No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: writing on writing

The face for radio.

Back when I was young and naïve and thought I would be able to keep pace writing about the shows I was seeing in the festival season (oh, how I will look back on that period and laugh!) I was a guest on radio show The Scenery.

If you follow this handy link, you can hear me talk about things including: what it means to me to be a young critic in Adelaide; how a critic came to be production managing Sepia; how I fit in to the wider arts scene here, and how I fit into a national landscape; problems I see in the local industry when it comes to the perception of criticism and critics; wanting to make arts writing a conversation; issues I have with the old guard of the Adelaide Critics Circle; dealing with criticism for my criticism; and the crazy experiment I’ve taken this fringe when requesting tickets, which has been quite wonderfully received.

Listen; discuss; and come help me on my crazy trek to increase this conversation I’m one teeny tiny part of.

Addendum: A Chorus Line, the commercial musical, and the review

My piece on A Chorus Line and the thoughts I had surrounding reviewing such an existing entity had spawned a very interesting discussion on the role of the review and the reviewer (please join in if you have more to add).

But, what I’m asking from you now is what do you want from a review of an existing, commercial musical?  If that’s a thirty-seven year old production of A Chorus Line or if that’s, say, a replica of a current mega-musical such as Wicked – what do you want a review to tell you about the locally playing production, when you can just as easily google dozens from NYC or around the world?

I want specific answers. In the comments on the first post Keith said:

pointing out sound problems is a big deal and mentioning current actors in the cast is important, too. (The cast will use ACL reviews like an indepedent theatre company would, for pull-quotes and to build their reputations.) But you’re just a different part of the conversation with a show like this; you’re speaking to people who will see this cast on that stage – and probably not to any future readers with interests in ACL.

So is it these things: execution of production qualities, more detail of individual performances?  Is it more background and context, or is it less?  Does it matter that it’s been running for forty-odd years?

What do you dear reader of this blog – you audience member, you artist, you marketer – read a review of such a show for?  What didn’t I talk about in my first review which I should have?  What did I talk about which you wish I’d left out?  What do you want to know, or want to discuss with me, or discuss with anyone when you leave a show like this?

You help me, and I might learn to be a better writer.  I might even try and write you another review.

Reviews, who are they good for? (Including Review: A Chorus Line)

On Friday December 31st, A Chorus Line had its first preview at the Adelaide Festival Centre.  Before the curtain even fell, Adelaide Now (the online branch of The Advertiser) had published an article about the first performance entitled A Chorus Line Dazzles At Premiere.  It’s your typical arts fluff-piece – “stars were made”, producer tells you you should go, Adelaide’s the place to be, etc.  Critics weren’t invited until the official opening night of Jan 3, yet journalist Emily Watkins – the Sunday Mail’s Crime and Justice Reporter – still tells us the production “dazzled the opening night crowd.”  Can’t you just see that on the posters?

On Jan 1st, the Adelaide Festival Centre’s twitter asked tweeters what they thought of “opening night”:

before getting well and truly in the act, tweeting Watkins article as their “first review”, to which I replied:

To which I got no response.

So not only do we have the local newspaper conflating a first performance with an opening night, we have the Adelaide Festival Centre also ignoring this distinction, and then calling an article a review.

I mainly thought no more of it, until down to the Festival Theatre I went on January 3rd to pick up my tickets and watch the show to write my review.  And it wasn’t until I sat down in my seat that I fully comprehended that critics had been invited to see and respond to a production which is a replica of a production which first played Broadway in 1975, where it continued for fifteen years. Which first played the West End in 1976; Sydney in 1977.  Which won nine Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, became the longest running show on Broadway, and played to 6.5 million people on that stage alone. These are all facts which could leave someone in awe, but I was left with just one thought:

What am I doing here?  What are any of us critics doing here?

What will any of us have to say about a production which has been kicking around the globe for 37 years?  What is that going to offer to theatrical discussion?

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Even A Critic Is A Person

Even a critic is a person.  No: especially a critic is a person, and the voice of a person must be heard in all his work. Conversely, all criticism in which a human voice is not heard is bad criticism.

