Ode to Nonsense blog four: wrap-up discussion

by Jane

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between me and Andy Packer, the Artistic Director of Slingsby and director of Ode to Nonsense. I interviewed Andy several times before the production opened, including time spent in the rehearsal room and tech, before reviewing the work on opening night. You can read my previous pieces on the work here.

Jane: I really appreciated you having me in the rehearsal room. I think it was really valuable just in a general, much broader sense, because I haven’t spent a lot of time in rehearsal rooms. It’s a weird place where I sit, almost, in this industry, where I’m very connected to everyone and I invest a lot in having really strong connections with the community, but I only ever see this end point which is such the tip of the iceberg of the whole ecology.

Andy: You kind of see the church service without everything else that goes on through the week.

Yeah.

It is interesting. I’m glad you were able to come in. And I really appreciated all of our conversations and what you wrote. And I think it’s really important that people critiquing or writing about theatre understand the process that we go through. And things that may seem ill-considered are not necessarily un-considered. So it’s great. I think it should happen more.

Yeah, definitely. I think it should happen more but I am at this point in my career where I am trying to figure out to make it a career, and how to make it sustainable. And that means writing preview pieces more often than not, because that’s where the money is. Stuff like this I’d love to do, but where is the money to sit in the rehearsal room?

It’s the same with artists, as well. You’ve got to create demand. You’ve got to do it and do it and do it until there is interest, and then hopefully there is an audience which means there is some commercial viability to it, you know?

Yeah, absolutely. 

I don’t know if you’ve read any of this stuff: there is a British critic called Andrew Haydon and he coined the term ‘embedded criticism’, and so lots of people particularly in the UK have used that term. Then Jake Orr and Maddy Costa have created Dialogue, and that’s about having conversations with artists and understanding process, and also thinking about what artists want from reviews. Not that that’s the be-all-end-all of what a review can ever be, but it’s about engaging on this really deep level.

And so obviously I’ve been involved with a lot of those conversations online, and I’ve read a lot of their writing about it. So I went in the first rehearsal thinking ‘oh, I’m doing embedded criticism’ and I came out thinking I’m not. What am I doing? You can’t do criticism of that room. And so I started to think of myself as an embedded critic – because I am a critic, that’s how I describe myself – but it took me a while to figure out what my relationship was to the work in that room and how I could respond to it.

Also we didn’t set up any strict rules. I was pretty open to the fact that the reason we were bringing you in was not so we could ensure that you would write a better review, I was really clear on that. The outcome of your response to the work was completely your own, but hopefully what would happen is you would get a better understanding of us as a company and us as a team of artists and the way that we work.

I think probably for myself, I can’t speak for anyone else, what I would love to see more in reviews is long form. Like Theater Magazine in the US: it’s longer form exploration of the artists, the context, and then the work is part of that, as opposed to ‘it didn’t work’ or ‘it worked, it was brilliant.’ Even ‘it worked, it was brilliant’ is great for picking out quotable quotes to put on posters, but it’s not journalism. That’s when I think a bit of writing is really interesting, when it takes all of that into consideration.

And I don’t think you necessarily need to be in a rehearsal room to understand that, but I do think you need to have an ongoing conversation with an artist or with a company.

I think definitely a large part of my job which no one ever sees is research, and that includes this, but also reading scripts and reading theatre text books and seeing work that I don’t necessarily write about, either because it was a preview like The Maids or I’m just exhausted. I see a lot more work than I end up writing about. I think that should be a huge part of anyone who takes criticism seriously, that investment in research which hopefully – even if it’s not all on the page when you write – it’s behind it. It holds everything up.

And that’s the thing. It should be criticism. It should be critical thinking, not a review. A review is one thing but criticism is a different thing, I think. It requires for the artist and the writer to both get beyond the idea that this is about PR. At the moment I think we’re pretty well set up to think of these conversations as a part of PR.

Absolutely.

Which is why it’s great that we’re doing this conversation post season: there is absolutely no PR value in it at all. Well, maybe long term, but I think that’s the thing. And what was good about us having several conversations was that I think I was able to pretty quickly put away my pithy sentences and not feel like I was just jamming the message of the show down your throat in the way that I wanted it to be written about. Which is good. And that comes out of longer conversations.

Long conversations are critical. Even if I’m writing a 600-word article I’ll talk for an hour if I can. I’m not very good at talking for a long time on the phone… But long conversations all support my writing. 

