In my defence

Yesterday, I published an article by the wonderful Imogen Clare-Wood which discussed the ethics of student theatre criticism. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with a vast amount of what she says, and hope this post will set out a decent counter-argument.

Firstly, I’d like to point out that there are a few points of Imogen’s which I agree on. Most importantly is her assertion that “there is no such thing as a definite opinion”. The debate which theatre causes is one of its best assets. The immediacy of watching a live show with a thousand other people sparks something inside us which forces us to question and argue about topics raised in the respective texts. Our brain is engaged, our intellect challenged, and what we believe about that show we will fight to the hilt to be heard. And at the same time, we respect each individual reaction which our fellow playgoers have; if their opinion wasn’t different from our own, then what we believe wouldn’t be as unique.

I must also agree that the phrase with which I signed off my first review (which I shan’t repeat here for fear of further embarrassment, but which you can find elsewhere on my blog) was somewhat misguided and sounded ridiculous. In my defence, I was trying to find something pithy to round off my first review of the festival, but in the end it came out as pure comedy. It’s also worth acknowledging that Imogen’s description of me (“a Pater Pan-esque figure (complete with enormous grim and hair with a life of its own) – disarmingly boyish and with a belly laugh to put a hyena to shame”) is fairly accurate, and one which I am rather proud of. This, however, is where our agreement ends.

Many people at this year’s NSDF took issue with what they felt to be “overly nit-picky criticism”, with audiences looking “for a reason to fault rather than praise the productions they see”. Now, I would never condone being nit-picky and critical just for the sake of it, but as I mentioned in a previous post, there is beauty to be found in detail. A production could have the most extraordinary overall vision and huge production values, but if the details are not taken care of then no one will believe in the world created on stage. All we are is a vast collection of minutiae, built up to create a cohesive whole. Getting these details right in performance is the difference between a good and a superb production.

It’s untrue that audiences at NSDF go into a theatre looking to fault a production. I, for one, hope every time I enter a theatre that what I’m about to see will blow me away and change my life. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to be critical; high expectations mean we are undoubtedly going to be disappointed, but by looking at what’s right with a production rather than what’s wrong with it, we are actually doing practitioners a disservice. Being praise-loving, attention-seeking theatre people, we hang on to every bit of praise like a baby to a rattle, and can become blinkered to what’s at fault with our work. I’m not trying to take the moral high ground here, but highlighting these issues means directors will constantly strive to improve their work. As the next generation, we cannot afford to become complacent.

Lack of clarity is one of the worst sins in theatre. Now, that’s not to say that a production can’t be absurd or confusing (our world is, after all), but it should always be clear what the director’s intention is. A clear cohesive vision should be palpable, and an audience should be utterly convinced that what they are seeing is the product of hours of thought and that every choice made has been decided for a reason. There were many directors at Scarborough last week who weren’t able to justify their choices in discussions, merely implying that it “looked good” or “felt right”. Criticism will force these productions and their creative teams to consider the reasoning behind their methods, hopefully improving their technique (I know this isn’t the role of criticism – that’s another topic altogether – but at a student theatre festival, where we all learn from each other, it seems to be a fair point to make).

Imogen continues “there seems to be a tendency to take things too seriously [at Noises Off] and writers representing themselves as too professional”, taking issue with the fact I refuse to use terms such as “in my opinion” and “personally” in my reviews. But if the cast and crew of the shows at the Festival are allowed to act professionally, then why aren’t the critics? Yes, NSDF is a celebration of student theatre, but at the same time it is a place to learn and to try our hand at being in a ‘professional’ setting for a week. If we fail to give an impression of professionalism, and go around giving each other hugs, beaming and lying “I loved it dah-ling”, then we run the risk of being termed as ‘luvvies’ and the arts will continue to be seen as a soft target. Pretending to be professional is not a bad thing; it forces us to think seriously about something. If we only ever stuck to our job descriptions, we wouldn’t put up shelves or cook for a dinner party – we try to do these things to the best of our ability whilst acknowledging a lack of experience and the fact we’re not professionals. Everyone at the Festival knows that the critics writing for NOFF are students and are merely offering up their opinion. Phrases like “in my opinion” are utterly unnecessary when the writer’s name is printed at the top of the page. Using these words can make a review fluffy and less readable, and anyone who isn’t able to understand that the words written are not bonafide truth but the opinion of the writer should perhaps reconsider their ability to create art. I would never pretend I’m a “theatrical deity”, but if a review is stated as personal opinion, it moves out of the realm of journalism and instead becomes a diary entry. I am always willing to talk to practitioners about their work and my opinion, and in fact did so a lot throughout the week.

