Better Living Through Criticism

AT INTERVALS through Better Living Through Criticism, a free-wheeling meditation on how we talk about art, critic AO Scott changes the pace with a series of imagined interviews. Hold on, says his alter ego every couple of chapters, you’ve been saying this, that and the other, but have you considered this other thing? 

He may be asking his own questions, but the format forces Scott to focus. In a book that can be airy, discursive and tangential, these chapters are the most rooted. (They also have none of the coyness of the imaginary interviews in Michael Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays, but that’s another story.)

In the last of these dialogues, Scott effectively reviews his own book. In the voice of the questioner, he writes: “To be frank I’m still not sure I know what criticism is, unless it is whatever a critic happens to be doing. And in that case what is a critic?”

It’s a pretty fundamental question to be asking after 250 pages. Should it really take this long to get to the point? The answer Scott provides is that “criticism is both paradoxical and tautological. It’s whatever a critic does.” 

And if it’s not too paradoxical and tautological to say so, herein lies the strength and weakness of his book. Reading it is like watching a kite on a blustery day. It dazzles and delights, dips and dives, loops round itself, gets tied in knots, untangles itself and returns to surprise you. Sometimes, though, it disappears from view. Frequently you lose sight of the thin cord connecting it to the ground. At such moments, to paraphrase Scott himself, I’m not sure I know what this book is.

Should I say what it isn’t? Well, it’s not a practical guide to being a critic, nor is it a historical overview of critical thinking, although Scott shows great breath of knowledge and understanding on that subject. Although I love the title, I’m not sure this book actually does offer better living through criticism.

Rather, it is a philosophical meander through the questions and contradictions that criticism presents. How can a review be a subjective expression that also aspires to universal truth? What’s the point of an activity that comes in between the artist and the audience and yet, strictly, is not required by either? Is criticism a creative act that has artistic value in itself or is it tomorrow’s chip paper? 

At its most worthwhile, criticism sets itself above the shallowness and hype of the market, so why is it so often treated as a mere consumer guide? Isn’t it true to say a work of art is itself a piece of criticism in that it reflects and comments on the world around it? Is the critic friend or enemy? Or both?

Scott has no shortage of opinions (he’s a critic; how could he not?) but he is more interested in the questions than the answers. That’s his point. The more you consider the act of criticism, the more conundrums it throws up. They are what make it infinitely interesting. 

This is an activity that not only provokes self-reflection in the critic (why am I doing this?) but also a similar line of questioning from everyone else (why are you doing this – and who gave you the right?) Despite the uncertainty, despite the animosity and despite the multiplicity of answers, criticism keeps on happening – and for as long as people keep thinking, it always will.

And here I am, criticising Scott’s book and here you are, reading about it and now you’ll go away with an opinion of my piece of writing about his piece of writing and maybe you’ll even write down your opinion . . . and the process is never ending. So should you read his book? Of course you should. Only then will I be able to ask you the questions Scott says are the “origin of criticism”: “Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” (Mark Fisher)

Better Living Through Criticism, AO Scott (Jonathan Cape)

What I’ve learnt from my rock’n’roll criticism tour

Mark Fisher, author of How to Write About Theatre, leading a criticism workshop at Liverpool Hope University
Mark Fisher at Liverpool Hope University. Pic: Michael Boyle

SINCE How to Write About Theatre came out last summer, I’ve given around 20 talks, workshops and roundtable discussions everywhere from Edinburgh to Truro, from Manchester to Canterbury, from Colwyn Bay to London. 

Largely for my own amusement, I’ve been calling it my rock’n’roll theatre criticism tour. 

The lack of groupies and cocaine has been disappointing, but getting round the country has been great. With Bob Dylan as my model, I’m thinking of it as a never-ending criticism tour – a call from the O2 Arena is surely just a matter of time.

So what have I found on my travels? I’m pleased to report that everywhere I’ve gone, people have shown a high level of engagement in the idea of theatre criticism – although not always for the same reasons. 

In Truro, the half-dozen writers on the New Reviewers programme at Hall for Cornwall are determined to improve the standard of discussion about Cornish culture. In London, the large contingent of directors on the Young Vic’s Genesis Directors’ Network are keen to find the most productive way to analyse each other’s work. In Poole, the Young Reviewers have been stretching their vocabulary by writing about children’s shows, dance performances and musicals.

Likewise, students I’ve met in Canterbury and Chichester, Leeds and Liverpool, Sheffield and Sunderland have been animated by the challenge of translating the theatre they see into words.

Along the way, there have been loads of interesting discussions.

University of Bristol

At the University of Bristol, the students had just seen Matthew Zajac’s excellent one-man show The Tailor of Inverness and were now working on their reviews. The play is about Zajac’s father who was born in a part of Poland that became the Ukraine, was drafted into the armies of both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany and fled – depending on whose story you believe – across most of Europe before settling in Glasgow and finally Inverness.

One of the students had an intriguing question. Being half-Polish himself, he was wondering whether it would be appropriate to include his own family story in the review. I could see his dilemma. If he wanted to do justice to the work of the artist, wouldn’t it be self-indulgent to start banging on about his own story? On the other hand, when he had filtered the show through the lens of his own experience – as all of us do – wouldn’t it be relevant to mention it?

