Sunday, February 28, 2016

Theatre criticism - not dying out any time soon

By Helen Musa, convenor of the Canberra Critics Circle.

(This commentary was first printed in the ACT Writers' Centre publication ACTWrite, February 2016, Vol.22, issue 1.)

When Samuel Beckett’s character Vladimir taunts his companion in Waiting for Godot with the pejorative “Cretin!” Estragon hits back with the most insulting word he can think of — “Crritic!”

The insult is one that most theatre critics must learn to bear with equanimity.

What is it that critics do? First and foremost, they criticise. They also analyse, prod and, in long-form reviewing, advocate for the art form, although that can lead to accusations of bias.

Make no mistake about it, reviewing is never a popularity contest. A critic will often be at odds with the public and we are often asked, “What’s it like to be hated by everyone?”

Candidly, if you’re reviewing something awful, it can be a pleasure to say so. One Canberra critic calls it “the taste of blood.” Think about it, people pay to attend performances and criticism serves as advice, so “kindness” does no service to the reader or listener. Even so, criticism is very rarely black and white.

The Canberra Critics Circle is entering its 25th year in 2016. Uniquely in Australia, our circle does not focus just on theatre, dance and opera, but runs the gamut of the arts, through theatre, dance, music, visual arts, books and film, reflecting the fact that ours is a small community that needs dialogue and comment across the full arts spectrum.

Founded after a forum of practising critics in print and radio during Dance Week 1991 which focused on the state of public commentary on the arts in Canberra, the CCC gives out annual awards at the ACT Arts Awards ceremony, which we convene, and also holds winter colloquiums to help develop critical awareness of local arts practice.

Alas, critics, like other journalists in Australia, tend to be ranked very low on the status scale, but we see ourselves as tellers-of-truth, speaking out to the public.

Does criticism matter to artists?

To a visual artist it does, as creating work within a vacuum is a nonsense. Veteran Canberra sculptor Jan Brown once told me, “the only thing worse than a bad review is no review at all”. And theatres still rely on ‘the crits’ to bring in audiences. In the context of super-promotion of big stage musicals, reviews may be an afterthought, but for most plays, the reviews still influence the paying public.

With the emergence of blogs where anyone can have an opinion, the critic’s role art may be under siege, yet it is all the more important in a popular culture swamped with hyperbole to have reliable criticism and some bloggers stand out as trusted commentators.

If your bent is critical – and it is simply not true that anyone can be a critic – there are lots of places to start.

My story in theatre criticism began when I was a first-year student at the University of NSW, the first Australian university to run theatre studies courses. I was assigned by the Uni paper, Tharunka, as its theatre reviewer. My drama professor, an elderly Berliner, told me that I must go to “everything”, good, bad or indifferent, to develop my taste. And I did, while pursuing the academic study of Western and Asian theatre in plays and historical documents.

I firmly believe that critics, whether in theatre, music, art, dance, cinema, should have some expertise in the field. My counterpart, the theatre critic for Sydney University's Honi Soit paper was the formidable Germaine Greer, who took me under her wing and offered me tips on what to look out for.

Some of the handy hints I picked up were, not to retell the plot unless it is a completely new play, to get to the point quickly, (most performance reviews in print, world-wide, run between 250 and 350 words) to avoid listing all the characters, rather focusing on those relevant to your point and, in those days, never to say “I.”

That aversion to the first person has long ago disappeared from the critical lexicon, with the recognition that true objectivity is pretty well nonexistent. Readers now know how to listen to the critic’s voice and learn of his or her predilections. ‘Informed subjective criticism’ is what we now look for.

Many “God-critics”, especially in the larger ponds of New York and London, have made their names as entertaining purveyors of literary invective. But, in a small city like Canberra, that seems ridiculously self-indulgent and I like to think the tradition of the patronisingly pompous critic is passé. I once compared, unfavourably, a production of a Pirandello play to the Maserati parked outside the old Childers Street Theatre and have regretted my tiresome bit of ‘cleverness’ ever since.

A gift for words is essential for a reviewer, but it is my strong view that critical judgement and fearlessness are far more important in conveying to the public an idea of what a production was like. In this respect, theatre, film and book reviewers are different from other arts in that they advise the public on whether to pay money for an artistic experience. It is a position of considerable responsibility.

I judge fearlessness to be the most important attribute for a critic and am unimpressed by assertions that criticism needs to be kind. In theatre that is the (usually paid) job of a dramaturg, not a critic.

Our chief role is to speak to the public, not to the playwright, the novelist or the players and of that the English theatre critic Michael Billington once wrote that the shortest way to professional castration is for a critic is to get to bed with the person he/she is reviewing.

Performing arts criticism differs from some other areas (say books, painting, and sculpture) in having two components — the work and the interpretation. A critic will hardly base a review on a personal dislike of Hamlet but will comment on the actor playing the Prince of Denmark. Likewise, it is a waste of space to recount the story of the world’s most famous play, but the critic will reflect on the acting, the thematic angle of the director, the set, the costumes and the final impression.

A new play is an entirely different matter. Here a theatre critic can be on dangerous ground, for ordinarily he or she will not have read the play, which may change even up to the dress rehearsal. A review of a brand new play might include some recounting of the plot, the structure, and the most common weakness, the ending, Very frequently a play which has not enjoyed in-depth workshopping may have a number of false endings. The astute critic will spot this and possibly suggest the way to a resolution, also acting as a broker between the writer and the audience where an unfamiliar theatrical style is used.

Here is where the theatre critic needs to be fully aware of the theatre arts, for an unready play may be 'dressed up' by clever directors, actor, costumiers and designers to look better than it is.

Without doubt the days of the superior God-critic have gone and it is most unusual for a theatre reviewer to dislike the art form – on the contrary, most critics go into a performance hoping for the very best. And today’s playwrights, many of them theatre-workers themselves, commonly spend time in rehearsals working with directors and actors, so they know the ropes, just like the critics. But they can never see their own play with an impartial eye.

I can’t see theatre criticism dying out any time soon in an art form that is about give and take in real-time, where debate is often as important as the show itself.

But we can, all of us, rise above the assertion that “I don't know much about theatre, [or art or music or film] but I know what I like.”

Helen Musa December 19 2015













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