And obviously because I was publishing before the show there was a possibility that there are people that are going to read that and then see the show, which is fine and great. It’s good that people read stuff and see work, but I never felt that that was our relationship.

For me it wasn’t the point of it. Obviously there is that advantage that there is a little bit more interweb-space being taken up with a conversation about a show we are working on, but it wasn’t the main aim of it.

And the audience that is reading blogs, in particular, is already very engaged and committed to the arts – whether they’re in Adelaide and they want to know what’s in Adelaide, or if they’re interstate or internationally, it’s the sort of audience that are already going to know about you and your work. Not in all cases, but it’s not like it’s The Advertiser where you’re getting your face in front of a whole bunch of new people. 

Absolutely. It is a club of interested people.

And high school kids who are trying to cheat on their reviews. 

So I guess I was disappointed in the production. I hadn’t expected that, but a part of me had felt if I was, how would I write about it after we had this relationship? But that wasn’t really a consideration, because it was just ‘well, this is my job.’ And it was approached the way that I normally do. I think it speaks a lot to our conversations: we had these conversations where it was ‘this is my job, and that’s is Andy’s job, and this is how I’m going to respond to it.’

And I think I commented very quickly after you posted it as well.

You did.

To let you know it’s totally fine, I understand. And I think some of what you said for me I agree with, I didn’t really have a major problem with anything you wrote from my perspective: of course, I would have no problem with what you wrote from your perspective.

Also, when you open a show you’re bombarded with people’s responses. Whether they’re saying it to you or not saying it to you, it’s a flood of feedback. So your review is just one part of that. And as with responses to any piece of work, there is a spectrum of responses. My job then as a director and as an artistic director of a company is to go ‘what bits of these are going to help me over the next two weeks as I refine the work?’ and then ‘what will I hold on to as we develop the work further for future seasons?’

Certainly, there was a challenge early on in the season with emotional connection. Particularly that opening night as well, unfortunately. But you can’t go back. You have to open. And we had technical difficulties on that night which I don’t necessarily relate to that issue that you felt, but the two men’s mics completely failed because of moustache wax – so who knew? That caused some issues with people understanding text.

One of the things you have to think about when writing a review is what things are just something like that which just failed. I dread the day when something goes terribly wrong on stage and I interpret it as a directorial choice. It’s going to happen; it probably has already happened but no one has said anything to me. But one day it’s going to happen: there is going to be a complete cock-up and I’m going to write in insane detail about these choices that weren’t choices.

That were accidents. I’ve had the reverse: I’ve had something reviewed as being a technical mistake when it was actually a choice.

Wow. 

All of which is fine, because it’s one person’s opinion.

What else did you want to say about the show?

Only that I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved. It was a mountain to climb. Whilst clearly not everybody completely embraced it and fell in love with it, a large enough percentage of people did to make me feel really great about it. We’ve been getting fantastic unsolicited feedback from people who were clearly very moved by it. And we had well over 1000 school students that came and saw the performance, and the feedback from them has been phenomenal.

One of the things we wanted to do was create a really great first experience of opera for that audience, and I think we really managed to do that. The schools that were better prepared, that had received the teachers’ notes and had a chance to prepare their students got vastly more out of it than other audience members.

That’s something that we have discovered as we move towards future seasons of the work: making sure people have access to the synopsis as you would before you go and see Don Giovanni or any opera. You really need to do a little bit of homework before an opera. You need to know the synopsis and what’s going to happen. So I think the audience members that had that preparation had a much better experience.

And that’s partly about the form, and reminding ourselves ‘oh yeah, that’s right.’

That you have to play within the constructs. 

If you want to introduce a whole new audience to opera you have to do a little bit of that work as well, by preparing and providing materials that will help the audience enter the performance with a bit of knowledge, so they can sit back and enjoy the ride more. We always knew that we needed that but we just got so busy in putting on a massive show for a company of not quite two people full time.

When we go back and talk to people and say ‘this is what we learnt from it’, they say ‘yes, that would have made the experience that much better for me.’ So that’s great. And the show is going to have a life. There are at least a couple of more seasons planned.

Great.

Going back to you saying you get so much feedback, one of the things I am at the point of struggling with in my work is you get so little feedback. People rarely respond until you’re wrong, and then they yell at you. You throw things out into the ether and you’ll get hits and you can see people reading it, but you don’t necessarily get people engaging.

But people will say thank you.

