On being nice ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On being nice

UPDATES: Some well-considered words from Ben Ellis over at Parachute of a Playwright and gobsmacked disbelief from our man in berlin Daniel Schlusser. More tough words from another New York playwright, James Comtois, some useful (if depressing) background from Chris Boyd and Matt Scholten has the lowdown on the Arts Centre's official response.

ONE thing about the blogosphere is that your cyber-neighbours don't necessarily live around the corner. Away on the other side of the Pacific, some recent Melbourne shenanigans have raised a couple of those sceptical New York eyebrows. Isaac Butler of Parabasis, for instance, blasphemously suggested in a recent post that I don't wield magical powers: he thinks, despite the powerballs that zap from my fingertips, that other things might affect audience attendance besides blog discussion.

And today at Superfluities, George Hunka buys into another Melbourne stoush that, for once, I wasn't involved in. (For those coming in late, George backgrounds it well, so I won't repeat much here). Actor Ming-Zhu Hii, who recently began the blog Minktails, has found herself in the middle of a firestorm over her vocal criticism of the Short and Sweet festival, soon on at the Arts Centre. I can't give you a link, because the relevant posts have been taken down. As always, George has many interesting things to say, but the kernel is worth quoting in full:

I can't applaud Ming-Zhu's decision to delete her original post and the comments associated with it, though I can easily understand this decision; often enough I have been so tempted with my own blog. But the personal abuse to which she was subjected in the comments section of that original post demonstrates the hypocrisy of many artists who operate on the fringes of the mainstream theatre: they want attention, but only the right attention; regardless of the authority and persuasiveness of the argument, it is not the argument itself which is addressed. Instead, these artists believe that this marginalization (even self-marginalization) should protect them from honest response. Of course this is ridiculous. Any response to any artist, mainstream or avant-garde, needs to be honest; otherwise it is worthless; and contrary to what other bloggers may believe, this honesty must be reflected in our public as well as our private opinions if the blogosphere is to have any authority at all. Otherwise, yes: It does become a game of confluence of interest, we all self-congratulatorily scratch each others' backs.

If comments on the blogosphere about an individual show have repercussions in terms of a show's success or failure in terms of audience size--well, good on the blogosphere; that is the way criticism and reviewing works, and neither Ming-Zhu nor Alison can be accused of irresponsibility; five minutes reading their blogs, and recognizing the depth of their love for theatre, demonstrate that. And some theatre is bad. Some of mine is, some of yours is as well, and as artists we've all been there. But to lacerate sincere writers to the point at which they determine that their own criticial writing is detrimental to the atmosphere in which it is received is ridiculous. And unfair: The artists are trying to dictate the terms of the public conversation about their work. Their responsibility is to their work, not its reception, which is fair game.

Tough words, but in my view absolutely correct (aside from the implied slights against TN's commenters, who are generally a pretty civilised and interesting lot). The personal attacks against Ming-Zhu were driven in part by an alarmist email campaign, which claimed that the Short & Sweet festival was in imminent danger of being closed by her blog (she's also more powerful than she ever imagined).

"One of the Arts Centre Trustees stumbled on [Ming-Zhu's blog] and they are taking what she says into consideration - and are seriously considering the future continuance of the festival," claims the email. "The Arts Centre is monitoring the blog and whether Short & Sweet continues or not may well be decided by how many people get on to her blog and disagree with her...If you want Short & Sweet to continue - act now."

To suggest that Ming-Zhu's blog might be personally responsible for shutting down a festival is plainly risible. But there are other issues here which are more serious. I understand that Ming-Zhu also took her posts down because she was told they were libellous. This doesn't surprise me: I was alerted to the whole affair by this comment yesterday on a month-old post here which, among other things, suggested that Ming-Zhu's comments were defamatory.

So the question of defamation enters the issue of arts criticism on the blogosphere. This is where I start feeling alarmed.

Defamation law has traditionally been used in Australia as a way of closing down free discussion. Even the threat is enough to silence many people - witness what just happened with Ming-Zhu. It is particularly effective because, unlike the US, we have no constitutional protection for free speech. See this site for a clear explanation of how it has been used and what it is.

Legal action has been taken in several cases against critics, including myself - I was sued when I was the Bulletin's Melbourne critic - and I am personally extremely careful on this blog to work within the boundaries of libel. I urge all bloggers to make themselves informed about defamation law: know what is libellous, what is not and what your defences are. For arts criticism, the defence is "fair comment in the public interest", but sadly, no legal privilege attaches to criticism: a criticism may be legally libellous, but still defensible. A good site which outlines the recent amendments and the implications for cyberpsace is here - check it out. If you know what the law is, you are less likely to be vulnerable to vague threats.

George has adequately covered the other main issue this conflict brings up - if you can't be nice, don't say anything at all. To quote Nicole Rhys, the commenter I mentioned earlier:
I... undertand the Artistic Director and other Short & Sweet staff members have not been contacted by Ming with regard to her concerns. She could have written to them / spoken to them easily - their contact details are readily available on the Arts Centre website. Instead she uses a public forum, where her methodology is attack.

To me, this is one of the saddest and most discouraging things about the arts today. Without seeing the worst in everything, where is the real effort to constructively discuss and engage, if not celebrate effort made?
I would argue that Ming-Zhu was, in fact, constructively discussing and engaging. Provocation can be one of the most powerful spurs to thought. Of course she had every right to air her opinion. And those who disagreed with her - as Ming-Zhu freely acknowledged - had every right to air theirs. That was not what happened here: instead, what happened was a concerted attempt to silence debate.

Nicole says that instead of talking about her concerns and criticisms, inviting discussion from others, Ming-Zhu should have quietly and politely made her views known to the organisers. Me, I say bollocks to that. Aren't we grown up enough yet to wear a little robust discussion?

There's one important part of the theatre left out of this equation, in which no one says anything nasty for fear of hurting the artists: the audience. I have great respect for both art and artists, but I do not think that artists should determine or direct audience reaction. They might, and justly in my opinion, defend their right to small audiences, to "fail better", as Beckett so famously said: they might defend their right to be judged on the criteria on which their art is made. But as George points out, ultimately an artist's responsibility is to her work, not to its reception.