Students at the University of Chichester join a criticism workshop with Mark Fisher
Students at the University of Chichester

I think it would be very relevant. Whatever his opinion of the show, he is writing from a distinct perspective and, as a fellow audience member, I’d be fascinated to know how that perspective affected his interpretation. As a critic of this particular show, he would have a unique perspective in being half Polish. It would be the thing that made his review stand out from the rest.

I would still expect him to make The Tailor of Inverness his central focus, but if he could tell a parallel story that illuminated Zajac’s show in some way, it would only enrich the reader’s understanding. Depending on how he chose to structure his review, it could be the way he drew the reader into the story of his encounter with the play. That was the technique Benedict Nightingale used when reviewing the jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men in 1996:

I found myself questioning the Angry Men myth when I sat on a jury recently and found I was the only member convinced that the defendant was guilty of theft. It was deeply disconcerting to be the lion in a den of Fondas.

Falmouth University Students in a criticism workshop by Mark Fisher, author of How to Write About Theatre
Students in Falmouth think about How to Write About Theatre

With any other play, Nightingale’s jury experience would be irrelevant, but here it had a direct application. He was able to use a personal story to explain his reaction to the play, giving the reader an insight into him and the thing he was writing about. 

The only note of caution is not to let the personal anecdote overshadow the play. If Nightingale had been one of several jury members who believed the defendant to be guilty, his story would have carried little weight and could have seemed like an irrelevant or indulgent aside. A personal story is interesting only to the extent it illuminates the production.

At Falmouth University, where my gig even got a review, one student had a great question about how sure a critic can be of the artist’s intentions. He gave the example of Stewart Lee who has been known to alienate an audience deliberately as a personal dare to see whether he could bring them back on side again. The critic who didn’t understand what the comedian was up to and simply took Lee on face value may assume he was incompetent. 

students at Christchurch, Canterbury joins Mark Fisher's theatre criticism workshop
Students at Christchurch, Canterbury

This was a game that Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish took to another level when he gave a deliberately negative review of a Lee show as a kind of meta commentary on the comedian’s act:

It feels quite empowering to leave a Stewart Lee gig at the first available opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, Cavendish’s review generated much below-the-line vitriol, but maybe that was what the critic intended. I only suspect this, incidentally, because Cavendish told me he was fully aware of Lee’s methods and totally prepared for any backlash. He knew what he was doing. If that was the game Lee was playing as a comedian, why shouldn’t he play it as a critic?

In this case, it was as hard to be certain of the critic’s intentions as it was to be certain of the comedian’s. The best I can say is that most of the time we get the artist’s intentions more or less right, but we’re all fallible and sometimes we miss the point.

And it’s that level of uncertainty that makes the job of writing about theatre endlessly engaging. So here’s looking forward to more such discussions on my never-ending criticism tour.

Is criticism worth valuing?

WHAT distinguishes a professional theatre critic from an amateur? It’s a question that’s been buzzing around ever since some theatregoer realised the internet would be a pretty cool place to write about the shows they’d been seeing. Perhaps that person was doing something different from the critics who’d been filing newspaper reviews for the previous couple of centuries, but if so, in what way was it different? It’s not an easy question to answer.

Mark Shenton, critic on the Stage, had a stab at it earlier this week when he blogged about the online chatter that precedes productions when they move from town to town. In a post entitled Rising above the noise of internet commentary, he made a distinction between what he called “formal criticism” and an internet where “there are always lots of voices, shouting to be heard”:

The world needs voices to rise above that clamour and offer some kind of calming, unruffled perspective. Online commentary tends to polarise between extremely good and extremely bad; critics can provide a more measured voice.

As he then went on to talk about print publications, his implication (intentional or otherwise) was that this “formal criticism” took place in the traditional media while the “unmediated din” took place online. 

This strikes me as a contentious thing to say, not least because his opinion was itself expressed online. What qualifies as formal criticism? What is the mechanism by which some voices rise above the clamour instead of adding to the din themselves? Did he mean there were no measured voices online?

It sounded like Shenton was out to provoke a debate and when I said as much on Twitter, he responded:

So maybe I was getting the wrong end of the stick, even though Shenton’s post continues in much the same way, suggesting that “online no one seems to have grown up” (how?) and that there are “online vultures … circling overhead ready to feast on the latest theatrical carcass”. How this is different to theatrical gossip of old, he does not say. 

Neither does he say whether Megan Vaughan’s blog comments about, which he quotes apparently approvingly, are an example of the polarised online commentary he dislikes or the “calming, unruffled perspective” he craves.

There’s good reason for the ambiguity. The problem with the anti-internet argument is in the supporting evidence. There are too many examples of brilliant online criticism and poor quality print reviewing to make anything but the woolliest of generalisations. There simply isn’t the statistical evidence to suggest that one form of publication is either more polarised or more measured than the other. In fact, right now, if you wanted to find the kind of thoughtful in-depth commentary once the province of specialist theatrical journals, you would almost certainly go online.

This is not to say, however, that Shenton’s fears are without foundation. As a professional critic myself, I have much sympathy for his championing of “a properly edited publication offering vetted, commissioned reviewing”. That seems to me to be the most secure way of ensuring long-term standards and helping one generation learn from the last.

