thinking – it’s not really one or the other, but you bring all those elements together, and that gives a reviewer the validity of something of an expert, if you marry those things together.
I also agree with Jack and Jennifer that we do need that – because one of the other questions we are looking at is the issue of subjectivity and objectivity, and of course our sensibilities are very subjective. So we need many perspectives, many voices and many different ways of writing and seeing.
John: Okay Nick, what have you got to say on this one?
Nicholas: I love the word critic, and I think it’s a perfect word for what we do. We’re not setting out to be dance teachers or dance connoisseurs or dance history or dance experts, we’re there to present a critical argument on the dance and critical argument requires three things: opinion, a reasonable rationale for that opinion and evidence to support that reasonable rationale. And that can come from anyone, it doesn’t require someone with any knowledge whatsoever of the piece they’re going to see. In fact if we start to suggest that there should be some sort of expertise relevant to the field of the show that we’re going to see, it’s going to marginalise that art form very quickly. If we say ‘okay, the only person who can go and see ballet or properly critique ballet is someone who has this deep knowledge of ballet,’ you’re going to be writing to people therefore from a position that suggests that people might have less knowledge than they do on ballet. It’s going to separate that form from others in the community.
I mean if I’m getting a criticism, I’m happy, you know, if it’s a fundamentalist Islamic cleric who’s going along to write a criticism as long as they present those three forms of the criticism; opinion, rationale and some evidence. Then you’re going to help make the dance form a more inclusive part of their society, and therefore help foster a multicultural society. So I think we have to be very careful about moving to any idealism or expertism. Sure experts are important if it’s going to be a dance teacher or a dance historian or a dance connoisseur or in some other form of dance writing. If we’re talking about criticism all that really matters is an ability to construct a critical argument and bring it to the dance.
John: Do you believe, or does anyone believe that a passion for the art form you’re critiquing is a pre-requisite?
Nicholas: Not at all, no I think if we demand that as well it makes for an immediate bias –
John: So you’re happy for instance for a sports writer to go along and review the ballet, because they were the only one that wanted to?
Nicholas: Not because they’re the only one that wanted to, I’d imagine there’s a lot of people who’d want to, but I’d value hearing that person’s opinion as much as any, as long as they can substantiate it within an argument, they’re not just presenting an opinion, but an argument based on a rationale and the reasons why. Because that’ll give me an insight into what ballet means to that sector of the society.
John: But what if they’ve been told to go and do it, and they say “look, I’d rather watch a rugby match and this load is a load of wank”?
Nicholas: Well again – that’s getting into an institutional problem of how a newspaper may be structured, but again, as long as he’s going in and he’s presenting those three things that I mentioned, an argument, a rationale for the argument and evidence, it’s still going to be worth it. If he does, as you say, he says it’s a load of wank and doesn’t give any evidence or rationale, then yes I wouldn’t value it at all, and it won’t be a dance criticism, it’ll just be a dance commentary.
Francesca: So are you talking about off the cuff criticism or published dance criticism?
Nicholas: Published dance criticism.
Francesca: Because I went to the ballet yesterday to see the launch of the Southern Lights Company and behind me were sitting some Christchurch, Southland people. Who – their criticism was very valid because they compared it entirely with rugby, and their view was that it was very boring and in fact that they’d much rather have seen, you know, a rugby match. Now while they were there supporting their wives, they were in the foyer making a lot of noise with their voices, so the criticism was well heard – so the validity of that?
Nicholas: Well this isn’t talking about published criticism this is just talking about a manner of people in a foyer. Whether they’re saying really great things and whether they’re speaking as experts or whatever, that can be disturbing as a social experience. But I think the point is, if those people were able to construct an argument, and said well this is why I didn’t like it, and this is the proof. Where they did that type of dance and when they did that sort of jump, that meant this to me. Then they’re presenting an argument, it makes it valid, and you think well that’s a valid criticism. Maybe from that open learning, try to figure out actually how to make ballet a little bit more relevant for that sector of the society, rather than just thinking, well they’re uncouth, they should just listen to the experts who know what dance is about.
John: Jennifer, thank you.
