No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: In Conversation With

Winter hibernations

Apologies for the silence around here. I’ve been in a state of hibernation the past few weeks and Adelaide’s also been quiet on the theatre front which, of course, doesn’t help matters much for this blog. I saw a handful of shows in the Cabaret Festival, but I find that genre has its own particular challenges when it comes to reviewing, and with a confluence of factors I never quite got around to writing about any. I’ve got a few projects I’m working on at the moment – both blog and non-blog related, but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the habit of posting on here a bit more.

Some links from me: A few reviews of Next Wave have been posted on RealTime – the Day Pass and an overview of a few works. A piece in the current Adelaide Review on the lack of rehearsal space in Adelaide. From way back when, the audio of the panel on criticism I did at the AFC, from which I quite possibly disagree with everything I said. Saying things out loud and having to rethink over that really forces you to question your thoughts.

A quick note: Actors’ Equity in the UK has sent a letter to 43 subsidised theatre companies questioning their lack of employment of female actors. I think this is exactly the sort of action which needs to be happening across the sector: change is entirely an action of people drawing things to attention and making questions heard. I don’t, however, agree, with playwright Stella Duffy saying we need to avoid male-dominated plays [UPDATE: Her full argument is here, and much broader than the Guardian's summary]. Perhaps there is something to be said about making more of an effort to see plays where women take a central role, but the fact I want to see more women represented in theatre doesn’t take away from the fact that their are many brilliant plays which are male dominated. Looking at theatre seasons in Australia this year, there is more than a little deja vu in London critic Matt Truman’s tweet: “If Equity’s gender campaign leads to book-balancing productions of Top Girls & Daisy Pulls It Off etc it will have failed massively.”

And to just join every feminist on the internet this week, some words from Nora Ephron:

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

Critical dialogue about critical voices.

“Everyone’s A Critic” has been that ever non-specific and slightly annoying phrase on my mind lately, as May 10 I will be on a panel to discuss just that. You should join Alison Croggon (from the mother of all Australian theatre blogs, Theatre Notes), Marc Fennell (Triple J and self-titled blog), Samela Harris (The Advertiser) and me, with our host Fenella Kernebone at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Tickets are FREE (like this blog, hey! And who says there is no such thing as a free lunch?) and can be booked here.

Mostly, I think the actual conversation surrounding “everyone’s a critic” is a bit tired and done. Yes, everyone now has the platform to talk about art. We know this. It is a good thing. The internet has opened this up in a wonderful way which is still revolutionising the way artists, administrators, marketers and audiences interact as all parties learn and refine “social media strategies.” Much of the best arts coverage in Australia comes from online platforms where writers can respond with speed to news, with time to review, and without (too) restrictive word counts. Some of the finest work I read are long-form responses from individual blogs. For recent examples, take Jana Perkovic‘s essay on The Wild Duck (however much I disagree; I was blown away by the production), or Alison’s review of The Histrionic.

If anything, I think we’re still at a stage where not enough people are engaging in these platforms – theatre artists are all too reluctant to offer thoughts on art unless it is absolutely positive (and when it’s not, the silence can be deafening).

But the questions we need to ask are: a world where “everyone’s a critic” where do we find the support platforms for people who want to be more than the tweeters, or more than the volunteers writing consumer guides? In what ways can we expand the role of the “serious” arts writer or critic? How do we make robust critical discussion a vital part of the culture and community? Is it possible for the main-stream media to be place where we are going to get this? How do we make online platforms viable?

In short: how do we make today’s writers, today’s publications, today’s dialogue better?

I think the first thing we need to do is remove the thoughts that critics are somehow outside the rest of the culture. London theatre critic Andrew Haydon published an excellent blog last week about the idea of the “embedded critic.” Andrew, like me and many other writers, particularly in the blogosphere, are increasingly interested in tearing down the false separations between the “artist” and the “critic”: the critic coming in closer to the artists work, and creating better dialogue around it.