PS: I should probably make clear that I have no opinion on Short & Sweet myself. I am seeing Week 3 next week, and will make up my own mind. I may well find myself disagreeing with Ming-Zhu's opinion; but I believe she has every right to hold and express it.


Anonymous said...

Agree that some of the more hysterical responses were totally over the top and completely inappropriate. However, I would also disagree that the original post could have been characterised as reasoned criticism. It was incredibly damning of the quality of the Top 30 and the author had, by her own admission, seen only 10 of the productions as there are still 2 weeks to go.

I have no problem with anyone condemning the quality of any production but surely to criticise the selection process of the entire festival is premature at this stage. Doesn't common sense suggest she should have waited to the end of week 3? If the criticism was based partly on past festivals, I would question why she ever agreed to pariticpate in Short and Sweet at all.

The right to comment, criticise and raise valid issues is not under question, the wisdom of doing so when you have seen less than one third of the festival you are expressing such strong views about, is not as clear cut.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison

Nicole Rhys here. After posting yesterday I spoke in detail to an entertainment lawyer at my firm.

You may be interested in the following (re a discussion in our post correspondence yesterday):

The 1992 federal Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) provides a statutory defence for a site that carries or hosts internet content in Australia and is/was not aware of carrying/hosting a defamatory publication. Schedule 5 to the BSA provides that a state/territory enactment and of common law.

Re your post, what I find disturbing about the direction this debate has taken, is that by people like me criticising Ming's methodology, we are making a hero/martyr of her, and therefore giving credence to her post. Interestingly (and perhaps correctly) the debate has turned to the right of free speech and not the quality of what is said.

I would never suggest that Ming's free speech should be stifled. I actually intended to post on her site, but couldn't because it was locked, and therefore chose yours. I have enjoyed the robustness of our debate. Because you and I have basic differences of opinion.

The entertainment lawyer has reviewed Ming's post and determined a number of comments are indeed likely to be libellous. Interestingly because copies of the post remain in circulation, an action of libel can still be brought against her.

I quote my firm's site:
"Australian defamation law deals with competing interests. It must protect the personal, professional and commercial reputation of individuals and corporations, but also protect freedom of expression and access to public information."

I would argue that with the growth of the internet and the power of people to make comments anon (I applaud Ming and you for doing so in your names, the law of defamation is even more important than ever. Protecting reputation is an individual's right, just as much as free speech.

I think what this entire incident has shown, is that the balance between the two is indeed very fine and difficult, and there no easy answer to it.


Ben Ellis said...

Nicole, thanks for not being anonymous and it's interesting to read what you say.

For me, the main issue is the bullying email and subsequent campaign against Ming's blog that the email from "Bryan Innocent" initiated. Why was the creative crew of the playlet in which Ming was involved singled out in the "To:" line and how did "Bryan Innocent" get their email addresses? How did "Bryan Innocent" obtain the email addresses of those artists who were, as far as I understand, BCC'd? Where was the evidence that "one of the Arts Centre Trustees" "stumbled" onto the blog divined? Who could this person be? Why would they not simply ask for people to send stories of their positive experiences of the festival straight to the appropriate Trustees? Why would "Bryan Innocent" ask recipients to tell off or to hurl whatever at Ming unless the motivation was to intimidate a) Ming or b) those who might want to share views similar to Ming's in a public sphere into silence?

Anybody can bring an action against anybody else - the question is whether it would actually proceed then succeed.

My other understanding is that the Victorian Government introduced in 2005 laws against something called cyber-stalking.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nicole

I might as well say that I wholly disapprove of artists suing. There are artists in other countries who get killed when they exercise their right to free expression. For an artist - someone who already has recourse to the privilege of expressing him or herself - to take refuge in the law in this way, and to seek to limit public expression, strikes me as fundamentally wrong. I remember those stories about Tenessee Williams - when one of his plays was attacked in the press, he called his secretary and sent out a bunch of new work to magazines for publication. That's how to answer such things. Did Ibsen give up writing when his work was attacked in the London press as "filth"? Or Sarah Kane? Of course not. They might have been upset, they might have thought it unfair or unjust, but they continued to do what they believed in. I keep wondering: don't those who take such excessive umbrage at critical remarks believe in their own work? Or it the work only what is said about it, and nothing in itself?

Of course, on blogs there are other means of recourse: you can directly express your disagreement. This strikes me as healthy: I have no complaints with any of the discussion that went on around my remarks about Theatre@Risk, including that which was critical of me. That is how it ought to be, and in that discussion some very interesting things were teased out.

What happened to Ming-Zhu, on the other hand, seems to me to be something else. I find it profoundly depressing. Many people seemed to think that having the space to disagree was not enough: Ming-Zhu had to be silenced altogether and should never have said anything in the first place. Why not? The questions she was asking - and she made clear she was asking questions - were wholly legitimate. If "protecting reputation" means that no honest discourse about the quality of art is possible, then I might as well hang up my board now.

Alison Croggon said...

PS: As I said in my post, a review of an artwork can be legally defamatory but still defensible, as being the honestly held opinion of the commentator, subject to the defence of "fair comment", and in the public interest. All of which are grounds for defence against defamation. As Ben said, legal action can be brought by anyone but that doesn't mean that it will succeed. The public interest is certainly served in this case, because it's discussion about a public act.

On the other hand, the only people who win in defamation cases are lawyers, who earn a lot of money from them. And the law is by no means the ideal arbitrator on questions of art.

Anonymous said...

The idea of suing someone over their opinion, no matter how 'rude', is an insult to those of us who can read and make up their own minds about the nature of their remarks. But by all means, threaten to sue someone who boldly made a point, (as biased or ill-informed as it is), and let it be a warning to those others who might say something that’ll cause debate or provoke a response.
Ahh, taste the beige...

Avi said...