Jennifer: A quick question; (consider) a scenario where a ballet performance will take place and there are three works, one of which is called Bliss based on a story by Katherine Mansfield. The choreographer has commissioned some music for the work etc. Would you not want to read Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss before you went along just to give yourself a little bit of spring?
Nick: From me as a critic?
Jennifer: Well for any individual, as you say, describing what you see and arguing for it. Would you choose not to read the story?
Nicholas: The thing is, I wouldn’t privilege myself having read the story or see my criticism as more valid over someone who hadn’t read the story. Again, it would come down to, well I could read the story but I’m not trying to write it again as a critic. I’m not trying to write a history or an academic analysis, I’m not trying to write a theoretical understanding of where the influences were in this choreography – I’m simply trying to present a critical argument.
Jennifer: So you’re not going to read Bliss before you go, I definitely would.
Nicholas: If I didn’t I’d say, – I’d really have to see the book engagement fully to be honest, I wouldn’t therefore say oh well your criticism would be therefore far more valid than mine because you’ve read the book, so – what really matters is the argument constructed, the critical discourse provoked, the rationale and evidence is given; it can help us take a hold of that and agree or disagree with it.
SF: If I’ve got my Sunday paper and have read something about the ballet that you’ve just seen and I can see quite clearly that you haven’t read something to preempt yourself and give yourself more knowledge about what you’re going to see and share with me as a reader – I want to know that you would maybe know a little bit about it. Sure I think it’s great if you go along, and say “yeah I saw that, and it was great” but you’re presenting a published piece of work that I’m reading on Sunday so I want to know that you know what you’ve seen more than just your eyes that night.
Nicholas: The thing is I don’t think anyone comes to a dance performance ignorant – I think (the concept of) ignorance is rather misguided because everybody comes with knowledges of different forms that represent the different cultures and facets of society that they come from.
SF: I guess I’m talking about the responsibility as a critic?
Nicholas: Yeah, but I don’t think one does have that responsibility to put on an air of being an expert, to suggest ‘well I’m enabled to present a constructed argument, a critical argument because I’ve done so much more research than you have on this topic’.
Nicholas: Well that seems to be the suggestion here – that if you haven’t gone and read about it or certainly know a lot more about this topic, then you don’t have the position to be presenting something to read on a Sunday morning?
SF: I guess I’m more talking about – as a reviewer… it brings up an interesting point about history as well, because the work that you’re talking about obviously with Katherine Mansfield has a history and there’s a link back to a book that you can read. Whereas say it’s a new work by Backlit and you don’t know anything about it you’re going along to see fresh work. So I guess that scenario is more about the genres that you’re (reviewing) – you know, which one you’re looking at, if it’s a ballet and you don’t know much about them, you might read a bit, and get more informed, or if it’s a fresh work then you just go along being fresh.
I’m not talking about criticising the reviewer as a pool of knowledge or ‘I’m more than you’. It’s more like what’s appropriate, each one has a different –
Linda: I think I agree with both of you because I’m an anti-dichotomous person, I think it depends entirely on what you’re going to see.
I think everyone’s a critic; everyone who’s sitting in the audience every night in the theatre has an opinion. Often I guess when they read our reviews they’ll connect with something in the review, and not connect with other things.
Sometimes I deliberately put myself in the position where I go to the theatre and I don’t know anything about what’s on. For example, I volunteered to review Sacred Dance because I was probably the least sacred person in that theatre. I deliberately did it for that reason. I thought “I really want to do this because I’m not sacred at all and let’s see if it can make me spiritual suddenly,” I didn’t know what might happen. And actually I found the whole experience really interesting. I guess that maybe other people went along to that show with the same kind of motivation, you know, (wondering) what’s going to happen to me, what’s sacred to these people who are dancing and so on.
John: I think you can rationalise it both ways, the point is you can’t help being informed on certain things.
Linda: Yeah but I think what – I’m getting round to finally saying is everyone is a critic but what makes (reviewers) different, I think is that we go away and ponder about why that work connected with something about me. Why was I connected to people’s imaginations in the audience that night? You know, we become a bit obsessive about it. So I agree with Nicholas as well, because that’s the rationale; (to consider) why that connected with the imagination, or why it didn’t connect with the imagination if it didn’t get there.