There was a lot of discussion this week about the “competitive” attitude many people at the festival felt. This cannot be ascribed to Noises Off and its contributors. It is the result of having a bag of awards to hand out at the end of the week. I don’t deny that these shows and performances deserve recognition, but forcing shows to pit their wills against each other does seem at times to be counter-productive. At one point, a friend of mine overheard company members coming out of a show sneering “we’ve got this in the bag”; if people are coming to the festival with the sole aim of winning awards, then they are there for the wrong reasons (I think we can all agree on that). It’s also worth noting that most of the people who write for Noises Off are not involved with shows at the festival, but are merely there to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the theatre on show. For this reason, they aren’t concerned about awards and are able to represent views which aren’t concerned with making certain shows look good. That said, however, company members should not be deterred from writing for the magazine simply because they have vested interest – if anything, that makes their opinion more valid. The only reason someone shouldn’t write for Noises Off is if they don’t believe what they write or if they’re not willing to put their name to it.

I am fully aware that in the past 1000+ words I’ve given an impression of me as an opinionated, obnoxious, argumentative prick who can’t just let something be. And you’d be right. But these debates are important. The theatrical world is ever changing and always alive; without difference in opinion it becomes stale and elitist. I know I’m repeating myself, but we must not become complacent. As the next generation of theatre practitioners, we should constantly challenge each other’s work, open our eyes to new ways of doing things and talk about how we do that. The arts are an important and vital part of society, but if we celebrate everything, good or bad, it will seem like we’re becoming self-congratulatory and damn right incestuous (an apt word to use in a discussion about NSDF). If everyone involved at NSDF went home thinking they’d done the best they could and were brilliant, we’d be leading ourselves into a sorry state of affairs. Let’s enjoy each other’s work, yes, but being positive just for the sake of it is perhaps more damaging than the supposed mindless negativity Imogen’s article rallies against.

One thought on “In my defence”

  1. As an Editor of Noises Off, a professional theatre practictioner, and the person who was specifically called “nit-picky” in the discussion in question I’d like to also add a couple of things.

    When coaching writers for Noises Off (we can’t reach them all, especially as it gets crowded at 1am, but we try) I always try to focus their reviews around what’s helpful for a) the audience members to re-contextualise their own experience in the light of others and b) the company so they might see their own work through new eyes.

    The purpose of “professional” criticism (whether actual, pretended, or the grey area of the blogosphere) is to talk to audiences who haven’t seen a show yet. But might.

    Where Noises Off criticism and professional criticism cross over is the idea of leaving a legacy of intangiable experience. Theatre is an ephemeral art, and apart from the programme and posters the only way we can relive the experience hundreds of years on is by reading past reviews.

    That is why theatre criticism is all about capturing the experience, that experience all the more clearly defined for being subjective and biased, for current and future generations. We want to know if we’re missing out on now, and what we missed out on before.

    That’s one of many excellent reasons for Noises Off existing. Student theatre is the most thinly-viewed type of a thinly-viewed artform. Only the NSDF saw those shows, only Noises Off will remember them to someone else in 80 years.

    The differences between Noises Off and professonal arts journalism are evident in our wonky text boxes, in-jokes, overlooked misspellings, and indeed forgotten articles or somambulous reviewers. But the most important difference – and the reason I continue to work for the magazine despite being a theatre maker more than a theatre commentator is because of the usefulness of the magazine to the company. I disagree that harsh criticism of a show isn’t part of “being in it together.” If the ‘it’ was a ship, we’d be in it together for the glory of the hunt and the ignominy of cleaning the latrines.

    Shows at the Festival receive oodles of praise, both in discussion, the magazine, the bar and the awards ceremony. I contest there is was a balance between the positive and negative over the festival. Some of the positive stuff is absolute wibble, and some of the negative absolute trash. But, there is advice, comment, criticism and ever vitriol that, positive or negative, will change someone’s view of their own work, change something inside them, inspire them to be better theatre makers. For their own good. And ours.

    Noises Off talks to theatre makers who haven’t made an incredible show yet. But might.

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