Ben, I have absolutely no idea how "Bryan Innocent" got those email addresses. I was one of the original addressees, and from looking at the names in the To: line it seems as if Mr. Innocent fired this email off to all the directors of Short and Sweet. Since that original email was sent, I've received four more emails, all from other directors (who don't have the luxury of addressing people via blogs!). The general consensus was that while most of us disagreed with Ming's commments, we believe that she was entitled to express her views in her blog.

In my comment to Ming, I disagreed with her summation of the way things were being run at the Arts Centre during Short & Sweet. But I could only express what I was experiencing personally, and she could only do the same. Those who were willing to accept my positive review of Short & Sweet must also accept that her negative review is equally valid.

From my point of view, the last few days of commentary have been fascinating. By the time my actors got into rehearsal yesterday, everybody was aware of the Minktails Fiasco and everyone had something to say about it. This kind of controversy brings, if nothing else, a renewed energy to the festival. Those who vehemently disagree are suddenly motivated to do their bit to support the festival - whether it be by going to see more shows or sending off an email to someone in disagreement. Those who feel the same are forced to question their involvement in Short & Sweet and to reassess their own views on the subject.

Yes, there's a danger that this kind of discussion can be detrimental to the morale of those who are still yet to present their shows as part of the festival. I think in general, though, this sort of thing just serves to generate a healthy discussion on the way things are being run.

Nevertheless, as I said, it's been a very interesting and insightful last couple of days...

Paul Martin said...

I don't have anything I feel I can add to the current thread, but I must say I'm enjoying the reading. It's all very intereting.

Alison Croggon said...

A note from David Williams - and a reminder that anyone having trouble negotiating the blogger mechanics can just email me.

Hi Alison,
Nice to see that blogs such as yours have enormous power! Maybe I should use all my spare time to start one... No, the power would undoutedly go to my head, being inherently corrupting and all that.

As someone who has been repeatedly threatened with defamation action on a recent theatre project, the legal advice I received was to be careful in the framing of ideas and arguments, but not to give in to bullying, which is effectively what I was being subjected to by the legal team(s) representing the party whom I will not name (because its not really useful to). Admittedly, the context was different to Ming-Zhu's in that I was making a work rather than commenting on other work, but the
bullying principle stands. The onus is on the party with the grievance to demonstrate that there is a defamation case to answer, and they need to do this in court, before they can get an injunction to stop whatever it is that you are doing. Then they have to prove it in court, a big hassle for all parties. And as my legal adviser pointed out, in some cases defamation can be defensible (fair comment, public interest, honest opinion of third party etc).

Also, with the new laws that came into force on Jan 1 2006, punitive damages can no longer be awarded, only damages to comepensate for loss of income and damage to professional reputation. I doubt that the organisers of an event like Short and Sweet would pursue someone like Ming-Zhu for defamation in this instance. No one would win apart from the lawyers. So these threats are simply bullying, and as you've correctly identified Alison, they are nothing less than an attempt to silence Ming-Zhu. It is sad that they seem to have been successful.

Can't everyone please grow up and settle down? If you don't like the nature or quality of blog reviewing of your work, there's nothing stopping you starting up your own blog...


David Williams

Anonymous said...

Hi all

Now Alison if your blog is criticising lawyers!!!! Only joking :-)

I actually agree with much of what the posters here say. But I will defend the law in this area. When defamation suits are actually brought, in many cases they go nowhere because the test for what actually constitutes defamation is stringently applied. The law is not so much an ass as people would believe.

The person or persons, who believed that statements made by Ming were defamatory, had every right to bring this to her attention. At the end of the day Ming chose to remove her post. The reason she expresses on her blog for doing this is interestingly not a threat of legal action, but rather upset at the vitriol heaped on her in reply posts.

I agree that hateful personal emails, the email campaign re the suggestion that the S&S festival was at risk because of a blog etc were quite bizarre, and arguably as inappropriate as the original post (which alas I still believe was inappropriate!).

As stated in my earlier post, this behaviour also only increases sympathy for Ming, and the actuality of what she said gets lost in quite another debate.

I read a lovely reply to the email campaign - I won't quote it hear but paraphrase it. I think a poster here expresses the a similar view. Essentially Ming is one person. Many may agree with her (and her method for expressing her opinion), many may not. Let her and others have her view, but also let the rest of us celebrate the right of new artists to create, even if they create "poops", because that's how artists learn and the Arts (which we all love and support) grow.

At the end of the day I can only applaud Ben Ellis' suggestion on this blog that if the concerns people have (and I include Ming in this) are strong and real enough, they should go directly to the Arts Centre Board with them.

I'm off to Sydney tonight so will probably come back to this blog after this discussion is long dead, but I must say Alison well done on this discussion. Many different views openly, and strongly expressed without anyone descending into personal vilification. If all blogs were like this, bravo. From my little experience with them however, I have seem them as sites where people can attack others with immunity - fair comment, well as I've said before, I'm not so sure...


Anonymous said...

I can't comment on Australian libel laws, which seem much more stringent than those in the US. But I do want to add this:

I think what Ming-Zhu did, maybe not deliberately, was to breach a wall: she questioned the selection process itself (as the Rachel Corrie thing earlier this year questioned a deselection process), rather than the plays, though she didn't seem to care for those either. It was this that led to the noise, not her comments on the plays.

It seems to me that if one believes that the product of a selection process demonstrates systematic trends, then the process should be just as open to criticism as the product. But that kind of questioning destabilizes the field, and unfortunately leads to a conclusion that nobody wants to think about: that any selection process is in its essence the statement of an aesthetic--broad or narrow as it may be, it's still exclusionary. And god forbid anybody be considered exclusionary, especially when they pay lip service to the idea that they want to produce new and exciting work, whatever that is. The theatre artists who are accepted into this aesthetic are upset, of course: in the next round, it may be their work that's excluded, especially if the weakness of the process is aired publicly. I think that's where Ming-Zhu really demonstrated courage.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison and all,

I must say, as the first dissenting voice on Ming-Zhu's post, I ended up being thoroughly embarrassed by the vicious attacks which came after the 'Brian Innocent' email was sent around. I was very much opposed to Ming-Zhu's sentiments, definitely - and I've already had my say about all that... but I whole-heartedly support her right to say whatever she wants on her own blog, just as long as she's prepared to listen to the criticism which inevitably follows such a stance. I think she WAS prepared to listen to that criticism, too - she treated everything I said with respect, even though our views were poles apart... and if anything I think she held out longer than most of us would against the subsequent attacks. I STILL disagree with her, of course, and I will still defend Short and Sweet just as I did on her blog. I just hope, as this discussion continues, that the vicious personal attacks are kept at bay... I acknowledge my verbal jousting with Chris Boyd - me accusing him of gloating; him calling me a dick, etc... but we both got around to saying what we wanted to say, prepared to at least hear the opposing view out.

