May 2, 2014

THEATREVIEW Theatre Critics’ HUI @ AUT 27 April 2014

(captured by John Smythe & Kate Ward-Smythe)
Present: John Smythe, Lexie Matheson, Andy Manning, Heidi North-Bailey, Vanessa Byrnes, Johnny Givins, Bronwyn Elsmore, Steve Austin, Nik Smythe;
(later) Kate Ward-Smythe.

Context:  This hui was provoked by a complaint that too many Theatreview reviews were too glowing and not critical enough.

What is live theatre?

No matter what the genre, style or conventions employed, reviewable theatre, as an artefact, obeys the unities of time, place and action. The ‘contract’ is that those who gather at a certain place at a certain time will witness something created in the form of dramatic action for an audience to engage with simultaneously.

It is created for a purpose, everyone involved in making it is purpose-driven and those who come to see it do so for a purpose. Each person’s purpose may differ.

Theatrical works may be targeted to particular audiences, by way of demographics, taste, cultural content, etc. However all human beings have more in common than not (think survival needs, senses and faculties – and those lacking a sense may be served with signed or audio-described performances; most theatres have wheelchair access, etc).

Ideally the only ‘qualification’ one should need to engage with any play (meaning any theatrical production) is to be a sensate human being. Most choose to go to the theatre but some are dragged there under sufferance and a good production will aspire to convert them to seeing the pleasure and value of live theatre.

Live theatre is a collective experience. Performers and audience share the same space, breathe the same air, share the experience … Good theatre achieves currency in every sense of the word: the spark between performer and audience creates a special energy; no matter what the time /place setting of the work, its relevance to the audience is a key component.

Is there anything all theatre must do?

It must engage its audience. This may be at emotional, intellectual or spiritual levels, through empathy, challenge, confrontation, intrigue, mystery, provocation, expansion, celebration, commemoration … All those are variables but it must engage us in some way to be validated as theatre.

To reach the status of a fully-formed artefact, it should add up to more than the sum of its parts (otherwise it is a list of ingredients yet to be ‘cooked’; a mixture yet to achieve chemical change …)

We can say this is a play about xyz, but what is it really about (that is bigger than itself)? How does it resonate into the wider world? 

Can we say all theatre must entertain? ‘Entertain’ derives from late Middle English, entertenen: to hold mutually. Anything that holds our attention is entertaining.

Theatre is important because:

See Hamlet’s advice to the Players and marvel at how it still applies:   

Theatre may reflect us back to ourselves, celebrate and/or challenge human experience and behaviour, transport us to new imagined realms, offer insights, expand our understanding, reassure us we are not alone, agitate for change …

As distinct from other art forms, theatre is created and recreated in the moment, which adds an element of danger and excitement to the process. The collective experiencing of a performance with other audience members, be they friends or strangers, also adds a special dimension.

A society without theatre (and the other arts) lacks consciousness and a conscience, is devoid of imagination and is creatively moribund; it lacks ‘the necessaries of life’.

What is a theatre review?

A theatre review reports on and evaluates a specific performance (usually the opening) of a production. It serves the needs and interests of audiences, practitioners and history.  

If theatre contributes to the ongoing conversation humanity has with itself about what it is to be human, or by creating performance in ways that only humans can create, then theatre reviews contribute constructively to that conversation.

A Notice reports on what happened, where and when, who was involved, and implies whether or not it is good.
A Review also evaluates from a position of informed understanding of the art form.
A Critique also analyses in greater depth and contextualises the specific in relation to the artistes’ other works, other examples of the genre, the socio-political environment, etc … It ‘interrogates the artefact’: What? Why? How?

Audiences may go to theatre to discover more about themselves, their world and life in general, or to escape from their day-to-day lives. They want to be entertained (see above). They read a review to find out what it is, who’s involved and whether it’s likely to appeal to them (even if it’s not the reviewer’s cup of tea). Those who have seen the show also appreciate reviews that articulate their response, if they do not have the skill to put it in words themselves.

Professional practitioners want their work reflected back to them honestly, rigorously and constructively. They expect to be held to account and it is the reviewer’s responsibility to do that, on behalf of the public who may or may not invest time and money, and the taxpayer and/or sponsors who also invest in making the show happen (or may fund them in the future).
Note:  Any production reviewed on Theatreview is held to professional standards (while taking their resources into account when it comes to production values, etc).

