No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Category: Commentary

On writing an experimental theatre-review of Roman Tragedies

The Lifted Brow has recently re-launched their website, and are commissioning pieces which can only exist in the digital space. I find this incredibly exciting, because although most of my career is based around online-only publications (indeed, I find it rather novel and wonderful when my work appears in print) still the formula of reviewing is much the same today as it was mid last century. Online I am able to be freer with my word count (particularly when writing on my blog), insert hyperlinks, and (hopefully, sometimes) engage with commenters, but the overall form of theatre reviews has felt to me largely stagnant.

Last October, in preparation for a panel on ‘criticism in the digital age’, the Wheeler Centre asked me for some brief thoughts on writing reviews. I said:

Despite advances in technology opening up the possibilities of criticism, it remains very conservative. Largely, it hasn’t changed or expanded form, method or purpose in the transition from print newspapers to online platforms.

If we ask for – and witness – arts that push boundaries and forms but our responses to that art doesn’t, then the record of art left by criticism will be much more conservative than the art itself.

Criticism, when done well, creates a record that artists can continue to build on. If criticism isn’t building an accurate portrait of the most exciting contemporary art, and the strongest records are left of work that is most conservative, where does that leave anyone?

I think, for the most part, maintaining this lineage of review structure is the best thing for the art form: people who exist in the same job sphere as me do so because we believe art and the dissection of art is critically important, but also because we have great faith and love in the written word. On the panel (which you can watch at the above link) I spoke about games criticism, and the critics who are using YouTube and online video spaces to review these works: for these critics, the most pertinent and organic way to respond to the work is through video. Not being particularly versed in games criticism, I would suggest that most reviews still exist in a traditional text form, much like theatre criticism; and of course you could argue that reviewing through video isn’t particularly innovative except in the ways, like text, its production and broadcast are more accessible than they’ve ever been.

In theatre criticism, I’ve been loving Exeunt Magazine’s Doodle Reviews and, for something just silly and fun, Edinburgh Furinge, neither of which seem to be particularly dependent on the form of the theatre work, but have the ability to respond just as broadly as a traditional review. These examples, though, are rare.

Occasionally I’ve experimented with the form my criticism takes, always in response to the form of the work and always still in text. My review of Team Mess’ This Is It  was a response to the imagined film in the theatre work, and my review of Life & Times responded to the verbatim theatre piece by being a verbatim review – accidentally recorded at the end of an interview. While structurally quite traditional, my response to Shotgun Wedding endeavoured to take on extra meaning by being published on the date of my one year ‘anniversary.’ Working as a writers-in-residence on Brown Council’s Mass Action: 137 Cakes in 90 HoursIanto Ware and I were forced into a similar (but not as gruelling) endurance project as the artists, allowing us an ongoing and deepened relationship to the work we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and at one of my lowest points in the room I managed to craft a response to the work I am deeply proud of: a response that wouldn’t have existed had I been involved like a typical audience member. Then, too, there is “embedded criticism” which with Ode to Nonsense again I produced a traditional review, but after a relationship with the creation of the work.

With the exception of Ode to Nonsense, these reviews exist because they were able to directly respond to the forms of the works themselves. It is harder, therefore, to develop as a writer in these experimental forms because there are, simply, less opportunities, and because each must be a new organic response. I have no idea what, say, an experimental response to The Seagull would look like, because the traditional response to me seems the strongest way to respond to a traditional staging. Criticism is always a responsive form in which the art must come first, this of course means I have more opportunities to develop my craft in these traditional forms. (Although I’ve been lucky over the first three months of this year to contribute audio responses on Guardian Australia’s Culture Podcast, something I am certainly getting more confident and stronger in. You can listen to here or download on iTunes.)

And so for The Lifted Brow to formalise a space that asks writers to be responsive to digital platforms, and in my case responsive to art’s form itself, is a concept I find very exciting. My review of Roman Tragedies for the Adelaide Festival responds to this work from Toneelgroep Amsterdam by emulating their use of time and their invitation to use social media throughout the production. In just watching the piece I had to be hyperaware of my review – taking notes when I typically never do – and then I had to go an back-curate the tweets and instagram photos to integrate. After six hours physically viewing the show, the process of building the review took another several days, with the curation of the tweets and integration into the timeline being particularly difficult and protracted. Post the writing the review, I realised this was really a work that needed two people to create (plus a third in my editor, the very helpful Simon Collinson): one to review the show, and a second to solely curate the social media, ideally in real time.