I’ve also got a lot of time for the views expressed by Wendy Rosenfield a couple of weeks ago in a Broad Street Review article asking Does a review that no one paid for have value? The de-professionalisation of theatre criticism, she argued, risked undermining the whole business:

in the macro sense, something tangible does get lost: credibility, for the person and the profession. By literally devaluing critics’ work, or through ignorance arising out of the far-flung and isolated nature of online writing, a profession becomes a hobby. If no one is paying you for what you’re creating, whether in a knitting circle or on the Huffington Post, who’s to say you’re doing it wrong? 

I recommend spending time reading not only her article and the fascinating commentary beneath it, but also Christopher Munden’s response under the title Does an analysis by a privileged journalist have value? in which he challenges Rosenfield’s claim to the ethical high ground. Again, there are many lucidly expressed opinions on both sides of the argument beneath his piece. It’s quality stuff. 

If this is internet noise give me more of it.

I won’t rehearse all of those arguments again here, but I will offer one other way of thinking about the question. If we can’t agree over what’s in the best interests of journalism, perhaps we can find common ground over what’s in the best interests of theatre. On the one hand, the more people who are engaging in discussion, whether as writers or readers, the better it is for the theatre industry. It strikes me as self-evident that every text, every social media comment, every blog review, makes theatre seem a thing worth talking about and a thing worth seeing.

On the other hand, there is a widely accepted belief that professionalisation benefits everyone. We assume playwrights, actors, press officers, directors, designers and all the rest will be paid. We also assume plumbers, heating engineers, caterers and electrical suppliers who maintain the theatre building will be properly remunerated. We assume this because it is fair to pay people for their labour and because it guarantees a professional attitude to the job. 

Is there a case to think of theatre criticism in a different way? I’m biased, but I don’t think there is. If the activity has value, shouldn’t we be doing what we can to ensure that value is maintained? We needn’t distract ourselves with arguments about noisiness or ethics – that ground is too shaky; instead, we can make the case that valuable labour deserves to be paid for. I’ve talked about some of the ways that may happen in previous blogs such as Should theatres employ theatre critics?, but for now let’s leave with a couple of thoughts from Australian critic Jane Howard:

A better class of theatre criticism

“ACCENTUATE the positive,” sang Johnny Mercer. He further recommended that we “eliminate the negative”. And for good measure, he proposed we should “latch on to the affirmative”. This probably wasn’t what he had in mind, but as philosophies go, it’s the best we have when it comes to the future of theatre criticism. 

For many, this isn’t easy. Old-guard critics are forever bemoaning the state of the newspaper industry. They have good reason: the landscape has changed out of recognition since most entered the profession. For journalists, these are precarious times. But that doesn’t mean there’s no future for criticism. 

What it means is that it will look different (is already looking different) from what we knew in the past. And it’s those who are latching on to the affirmative and making positive steps to envisage the future to whom we should pay attention.

That’s one of the reasons I was delighted to pay a visit to the Theatre Royal Winchester this weekend. That’s where the dynamic education officer Carl Woodward has been running a Young Critics programme. Thanks to his dedication, this scheme has not only been attracting a stellar line-up of speakers (the eight-session autumn run includes Michael Billington, Maddy Costa and Lyn Gardner), but has also been arousing the interest of other theatres. 

The Mayflower, Southampton was quick off the mark in supporting the scheme with an offer of press tickets for the participants. Now Woodward has a long list of enquiries on his to-do list from companies across the southwest who want to know more.

What’s going on in Winchester is a positive reaction to a changing world. If coverage is declining, if standards are dropping, if it’s getting harder for theatre to be taken seriously, then what’s to be done about it? 

The answers are manifold and there are examples of affirmative action popping up all over the place. There’s Hall for Cornwall shouldering the cost of paying critics; there’s Mike Smith whose Wales Critics Fund aims to “help existing and new reviewers, enable more reviewing and broaden the base of critical writing”; there’s Karen Fricker’s criticism class at Brock University which this summer has extended into out-of-hours coverage of Ontario theatre on the Dart Critics site; and there’s the Young Critics programme run by the National Association for Youth Drama in Ireland which encourages youth theatre members to develop an “awareness and appreciation of the aesthetic of theatre”. 

Meanwhile in Winchester, around ten 18-25 year olds have been hearing from established critics and putting their lessons into practice in their own reviews, the best of which are being published in the Big Issue

Here are the thoughts of one participant after yesterday’s final session:

When I met them yesterday, Caitlin and her fellow young critics agreed they were keen to continue reviewing even as they acknowledged criticism would most likely be something that sat alongside their other work. That in itself should be no surprise: the number of people who have ever made a living exclusively from theatre criticism is very small, just a handful of people in a few metropolitan centres at any one time. What’s heartening is that these young critics are engaged with the idea of writing about theatre in a way that attempts to do justice to a complex artform. 

Yesterday, our conversation ranged across topics such as how to capture the detail of an actor’s performance; how to treat amdram productions sensitively: how to develop an understanding of the craft of theatremaking; and how to decide how much of yourself to reveal in a review. There are many more questions where they came from. 

And, as long as people keep accentuating the positive, as these various schemes have been doing, we’ll keep getting answers that point the way forward. We’ll also keep getting reviews as imaginative as this one by Megan Vaughan, which came up in our Winchester conversation. It’s an example of a critic using the medium of the internet to write in a way that simply wasn’t possible only a few years ago. That’s proper positive thinking.