John: And I think the thing is, who you are writing for. If you write esoterically for an esoteric audience then that’s a completely different thing than someone with a level of expertise and experience and understanding articulating a response and evidence for whether they felt it worked or not or whether they – I mean, you can’t critique the adaptation if you haven’t read or seen the original material. You can obviously express your view about what you experienced in the moment, but the question is knowing who your audience is, and if you’re writing for the general public then your job is to is to convey your critique in a way that the general public can either confirm the feelings that they had, and are not able to articulate themselves perhaps. Or understand a bit more about things that they may have appreciated or not appreciated. There’s something that I wanted to say, but yeah.
SF: Is it therefore important or the responsibility of the reviewer to help communicate where they are coming from when you are sitting in there?
John: I think you’ve got to be quite honest about whether you’ve got prior knowledge or not. I mean I saw Pericles the other day, I didn’t actually write the review, someone else did, but I’ve never seen Pericles before and I thought, I won’t read anything about it, I’ll just go and see it – and I was absolutely stunned. I got it absolutely clearly; it was as good as an episode of Outrageous Fortune.
It was done in Chinese and Japanese theatrical conventions, and they elucidated the thing so clearly, I am amazed at the capacity of university students these days to do Shakespeare, largely because most of them have participated in the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare and they have such passion and understanding, and communicate so clearly.
I was delighted to have come with a complete blank mind to that, and to have tasted the quality of it. But if I go to a Hamlet, I can’t help but know the thing backwards.
SF: Don’t you think your review then of Pericles becomes almost more valid than your review of Hamlet, because you are experiencing it using your senses. You’ve still got your passion for theatre and your toolbox of expertise, but it’s a much more visceral and perhaps genuine response and in regards to what Nick was saying, it’s kind of amazing for a person who goes along without convictions and knowledge, that always is interesting and valid.
John: I think it’s very important – and would everyone agree with me? – that if you do have a knowledge of the work you’re going to see – a classic or (well known contemporary work) – that you have to make a conscious effort to clear your mind of any preconception to be receptive to what is being presented. It’s not our job to say, well if I was choreographing it or directing it, this is what I would have done.
Nicholas: Why not?
John: Well because these people –
Nicholas: Just pulling it back to a critic just being somebody who’s presenting a critic label, why are we trying to set around a parameter as to what other influences they should bring? I think if they’re coming in as an artist who would say “well, yes if I had done it I would have done it this way and this is why and this is what they didn’t do” and they present that argument then they’re contributing a critical discourse on the subject.
Nicholas: So they’re fulfilling their role as a critic
John: I think, to be respectful of the artist as someone who has worked for weeks or months on their interpretation, our first responsibility is to be open to that. Then if we find flaws in it or we want to compare it to something else including what we would have done if we had the opportunity, sure. But to block your receptiveness to their work because you’ve got this preconception would I think be irresponsible.
Nicholas: That’s a different idea from the notion of not wanting to critique it from the perspective of an artist. Inevitably for those of us who are dancers, we are going to take that with us. It doesn’t mean we go in with a sense of, well this is how I would do La Slyphide and whatever they’re going to do is going to fall short but you are going to view it from that perspective, so I think trying to nullify that doesn’t necessarily help the critical process.
SF: Just a comment, your process seems to be a process that academics use when putting together dissertations or theses, and the process that a barrister has to put together to when present an argument at court. The difference is probably that, in so far as opinions are subjective, the rationale part of it has to be understanding your own responses and putting those forward.
Nicholas: Exactly, but I don’t see a distinction there between the word academic and any other person in the world who is constructing a critical argument. I mean, we can certainly take a cliché question of what an academic or a barrister might be, and suggest “oh, they’re going to (construct their argument) in a very clinical way”
Again, what I think happens when one does a really good review, and presents a good critical discourse on dance is that those elements become apparent. You say, oh yes they’re presenting a clear opinion, they’re not wishy-washy or uncertain; they’ve given a reason why and then shown, given illustrations and examples from the work or from society to support their opinion and give us an insight. When they construct it like that we can then take hold of it as a critical discourse and engage with it, take it further now. Again, words like critical discourse are, yes, academic, but I think the same process pervades the tabloid newspaper process.