My review begins with the voices of others:

 

 

Just as the show relies on its audience, my review relies on the audience I shared that room with.

Despite experimentation with form, perhaps the most liberating thing was complete freedom with word count in a commissioned environment: the piece was able to be precisely how long I thought it needed to be and I was able to write until I stopped, a freedom typically only afforded to me on my blog. My favourite piece of the review, though, is one that came up truly organically as a realisation I came across in the writing: the use of white space towards the end. This space replaced language when the I found the work emotionally overwhelming me. In this written form, I felt emptiness spoke louder than words. 

Although the tweets and intsagrams are so much of the digital space, it feels to me that forcing the reader to scroll past this nothingness was the most native to the online platform. In print, not only would my work not be able to take up the equivalent physical space, but also the way the readers’ eyes would jump from one piece of text to another, even over pages if possible, would feel inherently different, and I don’t know if it would carry the same impact that I hope it does here. Looking back at it now, I think I would have liked to have been even more ambitious with how much blank space we used, how much we forced the reader to contemplate the stretch of time in the work.

I don’t think it is entirely successful as a review: the form has its limitations as much as its advantages. Much was left unsaid, depths of the work are not truly explored as time forced my piece forward, wider connections to contemporary theatre are ignored, and as is typical my perspective on it is dampened by thoughts I’ve developed now but could not articulate by deadline. But, and I think this is particularly important when looking at a production that has been touring the world since 2007, I think my review offers something unique to the work and the global recording of its history. I think it’s a response, too, that offers something to both an audience who has witnessed the work and those who haven’t, and this is something I always strive to achieve in my work.

When will I next get the opportunity to write something like this again? I don’t know. Perhaps the work will jump out at me in advance or perhaps I will see a show and walk out thinking of the new radical way I can respond having not gone in with those thoughts at all. I don’t think the traditional way we respond to theatre is dying or needs reviving, but I hope innovative and truly digital responses can continue to develop and grow up alongside as a contemporary – and sometimes, as a rival.

You can read my review in full here. I am very keen to hear thoughts.

On facts and figures

Over at ABC Arts Online, Alison Croggon has done a brilliant write-up on figures we collated pertaining to the presentation of new plays in Australia. Here are the nuts and bolts of the issue:

Of a total of 93 productions mounted in 2013, we found that a healthy 54 were new Australian works – that is, almost 60 per cent. Two further productions were of Australian classics. International work (classics, adaptations and new plays) totalled 37 productions. Of the new Australian works, 25 were new plays, 19 were new adaptations of prior work and 13 were collaboratively devised. (The figures don’t add up because there is some cross-over in the categories). Six are collaborations between two writers, five of them a writer/director team. AMPAG companies produced work by a total of 34 Australian playwrights in 2013.

Says playwright Daniel Keene to Alison:

Let’s face it, it’s hard being a playwright. There are only so many stages, and only so many plays can be done every year. In order for your plays to be done, you depend on other people to realise them. And sometimes collaborations fail, as they must be allowed to do: but it doesn’t make things any easier.

Earlier this year I interviewed Matthew Whittet for a piece for Arts Centre Melbourne. We discussed how he is an early career playwright who has found great ongoing support from Windmill, who have produced three of his plays and have a fourth currently under commission. He told me:

You hear it constantly over and over and over: you need to find directors. Writers need to find directors. […] If you’re writing for theatre it almost means nothing, or it’s a very very difficult path to tread if you just want to be a writer who sends your work out for other people to do. You have to find collaborators. You have to find people. It’s literally just finding the right fit. The people who you speak to their work and they speak to what you do. It’s like anything, doing any kind of theatre: the best shows always for me always come from a group of people that you feel they enjoy working together, and there is a fit. It doesn’t matter where they’re from or who they are or what their experience is, that’s always a major key.

The theatre world is constantly shifting and changing, and we need a system that allows for flexibility – flexibility, even, in the definition of ‘new Australian work’, on how plays are made, and who makes them. It can be a hard industry for anyone, and when one section is pointed out as the ‘problem’ it’s easy for other artists and arts workers too look at that and prescribe it as the cause of all ills. Today that might be auteur directors; tomorrow it might be administrators; Monday it might be funding bodies. But, alongside flexibility, theatre is built from a community that requires collaboration.

