Criticism and audiences ~ theatre notes

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Criticism and audiences

UPDATE: In the comments, Ben makes clear that Chris Bendall's howl that he was taken out of context is perfectly just. My sincere apologies, Chris: as is probably clear, my past history makes me a little sensitive to perceived pressures, subtle or otherwise, to shut up.

Meanwhile, New York playwright James Comtois has some robust views of his own on critical walkouts.

The debate about the right and responsibilities of crrrritics continues apace. At Parachute of a Playwright, Ben Ellis rounds up some of the latest posts from the blogosphere and hosts some more discussion (and welcome to the blogosphere, Daniel Schlusser!) Ben also quotes from an email by Chris Bendall, artistic director of Theatre@Risk, who claims that this debate (on TN here and here) is "hurting audiences" for his show.

Is Chris seriously suggesting that a couple of posts on TN (readership last week, 4,250) is going to have more impact on GP audience numbers than a glowing review in the Age (daily circulation Monday to Friday, 658,000)? It seems absurd to me. But maybe I'm doing a Dragonball Z again and being more powerful than I ever imagined...

Without having read the entire email it's hard to be sure, but the strong implication is that Chris would like this debate to shut down because, rightly or wrongly, he believes that that it is affecting audience numbers for his show. In his email to me, his first impulse was to ask me to remove my comments altogether. My feeling is that I would like the discussion to continue, and to continue to open out past the question of the merits of a particular show. This debate was always about more than that.

My first question is: even if it were true that discussion about a particular production were affecting audience numbers, would that be a reason to stop talking about it? Is Chris seriously suggesting that a piece of theatre - a public act - is either to be spoken of in tones of reverent awe, or passed over in silence?

It reminds me, rather depressingly, of the Playbox days. My negative reviews of various productions in the early '90s led to a long and sometimes vicious campaign for my sacking by the Bulletin, and then, when that didn't succeed, to a high-profile banning.

I am not suggesting that Chris is being nearly as extreme as that; but there are shades of special pleading in his claim on Ben's blog. Playbox's argument was that my views were hurting the theatre, and I therefore should be silenced. My argument was that I was not an extension of a theatre's publicity machine.

In both these cases, there is the implicit equation of a negative review with bad criticism. As I have been saying - as was, in fact, the point of my original piece - they are by no means the same thing. A positive review can be bad criticism, and vice versa.

Secondly, is it really true that a negative review leads inevitably to poor audiences? Ben Ellis certainly has a different view about that. My experience as a practitioner leads to me feel that the relationship between critical reception and audience numbers - certainly in this town - is hardly so direct. Permit me a personal divagation.

There have been many times when I've been on the other side of the fence, both in the theatre and elsewhere. I know how much work it takes to make something. I also know that when I put something out in public, people are going to say whatever they like about it. And as far as I'm concerned, that is how it should be.

The first piece of theatre I ever had produced was an opera by Michael Smetanin, for which I wrote the libretto. The Burrow, directed by Michael Kantor, premiered at the 1994 Perth Festival and toured to the Seymour Centre in Sydney. That production, deservedly, created "a critical sensation". The opera was later picked up by Chamber Made and produced in Melbourne.

One thing I remember clearly about the Perth season was that the manager of one of the companies that produced the show was not very keen on it. It was, he said sneeringly, a "critical success", meaning that its audiences were poorer than he liked. As far as he was concerned, "critical success" was a euphemism for box-office disaster.

The next opera Michael Smetanin and I made together was Gauguin, which premiered at the 2000 Melbourne Festival. This was a critical debacle. The Melbourne reviews were, without exception, appalling: Michael and I were shredded (I, personally, thought that they had a point, even if they generally missed the point). The only positive reviews came from out-of-towners.

Despite this, the houses were full. I remember sitting in a packed theatre at the Arts Centre, thinking that this was the strangest failure I had ever had.