We all need to keep talking about this, I think. It's about time.

Adam Cass

richardwatts said...

If you google for Minktails, the entire post is still cached online, should anyone want to read what Ming-Zhu originally wrote...

Anonymous said...

Slight problem Alison with Richard referring to the link on this site. As you said in an early post, couldn't this actually get you into trouble for relaying info. that could be found libellous? Damien

Ben Ellis said...

Damien's comment above makes me wonder whether or not we are getting too focussed on the idea of defamation.

My understanding is that Ming-Zhu took the posts down because of the torrent of (frankly weird and sometimes yuck weird) abuse prompted by the "Bryan Innocent" email. Let's not try to read too much into things. What she actually says the reason for taking the post(s) down is;

This vitriolic response was overwhelming, out of control and entirely nonconstructive.

No one should give any credence to the defamation stuff by imputing motivations to Ming's post removal for which there isn't any evidence.

The issue remains that a number of people launched a bullying, intimidatory campaign to prevent a reasonable discussion. "Bryan Innocent" remains anonymous. His/her allegations about Arts Centre trustees unsourced. His/her email address book very full of S&S participants. The very vague threat of defamation is simply the bullying strategy of a coward.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Damien - thanks for your concern, but I'm not worried. If anyone sues over this, it's an indictment on them, not Ming-Zhu. It was good to refresh my memory on the original post.

It confirms my memory that although she is certainly frank in her expression, she also makes very clear that she is not condemning the artists involved, but as George said, questioning the structure of the event in the light of its stated aims. That seems to me, as I said earlier, a wholly legitimate question. And it was asked in the spirit of genuine inquiry, and although strongly expressed, it is in fact without malice. I think in the light of the subsequent fuss, that is really worth emphasising.

Thanks Adam and Avi, in particular, for your viewpoints as fellow S&S participants. Especially for your absolutely sensible attitudes as people who deeply disagreed with what she had to say. I liked especially what Avi said about how the debate had galvanised people.

Alison Croggon said...

Ben, missed you there - Ming-Zhu told me herself that she was told the posts were libellous, and that was part of the mix. But I totally agree that the real issue - whether the tools are vague legal threats or abusive posts and emails - is about bullying. And as you say, utterly cowardly.

Defamation is a real issue though. I really do think that bloggers ought to be aware of it, and well-informed, in order to resist its misuse.

Ben Ellis said...

Thanks, Alison. Standing corrected on that, I am.

Anonymous said...

I am at present, weighing out of this discussion on-line (technically speaking), but do just need to clarify a couple of things.

Yes. I was told that parts of the posts could be considered libelous. However, I removed them in order to attempt to cool things off. Not for legal reasons, although, admittedly, of course even the vague possibility of such a threat was no doubt partially influential to my decision. It was, however not what ultimately caused me to pull them down.

I am formally, earnestly and honestly talking with Short and Sweet organisers in a civil and mediated context. There is no animosity whatsoever between myself and the festival. We are talking openly and will continue to. My sincere desire is that this bizarre sequence of events will only lead to positives as it opens up new and interesting dialogue. It appears that it already has (in so many ways), and for this I am much obliged. If the discussion continues in such spirit, it can only be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Ming what a nice reasonable sensible post. What a pity your original post could not have been more like this. Had it been I suspect the bizarre events you talk of, would never have happened. You are the not the hero of the hour because Short & Sweet are talking to you, and reasoned discussion has followed your post. That says more about Short & Sweet and the posters than you. The "I am the great innocent in all this" routine is hilarious. Thank you for letting us know you are meeting with Short & Sweet. As participants we will tomorrow request a meeting on behalf of the people who disagree with you, to express our views. We also look forward to meeting you in Week 3.


Ben Ellis said...

Sarah, there's no need for comments such as " 'I am the great innocent in all this' routine is hilarious. " I cannot see where Ming-Zhu is making that implication. What you are making there is what is called an inference.

Sarah, thanks for not being completely anonymous; who is the 'we' that you claim to speak for?

Without any indication of that, I can only assume that this is another attempt to intimidate Ming-Zhu: an unidentified group who "look forward to meeting you"? I understand that you may not intend to sound threatening, but it comes across as a further intimidatory tactic.

To harp on about this, reasoned discussion DID NOT take place after the advent of the "Bryan Innocent" email. I think any reasoned discussion was initiated by George, and then Alison.

Personally, I found Ming's original post a reasonable starting point for discussion. Without knowing it, she mirrored a point that John McCallum made about the festival in Sydney months ago. Not to waste any more of Alison's space, here's more of my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben

I certainly didn't mean to sound intimidating. I apologise to Ming if I did. I don't agree with the email campaign etc. Her post does however make me VERY angry and I am glad that I can express my view freely here, as she did there. I would LOVE to meet her and talk face to face - a number of us (that's at least 3 cast and crews) would. Yes we want the right of reply, but we also want to talk to a face NOT a computer. Many people worked their butts off for Short & Sweet, not least of all the organisers. No one (even paid staff I suspect) does it for the money. For me it was the joy of actually getting a show in the Fairfax. Maybe I am undeserving but good on us for trying and them for letting us take part. I have learnt so much from the festival, am champing at the bit for next year, and I thank them utterly for the opportunity. We will be telling them that, and ask them to look beyond Ming's comments. That's our right, just as much as it's Ming's right to express her views.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah

The right of reply was always there until abuse required the post to be pulled. I thank Ben for pulling you up on a flagrantly intimidating post regardless of your subsequent protestations.