It’s easy to get caught up in emotion; I’m glad Alison and I were able to inject some facts. Sometimes, these facts and figures support what people have been saying; here they don’t. Either way, they allow us to focus our conversations, and that is what will lead to a stronger industry.

Ode To Nonsense blog three: out of the rehearsal room

After two weeks at the State Opera Studio, the Slingsby team made their way into town to bump into Her Majesty’s Theatre. On the Monday, I again spoke to director Andy Packer, before spending Thursday in the theatre watching tech.

“This is a very fast process,” he tells me. “Normally you would have four weeks before you go into the theatre, but then you probably only have a week in the theatre, so this is slightly back to front.”

While the company originally wanted three weeks in the rehearsal room, we spoke about how opera can be quicker to put together on the floor. “With non-musical theatre,” he says, “what you’re trying do in those four weeks is find the sense of the thing – which we’re trying to do as well – but you’re also trying to find the rhythm that makes the piece. And with music theatre, with opera, that’s already set for you. The rhythm and pace, the dynamic, is in the music, so it fast tracks that process for you.”

At this half-way point, Andy was feeling “really good” about the work. “I feel like the first week was really about ‘is the story there and is it clear.’ […] I feel very happy with the flow of the piece and that’s in terms of energy levels on stage, size, variation, I feel like I’m being lead through it by the story, which is great.”

The second week, then was about blocking the work: “which, as you could see, we didn’t quite get there.” Indeed, on the Thursday in the theatre, Andy and choreographer Larissa McGowan sat down to discuss the choreography of the final number The Owl and the Pussycat, Andy’s score covered with notes.

Speaking about my rehearsal room blog, Andy said he appreciated the perspective of allowing an outsider to “observe some element of the rigour that we go through and the process that we go through to find a moment that lasts two seconds on stage – it might actually be five hours work.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Ode To Nonsense blog two: in the rehearsal room

On a Wednesday morning, the third day of Ode To Nonsense rehearsals, I enter the rehearsal room for the first time. I received a message from director Andy Packer the night before, telling me he was looking forward to having me in the room, but just so I was aware, the repetiteur – the rehearsal pianist – won’t be there that day due to unexpected family circumstances.

A rehearsal room for an opera without a pianist. It’s perhaps not the most auspicious start for me in observing the process.

But on the rehearsals must go, and so I sit at a table at the back of the room – covered with books about Lear, collections of his nonsense and his paintings – with notebook and pen, ready to watch and learn. Without the use of the piano, the company focuses on the small sections of unsung text from Jane Goldney’s libretto. Perhaps never more than a dozen or so lines, the space without the piano is giving Andy and the cast the space to focus in on these sections: on intent, tone, and character.

Working with the three principles – Nicholas Lester as Lear, Johanna Allen as Gussie, and Adam Goodburn as Giorgio – Andy constantly asks questions: “I wonder if …”, “There could be … ” “Perhaps …” The process feels like a constant conversation between him and the performers, his suggestions through words, their suggestions back through performance. As he explains things, he tells the cast he is using this time to develop a shorthand language with them, so when they’re in the theatre it will only take a few words to remind them the ideas they found in the rehearsal room.

I get a kick out of watching Stage Manager Stephanie Fisher and ASM Marie Docking take reference photographs of the prop arrangements with their iPhones – the future is now – but then problem solve in delightfully low tech ways. A letterbox is mocked up from an old box and some paperclips. When the letters won’t stay put, a bit of gaffa tape over the front solves that.

I feel somewhat awkward sitting in the back of the room, not quite sure of my place or what I’m doing or if anything I scribble down in my notebook makes sense. But everyone in the room is endlessly welcoming. During lunch, the cast sit and talk about operas – particularly contemporary performers, composers, and directors – and when I’m back at my table I write down a list to go home and listen to. Listening to passionate people talk makes me want to find out more, in a way I hadn’t been interested in before. I end up downloading Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee at the suggestion of Andy, and then find myself singing the songs. Completely unexpected.

Read the rest of this entry »

Arts NSW Funding: HotHouse Theatre and Renew Newcastle

Update 26/11: Funding to Renew Newcastle has been restored

Update 2 26/11: HotHouse has just released a press release which reads: “Arts NSW has offered HotHouse Theatre transitional funding for 2013 at the full amount requested in its application.”

Today, Arts NSW released its funding for 2013, and two nationally significant arts organisations had their funding reduced, in the case of Renew Newcastle, and removed, in the case of HotHouse Theatre [will hyper-link when more information is available].