History relies on reviews for an objective account and evaluation (as opposed to the publicity material) of the production. Theatre is an ephemeral art form which only remains on the public record when people write about it (or record its existence in other ways).

What distinguishes Theatreview?

Theatreview is often the first, and sometimes the only, organ of public communication to review a new production – and its reviews remain on the searchable archival record in perpetuity (we hope). Where possible, and by mutual agreement, Theatreview links to other reviews to expand the sense of a ‘conversation’.

Because Theatreview is online, it allows Audience Members to respond publicly, to affirm, disagree or debate particulars or general concerns through the Comments or Forum facilities. It also allows errors of facts to be rectified.

Although its critics are informed and experienced in the theatrical arts, and they approach their craft with individual ‘voices’, Theatreview does not hold itself out to be the all-knowing Authority or the supreme Arbiter of Taste. Nor does it aspire to be. Theatreview is ‘Contributing constructively to the continuing conversation …’

Because we have not been able to source funding to pay critics, Theatreview reviewers are voluntary. They share a love of good theatre and have the skill to share their experience and evaluate the production in writing. We live in a country where the biggest sponsors of the arts are the artists themselves – and although we would love to be fully professional as critics, we write reviews as our contribution to the conversation about the art form we love. 

Theatreview aims to publish reviews and aspires to publishing critiques where they are warranted and where the critic has the desire and capacity to deliver a critique. (Because we don’t pay this cannot be demanded but it will always be appreciated.) In high-volume times, however – Fringe and Comedy Festivals – succinct reviews are appreciated.

Theatreview has been credited with creating a virtual performing arts community of practitioners, audiences, patrons, sponsors, funders, etc. It has raised – and maintains – nation-wide and global awareness of professional performing arts practice in New Zealand. Some see this as a core value.

Issues that arise for Theatreview critics

Although some may see being a critic as their vocation, no-one is making their living at it. And because we have roots in the performing arts, many of us also work ‘in the industry’ at some level. We therefore have to avoid clear conflicts of interest in what we choose to review. And sometimes there can be genuine ‘self preservation’ concerns. These have to be managed with integrity.

New talent may be being mentored by respected professionals and if a review avoids mentioning obvious shortcomings, it undermines the development of those talents.

Conversely ‘established’ talents who are operating below what we know to be their capabilities need to be nudged, to keep faith with their audience and to keep them ‘match fit’. In the process we need to assess whether the fault lies in the script, the actor or the director before we assign ‘blame’; otherwise raise it as a question.

Do as you would be done by – assuming that you:

  • as a professional practitioner, would aspire to being the best you can and would therefore appreciate rigorous, constructive feedback
  • as an audience member, would like not to be misled into going to something that is not what the review represented.

Professional respect requires honesty and integrity at a level that should not be taken personally. By INTERROGATING THE ARTEFACT we are depersonalising the criticism. We owe it to the practitioners and their potential audiences to reflect back – and reflect on – what they present. That is the purpose of reviewing.

There are some ‘don’ts’ to bear in mind:

  • don’t vent, be bitchy, be nasty, be vitriolic;
  • don’t pussy-foot around issues or concerns;
  • don’t misrepresent the nature or quality of a show;
  • don’t just tell the story (but indicate enough to represent its nature or support your argument);
  • don’t include spoilers, especially for new work (we do know Hamlet dies in the end);
  • don’t be ‘nice’ to the exclusion of truth.

In a nutshell: the truth works – at every level of theatre practice, including reviewing. Therefore do:

  • acknowledge and value craft and technical excellence (name the practitioners);
  • reflect back what does and doesn’t work (connecting, audience relationship, pace and structure; is it ‘landing’, are the jokes / the magic working, are the actors ‘hitting their mark’, do you believe the actors, credibility / is it credible);
  • interrogate the artefact – “Who are you? Where have you come from? Why are you here? What do you want?” – in order to evaluate how it’s done;
  • feel free to reference marketing material as an indication of what was purposed or promised, in the process of discussing whether or not it met its objectives or delivered on the promise;
  • use language well (e.g. metaphors appropriate to the theme or content of the play);
  • write the review in the present tense to represent it as live theatre;
  • entertain (hold the reader’s attention).