Independent theatre criticism or payola?

WE’RE CREATURES of habit. When we hear of something being done differently, our knee-jerk reaction is to condemn it. It’s certainly hard not to respond that way to a scheme by Los Angeles website Bitter Lemons to charge theatre companies for the privilege of being reviewed. If you’re putting on a play and you’d like it to be covered by one of the site’s high-calibre reviewers, it’ll set you back $150.

For the past couple of centuries it’s never been done like that. What we’re familiar with is a system where publishers not theatres pay for reviews. This has several advantages. If the critic’s loyalty is to the publication not the theatre, it’s more likely their judgement will be independent and impartial. And if a review is directed to the reader not the theatremakers, it’s more likely to tell it like it is.

The system is imperfect (critics are rarely as neutral as they’d like to make out and publications can have agendas of their own) but it’s worked reasonably well. 

Until now, that is. Thanks to the open-access nature of the internet and the contraction of print journalism, we’re living at a time when many critics are not paid by anybody. For those who regard criticism as a profession and not a hobby, it is becoming increasingly hard to see how to earn a living from it. That’s where the Bitter Lemons idea comes from. In the absence of money from publishers or readers, the website has turned to the theatres themselves for revenue. As the website put it:

Simply put, if a producer or a theater company wants their show reviewed, they can get it reviewed, guaranteed, but it will cost them $150 per review and that review will be originally published at Bitter Lemons.

A couple of days ago, it even claimed to be having a degree of success:

On the eve of opening night for previews at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Bitter Lemons has over 30 exclusive Bitter Lemons Reviews ordered and purchased – that’s right pre-purchased – and those top quality works of theater criticism will be rolling out over the next couple of weeks. You’ll be able to see them all in our Bitter Lemons Reviews section here.
We offered a deeply discounted 50% off our regular price of $150 just because we love the Fringe community so much and understand how important it is for them to get quality coverage from a truly experienced, savvy, historian of the ephemeral arts, plus we saw this as the perfect opportunity to introduce the Los Angeles Theater Community to our new business model for theater criticism.

In the thread beneath this article you’ll see how editor Colin Mitchell has been dealing with accusations that this is a “bonehead move” that amounts to “payola”. It has been criticised in greater depth on the Parabasis blog and by Howard Sherman who said:

But linking coverage to cash on the barrelhead smacks too much of payola, of pay for play, even if it’s out in the open. I think it can only serve to diminish the site’s credibility, and may well, in the long run, result in a diminished Bitter Lemons, which would be a shame. After all, can this model hold up if paying companies start receiving blistering pans, or simply indifference?

These are valid concerns and the proof will be how the scheme plays out in practice. I’d suggest, though, that the ethical concerns are not the greatest problem. If the writers remains true to their existing standards and the theatre companies really do roll with the punches, I can imagine it working – at least in theory. I can foresee another problem about how theatre companies would choose to allocate their review funds ($150 would get them only one review and I imagine they’d want more than that), but maybe they’d find a solution to that as well.

What concerns me more about the Bitter Lemons scheme is that it favours only those companies that can pay. The question would be less about what the site published than what it didn’t publish. At the moment, if you buy a newspaper or alight on any other theatre blog, you can read the reviews in the reasonable belief that someone thought the shows were interesting enough to write about. A pay-per-review scheme means being interesting is no longer the main criterion. What counts is a company’s ability or willingness to come up with the dosh.

That would be good neither for the website itself nor for the theatre ecology as a whole. If a producer chose not to pay, it would be as if their show never existed. The website would be imbalanced, readers would be left in the dark and worthwhile artists would be excluded from the critical discussion.

We can only watch what happens, but it seems to me that while the impulse to raise money from a different source is an understandable one, Bitter Lemons is not looking in quite the right place. 

If theatremakers and audiences believe in the value of criticism – and if they agree that valuable things should be paid for – then we need to find sources of funding that have fewer strings attached. I’m thinking about arts councils, charitable trusts, universities, theatre federations or other organisations, such as Hall for Cornwall in Truro, that have an understanding of the bigger picture and a belief in editorial independence. These alternatives could still lead to ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest, but then so does the existing system, and in an era of declining newspaper revenues, they seem to offer a more likely future for the professional critic.

Critics on criticism: audio and video

IS IT POSSIBLE to separate the form of a production from its content? Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss doesn’t think so. In the question-and-answer session after her address to the 2015 conference of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), she was asked whether she was guilty of reviewing a show’s political issue rather than the show itself. 

Her reply to the New Orleans audience was succinct: “The content and the production are one. You don’t separate the meaning of the show from the style of the show.”

I think she’s right. As I wrote in my last blog:  

You wouldn’t ask a critic to suspend their judgements about aesthetics or technical achievement, so why demand that they should deny their political perspective? I’m not convinced that’s even possible, but even if it was, to mute your political reaction would itself be a political act. 