Question: isn’t it possible that criticism might become too personal – in the sense that the person indulges himself, asks for overparticular attention, preens, poses for the cameras, overinsists that attention be paid to him?

Answer: Oh, what an unfair question! How could one answer it except in the affirmative?  But the affirmative answer is so uninteresting!

May I advocate for a style of criticism, however serious, that is not too far from the spoken word? An argument has been made for obscurity in modern literature.  But when this literature is discussed by an Edmund Wilson it becomes less obscure.  That is why he took pen to paper: to make the more unknown by the less unknown. The more grandiose and doctrinaire school of modern criticism explains the unknown by the more unknown. Proust is difficult, God knows, but criticism of Proust can be even more difficult! My argument is that this is a reason for not reading such criticism.

Good criticism results from no lazy or easy going process or mentality, but its purpose is to make life – the life of the student of the arts – easier.  If it fails, the student is justified in taking leave of the critic and having another go at Proust.

Eric Bentley
Thinking About The Playwright , p233

Mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point.

-France, I, i, 240-242

“Talk about affirmative acting,” proclaims Matthew Westwood in The Australian, making full use of the pun quota straight off the bat. “Melbourne Theatre Company, ordered in 2009 to address a gender imbalance in its productions, is to make King Lear a woman.”

Well, by Jove, they’ve done it.  That’s the way to save gender inequality in Australian theatre.

This brief article about MTC’s 2012 programming makes mention of how the MTC’s governing body, the University of Melbourne, insisted the company employ an equal opportunity officer after employing just one female director “this year” – which should be 2010, as in 2011, the company saw five women direct on the mainstage.

In the just announced 2012 season, four of the eleven assigned directors (of 12 productions) are female.  MTC general manager Ann Tonks is quoted as saying this was “a much better outcome” than previous years.

If we’re looking long term, where from 2005-2011 the company has had a strike rate of 20% female directors to 80% male directors, yes, things are looking up.  Yet, as I’ve made mention, in 2011, MTC had five female directors and seven male directors.  Which is going to be at least as good as 2012, if not better.  Although with 2012 currently standing at 36%, this still leaves the MTC nine percentage points below 2011’s national average.

Curiously, there is no mention in the article on playwrights. Between 2005 and 2011, just 25% of MTC’s mainstage shows have been written by women, and this is again the case in 2012, where just three shows are written by women – the three texts premiering next year with the company, however, were all written by men.

One of the three plays with female playwrights is Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982), which is also being presented in a separate production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia next year.  With so much national dialogue of the voices being heard on our stages, I am worried (cringing, perhaps) that this show was selected (twice!) simply because it is the most obvious play about feminism.  And yet: it is thirty years old.  While both companies proclaim to us it is relevant, I can’t help but think has nothing new been written on the subject?  Must we continually defer our feminist dialogue back to the 80s?

I am unabashedly a fan of new writing: I think hearing modern voices on our stages, in that living artform that is theatre is important.  This isn’t to say we should never defer to those “classics”, but can we question why we do?  As a young feminist, can my generation be given permission to take hold of the issue and its representation at all?

But back to The Australian, and the MTC addressing a gender imbalance by casting Nevin as Lear.  From 2005 to 2011, there have been roles for 598 actors to tread the boards of MTC’s mainstage.  356 of these roles went to men; 242 to women.

One women in the role of one man will not tip these scales.

And besides all this, as director Rachel McDonald states in the article, casting Nevin as Lear isn’t so much “affirmative acting” as it is good casting and good marketing.  She’s one of the best actors in Australia: why shouldn’t she play what is appreciated as one of the greatest roles in the Western theatrical canon?

Having an equal opportunity officer is great.  It seems to be making a difference in the number of directors – although MTC still has a way to go.  It hasn’t seemed to affect playwrights at all, which is very disappointing.  It has nothing to do with Nevin and this role.

