Festival Diary #1
The Melbourne Festival officially opens tonight, but a couple of pre-opening events have already tempted Ms TN out of her burrow. Over the past two nights, I've seen two contemporary dance works, Force Majeure's Never Did Me Any Harm and The Forsythe Company's I Don't Believe in Outer Space. Both are recommended: William Forsythe's work in particular is astounding. I'll be uploading meditations on both: but I find that before I can write properly about them I need to clear my mental decks.
As regular readers know, a few weeks ago I put up the blinds and shut shop, pleading theatrical burnout. Of course, I've been busy: my novel Black Spring finally landed in bookshops last week, I am plodding along on another novel, reviewing Mallarmé, writing columns, and so on and so forth. This time out meant I saw almost none of the Fringe Festival, which cost me some twinges; but all the same, it's been an excellent thing to stay home and reflect. In particular: what is this burnout of which I speak? Is it merely a personal thing, or does it reflect a wider feeling of stress?
In the past couple of weeks I've had a few interesting conversations about theatre criticism in Melbourne. This navel-gazing is an occupational hazard worldwide: the New York Times last week launched yet another round table, Do We Need Professional Critics?, prompting Age critic and blogger Rebecca Harkins Cross to tweet: "Do we need another debate about whether we need critics?" I've lost count of how many panels I've sat on to debate the same question over the years: the last was during the Melbourne Writers Festival in August. In part, this crisis of professionalism is a response to the tsunami of digital culture, which for some people suggests that serious criticism is over. Needless to say, I don't agree: but I do sometimes wonder where that criticism is going to come from.
There's something at once neurotic and healthy about theatre criticism's constant self-questioning. It happens across all artforms to some degree, but I think no other art attracts critics so apt to self-critique. In part this is because theatre is a live form: unlike the literary critic, the performance critic is necessarily a social animal. Anyone who writes seriously about performance finds herself inevitably to be part of a community, with all the complexities - positive and negative - that this entails. The liveness also means it's temporal: seasons are short, and the pressure to attract audiences is particularly overt in theatre.
The conflation of the theatre review with marketing is one of the constant tensions of the job. This was the case long before the internet, but as theatre companies increase their online presence, and even create blogs of their own, the borders get even fuzzier. The "what's on" consumer review has its place, and it's not unimportant: but if criticism is confined only to this kind of review, or defaults to a form of marketing, the culture as a whole is impoverished. We do not "consume" art: we encounter it. Crucially, for me, criticism can be a place where the impoverishments of commodification can be contested, where the reasons why art matters can be teased out in relation to particular works.
Sometimes arts organisations - always the first to complain about the inadequacies of criticism - can be slow to understand that a good work of criticism isn't a synonym for a positive review. Sometimes critics think a snarky negative review is the same as being discriminating. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone knows the difference, or worse, if anyone cares. (Yes, I know that you do.)
A healthy and engaged critical culture needs many and engaged voices: not just one, not just a few. Since the heydays of five years ago, when shiny new blogs all over town buzzed with ferocious arguments about the asethetic values of performance, things have calmed down across Melbourne: that sort of sustained discussion is rarer now. Cultures are living entities, which go through these cyclic periods of liveliness and retreat. But there's a strong sense that an invigorating energy has surged and withdrawn, like the tide. This is neither good nor bad: this is what happens. But what now?
It's clear that a lively critical culture simply can't depend on voluntary labour. An unpaid blog is a huge commitment of energy and intellectual resource, and there is little incentive, and especially little financial incentive, for younger critics to continue writing. And yet they do: Jana Perkovic is now blogging in Berlin, most recently on An Enemy of the People, which opens here next weekend; Andrew Furhmann has retooled and is now at Primitive Surveys (also writing about Thomas Ostermeier).
Yet criticism remains as contingent as it always has been in Australia. As the recent evisceration of the Fairfax arts pages made brutally clear, the opportunities to make a living from criticism, always slim, have all but vanished over the past decade. There is very little chance, despite the idea constantly being raised, of criticism being funded by art grants; and the notion that theatre companies should fund criticism - another regularly floated idea - is self-evidently problematic.
And this, when the culture is lousy with work. Many shows open and close without getting reviewed at all, online or off. Trying to keep up with all the performance in Melbourne is a full-time job, or more probably three full-time jobs. The fact is that no one can afford to do it. Even with complimentary tickets, it costs money and time, precious resources in anybody's lives; even paid reviewers get peanuts. And this doesn't even address the question of critical quality. Writing seriously about work is simply incompatible with covering everything. You can choose breadth, or depth. I have always tried for the latter here, given that I consider I write reviews and not criticism per se; but I feel the pressure of all the shows I miss. And I feel it the more as it seems that a blog like TN is not an alternative to mainstream coverage, which is how I always conceived it, even when I was part of that mainstream coverage myself. Cameron, Chris, Rebecca et al notwithstanding, there's less and less mainstream to be an alternative to.
This feeds into the informational responsibility of reviews: not unimportantly, they are a way of letting people know that a show exists. There are plenty of online resources which do just that, and even so it's not enough. But conveying information is not what makes writing about performance interesting or challenging or worth reading. I suspect that the pressure towards comprehensive coverage, both internal and external, means that I have lost a sense of the creative possibilities of critical writing. Without that sense, that freedom to imaginatively respond to a work, criticism hardly seems worthwhile. I have never, after all, wanted TN to be a kind of superior listings column.
Maybe, heh, I'm just getting older. I've been doing this for a long time, after all, and, like everything worthwhile, it never gets any easier. Or maybe I'm thinking back to that twitter conversation earlier, in which I quipped to Rebecca Harkins-Cross that "Maybe [debating whether we need critics] is a way of not having to actually make criticism matter". Does criticism matter? If it does, how does it matter? I'm not sure that I know. Maybe it's something that you have to find out anew every time you begin to write a review.
Which brings me back to the Melbourne Festival. As with every year since I began TN, way back in the prehistoric mists of 2004, I'll be seeing as much as I can. I'm seeing fewer shows than usual, as I missed out on a couple of ticket requests; and as always, there are the shows that I didn't choose, and probably should have. This year I'm on a metaquest to rediscover my critical mojo. Wish me luck, fellow theatrenauts. And onward!
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Festival Diary #1