SF: And being subjective and objective.
Nicholas: Not at all, no, because I think you might be subjective also when you’re constructing a critical argument.
John: And, as you mentioned, the barrister’s job is to argue a certain side of the thing, it may not be their personal opinion, but their job is to argue from the polarities so that you get to some sort of truth –
SF: When you get your rationale, that’s when you get to the objectivity –
Nicholas: Not at all, but in any case, you’re never going to – nobody’s every going to construct a completely objective argument. They’re always going to be subjective, but for it to go beyond the process of being an opinion, and this is where I think the distinction is from what a critic is and what is often passed off as criticism, it is actually just an opinion even if it’s from someone who has an expertise or knowledge in the topic. Is when they distinctly say well this is what I thought of it, without having to explain why, without giving illustrations, then that’s what subjective and opinionated; also it’s subjective when you present it a complete argument there’s no sense of “oh, I’ve now removed myself to a higher plane because I’m presenting” I’m just going into a deeper process that’s all.
John: You had questions?
SF: Yeah I think one of the dilemmas in dancers arts is there’s such small number of reviews. When you read the reviews of the rugby on the weekend, there are usually about five reviews of the same game, and they are all speaking from their own voices, they all see different parts of the game, and they’re all biased in their own way. But I love reading the different ones, you know, (inaudible) will always pick up on this and such and such will always pick up on that. At the end you come away with all these different angles, it’s like watching it on TV with five cameras getting it in slow motion: the big shot, the long shot. So I think the important thing is for each reviewer to have their voice, so that as the audience, the person who’s choosing whether to spend their $20 on this show or that show, or go to a movie, or just not go out at all. Then they can make an informed decision.
John: I think we ought to also compliment Raewyn Whyte on her indefatigable efforts sending out (notification of) every review (via her dance news email list). I think that the whole point is that it’s all part of the bigger conversation. Nothing is written in stone, it’s going to go on long after we’ve departed this mortal coil. The important thing is that by writing it, it is there, for the use of … It’s amazing when I realise how much of the stuff that turns up on Theatreview is probably being used as we speak by people writing essays or theses.
SF: There has been at minimum mostly two reviews of all the tempo shows, occasionally three if you also read YellingMouth.
SF: And the Luminere ones aren’t out yet because they take a long time to put theirs out. So unless you only pick up the Herald, you’ll find your reviews online, you can’t buy them any more, you basically have to go online to see. During the Auckland Festival we were in the amazing position of having seven or eight reviews of some individual shows online simply because people could.
Linda: Also during the Auckland Festival Metro Magazine did that amazing daily sheet, which had reviews of shows from the night before and was incredibly helpful – especially in a festival setting where you’ve got two to three shows and that’s it. If you wait around for a Herald review after the weekend, you will have missed it; you will have read about it, but your chance to actually see it and make a decision for yourself was very limited.
Jennifer: That is quite an important point, in the sense that in writing a review that you know will get published and read while the season is still running, there is an ethical under current to that and that I admire totally Nick’s –
John: Nick, yeah.
Jennifer: I always admire an uncompromising stand. But what if you went to the show and really didn’t feel great about it at all, but you are professionally committed to a review; you’d be a fool to lie and say you loved it when you hated it.
Let’s pretend, I saw the show, the review’s got to go in 30 minutes after curtain down to be in the morning’s paper and there’s four /five nights still to run. Let’s say I didn’t really love it all that much, that’s not the number one information to give the world, I’ve got ways of letting that between the lines, people who’ve been reading a while – ‘oh boy you didn’t have a great night did you Jennifer’, but I didn’t (write) that.
I don’t want to lie or confuse myself totally, that’s not going to help us at all. But there’s the box office, and survival and respect to pay to these people whose work is valid and loveable by somebody else, who just happens perhaps not to be me on that night. I’m not scared to say what I think, but not as a black and white thing.
You’re quite right (Linda) not to want dichotomies; we’re all on a point somewhere along the spectrum. Yet the kind of review that you can mull through and think about and then put a damn good argument in, you know, Geordan Wilcox’s dad writing about Black Milk weeks, months after we’ve all seen it for the last time. You know, you’re going to keep that on your book shelf, you may or may not clip reviews from the more ephemeral papers that you saw the show or not. So who’s the reviewer actually speaking to as they write?