The issue I would hasten to add is not free speech as such but the quality of debate that ensues as a consequence. That you are very angry really leaves me unmoved...why are you angry?...what was so unreasonable about the original post?. In other words stop running for cover among generalities and debate.

Theatre Queen

Anonymous said...

Well, that's intimidating enough, Sarah: "Yes we want the right of reply, but we also want to talk to a face NOT a computer." It is (or was, anyway) a public discussion, at least this aspect of it is. With all due respect to you and your colleagues, you do have the right to reply, but you don't have the right to summon individuals to some kind of star chamber in which you call them to account for what they've written. Which seems to be what you're asking.

Needless to add, there are plenty of New York artists who would love the ability to issue an aesthetic subpoena to Charles Isherwood. And I know that not a few of them (and I'm not saying you'd be one) would want to bring a rope.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ben - both for your post and the rebuke here (and fuck! I hope your parents are ok).

Sarah, you could look at what Avi and Adam (also fellow S&S participants) have to say in the comments here, and then maybe consider this definition of ad hominem here. Your reasoned views are welcome here, but personal attack and intimidation is not.

Anonymous said...

George, Alison and Ben,

You are criticising Sarah for being "intimidatory" - but now are you not doing exactly that in scaring her away because she offers a differing opnion to your own ?
And Ben - what is it exactly you have against Short & Sweet ?

Matt Scholten said...

Hi Alison,
What an interesting week to be a Director in Short & Sweet. I have posted these comments ion my own blog but thought it was onyl fair to add them here as well.

So much discussion, online and at Curve Bar after each show about the criticism of the festival by minkshoe which has now disappeared from her blog.

My feelings are:

Everyone has a right to ask questions and criticise the arts and any organisation in this country (thank God): minkshoe does not deserve to be criticised for expressing her views.
Perhaps there were alternative ways for her to express her views rather than just blogging, for example, going directly to the festival organisers with specific concerns (something I have done successfully in the past at Short & Sweet) but even so, blogging is one way to do it and everyone has a right to express their feelings this way (I do it).
Whilst the standard and work on the festival varies considerably (just like attending a year of repertory theatre in one night) I still think that a festival like this is a great leveller and needs to be approached in that manner: there are some people directing, writing and performing their first theatre show in this festival and that means not everything is going to be "professional" standard (whatever that means). I may not like all of the work but I will vehemently defend its right to be there on stage. I would hope that all participants in the festival, including minkshoe would feel this way as well.
I hope that an opportunity to discuss this in a formal way develops (and I don't mean a witch hunt). I know the festival organisers are professional, level headed people and willing to listen. I hope that the actors, directors and writers who have launched these attacks will behave the same way. Ming Zhu if you are reading this blog, I would be delighted to meet up for a one on one talk with you about this if you wish to: please e-mail me

Anonymous said...

Forget that last question Ben. Just read your comments on your own blog.

All I would say is that Ming's original comments were so inflammatory and direct in their attacks on Week 1 participants that she should probably have expected a quite heated response.

It's pity it got so out of hand and good to see you jumping to her defense.

As a Sydney based writer, who had a play in Week 1, I found Ming's comments very hurtful as they came not from a critic but from a fellow artist. Anyway - gotta take that on the nose I guess.

I emailed the Arts Centre today about the whole affair and received this response as their official view on the matter:

Short & Sweet statement re blog

The Arts Centre welcomes constructive debate on any of its activities, be it critical or praiseworthy.

Short & Sweet is an event which is evolving. Now in its second year at the Arts Centre, it will continue to adapt into the future to the needs of the Arts Centre’s artistic vision, the industry and the theatre-going public.

From last year’s season to this year’s, significant changes have been made (judges are now engaged on a professional basis, prizes now include professional development opportunities for aspiring artists and prize money has been increased as a result of donor enthusiasm).

In 2007 the festival will again be altered to incorporate any improvements identified during this year’s event."

Seems fair enough.

Alison, George and Ben - you obviously have a deep affection for Ming but you've got to take your own protectiveness and love for her out of this debate.

Anonymous said...

This argument has nothing to do with Ming's right to express an opinion or put it on a blog - it is the way she chose to do it and the highly emotional and aggressive language she used. That is the issue here.

The blog was also full of a number of factual inaccuracies. All she needed to do was read the information readily available on the Short & Sweet website. Did she read any of that before launching her tirade ?

She personally attacked and now she unfortunately is being personally attacked in return. That is very sad and says more about the people who are doing it than anything else.

Hopefully with loyal friends like you beside her she can weather this storm. I hope so. We need her voice - but maybe next time she can be aware of other people's feelings as well as her own.

Alison Croggon said...

Sarah, as I said, is welcome to air her views here, as are others who disagree strongly (maybe read the comments through properly, there are quite a few here who disagree strongly with Ming-Zhu). It is not imtimidatory to ask that Sarah observe the same courtesies that others do here. These are not incompatible with holding strong views, but they do involve avoiding ad hominem attack.

I have never met Ming-Zhu, haven't even seen her work and am not rushing to "protect" her. And certainly George over there in New York doesn't know her from a bar of soap. Both of us - and Daniel Schlusser and Ben Ellis - were moved to comment by the unedifying debacle we witnessed on the blog, an obvious attempt to silence a voice.

The issue here, as TQ pointed out above, is: do we want critique about theatre to degenerate into an appalling shitfight impelled by offended egos (a fine Australian tradition) or do we actually want to learn something from our differences? As another theatre director said to me privately, isn't it time we all grew up? Can people distinguish between harsh critique of work and personal attack? That second point seems to be a little difficult for some people.