“Emeddeness” comes in many forms. Andrew spent every night at Forest Fringe at the Gate, a two week London residency of Edinburgh Fringe Festival institution, the Forest Fringe. Jake Orr (of A Younger Theatre) documented the rehearsal process for a new work by performance group Dirty Market. Being asked to blog through the Australian Theatre Forum was an opportunity for me to be embedded in an environment with some of Australia’s best theatre makers and administrators. Living and writing and working in Adelaide makes sure I’m always at least somewhat embedded in the local theatrical culture. While I don’t know everyone, the city is small enough that I’m not far off: I place myself in an active role in the forums, the panels, the foyers; I interview artists; all of a sudden I found myself production managing a fringe show.  I feel like I’m fighting for something here, and I have to go into that battle with the artists themselves.

Beyond Adelaide, I am currently one of six emerging arts writers (with Melissa Deerson, Naomi Gall, Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Anabelle Lacroix and Sam William- West) involved in Text Camp through Next Wave and the Emerging Writers Festival. Not only am I endlessly excited that I get to spend all nine days at Next Wave (The festival program is everything I want from art one festival. I may have teared up when Emily Sexton read out her launch speech.), but I am so exhilarated that this structure exists within a festival. We have been invited by the festival to be a part of the festival. We get to learn about and practice and stretch our own craft, but we get to do this as a recognised part of a sprawling beast of artistsresidentsadministrators and so on and so forth.

But even better, Next Wave’s commitment to arts writing extends beyond people in my role. Rather than releasing a program – short blurb, time, date, location – Next Wave released a magazine, filled with essays, snatches of writing, or photographs about and from the work and the artists. Communication surrounding the art is presented as an integral first step to connecting with, understanding, and finding the work.

We’ve created the very first Next Wave Magazine. With the guidance of Editor Alice Gage, we created a publication that introduces a new collection of people. That doesn’t try to sell you something. That doesn’t assume that you should know these artists – of course you don’t, they’re the next wave! Our magazine has our artists explain why they make art, how they’re coming to understand generosity, why what they have been making feels urgent.

-Emily Sexton, Change not yet able to be articulated, or, art

Particularly being from Adelaide, but even being from Australia, I feel a need (and want) to cover work in detail, to analyse it, to expose it, to illuminate it. We’re a small city in a small country, and to have a long-form record out there in the world that says this is what is happening in my city, this is what is happening in my country is crucially important. Isn’t this going to be more illuminating if I’m part of it?

The oft asked question is then but what about your objectivity? To which I say there is no such thing. This question, of course, comes from an assumption that consumer guide judgements are even interesting, let alone necessary: a notion I disagree with strongly.

As Andrew wrote on his blog:

Another aspect of “embeddedness” that I think worth addressing is whether, if a critic gets “embedded” in some way or other, it will make them view the work more favourably.

Well, here’s a thing. I reckon a critic’s actual *opinion* of a piece is frequently the least important part of a review. Yes, some people treat reviews as some kind of consumer guide. I suspect many of them might be the same sort of people who grumble if they suspect a critic isn’t “being objective”. They’re the people who prize the star-rating. And, having taken into account what I’ve said only a couple of paragraphs earlier about respecting the humanity of others, I still think those people are the wreckers of civilisation.

Ok, it is useful to know if something is good or not. But unless you’re actually the person who’s reviewed the show – or you have the magical good fortune to have a critic with whose taste yours corresponds exactly – the good/not-good question just boils down to that most mysterious of things; one’s taste.

The internet opens so many amazing opportunities for writing about art: everyone’s a critic. Not only in the idea that you don’t need permission or validation to comment any more, but also in the fact that you can do new things with the form. You can take a month to sort out your thoughts, you can draw crazy parallels, you can hyperlink everything you possibly can to make a point about how you can hyperlink, you can publish a telepathic interview, you can you can you can.

Why then in Adelaide do we see so much of the traditional same old same old? The 250 word (if that) consumer guide: thumbs up / thumbs down, make sure you buy a ticket / give this one a miss.