SF: Well I think you bring up a really interesting point about dichotomy as well as the review as a record of an event at the same time it is a review. So you’ve got that subjective voice as well. I think what a good reviewer does do is balance the two, so that it does serve both purposes – and without getting too academic or too over the head of the audience, but at the same time respecting any knowledge or pre-knowledge that they may have.
Jennifer: When you’re writing to the choreography, the dance performance, the dancers, the audience who were there with you on the night – who are maybe waiting to see a review before they will go and see. The other readers of the paper who won’t be going at all, but are very interested to see what they missed, and the people in other towns – thank you John for going national, and then international readership. So it’s a bit of juggling on the trampoline –
John: I want to move on okay, last one.
SF: How much weight does the audience of who’s reading the review bear on your – like each of your reviews that you write. Like how much weight is there on your opinion? Like this will be specific to all of you, and like what papers you write for and whether it comes out before the show ends or afterwards. How much does it affect your opinion of the show, like who you are writing for?
John: I would say nothing can affect your opinion – your opinion’s your opinion.
SF: But it does modify the way you –
John: It’s interesting, I don’t feel that – I have no idea who my constituency is out there, I haven’t surveyed them.
SF: So you don’t know who you’re writing for.
John: I’m not sure that even though people may know who their advertisers think they’re pitching too, who else picks up the publication that they didn’t subscribe to? Whether it’s in a dentist waiting room or circulated around the office – when I wrote for the NBR, you know, it wasn’t necessarily business people. It’s anybody working in the office that saw the thing on circulation.
Nicholas: I disagree, because I think whenever I’m writing I always inherently know I’m writing for someone in my mind. Now that person may be dead, they may be never going to read it, but somehow, the experience of the show, the construction of the argument is channelled towards someone.
So I have someone in mind that hopefully is usually connected with whichever publication I’m working with, be it in the Middle East or in London or here in New Zealand.
I don’t think one can force oneself to say I’m just writing it, just to put it out there and it has nothing to do with anyone. There’s usually some sort of mind out there that I’m trying to connect with and convince or engage. I’m not always completely conscious of who it is; sometimes it’s only emerges later, oh yeah I wrote that for my father.
John: Francesca, have you got a sense that your Listener audience is different from (DANZ Quarterly)?
Francesca: Yeah, I’m quite conscious of the (Listener) audience. The demographic is quite well known for the middle class, middle aged which they’re trying to get younger. So its people who read; who are educated and interested in dance and have some kind of knowledge or desire for knowledge.
I was told by the arts editor a while back that I wasn’t writing for the dance community and I wasn’t writing for the dancers, I was writing for the Listener readers and I should remember that – and I do.
When I write DANZ Quarterly, I can use quite different language; I can be more humorous, take more liberty with language. I’ve got so much more space. It’s not a conscious thing but I can see the difference in my writing and also with articles as well. Sometimes DANZ Quarterly doesn’t necessarily want more general information about artists, they want dance information because of the editorial quality, and it’s the same with the Listener being more open. So yeah, definitely the audience is in mind. I think that’s a key to all writing, to know your audience.
John: Jack, have you got –
Jack: I was just thinking that actually I write knowing that the dance community will look at it. I’m quite aware that the people who I’m writing about and the situations are mostly people in the community. So it is really hard when you have an opinion of a show that isn’t really celebrating…
I feel personally that I always want to support dance, because if I don’t then I won’t be supporting myself. So I like to uphold dance as much as I possibly can, but within that we can all develop and refine the art form.
I also see the history of dance in New Zealand is very short, and so there’s room for expansion. That’s the perspective from which I try to write; as a way of illuminating and ultimately trying to give the best – but if that seems impossible then trying, as you say, to rationalise a point of view, knowing that you’re going to put yourself up for people to disagree with, and that’s okay… it’s kind of hard.