Renew Newcastle was established in 2008, and has gone on to spawn a national movement in Renew Australia, with presence so far in Adelaide, Townsville, Parramatta, and Geelong. The program brokers relationships so empty buildings and spaces are available for use at low cost with rolling leases. This helps inject into the “vibrant” economy policy makers are always talking about.

Particularly in the age of the internet and websites such as etsy, anyone can be a maker and a seller. Renew Newcastle brought these creators out of their homes and into the centre of Newcastle. When these creators set up in a publicly accessible space, they bring with them the public. With the contribution of Renew Newcastle, Newcastle was listed in Lonely Planet’s World’s Top 10 Cities for 2011 – the only Australian city to make the list.

Newcastle is a small city – although I was shocked to learn it is almost half the size of Adelaide – and even when I was there for TINA, a quiet one. At the core of the city, though, is an extraordinary collection of unique spaces: hand-made craft shops, vintage stores, galleries, and studios, to scratch the surface. These spaces give homes to people who would perhaps otherwise move south to Sydney, and contributes to the Newcastle ecology in creating a town which people from outside of these creative industries also have a reason to stay in.

In the UK’s NewStart magazine in September, Westbury said:

Recently SGS Economics and Planning undertook the first independent assessment of Renew Newcastle. Among its key findings were that it had directly contributed to avoidance or mitigation of blight and antisocial behaviour; improved business and community confidence; improved skills development; encouraged greater volunteer engagement; created intellectual capital, some of commercial value; created jobs; made cost savings due to reduced maintenance; and improved regional ‘brand value’, tourism and inward investment.

Most importantly of all, at least from my point of view, is that 80 projects involving hundreds, if not thousands, of local makers, creators and citizens have been given an opportunity to do what they do they believe in and are passionate about. In turn, those people have engaged, entertained and inspired many tens of thousands more both directly and indirectly. Optimism is replacing despair and stories about what is happening and possible are displacing stories about what has gone wrong and who is to blame.

The independent assessment Westbury refers to [website down at time of writing] also found that the project has a whopping return on investment of 10:1.

The power of the Renew projects is proving to have a transformative effect on how we look at space and at cities. The low rates and rolling leases mean they are perfectly tailored for these enterprises which wouldn’t be able to afford a commercial lease. This creates city spaces with a multiplicity of opportunities and experiences for creators and for customers. By their very nature, people that move into these Renew spaces are unique: not only in comparison to the broader commercial environment, but also to within the Renew projects.

Arts NSW funding into Renew Newcastle is comparatively tiny – just $50,000 per annum, but in 2013 that will be slashed to just $30,000, and comes as the organisation was looking to expand, asking for $70,000.

Renew Newcastle has most recently taken over the old David Jones building, installing nine stalls in the abandoned building. In the place of a commercial department store you can find thirty-seven facsimiles of and that couldn’t sustain itself in Newcastle, are stores of and for the community it exists in. Renew Newcastle continues to actively broker these relationships, and actively set a national and international example for how to rethink our cities and the ever growing number of abandoned buildings.

HotHouse Theatre was established as the Murray River Performing Group by a collective of young early graduates from the VCA in 1979. Located in the NSW/Victorian border towns of Albury Wodonga, and renamed during a 1997 restructuring, it is unfortunately all too unique its qualities as both a professional regional theatre, and a theatre focusing on new Australian work. HotHouse theatre creates presentation and development opportunities for both members of the local community, and members of the wider national sector through a variety of programs, including a year long subscription season, youth project The Studio, an education program, and month-long residencies.

Like most theatre companies in Australia, it has gone through peaks and troughs in its existence. Funded as a Key Organisation with the Australia Council, in the last year the company was put ‘on notice’ for its funding: rather than accepted into the traditional three year funding cycle, the company was funded for one year and in that time it had to prove it was working towards an economically and artistically sustainable future.

The company did this for both the Australia Council and Arts Victoria, and was reinstated in full to the Key Organisations list. These decisions do not come lightly, and the company would have invested significant time and energy into formulating future plans that fit within the artistic visions of these funding bodies. In addition to this vote of confidence, in the past two years HotHouse has increased subscription attendance 270% [private correspondence].