Gender equality in Australian theatre remains a pertinent and frustrating issue: one which, as 2011 rolls into 2012, shouldn’t be an issue at all.  Can we ask publications like The Australian to delve into these issues deeper, rather than conflating articles on a piece of casting news, some information about an upcoming season, and some titbits about inequality  thrown in for good measure?  I think we should.

Australian Theatre Forum: A terrifyingly amicable discussion between artists and critics

Open Spaces thoughts: two.

Terrifyingly frank discussion between arts and critics”, is what was proposed by Cameron Woodhead,  and “Given the ABC has just dropped its in house arts coverage, how do we nourish and sustain critical connections?”  was instigated by Alison Croggon.  I was very excited by the size of the group which choose to attend the discussions.  I was disappointed together, everyone was much more “terrifyingly amicable” than “terrifyingly frank.”

There are so many issues surrounding both prongs of this debate.  For me and my “career” as a critic it boils down to two key issues: how do I receive critical feedback of my work as an emerging writer, and how do I create a sustainable career in a field which is rapidly being removed from our traditional media sources?  I am paid for only two of the publications I write for – and this sum is minimal.  I figure in a good month I might be able to bring in as much as $220.

I have not yet had one of these months which I would describe as good.

(And then, of course, I buy tickets for a great chunk of the shows I review for this blog, so that’s where that money goes. I am often struck how often I am praised for my work on this blog, and how few media lists I am on.)

This career is currently completely unsustainable, this blog is completely unsustainable.  It’s not necessarily that not getting paid is the issue, it’s that I’m not paid and I work full time and then and then and then.  It can all get a bit much.

And on the other point, it is really really hard to get artists to talk to critics about criticism.  I’ve been having more luck in Adelaide in recent months, perhaps my “contribution” to the arts scene there more visibly seen or appreciated?  My annoying voice popping up in more forums, people figuring out I’m not going away?

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Thoughts: Myth; or, art, feminism, and the critical juncture.

Subtitled “A study on the female species” (perplexingly omitting the word “of”) Erin Fowler’s Myth is a danced commentary on visions and stereotypes of women over time.   Fowler with co-choreographers and performers Jessie Oshodi and Mikaila Roe dance their way through images of this species: ancient perceptions of a goddess; 50s ideals of a housewife; Barbies to be manipulated; nothing more than a tease for men. Presentation of these images accompanies spoken text written by Fowler, the documentary style of Patrick Clements’ voice observing these women.

The small stage and flat seating of Nexus is hardly conducive to a good dance presentation, but Fowler, Oshodi and Roe all do well containing themselves within the space, without seeming constrained, and stay away from too much low and floor work.

The three emerging artists are technically strong, although at times sections of choreography had a tendency to delve into presentation of steps to show technique, rather than working off a through line from the choreography.  Regardless, much of the choreography is intriguing and does well to show off the strengths of the still young dancers: Oshodi particularly strong with a powerful presence in her jumps.

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Review: Worldhood (And: On the fallibility of being a critic)

Worldhood. Photo Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions 2011

This review was originally published at Australian Stage Online

Darkness. Silence. Through the dim, white. A large blank page, several meters high by nearly the stage wide. In front, sits the stage. Empty.

Enter visual artist Thom Buchanan. To the white, he brings fast and furious strokes of charcoal. The theatre fills with the scratch and scrape of charcoal against paper, the breath of Buchanan, amplified, echoing around and around the space. The page fills with vertical lines, Buchanan swiftly crafting a forced perspective, the audience finding themselves peering down a city street.

As Buchanan draws he ducks and rises, his whole body mimicking the geometry of his hand and the charcoal he draws with.

Dancer Tara Soh walks on to the stage, watching with intent the rapid creation of a black backdrop, as she begins to follow Buchanan. As he drops, she drops. As he shifts up, right, down, right, left, she shifts up, right, down, right, left.

As she moves out of this holding pattern, Soh continues to create patterns and forms in response to the heightening intensity of sound, as the strike of charcoal and the sharpness of breath continues to intensify in the space. Her body moves in sharp lines and angles.