Both can sting, but the former can be constructive, while the latter NEVER is. That I (and Ben) don't think negative critique is uniformly constructive is borne out by our complaints about Cameron Woodhead's ill-informed reviews of some shows. But neither of us would dream of organising an email witch-hunt to get him, or suggest that he should be personally harrassed for his opinions. Both of us would like to see the discourse around theatre broaden into something more interesting than we have at present, and that is best served by civil and, yes, frank debate.

And thanks Matt for your contribution, which is an example of just such civil debate.

Chris Boyd said...

Is this like, er, perverse psychology or something? Trying to undermine Alison, Ben and George's defence of Ming-Zhu by manufacturing some kind of pre-existing relationship between players?

George is in New York and had never heard of Ming-Zhu a week ago, I'm guessing. I'm unaware of any private/personal relationship between Alison and Ming-Zhu.

Ben has worked with her. From what I know of Ben, loyal as he is, his loyalty to fairness and accuracy transcends those.

I dispute your claim, anon, that she "personally attacked". If there were factual inaccuracies, and I'm not yet convinced there were... A comment about Sydney needing, I thought was wrong, but that's a matter of opinion... tackle the inaccuracies not the messenger.

And as for "highly emotional and aggressive language" -- what rot. It was personal language expressed on a web log. Got that? A web diary! Give her some credit for having an opinion, the ability to express it powerfully and the balls to attempt to rectify what she sees as a problem.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your considered and well thought out reply Alison - as usual - but let me quote from Ming's original blog:

"I felt compelled to counter the severely negative emotional and psychological effects of my Tuesday night, spent sitting for two hours (which I'm never getting back, by the way), in the bowels of the Arts Centre, suffering through the sludge which was the Open Dress Rehearsal for Week One of Short and Sweet 2007. Sure, I should have known better. Sure. But I shouldn't have had to.

I'm really not going to bother going into which pieces were more abysmal than others ..."

Pretty extreme and unconstructive criticism. How can she be surprised to get some extreme responses ?

The email - that was also sent to me - didn't call on Ming being personally attacked. It called on people to go to the blog and voice their opinions.

It's regretful some of those responses became personal but I guess Ming's initial blog could be seen as indeed a personal attack on participants in Week 1 ?

Chris Boyd said...

Sorry, comments crossed in the ether. (I'm too bloody slow a typist.)

Anonymous said...

And Chris,

You're clearly passionate about your anti Short & Sweet feelings but there's no need to personally attack me.

Anonymous said...

As a fascinated outsider to this cyber cat-fight, could I make a simple request that everyone have the courage (indeed the common courtesy) to name themselves rather than remain anonymous in their comments?

It seems a bit strange to continually make recourse to being 'personally attacked' when one's personage remains unknown to the other participants in a debate.

Ben Hjorth.

Anonymous said...

Ming says:

"I am formally, earnestly and honestly talking with Short and Sweet organisers in a civil and mediated context. There is no animosity whatsoever between myself and the festival. We are talking openly and will continue to."

Ming has not met with/talked at length with the Arts Centre/Short & Sweet. She has requested a meeting which is being considered, and if it goes ahead, she will be told what is said in the statement, and that they have no animosity towards her. All participants will be invited to give feedback, formally and informally if they wish.

And before you attack me, please feel free to contact the Arts Centre/Short & Sweet and confirm this. I did.

I really don't need to, and won't say anymore. I think Ming speaks for herself. To strongly disagree with her comments on this and other sites, only leads to the poster being attacked, so I won't. Long live freedom of speech (!)

Anonymous said...

It's really funny - you all complain Ming was lynched.

But then as soon as anyone disagrees with you - you all lynch them.

What a joke !

I agree with the last poster - "if you disagree with her comments it just leads to the poster being attacked".

Practice what you preach - please !

Chris Boyd said...

"To strongly disagree with her comments on this and other sites, only leads to the poster being attacked, so I won't. Long live freedom of speech (!)"

Before you comment again, you might like to consult a dictionary. After 'attack' try 'personal'.

Your argumant sucks. That's not a personal attack, it's a critical observation.

Paul Martin said...

How can one maintain a meaningful discussion when so many (or is it just one) participants remain unnamed? Come on guys, have the courage of your conviction.

Alison Croggon said...

Puh-lease posters: note that Nicole, Avi, Adam, and now Matt have "strongly disagreed" with Ming-Zhu in these comments, and have been listened to with courtesy. Maybe read their posts to see how they managed to express their strongly held opinions without dragging the debate into what's being accurately called a "cat fight". Is it any coincidence that all these posts are anonymous? I don't exactly want to play high school debating teacher here. It's no fun.

Can I suggest to further contributors that they read all the posts so far and see what has been said already. And then maybe think how best to contribute to the debate, rather than rushing in and making ridiculous accusations. I don't want to start deleting comments here, but if things continue to go downhill, I will.

Anonymous said...

There is no question that everyone has the right to their opinion without fear of being attacked. However, what has been completely lost (because of its removal) is any examination of the content in the initial post.

Ming was very strong and not very constructive in the language used to criticize the festival and the productions in the first week. Suggesting that attendance at the dress rehearsal was suffering through sludge was not artistic criticism at its most articulate. She referred to the productions as "poop" and declined to go into which pieces were more abysmal.

Criticism of the plays and the festival is perfectly valid but to dismiss them with flippant insensitivity and then argue that it is not intended to offend does no one any justice. Even if a show is the worst thing you have ever seen - there has to be some sense of respect shown while pointing out the deficiencies - doesn't there?

I could not agree more with the arguments regarding free speech but I think we should stop short of turning someone who posted what was actually a fairly vitriolic review into some kind of martyr.

Let's respect each other and our right to express opinions and move on.

Madeline Barrie

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Madeline

I think if you put your work out in public and ask the public to pay to see it, then you have to aware that not everyone is going to like it. Some people will be disrespectful. Sometimes those who are most disrespectful are those who are most respectful of theatre itself. Some are disrespectful because they hate theatre. Some people will call it poop. That's how it goes.

If you're not aware that such things happen, and can't deal with it, perhaps you ought to just put on shows in your kitchen (not that there's anything wrong with that, I've seen great shows in kitchens). And certainly, you should never work in Paris, New York, London or anywhere where such robust critique - both public and private - is routine.