The company received no warning from Arts NSW that its funding was under consideration, let alone was tapped for possible removal. For each of Renew Newcastle and HotHouse Theatre, these new funding arrangements start from January 1. This leaves only five weeks for the organisations to radically readdress how they will approach the incoming year, with no prior warning to put contingency plans in place.

Just over a month ago, I was privileged enough to attend Kumuwuki / Big Wave, and spend the long weekend listening to and talking to people who create work in regional and rural Australia. We are a huge and disparate country, made up of many varied people and many varied communities, and the work which happens outside of our capital cities is just as vital as the work which happens in them.

We are continually becoming more connected as a country, and with the advent of the National Broadband Network this will again be more true than ever. It would be a tragedy, though, to assume this connectedness means cities can broadcast to the regions and this will be enough. Every community in Australia deserves the strongest chance to thrive. This means supporting the people and the organisations which supply the ideas and the space to make this happen wherever they are, but even more pertinently in regional areas.

Renew Newcastle continues to prove its worth locally, nationally, and internationally. HotHouse Theatre recently increased subscriber numbers well against national trends, is a beloved and longstanding part of the national landscape, and has recently proven itself in the eyes of the Australia Council. Nationally, we need to be paying attention to what happens in our regional centres. Nationally, we should all be scared for what these funding decisions mean. Each of these organisations are organising responses to fight for the reinstatement of funding. I urge you to get involved in any way you can.

Crack Theatre Festival (This Is Not Art)

Three hours on a train up from Sydney are some really wonderful beaches. On the October long weekend there is also an arts festival. But, let’s be honest, mainly there are beaches.

I was asked to come up to the Crack Theatre Festival with This Is Not Art to talk on a panel about blogging and criticism. Normally when I got to a festival I do everything and drive myself insane and to the point of exhaustion. However, TINA found itself at the end of several exhausting months and at the beginning of a month of festival related travel, so I decided to take it slow.

How slow? In four days I went to: seven shows, one walking tour, two launches, one closing party, one workshop, four panels (plus the one I was on), and one rooftop market.

Slow.

But it still, somehow, felt nice and slow. I spent time walking around Newcastle and its beaches, I went to the museum, I had long breakfasts and long lunches and long barbeques.

To Quota or Not To Quota was perhaps the healthiest panel on representation of women and culturally diverse backgrounds in theatre I’ve been to. Maybe because Crack is such a youth-oriented festival many of the artists in attendance have only just started to come into their professional practice, and they have come into a world where the conversation – and the numbers – about women in theatre in particular have been at the forefront.

Read the rest of this entry »

No room with a view

This article was first published in the July 2012 Adelaide Review

Adelaide’s theatre community is in urgent need of space to rehearse their work.

Preparing for the world premiere season of Involuntary with the Adelaide Festival Centre’s inSPACE program, director and choreographer Katrina Lazaroff found her company missing one integral feature: rehearsal space.

After “looking all over Adelaide” Lazaroff was lucky the Adelaide Festival Centre staff solved the situation by splitting rehearsal time between the Dunstan Playhouse and Space Theatre.  “It’s almost never heard of that you get to rehearse in a theatre,” she says.

In 2010, Arts SA prepared an audit into the lack of suitable performance spaces for Adelaide’s professional dance and theatre community. Alongside citing a lack of suitable venues, outdated technical equipment, and inadequate disabled access to performance spaces, the audit also spoke to a lack of rehearsal space.

Two years on, companies are struggling to find suitable space to develop and rehearse their work, and few are as lucky as Lazaroff. Chris Drummond, Artistic Director of Brink Productions, says every show “involves a saga where our production manager Françoise spends weeks and months looking for a rehearsal space.”

Their latest work, Land & Sea, was forced to rehearse in their performance space, the Queen’s Theatre. While an evocative venue, it is, in effect, an empty warehouse with a concrete floor and tin roof, which Drummond describes as “harsh, cold and incredibly noisy due to the building site next door”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Restoring the balance

This article was originally published in the June Adelaide Review. 

A recent report has found that women are underrepresented in key Australian theatre company roles such as writing and directing. But why?

Not one of the eight plays the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA) announced for their 2011 season – in late 2010 – was written by a woman. Indeed, from 2001 to 2011, women have written less than a quarter of the plays the company has mounted.

Come their 2012 program, there is now a female writer or co-writer on five of the eight productions. While outgoing Artistic Director Adam Cook told The Adelaide Review(‘Bright Future on the Stage’, October, 2011) this programming was a “coincidence”, the shift speaks to a much wider national acknowledgment of the underrepresentation of women in the key creative roles of writers and directors in our funded theatre companies.