Other topics covered by Weiss include the problem of being remembered only for the controversies (she lists five of them) and the importance of editors being engaged in the arts. You can hear her full session here:

While I’m in an audio-visual mood, there are plenty more conversations with critics to be catching up with. This year at the Theatre Royal Winchester, a group of Young Critics have been privy to the insights of experienced critics at a series of masterclasses. So far, they’ve had visits from Lyn Gardner of the Guardian, Mark Shenton of the Stage, Megan Vaughan of Synonyms for Churlish, Tim Walker formerly of the Sunday Telegraph and several others. I’ll be there myself before long – as will the talented critics listed here

You can listen to the best bits online, starting with this sequence of short podcasts featuring Jake Orr of A Younger Theatre and Lyn Gardner:

There is also loads of material you can catch up with from The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age: A Colloquium at Brock University, St Catharines, Ontario in 2014, including this 14-minute collection of highlights:

Finally, here I am with Andrew Dickson talking about theatre criticism at a conference about Adapting, Performing & Reviewing Shakespearean Comedy in a European Context last summer:

In praise of bias

THIS TIME last month, Marathon, a dance piece choreographed by Aharona Israel, showed up in Toronto. It was presented as part of a season called Spotlight on Israeli Culture and, as the programme blurb went, was about three people “revealing the wounds of contemporary Israeli society”. 

Writing for the Globe and Mail, dance critic Martha Schabas took issue with the production on two levels. One was the quality of the choreography, which she thought “could have been stronger”; the other was the political implications of “an egregiously one-sided view of Israel’s wounds”. In her opinion, “even the privileged perspective gets shallow treatment”. She went on to argue that a play billed as exploring “the depths of Israeli consciousness” made “a rather charged statement in what it chooses to omit”.

Compared with the reception Israeli companies have been given elsewhere in the world, this was a measured argument. Last year on the Edinburgh Fringe, Jerusalem’s Incubator Theatre had to cancel the entire run of The City when the presence of 150 peaceful protestors outside the venue proved too disruptive. In 2012, performances by Batsheva Dance Company in the Edinburgh International Festival were repeatedly interrupted by pro-Palestinian campaigners shouting from the auditorium. 

There was no suggestion of anything so censorious in Schabas’s review – just a calm, clearly stated expression of her point of view.

Nonetheless, the Globe and Mail received a complaint that suggested her review was “politically biased”. A reader had seen her make “anti-Israeli comments on Twitter and asked if someone so disposed should have been given the assignment in the first place”. 

Taking such matters seriously, the newspaper investigated the claim and ran a Public Editor piece outlining the editorial process from the point when the review was commissioned to the time it was published. Schabas had made no secret of her political viewpoint, the article explained, and her editor had run the first draft of her review past another editor with expertise on Middle East politics. The article concluded that “the writer’s point of view is clear in reading the review”.

But there’s an aspect that troubles me in the newspaper’s response (and not just the contentious assertion that “I don’t think you could describe most dance productions as political” – really ?) 

“In general,” it said, “it is better to avoid a potential conflict.” 

It went on to allude to the impartial standards expected of its news reporters and concluded that “the writer should temper her comments” now she was writing for the paper

But what is the alternative to a critic with strong opinions? Would it have been less contentious for a pro-Israeli critic to have reviewed the show? Would a critic who was neutral on the Arab-Israeli conflict have offered any greater insight? In what way would the opinions of those critics have been preferable? Why would one political bias be better than another?

My point is not to argue one side or the other about Israel and Palestine. I have my own opinions, but this is a heated issue and, clearly, people have a range of equally passionate views. 

What I am arguing is that no critic, pro, anti or on the fence, writes from a politically neutral position. Schabas’s opinions may be more apparent because they are in opposition to what she regarded as the implicit values of the production, but that doesn’t make anyone else’s opinions any less contentious. 

Supporting the status quo is as much a political statement as challenging it. The issue is more evident in the highly charged arena of Middle East politics, but the same applies to everything a critic sees. To a greater or lesser extent, all plays are political (the Globe is quite wrong to suggest otherwise) and all critics have political opinions. There’s no such thing as a neutral critic.

I think Philadelphia Inquirer critic Wendy Rosenfield would agree with me on this last statement, but a couple of weeks ago, the two of us fell into a Twitter exchange about the way in which Schabas expressed her argument. Rosenfield, who happens to sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Schabas when it comes to the Middle East, believes it is incumbent upon any critic to be upfront about their biases.

Note that Rosenfield was not arguing that critics shouldn’t be biased (which is the troubling subtext of the Globe and Mail editorial) but that they should declare their bias. If a reader is going to make sense of a critic’s argument, they need to understand where the critic is coming from. She gave an example of her own: 

I think this is right. It reminds me of what Andy Horwitz has said about a type of writing that demands a “critic acknowledge their subjectivity and prejudices, be transparent about their relationships“. As far as criticism is concerned, objectivity is an illusion. 

To move for a moment into less contentious territory, here is Charles Spencer making his bias apparent in a Daily Telegraph review of The Light Princess, with music and lyrics by Tori Amos, at London’s National Theatre:

Even as a child I loathed fairy stories and my view hasn’t changed in middle-age. More often than not they are creepy, cruel or pretentious, and often they manage to be all three at once.

Nevertheless I approached this musical, which has been six years in the making, with high hopes.

The honesty of this approach gave the reader a helpful perspective. Someone who loved fairy tales and hated Tori Amos would not expect to come to the same conclusions as the critic, but because Spencer had declared his bias, they could make allowances for that. By writing clearly and honestly, Spencer made his presence felt in the review, but also made space for the reader.