The recent Humana Festival of New American Plays hosted a panel called Critiquing Criticism: (re)imagining the future, and it is a brilliant discussion on criticism from artists, administrators, and writers well worth the hour listen. One of my favourite comments on the panel was a very succinct point from playwright Deborah Stein:

The consumer report question implies that there is a consumer, and we’re all in agreement with who that is, and I find that more and more to not be true.

Later, Sasha Anawalt, the director of the Arts Journalism course at USC Annenberg, pitched in:

Critics and arts journalists have audiences, too. And we serve our audience, and we’re figuring out who our audience is. Because you guys all want critics, you want to hear – that feeling that you had of being understood and you cried? – that’s the kind of criticism that I HOPE to create, and help others create. We just went through a dark period, where the critic had to be “objective” and held outside, and now we can come in. And everything is individual. Those individual critics in Boston and Austin and New York are DIFFERENT. And your relationship to them is individual and it’s different. So it really comes down to that one by one by one thing. And it’s very personal.

So in this world where everyone’s a critic, can we invite the critic in? Can we invite them into work, into conversations, into festivals, into support systems? Is there some way we can find an environment where critical dialogue surrounding art is seen as so crucial that it needs to be supported just as art is?

99% of the time writing about theatre is an act of failure. It’s never good enough. There is no way I can capture everything on – or behind – a stage. There is always more to be said. I think “embedding” myself further into the culture can only possibly be for the better.

As UK theatre maker Daniel Bye wrote in his response to Andrew’s blog:

The only way we can save criticism as an institution from the idiocy imposed on it by the marketplace and the broader culture is by giving it space, access and generosity. Criticism is in trouble as a serious form, and keeping it at a respectful distance from its subject isn’t going to help.

As I write this today, I’m coming up with much more questions than answers. Maybe if we discuss it we can start to flip that ratio? I’d love to know your thoughts, and I’d love to see you Thursday week fortnight.

A brief note on our new ADs

I am so excited by the current changing of the guard in Australian theatre. I’ve posted links to speeches by Marion Potts of Malthouse before and I just find her ideas about art, theatre, and the creative avenues we can go down compelling and inspiring; a couple of weeks ago I briefly met and spoke to Ralph Myers in the Belvoir St foyer, a theatre which has such a strength in programming this year, and he had a fantastic energy about him and brilliant thoughts to theatre; and tonight, I again briefly met Wesley Enoch of the Queensland Theatre Company after hearing him speak on a panel on the ‘Significance of Indigenous Art in Contemporary Society’ at the Festival Centre, and he is bring such a strong vision and exciting direction to that company.  We might be at the start of something big.

Those Darn Youth: Perspectives on Programming and Venues in Adelaide

“To share an audience we need to grow it, but perhaps it’s our fault because we’re focusing too much on the target audience, and maybe by focusing on that target audience we’re neglecting everyone else, and it’s maybe our fault that other people don’t come to theatre.”

Sitting in the audience at Thursday’s In Conversation With: Building arts audiences collaboratively not competitively, (follow through for recording of the event) at the Adelaide Festival Centre and feeling increasingly disillusioned by the four panelists – Wicked producer John Frost, Kate Gould from the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Pamela Foulkes from the State Theatre Company, and Ian Scobie from Arts Projects Australia – this comment came out of the audience.  I feel it was perhaps the most astute observation of the whole debate: if you feel you don’t have the audience, maybe we need to look at where that audience is coming from.

But what was the answer from the stage?  A (shockingly) resounding “No.”

Followed by a “We’ve spent money on that.”

Well, I think that is exactly the point.

I say I sat there feeling increasingly disillusioned, because it has never been more obvious to me that when these organisations say their core audience is “well-educated, professional women, over the age of 45” (you would really expect the core audience to be over 45, by virtue of the fact it’s just a much larger bracket than Under 30, and 30-45, no?), that not only are these companies quite happy with that being their core audience, they have absolutely no want to broaden their horizons outside of this.  If other people want to come to these shows, fantastic, but they’re certainly not going to – gasp – look at a different programming model to look at what else, and thus who else, they can look to the table.

“We’ve spent money on that.”