Other dancers begin to join and fill the space, their bodies too moving and bending with sharp cracks along lines, moving angles and moving planes. Hands grab, arms interlock, bodies in a mass move across the space.

The sound of Buchanan drops away, and as if the voice over to a documentary, we are told about the history of marks, of the precursors to image. Of angles, of composition, of the eventual discovery of how to create a perception of depth on a two dimensional plane.

And that’s just the first fifteen minutes.
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AdlFringe Diary 1: So You Think You Can Critic?

Don’t tell anyone, it’s shocking, I know, that this level of sarcasm and what I like to call “wit” comes from someone with no training at all.  Ever since I escaped my Year Twelve Drama final exam screaming “don’t ever make me watch a Baz Lurhman film again!” this reviewing has been all me, baby.  Believe it or not (and, well, if you don’t believe it, you don’t have to go far back to find people in the comments not too impressed with me), I have, on occasion, gotten into a touch of trouble for stuff I’ve written on this blog.  Sometimes warranted, sometimes not.  Either way, I will always be proud of the infamy I carried in my Battle With The Bistro (C).

But because of this I thought maybe it was about time I learnt some proper legal stuff (my calling it “stuff” may give you an idea as to where I lie in my knowledge), and it was with that Day One of my Fringe started with me trundling off to Learn How To Be A Critic.

Together with a group of other aspiring young critics, I was taught:

  • The best way to get interviews is to hang around after the show and try and nab the artists on their way home for a few quick questions.
  • If this doesn’t work, accosting them in the corner of The Garden of Unearthly Delights is another good idea.
  • Once you have this interview, it is a good idea to integrate your interview with your review of the show.
  • Never write anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.  Especially if this face is attached to someone with big, muscular arms.
  • If you didn’t like a show, it’s probably just because it wasn’t to your taste.  Thus, you should include in all “bad” reviews that you give something along the lines of “while elephants being forced to stand on one leg while hola-hooping and painting wasn’t something that I enjoyed, that’s probably just because I don’t enjoy animal torture.  I’m sure there were many audience members who do appreciate such things: this show is for you!”, or, “although I could hear no lines, as we sat in a dark box for an hour, perhaps this is just in my opinion, because I can’t see in the dark nor do I have as good as hearing as dogs.  I’m sure all audience members who are canines with see-in-the-dark glasses got a lot out of it.”
  • Making comments like these will help you write a fair and balanced review, and stop you from getting in any legal trouble.
  • If you are worried about legal problems, just use your “common sense” and everything will turn out okay.

Now, this blog post might be defamation.  But my “common sense” tells me it’s not.  So I guess it’s okay then!  Look out for my use of these handy hints in my Fringe Reviews!

Sometimes, I write about film.

There was a discussion on twitter today about the validity of star systems in reviewing (#gamescore).  It seems to me that the consensus was they’re generally not liked, but some people see them as being, if not strictly necessary, helpful as either a “fall back” position, or an “entry point” for the reader.

A week ago I managed to grab the ear of a theater director friend for a few minutes, and ask him for his criticism on my criticism, to which he said he had the complaint that sometimes I take too long to get to the point.  He wants it there: first paragraph what was it about, second paragraph what I thought.  To that I said I’m not sure it is exactly “my job” to make it that easy for anyone.  I take the position that in my 800-odd words I try to explore the piece, and certainly reflect on what I thought the merits or downfalls were, and then out of that should come an overall picture of what I thought.  For me, my reviews are not “consumer advice.”  While of course they can be seen as such, and I hope that when I see a good play I can convince others to see it, it’s not my job to say “buy tickets” or “don’t buy tickets”, and so I don’t necessarily want to be able to give all of my opinions in the second paragraph, let alone in stars.  Sometimes my view is glaringly obvious, and sometimes it’s not, and I think that’s okay.  Your mileage may vary.

So I am very glad I’ve never had to use a star system.  Maybe one day I will have to.  Knowing me, I will be very methodological about the whole thing and start grading in percentages and then convert it to stars and that will just get messy.  But this rather long introduction is really just to let you know I wrote about the star system in film reviews.  You can read all about it here.