So it seems to me that audience attendance is about many things, and can't be tracked down simply to positive or negative reviews. And, frankly, if critics determined as much as they are sometimes thought to, Cameron Mackintosh would be a much poorer man than he is today. Remember, Mackintosh stopped inviting critics to opening nights, because they routinely took his lucrative musicals to bits.

It seems to me that the blogosphere offers a public space - at once international, flexible and dynamic - in which serious public discussion about theatre can take place in a way that has not been possible in this town before. I understand that Chris Bendall is smarting at my remarks. Were I in his place, I might well feel the same way. At the same time, I think he should be wary of attempting to curb discussion, which is something that hurts the theatre as a whole far more.


Chris Boyd said...

With all due respect to your undoubted influence, Alison, if a rave in the Age can't stop a slide in audience numbers at this point in a season, word-of-mouth must be terrible.

It's a truism in Melbourne theatre, that reviews can only speed-up or slow down (as the case may be) the reception of a play. A rave might cause a spike in audience numbers at a bad show, just as a chorus of disapproval won't keep a good show down... though it could well damage it for a week or two.

Think of the impact that Len Radic's damnation (allegedly) had on a revival of Coralie Lansdowne Says No at the Studio, before word got around that it was a crowd-pleaser? Group bookings cancelled, $40,000 worth of box office lost, rah rah rah... (That said, director Carrillo Gantner is a not-entirely-reliable source on such matters!!)

If there is any consolation to be had by Chris Bendall, this is the graveyard shift of the theatre year. Between Melbourne Festival and Christmas, attendances at -- and spending on -- theatre is notoriously low.

BTW, Alison, how many of those readers are Melburnians? Would you care to hazard a guess?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris - yes, quite. Short seasons can be a problem in this way, because there often isn't time for the word of mouth factor to percolate through. But really, word of mouth is the thing.

I have only the cheapo (read: free) site stats, so it's a bit hard to estimate general percentages, since they only track details on the last 100. There's quite a large international component (mainly Americans), and sometimes it even outnumbers Australians. But on the whole, the bulk of the stats - varying between 40 and 90 per cent, depending on the time of day - come from Melbourne.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,
Once again you've devoted your blog space to only reading part of a comment from me, just as you devoted space to watching only part of our show.
I'm not trying to shut down debate. Debate about theatre is a wonderful thing! My comment to Ben is that I only wish people would stop trying to comment on a show that they have not seen. The solution is simple for those who live in Melbourne. Go out and see it - and then talk about it as much as you like. Which is exactly what I said to you after your first 'non-review'/'review'. So I invite you again - its got two more nights. Come along and then write about it as much as you wish.
P.S. 4000 readers? sounds like about the size of the independent theatregoing public of Melbourne.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris - well, I did qualify what I said, saying that I didn't know the whole context of it. But that was certainly an implication that could be read into what was on Ben's blog, and I'm very glad (actually, intensely relieved) to hear that's not how you feel.

All the same, I have long thought that critical influence on audiences is often exaggerated. There's no doubt that there is an effect, but what it is, I am sure, varies hugely from show to show, and is in any case very difficult to quantify. What I am sure of is what Chris Boyd said above: that at most it merely delays or hurries what happens with word of mouth.

Paul Martin said...

As you know, Alison, I'm not a theatre person. To offer an equivalent cinema perspective, I don't think critics have much influence on the success or otherwise of large cinematic releases. Where there's critical mass, word-of-mouth suffices. But for small films like The King and Em 4 Jay (and I can't be accused of any bias here), a mediocre review by (especially) both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz will pretty much spell their death knell. Conversely, a film that might be just OK (in my estimation) like Russian Ark will do a roaring success if they both give it a high score.

Summary: the influence of the critic is greater with a small release.

Born Dancin' said...