While conversations about this misrepresentation have been occurring for years, they reached tipping point in late 2009, when several high profile theatre companies announced seasons of work with exceedingly few women. When Company B (now Belvoir) in Sydney released a season of works with only one female playwright and one female director, the first significant waves of awareness occurred in the debate.

First reported on the blog of Sydney playwright Joanna Erskine, who called it an “unacceptable gap in statistics”, the debate quickly spread through theatrical blogs, and began to focus on the underrepresentation of women in many of the country’s highest funded organisations.

This April, the debate came to a crux with the release of the Women in Theatre report from the Australia Council for the Arts. Compiled by academics Elaine Lally and Sarah Miller, the report casts an unflattering light on the theatre sector.

The report looks at the qualitative statistics to get an overview of the true position of women in funded theatre companies; and takes quantitative data through a series of interviews to try and shine better light on the causes of the issues.

One of the key findings of the report focused on the major performing arts companies in the period between 2001 and 2011. These eight theatre companies, of which the STCSA is a member, are the highest funded theatre organisations in Australia. The report showed women make up only 21 percent of the playwrights and 25 percent of the directors working for these companies. At 36 percent, the proportion of productions with at least one woman in the key roles of writer or director is no less dire.

Below the funding levels of the MPA companies, the Theatre Board Key Organisations are a collection of companies funded by the Australia Council with multi-year funding. Typically classified as in the ‘small-to-medium’ sector, Key Organisations represent a larger number of companies than the MPA companies, but each with typically lower outputs of work.

While the report showed greater representation of women in these companies, the proportions are still significantly below parity, with women writing 37 percent of the productions, and directing another 37 percent.

Raised in interviews Lally and Miller held with artists and stakeholders, the reasons for this continuing disparity between gender representations are complex.

While some of these reasons will be familiar to women in many industries, including the structure of employment pathways and the challenges of balancing a career and family, some are unique to the nature of the arts. As one interview respondent told the report, “all new work is risky but women’s work is perceived to be riskier”.

In 1984 the Council endorsed the paper Women in the Arts: A Strategy for Action, which was the first comprehensive look by the Council at the underrepresentation of women in the sectors they fund. While many strategies were implemented, the current statistics paint a concerning picture for how little things have changed.

That same year, Vitalstatistix Women’s Theatre Company was founded by artists Margie Fisher, Roxxy Bent and Ollie Black to champion the work and stories of women in theatre. While the Port Adelaide company has undergone many incarnations over the years, no longer presenting with the word women in their title, gender-aware programming is still a core part of their mission.

In response to this new report, current Creative Producer of Vitalstatistix, Emma Webb, said while the face of the industry is changing, “both statistical and anecdotal evidence shows there continues to be barriers and cultural issues that affect the career advancement of women in the arts”.

“Changes comes in stops and starts, peaks and troughs; the national debate around women’s leadership in theatre over the last few years, and reports like this, ensure the discussion around women in theatre is not some kind of historical survey but rather are in the here and now,” she said.

While the long-term effects of any response to the new report are yet to be seen, radically fast changes in programming at major companies like the STCSA gives hope for a changing industry face. Hopefully, the 2013 seasons will show us the only way is up.

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.

Are we not animals?

This article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of The Adelaide Review.

David Heinrich and Cameron Goodall. Photo Jonathan VDK.

Far away from the traditional proscenium arch of the Adelaide Festival Theatre, the 2012 Adelaide Festival is presenting a unique collaboration between independent theatre company The Border Project and the Adelaide Zoo. The partnership between the artists and the zookeepers has lead to I am not an Animal: an intimate but large-scale, site-specific theatre work in which the animals themselves take centre stage.

The project began over two years ago when Zoos SA CEO Chris West and Adelaide Festival Artistic Director Paul Grabowsky found themselves seated together at a lunch, and shared what West calls an “overlap in interest and concern in humanity”. After that lunch the conversation continued and a partnership developed between the zoo and festival, which then approached The Border Project about creating a work to be presented in the zoo.

There is enough open space at the zoo that a piece of work could play there with no reflection on its surrounds but The Border Project knew they weren’t interested in creating work, which wasn’t an interaction between performers, animals and an audience. In the words of production co-director Daniel Koerner: “There is no jazz band in the rotunda.”

Read the rest of this entry »