But back with Marathon, there is a view held by some that even to express a political viewpoint in a review is some kind of violation. Here’s a tweet I received from Gerald M Steinberg, a professor teaching in the department of political studies at Bar Ilan University:

And if you read the comments beneath the Globe and Mail’s Public Editor article, you’ll see this from Alana Ronald:

As a former dance writer I can safely say that personal politics have no place in a dance review. It’s quite simple when one realizes that one’s job is to critique a performance, , rather than cynically use the opportunity to propagandize, or indulge in polemics.

Both of these claims are meaningless to me. You wouldn’t ask a critic to suspend their judgements about aesthetics or technical achievement, so why demand that they should deny their political perspective? I’m not convinced that’s even possible, but even if it was, to mute your political reaction would itself be a political act. 

Consider an example we could all agree on. Let’s say a theatremaker put on a show that argued that women should never have been given the vote and everything had gone down hill since the suffragettes. Would we really expect a critic to keep quiet about their “personal politics”, to use only their “professional qualifications”, to simply accept what the theatremaker was saying and to comment only on the quality of the acting? 

Of course we wouldn’t. We expect critics to question a production’s ideas and assumptions with the same rigour – and, yes, the same bias – as they would apply to every aspect. Politics isn’t an optional add-on. It’s fundamental to who we are.

So I find it hard not to conclude that those objecting to Schabas’s review are not against expressing political opinions in general. What they’re against, it seems to me, is expressing these particular political opinions. By suggesting Schabas has a hidden agenda (and, by implication, that Aharona Israel and her dancers somehow have no agenda) is a way of questioning the critic’s credibility and undermining her arguments. 

But we all have agendas and to pretend otherwise is futile.

The question remains about whether, in this particular instance, Schabas was sneaking an illicit agenda, Trojan horse-like, into her review. The Globe and Mail concluded that she wasn’t and, personally, I’m not sure what form of words she could have used that would have made her political perspective any clearer. I can’t see how any reader could have been misled into thinking the review constituted an absolute truth rather than the expression of one person’s opinion. It’s reasonable to assume that everyone in the audience had an opinion about Middle East politics, so why not her?

I’ll sign off with some excellent words from Rosenfield herself. Writing last year in the Broad Street Review, she made the case that it is irresponsible for critics not to take into account the world in which a production exists. It strikes me this is exactly what Schabas was doing and, I would argue, the real reason behind the complaints:

Some critics don’t concern themselves with diversity or context, sticking to the subject before them. This is its own form of injustice as well as an abandonment of the critic’s role; to see exclusionary practices and not comment on them is to perpetuate them, but also, to pretend a show exists in a cultural vacuum does a disservice to the role of art. 

Should theatres employ critics?

EVER since the first reviews appeared in the Gentleman’s Journal in the 1690s, we have accepted the idea that theatre criticism is a branch of journalism. In the English-speaking world, critics are responsible to their editors and, through them, their readers. Technically, they need have no loyalty to the theatre at all, except to the extent that it provides them with raw material. 

In reality, the picture is more complicated (it would be a rare critic who felt no emotional attachment to the artform), but the fundamental relationship stands: critics earn their money from newspapers not theatres.

But at the start of the 21st century, it feels as if that relationship is changing. Newspapers are undergoing a sometimes painful transition to the internet and, as I discussed previously, are more likely to be firing critics than hiring them. As a consequence, the theatre industry is realising it can’t take criticism for granted.

Until recently, it was possible to regard a theatre critic in much the way 
Riggan Thomson views Tabitha Dickinson in Birdman: as an irritant hell-bent on destruction, a cultural misanthrope trying to spoil everyone’s fun. If, however, there were a possibility of ending up with no critics at all (or, at least, none operating in the way they once did), theatremakers could start feeling bereft. For without critics, there would be no discussion of their work and, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

That’s why it was heartening to be invited to Truro this week for the launch of Hall for Cornwall‘s New Reviewers programme. In an attempt to do something about the critical deficit, the organisation is recruiting six freelance theatre critics – and will pick up the tab for their work. 

It was heartening too to see 25 would-be reviewers at Thursday’s event. No shortage of critically engaged audiences here. After filing reviews of Gecko’s Institute, which played at the Hall for Cornwall at the weekend, they will be whittled down to the final six in the next couple of weeks or so.

Institute by Gecko Pic: Richard Haughton

The scale is modest – we’re only talking about three reviews each over the coming year, no more than 18 reviews in total. But money will change hands (they will be paid £75 per time to cover their writing and expenses) and the scheme could get bigger if it proves successful. It could turn out to be an important staging post en route to a new way of supporting criticism. 

As Ciaran Clarke argued in an excellent blog post on the theme of “Cornwall, criticism and complacency”, the county has a “huge number of theatre companies” but, in his opinion, a shortage of honest criticism. The New Reviewers scheme, enthusiastically supported by Lee Trewhela, the leisure editor of the West Briton, the Cornish Guardian and the Cornishman, is designed to make such critical honesty more possible.

On the day after the launch, I sat down with Michael White, head of arts development, and Kirsty Cotton, talent development manager, and asked them what their thinking was.