Last night I made it to Requiem's last performance, and to be honest, I'm really quite very rather somewhat confused at the debate here - I'm not sure that we saw the same show, Alison. I did see another Melbourne lad (who knows his theatre inside and out and who does read this blog) in attendance, so give us your thoughts, CK! I don't want to be alone here in arguing that the initial (non)-review was really quite dismissive of a piece that probably deserved more consideration. I'll review it myself later on today, but the short of it is that I really, really want to know about the "intellectual and theatrical naivetie" you found in the piece. I suppose I'm asking for a review, in a sense, though I fully respect your right not to provide one - a review is hard work, you're not paid for it, and not reviewing something can be as impactful as reviewing it.

Then again: I mostly agree with Paul's comments about large and small cinema releases. Slamming an MTC production won't really have as dramatic an effect on the box office compared to dissing a smaller show. I'm reminded of comments made by Paul Harris a few years back, in which he noted that if a small, local release really fails to impress him, he simply won't review it (in most cases). Fact is, a negative review isn't needed to keep people away from a small piece - most people will stay away anyway. A good review can get bums on seats, but simply ignoring something has the same effect as a negative appraisal.

Now, obviously there's the argument that criticism is a dialogue, it's how theatremakers develop their craft, etc etc. And I imagine that most people reading Theatre Notes are able to engage in that kind of dialogue, and theatre-literate enough to contribute something valuable. But a non-review which is really a review ("a mistake of disastrous proportions") could serve to put off those readers whose own responses would be most valuable - considering the amount of theatre which is on right now (even though it really is the graveyard shift Chris Boyd mentioned), I for one would rather spend my time at a show you'd reviewed well, rather than one you hadn't. And though Ben wrote that your comments would in fact have him seeing the show, I'd like to know how many people are in the same situation.

I guess I'm saying that despite your humility, most readers here probably pretty much agree that Theatre Notes is the most comprehensive source of Australian theatre reviews on the net; Boyd's site is comparable but you're much more prolific, and almost every Melbourne production worth a look-see turns up here at some point. It might not have the readership of The Age, sure, but the readership it does have is not to be scoffed at (I'm not implying that you do, of course).

Ben Ellis said...

Yikes. I have to 'fess up, here. Chris didn't ask me to make public any of his email, so I probably shouldn't have mentioned his name and have done him a disservice by doing so. Because, as he says, it's only a small part of what he communicated to me.

I was hoping that more people would see the show and take part as an audience because of the discussion and not in spite of it.

Anonymous said...

No critic would leave a performance that they were enjoying half way through on the grounds that they knew what the rest of the production would be like. Why do it for one that you're not enjoying? The critic that does so betrays their subjectivity.
I seem to remember seeing Mr. Schlusser's production of The Government Inspector and wanting to leave after an extremely tedious expository first act, and I'm glad I didn't, as the rest of the performance was a marked departure; the piece kicked off in Act 2 and was almost unrecognisable as the same production.
That's not a reflection on whether it was a good or bad production overall, just that works have to be met on their own terms and in their entirity.
Allison, I hold your opinions in the highest regard, but I wish you'd seen Requiem For The 20th Century in it's entirity or refrained from commenting.
As for the piece itself, your assessment was, of course, correct. It was competently acted (apart from some aweful accent work), but unimaginatively directed. The transitions between scenes were theatrical death. Contrary to Mr. Woodhead's opinion, any momentum the production had managed to generate dissipated while we waited for scene changes or for one of the innumerable costume changes.
But I think that the greatest culprit for the show's lack of success is the script. This is the site of the "intellectual and theatrical naivetie" that you found, and I saw it too. As a contrived tour de force of historical figures it left one with the feeling of "who cares?". Yes, there's Charlie Chaplin and there's Marlene Dietrich, and we're ticking the boxes like bird-watchers, but what urgency here? Why does this story need to be told? What did they really want to say? It was pretty hard to tell, because we were just subjected to a seemingly un-ending string of historical figures. And who writes a script that has a horse on stage anyway? It was embarassing to watch the cast and director negotiate it.
I'm sorry the director took your comments badly, but as a public artist you have to take the bad with the good. Half a page in The Age is not bad...