In the best circumstances, a critical person will say why they hold such a view, and hopefully will have interesting reasons for saying so. This is when, if people are interested, debate can happen.

Ming-Zhu's opinion was strongly expressed. Perhaps she was a little unwise. So be it. She was clearly ready to deal with comments critical of what she said. What led to the blog post being taken down was something else.

If you have read my piece above, you will know that personally I have no view on S&S at all. But I know exactly how Melbourne works to shut down debate and marginalise and demoise dissenting, critical and troublesome voices, and what's happened to Ming-Zhu is a classic instance of it.

Anonymous said...


Read the posts ! No one is criticising Ming's right to say what she said ! Just the way she said it.

She was extremely unconstructive, vitriolic and abusive.

She was also not commenting as a critic or audience member but as a fellow participant.

Also she didn't pay anything to watch the show - it was a dress rehearsal.

Your defenses of her are becoming more and more in-credible.

And if we want talk about respect this isn't particularly respectful:
"If you're not aware that such things happen, and can't deal with it, perhaps you ought to just put on shows in your kitchen."

If you want to srtart deleting posts - start with some of your own.


Chris Boyd said...

You know what B.D.? That comment only looks disrepectful. In France, major publicly funded theatre companies, as big as they get, tour shows to the provinces and, yes, they will perform for the townsfolk in your kitchen.

How insulting.

Anonymous said...

BD and MD we have here a real difficulty. Those of us who are not involved in Short and Sweet and who have never met Minkshoe have read the original post - as an aside I wish Minkshoe would revive her post so some of the less literate posters would go back to her site - this is how it opens:

'I'm doing something that I'm finding quite difficult, and I'm sure plenty will think it a bizarre waste of time. Perhaps even foolish and destructive. I'm about to strongly criticise something with which I have a degree of creative involvement. Anti-publicity, if you will.

I'm being tentative and scaredy-cat about expressing my views because I am an actor and I do need to work in this town again. I also feel a strong sense of loyalty to my friends and fellow colleagues, with whom, I am embroiled in this mess. But as, predominantly, I consider myself to be a theatre artist, I also believe that it is my responsibility to be a participant in (if not initiator of) such dialogue, because without it, we are shooting ourselves in our collective feet (kinda funny image when you imagine it, though).

So I apologise in advance to anyone whose nose I put out of joint. My intention is not to offend, but to question. Please know that it is not a personal indictment, it is simply a desire to understand how, indeed, things have got this far, and a call for a revision of the model as it stands.'

Seems to me a fairly decent introduction and an introduction that proffers so many caveats and forward apologies for any offense that may be taken one might think it was written by an eager church of England curate. Yes she does get fruity and calls it an abysmal waste of time but she also states that her real argument is with the curatorial process and not the artists involved.

I understand that as a participant it must sting to feel that you are the result of a curatorial inadequacy and I would pull Minkshoe up on judging dress rehearsals too sharply as radical changes can happen between the first frock and the first night.

However the real difficulty here is that those of us who have no connection with the event or the offending writer would hesitate in calling the post unreasoned, vitriolic, abusive or unconstructive.

You are going to have to come to the understanding if you are going to maintain a presence in the theatre that no one loves you as much as your mum. In other words toughen up.

Also BD read Alison's comments, she is not defending Minkshoe as such she is defending robust critical discourse which many of the participants of s&s seem too thin skinned to bare.

Theatre Queen

Anonymous said...

Excellent point TQ.

But does MZ even know the process that she is criticising. The mere fact of calling it "curatorial" is wrong in the first place.

There is no Artistic Director in Short & Sweet - just an Artistic Co-ordinator, which is mainly an admin role.

The assessors assess the plays - decide on the top scripts - that are then distributed to directors who choose which play they would like to direct and thus which plays are in the season.

So it's the assessors and directors who choose the season not an Artistic Director.

If you want more info try this link:


Also - here are the aims and rationale of Short & Sweet from the Arts Centre website - maybe MZ is criticising Short & Sweet for what she thinks it is - rather than what it is.

Link to aims is here:


Anyway - my two cents worth. It's all good reading.

Sam Watt

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sam for the heads up. And I will follow your links with interest (I have chores at the moment...tiaras to polish etc)

Actually I don't think it was MZ who used the term 'curatorial', I think it was George Hunka who introduced the distinction as a useful characterisation of her major critical objection - a characterisation that I was happy to use - thus apologies if I'm inadvertantly putting words in other mouths.

Not to be overly pedantic, though there is no curatorial office there is certainly a curatorial function.

Theatre Queen

Ben Ellis said...

It's regretful some of those responses became personal but I guess Ming's initial blog could be seen as indeed a personal attack on participants in Week 1 ?

Hmm. I'm not sure about the reasoning behind this comment.

To say that what she saw was "abysmal" was not to imply that each participant as a person was marked by a permanent abysmal quality. It did not preclude the possibility that each participant might indeed be able to act, to write, to direct very well - what I took Ming-Zhu to be questioning was whether the structure of the festival (noted above) allowed participants to be at their best.

Is that a personal attack? No. It's an opinion.

The Bryan Innocent email wrongly stated that the post was a call to scrap the festival. It made an unsubstantiated claim about Arts Centre trustees reading this (untrue) call and taking it into "serious" consideration regarding the festival's future. It then encouraged recipients to get on Ming's blog and "disagree with her" in order to save the festival.

I think that some people have taken the email at face value, like those emails that claim if you send this email out to 8 people, Sony will give you a free phone, and also taken "disagree with her" to be something entirely different from "disagree with her opinions".

One of the anonymous comments on the posts taken down began, "Hey Kitty Kat, I just love kicking theatre in the guts..." before heading into some decidedly weird territory.