Jennifer: A little bell rang. Sitting here is my review of Swan Lake from the Imperial Russian Theatre Ballet Company from last night in Wellington. It’s not yet published but I brought it along if you want. It rarely gets trickier than that I have to say, because its politics and a whole bunch of stuff. In the break you can have a read if you want, but – if I can just put in a word for the fast turnaround general publication, as opposed to the dance specialist publication coming four times a year or once a year or whatever.
It’s this; you put in your copy, and you hope and pray and you don’t sleep until really you know for sure, that what appears is what you submitted. For sure, darling, you don’t meet the subeditor; you don’t know who the subeditor is. You ring in after you’ve posted it in, you proof read it after you’ve sent it and send the typos and hope that what you wrote is what will appear. What if the last paragraph got dropped off?
Once this happened in 35 years of reviewing for the same paper; the sub’y rang and said “I’ve got to lose 30 words which 30 would you like those to be.” “I love you” and I made the decision, but if someone else, they might remove the words – you’ve got to be ready for an editor thing, you don’t get the chance to see it again until –
No reviewer writes the headlines, the subeditor does that as well. So if you put in something that you hoped on balance is a fair comment but in the context of what else you sent you might find that’s up in the flag. So the interesting thing is, when they print (my review of) Swan Lake, I’ll be very interested to see how some subeditor who didn’t see the show reads the review; it’s a bit like a verbal performance actually. They think I’m saying so and so and they want to sell the paper too and there’s a bit of that.
I envy the rugby people their sense of history, page after page – and good on them, they’ve got there and stuff but look, I know people who can remember the try in the final moments of the 1928 tour, but our people don’t have such good memoirs, a few do, but not many.
So in terms of what you go ready with or not to a performance, and then who you think is going to read what you write about… I read dance stuff all the time, it’s all I do. But I try and leave it all behind, when I go to the show. I’m just, clear I hope in getting out, and ready for whatever. It’s not to have double standards, but it is just to accept what is offered on its own terms and in its own merits and part of what’s offered is the little peak of whether a programme is provided or not. Whether they have a little flyer or a very posh printed programme or the $15 dollar job, if it fails to give you a cast list but tells you a whole lot of stuff that you don’t need to know /no programme or too much programme. The cast list is what I want, that’s non‑negotiable and I often don’t get it.
I try and get over the typos but it’s better to fix them if you can before you go to print. It’s often (information) I don’t need to know (such as) the lighting designer who did this nice little show, won 46 awards from Perth and Adelaide and Vladivostok.
If the performers are offering a paragraph on themselves as well, (added to) the preliminary stuff that’s gone out, the press release or the blurb in the festival booklet, that’s an area that mainly the people that write about and love dance, and who work with people who dance, like to close up the gaps. Just be awfully careful with the words you put out about your own show, if you don’t want them to come back and revisit you, because it’s one of the things we do, if you’ve got time, if the company sends the programme in advance, you can read it before the show.
John: The only poison pen letter I ever got was when I said this is what they said they were going to do, this is what they did, and there’s a big gap between it. They said “how dare you use publicity material as a measuring stick,” and I said but why not, you said that this is what you were aiming to do and I’m perfectly entitled to say whether you achieved it or not.
SF: One of the things I really enjoy about Theatreview and the other online review sites such as YellingMouth which you mentioned earlier, is the fact that at the end of the review after you read it, if you agree, disagree, – you can post your comments about what the reviewer has said. Because I think that Theatreview especially is really geared towards people who have an interest in the performing arts, and it’s very different to a newspaper review which is mass media.
I think that is a crucial element to be able to have that conversation. I find with many of the reviews the artists have come back and responded they didn’t like what was said, or they had fervour to say, “yes I’m glad you really noticed this because this is what we were trying to do.” I really enjoy reading that sort of running commentary between artist, reviewer and other people who saw the show.
John: In the Dominion Post every now and then there’s a long list of names from the letters to the editor that weren’t published and points noted. Sometimes you recognise names and think they’re probably complaining or commenting on a review.
I want to move on to another question, but I thought to wrap up this point of prior knowledge and making new discoveries when you go to the theatre is as exciting as anything. Going along and sort of having everything confirmed and consolidated is nice, but I’m reminded of what Annie Proulx said at a writers and readers week back in about 2000, during the arts festival in Wellington.