They’ve done their Market Research, they’ve increased their marketing budgets, and the “great unwashed” (an actual reference from Frost) still don’t want to come.

I’m not going to say anything here more perceptive than Ianto Ware over on the Renew Adelaide blog: It’s The Content, Stupid. (The whole post is actually brilliant – make sure you read it if you haven’t already.)

 I made a comment on twitter that the reason so many young people are seeing Wicked is because it’s not about middle-aged men.  I don’t for a moment believe that Wicked’s entire success is due to it being a story about young women, friendship, finding and being honest to yourself, but I do believe that these are major contributing factors to its global popularity amongst teenage girls, and teenage girls are a major contributing factor to its status as a global phenomenon.

In short: I guarantee you more teenage girls are seeing Wicked then are seeing Jersey Boys, and the fact that this is even a statement I am writing down is a tad ridiculous.

Beyond the multi-million dollar megaplex musical, it comes down to the same core issue: different people want to see different work.  That’s fine.  That’s great!  But no amount of marketing is going to replace that gap if the content is always created for the “well-educated, professional women, over the age of 45”, and not, say, The Youth with “no concentration span”, who “don’t read anymore”, who “don’t actually listen to the spoken word.”  In short, they’re not interested, so why bother?

Why bother?  Because we are interested.  We’re interested in seeing good work done well, but we are also very interested in the topic the panel was supposed to be about – collaboration – rather than what it came to be about – competition.  Despite our lack of attention span, we’ve managed to do things like get university degrees, work full time, work on fifty projects on the outside, and see and actively participate to art and art culture in this city.  And from this, we’re interested in art that is about us, or excites us, or which makes us think and feel and want to collaborate more.

Organisations like the Adelaide Fringe and Format prove that there are audiences from a large cross-section of the community for a large variety of work.  It’s not so much about creating new audiences, but creating work for existing audiences.

Then, when the conversation inevitably moves to the lack of venues, or more specifically, the lack of venues with cushioned seating, nice toilets, and air-conditioning, this is when I start to get truly worried.  Because I worry that the argument that people won’t see art if the seats aren’t comfortable leads to the argument that people won’t see art if the art isn’t comfortable.

And where are we left then?

A conversation about lack of venues certainly should happen – and is actively happening within the state’s independent theatre sector.  But, just for now, rather than constricting our thinking not only by age and education of the audience, but also by the proscenium of the stage, shouldn’t we think of work that can be created and presented in the spaces we do have?

Even if they don’t have air conditioning.

Talking about collaboration, wouldn’t it be great to see Renew Adelaide collaborate with the Festival of Arts to bring out large scale, site specific works which have been developed to work in abandoned buildings?  Because we have many of those.

(In particular, British theatre company Punchdrunk have been getting outstanding notices for their installation theatre work Sleep No More.  Whoever arranges it so I can see their work gets rave reviews for a year.)

Just as I think organisations could be creating and presenting work which are relevant to more people in this city; couldn’t we be creating and presenting work which is relevant to the particulars of the city itself?  Rather than only looking at what we don’t have, why don’t we look at what we do?

I don’t want to only see work about young women any more than I only want to see work about middle-aged men.   I do enjoy theatre that has the benefits of a cushioned seat and air-conditioning.  But to have a panel presented where anything that fell outside of their norm was completely shut down was bizarre and frustrating.

I want to see and hear ideas across a spectrum: particularly if you are talking about topics of collaboration and competition.   I’m disappointed there wasn’t more diversity on the panel.  I wish the AFC had the narcissism to put someone from that organisation on the panel: because I think they are a large organisation actually programming across a broad spectrum of work and audiences.  They’ve even programmed a site-specific work to Adelaide’s streets this year!  In winter!

Collaboration rather than competition is the primary ethic among most artists and arts organisations.  As Tricia Walton from Carclew said from the audience, for many people it isn’t just done for  financial reasons, but philosophical ones, too.  Why weren’t the people who are actively doing this invited to be on the panel?

“To share an audience, we need to grow it”: now, can we get on that, and stop our bickering?

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