Michael White: In October 2013, we merged with a development agency and created the arts development department here. We’ve been consulting artists and people in the cultural sector about what’s happened before and how things might look different. New Reviewers is part of a wider programme involving professional development, artist residencies, collaborations and so on. We’re not a producing organisation, but we can invest in the artists which can feed back into the organisation and the sector as a whole.
Kirsty Cotton: Obviously there is a financial implication for the New Reviewers strand, but the main commitment for us is the thought process that went behind it and understanding why it’s right for the community. It’s all part of an integrated direction.
Michael: In Cornwall, there’s no such thing as press nights and no such thing as previews. The show goes out on the road and, eventually, the local press might go and review it. The New Reviewers scheme increases the amount of dialogue – and rigorous dialogue is the one thing that is lacking. The practitioners have all said they’d like to have a grown-up discussion about their work. A lot of the work is really good, but the discussion needs to move on. We’re not creating journalism, we’re creating the debate.

The stereotypical view of critics is that they are the enemy. A lot of the theatre profession, for good self-preservation reasons, choose to shun criticism altogether. But you’re doing the opposite of that.
Michael: I think the worst thing you can say to someone is, “Well done, you’ve put a play on.” We’re creating a dialogue about the quality of the work.

This has also been made possible by the internet.
Michael: Yes, we have a cultural community site where you can put postings up about opportunities and your touring work. The work of the New Reviewers will be seen through blogging. We have a region-wide remit, which goes from Bude right down to Land’s End and Penzance, and we hope the networking on the website and the different voices coming in will create more of a sense of identity for Cornwall. 

The one thing newspapers can do is edit . . .
Michael: We’ll be exercising that edit through the website. People are free to post what they want, but there are standards about how to behave and I do have the ability to take stuff out. If there was a review that slated something for the sake of it, I think we would talk to the reviewer about it before posting it.
Kirsty: I was arguing last night that the reviews should be balanced, but Benjamin Symes, the artistic director of Cube Essential Theatre, was saying that “considered” would define it better. He wants the reviewer to have really thought about what they’re saying. The people we take onto the programme will have demonstrated that they can be considered in their writing. We’ll be trying to identify those people who can connect with a readership but also offer that considered response.

Theatres have to decide whether to allow negative comments on their websites. What do you think?
Michael: I believe you should because that’s where the debates start to get interesting. You can learn a lot about what you’re doing. The more difficult a piece is, the more interesting the debate around it, compared with a show that plays it safe and tries not to push the audience in any way.
Kirsty: Without risk there’s no growth.

What next?
Michael: We’ve just applied for funding for a young reviewers programme, focusing on a particular area in Penzance. If we get the support, we would be working with 400 students in primary and secondary schools and getting them to review shows. It’s setting off those little sparks that allow people to talk to each other.
Kirsty: We’re starting with theatre, but actually it applies more widely. It’s about people having the tools to debate and discuss everything.

Good looking actors and voyeuristic critics

IS IT legitimate for a theatre critic to write about an actor’s body? That was the provocation laid down by freelance casting director Annelie Powell on Twitter this weekend.

It’s worth taking a look at her Twitter feed to see how people responded. It’s an interesting discussion.

You can see why it is an issue. As Powell added herself:

At the start of the 21st century, we’re all very sensitive about the question of body image. Whether it’s a matter of skin colour, disability, gender, age, size or weight, the arguments are repeatedly made that we should accept people on their own merits and not on their appearance. To do otherwise would be prejudicial. In public life, this is the principle we try to operate by.

Should the same apply to theatre? The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that critics should not judge performances on the basis of their prejudices. No, in the sense that everything on stage contributes to the production’s meaning and is all potential material for the critic’s argument. That includes what the actors look like.

When Maxine Peake played Hamlet at the Manchester Royal Exchange last year (see main picture), it would have benefited nobody if a critic had dismissed the production on the basis that Hamlet “should” be played by a man. Equally, it would have been odd for a critic not to mention that Peake was a woman. Her casting was part of the production’s meaning. I didn’t see that show, but if I had, part of my job would have been to analyse the implications of that casting.

Imagine a production of Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy in which a portly actor was cast as Stan and a skinny actor was cast as Ollie. Or a production of King Lear in which Lear was played by a 25 year old and his three daughters by women in their 60s. Those would be legitimate (if eccentric) directorial choices, which any critic would want to engage with. But you couldn’t do that without reference to the age and physique of the actors. Although the actors have no control over those attributes, they can’t escape them either. 

To stick with Powell’s analogy of a job interview, the critic would assess how well the actors dealt with the challenge (“Despite being 65, Cordelia has a youthful lightness of touch”), and would give them credit for what they achieved through their own resourcefulness. Unlike a job interview, however, the critic couldn’t deny it was a challenge in the first place. In many cases, not to refer to the actors’ physicality would be to miss the point. 

So to answer Powell’s initial question, I would say yes, it is sometimes necessary to comment on an actor’s physical appearance. But I suspect what she’s getting at is something else. This would be to comment on an actor’s physical appearance in a way that offered no insight into the production’s meaning, no view of how the actor was using their unique physicality, and told you only about the critic’s predilections. 

You can see why this happens. Theatre is a voyeuristic artform in which one group of people sit in the dark observing another lot of people. To pretend that isn’t the case, to act like you don’t have an emotional reaction to these bodies in front of you, is to betray something of theatre’s essential quality. On the other hand, if you write like a voyeur, you’re likely to give a warped view of the event.