Oh, yes. Sometimes. But there is not a level of engagement with what I do. And I would never expect an artist to come and engage on that level, but even from a broader artist and audience community people aren’t engaging really intellectually with writing.

I think Alison Croggon had that.

I think Alison totally had that; Theatre Notes had that.

Maybe it’s partly about an evolving voice and things get to a point where people feel they can engage with it. I see what you mean, otherwise you just get criticism of criticism, which is kind of weird: it’s about finding a way for people to go ‘I agree with this, but I don’t agree with that.’

Do you get that in conversation with people though?

Sometimes. But I would love to think that that could happen online, so it’s public.

Artists are always going to be shy.

Oh, I know. 

I’m just starting to get to the stage in my career now where I feel like I can talk to reviewers; say hello to them.

I’m not even sure where I am with that with lots of artists. 

Some people are much better at that then I am, but I’ve always been a little bit shy. I don’t want you to think that I am saying hello to you so you’ll like me so you’ll review me better so that I’ll have a career. It’s crazy that I’ve felt that way. But I know a lot of people feel that way.

The first time I see any artist after writing about them I feel nervous. I could have written them the biggest rave in the world, but I could have got it wrong. Even if I loved it I might not have seen it on their terms. Maybe one day I’ll get over it, but it’s every time I see an artist no matter what I’ve written.  Sometimes it makes opening nights really awkward: I know I’m going to see a whole bunch of artists there and I’m not sure where I currently stand with them.

That’s the same as an artist as well.

Absolutely. And I think it’s just me being aware of that.

I was thinking about starting a campaign called Give Us a Wink, which is for all of us artists, theatre makers who are living in this city, where if you come to see a show or an opening night in particular and the show doesn’t really float your boat but you can appreciate the effort and the work behind it, and you like that artist’s work generally, just give us a wink. Don’t walk off, don’t slink off, don’t avoid my eye line.

You can’t always make excellent work that appeals to everybody. You just can’t. Even if you’re making highly commercial stuff it’s not going to make everyone happy. And I don’t think that’s our job in the subsidised sector, to make safe work. We’re supposed to take risks, and hopefully we get it right.

Hopefully we get it right on the first night but that doesn’t always happen.

It’s peculiar, I think, that we bring in critics and our industry peers on the night when the show is the most fragile. It’s crazy, really, to do that. And there are a whole lot of reasons why you do that: it’s early in the season, you have a full house on opening night, you want to get word-of-mouth out there to sell the show, but it is always the most precarious show of any season. Especially if you don’t have the luxury of a significant amount of previews.

And no one in Adelaide does.

You really don’t very often. With previous shows with Slingsby we’ve been fortunate that we’d spend a week where we’d do eight performances where we would invite disadvantaged schools for free to see it because we had specific funding to support that. It was great for us, because we would always get the most challenging audiences. We would get kids from schools that had never been in a theatre before, and we knew if we could manipulate the show to get them loving it then we were well on our way. But with a big ship like an opera…

I remember when When the Rain Stops Falling had a production in New York by the Lincoln Center their preview period was longer than Brink’s entire premiere season in Adelaide. 

That’s why major musicals have six-month runs out of town and then come to Broadway and run two or three months before they open. If we had that luxury!

I do completely agree with Robert Lepage when he says that a work only really starts to live once it’s in front of an audience, and you only start to learn what the piece is when it’s in front of an audience. I’ve always found that with all of our shows before.

If there was any challenge to this show it was because of the scale of it and the scale of our company we didn’t have that luxury. And even as I got close in the last week I could see that I was a call and a half down on time with the youth chorus, but there is no going back. You have to keep going. Which is not a comment on them, but it was more about my preparation for the ambition I had for their stage time. They didn’t just come on as a chorus and stand there and sing, they were doing lots of complex choreography, which is one of the strengths of the piece I think, in the long run. But it meant that every spare moment when we weren’t doing a run was spent trying to fix that up and not having time to do everything else.

So I take all of that into consideration when I look at the final product that we produced, and that’s why I’m incredibly proud of the work. I think Quincy’s score is incredible, and Jane’s words connected to Quincy’s music is beautiful, and the design was gorgeous. I just can’t wait to do it again.

Great. Should we wrap there? I think that’s a nice note to end on.

You’re welcome in a rehearsal room any old time.  Not all the time, but as I say I think it’s good to have those ongoing conversations about context.

I’ll take you up on that offer. 

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