Reviews are necessarily subjective. Where you have a clear sense that your response differs from others in the audience (not counting hyper-supportive friends and family), you do need to note that – and remember what Hamlet says: “…though it make the unskillful laugh, [it] cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.”   

Further thoughts and comments: 

By accepting the offer to write a review we take on the dual right and responsibility to contribute constructively to the ‘conversation’.

It can be a good idea to characterise yourself as an individual so that the reader gets a sense of who is ‘talking’. (When editing for sense and consistent punctuation, the editor attempts to retain and sustain the critic’s ‘voice’.)

It’s about identity: identifying the artefact, its makers, its audience, its reviewer …

What am I offering the world of theatre by being part of Theatreview?

What we do is a cultural framing; a contribution; part of the process

To be in this game you need stamina, thick skin, and a padded bum.

If you don’t have fun writing a review, people won’t have fun reading it.

Bar conversations are very different from writing a review – although overheard comments may be mention (but not attributed without permission). 

For most practitioners, (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), the only thing worse than getting a bad review is getting no review at all. It has been said, “If we get no review, did we (our production) ever exist?”

Reviewers’ anecdotes

An actress wrote a comedy in the mode of the many popular shows she had performed in. The critic saw a Sunday matinee at which the audience sat in stony silence. The critic fretted that he was going to shatter the confidence of someone who was a beginner and at least ‘having a go’ but he knew he had to ‘tell it as he saw it.’ Some weeks later the playwright phoned him and thanked him for his review. He thought she was being sarcastic but no; she explained she had been banned from rehearsals and only on opening night had she seen what they’d done to supposedly make her play funnier. For example (it was about fundraising for a child care centre) they had changed the lingerie party to a sex toy party, etc, etc, and the outcome looked ‘try-hard’ as was the acting – and there’s nothing less funny than plays and actors looking as if they are trying to be funny. If I hadn’t enumerated in the review what didn’t work and why, she would have been a lone voice in trying to explain why they’d ruined it. 

Conclusion: The truth works.

A Toi Whakaari graduate developed her 20-minute solo show into a longer one and put it on at Bats. The critic felt it was good in parts but lacked the coherence and structure to become more than the sum of its parts; to resonate beyond its immediate self.  He worried it may be too harsh on a newcomer to say so but it was a heartfelt opinion and – despite the hugely enthusiastic response from the opening night audience, he rationalised she had trained for three years to become the best she could be, so he had his say. She contacted him to say all her friends had been so nice and luvvy about it, telling her she was wonderful, but she knew something was missing and the review had given her the feedback she needed.

Conclusion: The truth works.

John Smythe also mentioned a recent experience of getting live feedback at a public post-workshop reading of his play Where There’s A Will. It was two Theatreview critics who gave the most value, saying there needed to be more at stake to increase the jeopardy and more ‘red herrings’ to stop the outcome being predictable. These extremely valuable critiques will inform his next draft. Also positive reinforcement of what worked will ensure he retains those values.


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Contributing constructively to the continuing conversation

Should Theatreview – already overseen by The Theatreview Trust, registered as a Charity and primarily tasked with fundraising – also have an Advisory Board (with members in Auckland, Wellington Christchurch and Dunedin, who meet by Skype?) to support its sustainability and evolution? It’s a matter of accountability and perception. This, along with envisaging what we want Theatreview to be in 5 or 10 years time, raises the question of succession.
[Note: This is ‘on the table’ with The Theatreview Trust who are currently disinclined to add another level of voluntary involvement with Theatreview unless there is some guarantee it will not be relatively cursory and therefore problematic, as is often the case in such situations.]

Reviewers in each centre would value getting together once or twice a year to compare notes, bond, align to our collective purpose (that word again), ‘reboot’, put faces to names, celebrate and engage.
Question: should this be by way of a Christmas gathering, a ‘Kick off the new year’ gathering, a mid-winter gathering …? Should we meet, in each region, in the run-up to each regional and international arts festival?  

[ends] Discuss this in the Forum here:

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