In the 19th century, this was commonplace. Male theatre critics would frequently comment on how attractive they found the female leads, irrespective of the parts they were playing. Today, such writing is widespread in magazines and websites that discuss Hollywood celebrities, but thankfully more rare in theatre criticism. The theatre critic of recent times most likely to share his opinions about physical beauty was John Simon, whose cruel description of Diana Rigg as being “built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses” prompted her, after she’d recovered from the insult, to compile No Turn Unstoned, an anthology of bad reviews.

You can make up your own mind about Simon’s defence in this interview which he gave to Kalina Stefanova-Peteva in Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?:

We need beauty in the theater. An actress who is genuinely talented but not beautiful should definitely do what she’s doing. However, if she were also beautiful it would be a plus. And I would print such a statement, as almost no other critic would . . . Of course, it’s even more wonderful if the actress makes you forget that she’s not beautiful, if a plain woman can make you believe that she’s beautiful with her acting. I’ll kiss her feet for such an accomplishment. But it doesn’t happen very often . . . I don’t see why one shouldn’t be praised for being beautiful if one can be praised for being intelligent. Intelligence is just as much of an unearned miracle as beauty.

Why Birdman’s Tabitha tells us more about actors than critics

THERE has been a lot of good stuff written about the fictional Tabitha Dickinson in the Alejandro Iñárittu movie Birdman. Played by an icy Lindsay Duncan, she is the New York Times critic who threatens to derail a fictional Broadway show. In a city where one newspaper counts above all others, everything depends on her opinion. This adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stands to live or die on her say-so.

Theatre critics are naturally curious to see how their kind are regarded by others and have been paying close attention to Birdman. When the film was released in the USA, the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones argued that Tabitha was merely the latest in a long line of fictional critics who exist to serve two narrative purposes. One, he said, is “to render a verdict so the plot actually can end” and the other is:

to serve as a convenient antagonist. And that means that if the artist is to be a lovable if flawed soul, then the critic has to embody such qualities as imperviousness, dismissiveness, cruelty, defensiveness, callousness, conservatism, ignorance, and, in the case of Tabitha in “Birdman,” being as she has apparently decided on a lousy review in advance, evil incarnate.

Today, Matt Trueman has weighed in, pointing out in his inaugural column for What’s On Stage that the arguments made against Tabitha by the fictional lead actors, played by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, don’t hold water. Just because a critic has less at stake than an actor, he argues, doesn’t mean there is no risk in writing a review:

Good criticism always costs the critic something – or at least, it should. It involves risk: not as much as making theatre, sure, but risk nonetheless.

This is all on the nail and, while we’re righting wrongs, I’d like to think Jones and Trueman will join with me in taking issue with Gustave Flaubert. He’s a big name, to be sure, but the French novelist, whom Norton’s character quotes in the film, surely got it wrong when he said “a man is a critic when he cannot be an artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” 

This is one of those statements people are prone to making about critics that sounds persuasive until you think it through. What Flaubert says is possible, of course. Someone could become an informer having failed to be a soldier. But there’s no reason this should be true in all cases. Is every informer a failed soldier? Some might be, but why all of them? Maybe they had no interest in the military life and just wanted to give secrets to the other side. Maybe informing is what they always wanted to do. Is that so hard to imagine?

Likewise, there are many critics who have no interest in being artists. The thing they most wanted to be was a critic. Others still are happy to do both. Many switch between the roles of artist and critic throughout their lives. It’s not a competition – they’re just different jobs.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

This kind of idea about criticism persists, as do some peculiar notions about critics themselves. Tabitha is no exception. Some things about her are believable. It’s perfectly possible, for example, to imagine a theatre critic distrusting a movie star who tried to stage a Broadway show. You could also accept she felt personally responsible for protecting the art of the theatre. What is not credible is that this critic would carry such a degree of hatred of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson that she would decide to pan his show even before she saw it. And even if that were the case, there is absolutely no way she would admit to it in public. To do so would be career suicide.

But we needn’t dwell on this. It’s an excellent film but it’s not without its unlikely moments. Like the press conference that takes place in a dressing room and the preview performance that’s treated like a rehearsal, Tabitha’s excessive animosity is a detail we accept because it serves the forward momentum of the plot.

Besides, it seems to me that Lindsay Duncan’s character is not in the movie to comment on critics. She’s there to reflect on the actors. Before we meet her, they tell us she is an “old bat” who looks “like she licked a homeless guy’s arse”. These opinions tell you more about the defensiveness of an insecure theatre profession (the major theme of the film) than they do about the critic. Tabitha is just a catalyst for what happens to them.

In their encounters with her, both of the actors come out looking ridiculous. It is true she remains glacial and aloof, but given she is accosted in a bar by two rather needy and aggressive men, she is actually pretty restrained. 

They, on the hand, are desperate for her approval. What they fear is not her, but her rejection. 

The film doesn’t take her side, but neither does it suggest she does badly by the skirmish. It’s not interested in that. What she’s there for is to show up the actors. Thus, when she finally chooses to write a rave review – “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” – it is to amplify the movie’s Chekhovian sense of pathos. Birdman doesn’t need Tabitha to be a complex or credible character; what it needs is for Riggan, like someone out of Uncle Vanya, to be unable to enjoy the moment of critical glory she gives him. As far as the film is concerned, she has done her job, even if it isn’t any kind of job I recognise.