When the above commenter says that this sort of behaviour is "regretful" and tries to suggest that Ming-Zhu made equally personal attacks on Week 1 participants, let me register my strongest disagreement. That's not me lynching you, claiming that you hate the theatre, claiming that you hate free speech, claiming that you kill fluffy bunny rabbits, nor is it me claiming that I want to, as some people have done here, gather an unnamed group of people together to meet to express "our" disagreements with you in person. That is behaviour that is uncivil and threatening. Note that I am not condemning the people who may or may not realise that they are behaving in a threatening way but that I condemn the behaviour.

That's the difference between an argument and a personal attack.

On the other hand, the Bryan Innocent email was based on unsubstantiated claims and, in my view, a lie. I am disappointed that people fell for it.

On a different note, a quick question to Sam Watt. Isn't Mark Cleary Artistic Director of the festival? Or am I out of date with this?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

As usual your posts are very clear and well expressed. Thank you.

I think Mark Cleary is the Artistic Director of Short & Sweet International - he has no input to the Artistic make up of Short & Sweet Melbourne.

The Bryan Innocent email was incorrect and very stupid. I'm not sure who sent it out but it was almost as bad as Ming's post. Just stirred things up.

The person who sent it I believe was connected with someone in Week 1 and he may have been well intentioned but it was highly reactionary and just added fuel to the fire.

Anyway - all seems to have blown over now. Looking forward to seeing Ming (and everybody else) in Week 3 !

Anonymous said...

Dear all,

I am new to blogs (sorry, I promise to move into the 21st C soon) but I have found this discussion fascinating and horrifying by turns. Someone alerted me to it because you referred in your blog, Ben, to my Short and Sweet Sydney review. I have not seen Short and Sweet Melbourne and of Ming-Zhu's original comments and the subsequent discussion I have only read what is quoted in this thread. What I was reviewing was the one-night Sydney final, after 5 weeks of performances - I have not seen any other Short and Sweet performances.

In the spirit of openness I should also say that I know and admire Alison and Ben's non-web writing and in the case of Ben's very fine plays have said so several times in print. After a couple of hours of skimming through parts of their blogs I must say that my admiration for Alison and Ben has increased enormously. It is clearly a jungle out there. I'm very impressed that they keep doing it. It must be enormously time-consuming, and often dispiriting.

(I read, for example, the discussion about La Mama, and then foolishly clicked on the link to the Tim Blair blog. I'd never heard of it - it is mostly ratbag stuff - how do you stay so patient and rational, Alison? I was also alarmed that so few of even the Australian posters seemed to appreciate how important La Mama has been, for nearly 40 years, in nurturing new Australian theatre. It is a tragedy that we are losing our history and cultural memory.)

But the point of this post is that Ben said on his blog (which I didn't know how to respond to, so I am responding here) that he couldn't find my review, so here it is. I'm embarassed to post it, after some of the things I've been reading - it sounds so tame.

I think it is important that amateur theatre competitions and festivals continue to thrive. Every child cricketer or football player knows that they are part of a culture that includes stars at Test or World Cup level. That is part of why they keep doing it. When the theatre can draw on that deep base of grass-roots commitment then it will thrive.

But at the top level - Beckett and Keene, for example, in the short play form - we expect and get excellence. That doesn't devalue the work of up-and-coming artists. If Ming-Zhu was making this point, and calling the festival level to artistic account, then I agree with her. In the early 1980s there was a huge debate in Australian theatre about the supposed conflict between 'excellence' and 'access'. I can't see why we shouldn't aim for both.

Best wishes,

John McCallum


Review (in The Australian) of The Short and Sweet Awards, Seymour Centre Sydney, March 10 [2006]

This event is the culmination of 5 weeks of festival during which 150 short plays have been produced, involving 400 actors and 130 directors. It is the equivalent of the open air Tropfest screening, except that it doesn’t rain inside a theatre unless you want it to and have a decent budget.

The short play has a long tradition, and if this festival continues to grow according to plan (Melbourne already, late last year, then Adelaide and Perth in 2007 and Brisbane in 2008) then more writers and directors will have to start exploring it as a form in its own right. Samuel Beckett’s greatest plays are his late very short ones. One of the most powerful Australian playwrights of the last 20 years, Daniel Keene, worked in this form for many years, which is perhaps why he is not as well known here as he deserves to be and as he is in Europe.

In 10 minutes there is naturally a tendency to do expanded revue sketches and some of the funniest Short and Sweet finalists were just that. The best was Steven McGrath’s ‘North by East of Eden’, an imagined encounter between a dreamy James Dean obsessed with his Method acting and a pragmatically professional Alfred Hitchcock who just wants to make a movie. (‘You open the door and enter.’ ‘I don’t think my character would open a door.’ ‘If you don’t open the door you won’t be on camera.’) Josh Lawson’s ‘The 11 O’Clock’ was a neat and very cleverly written Pythonesque sketch in which a psychiatrist has a delusional patient who believes that he is a psychiatrist. You can imagine the ensuing conflict.

Samara Hersch’s ‘Stolen’ was a powerful monologue, performed strongly and movingly by Majella O’Shea, in which a disturbed young woman who steals things from shops moves on to steal a baby. She knows she is ‘simple’ but she has a great yearning for connection. In a series of well-crafted revelations we learn about her terrible past.

The most adventurous script and production was Jessica Manuel and Anna Houston’s ‘Woman From the Desert’, a savage piece in which a woman who thinks she in charge of her life is challenged by a wild outsider figure but ends up trapped in the emotionally abusive relationship which she settles for.

The People’s Choice Award, and the Best Overall Production Award, went to Andrew O’Keefe’s ‘Uncomfortable Silences’, a cute sentimental script about an emotionally inept man trying to tell the woman that he has secretly loved for 15 years that he still does. It was deservedly a popular success, with a very nice performance by Shingo Usami.

Short and Sweet, as it is about to expand, is caught between being a theatre competition and prize night and a more influential forum and platform for talented theatre artists. Here’s hoping it moves on to become the latter, without losing the great passion and enthusiasm that currently drives it.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John

Great to see you here. And thanks very much! As for the patience and rationality - long practice. I've run a poetry mailing list for years. Theatre practitioners ain't got nothing on poets.

You're very right about the role of the amateur - which of course derives from the Latin "to love".