Melbourne Festival Diary: A Divagation on Criticism ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Melbourne Festival Diary: A Divagation on Criticism

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!


Anonymous said...

I was having a very similar conversation over coffee this morning, Alison. I think it's on everyone's mind.

I have been really surprised at the lack of writing surrounding the Melbourne Fringe from all corners. When I'm on the outside I feel like you et al are doing an amazing job covering what's happening in Melbourne, but being here and seeing the scale of what's on in comparison to the scale of what's being written about is shocking.

Festival time in Adelaide everyone is writing - I started writing about theatre precisely because it's part of the culture surrounding Fringe there. You talk about marketing - in Adelaide, the 'tiser markets itself through its reviews during festival season - if you get four or five stars from them they give you stickers which say as such and artists pop them up on their posters all around town (and yes, I think this is shocking, and I am entirely prefacing an essay of my own on criticism which is a work in process).

The trouble in Adelaide is more that there is so much bad writing. And yes: what possible model exists to support good critical writing at the moment? I'm trying to set something up in Adelaide which looks at these things, particularly with young writers. Not questioning the worth of critics (because how boring) but saying if we do believe it is important (as writers, artists, administrators ...) where do we go now? Particularly now that I've decided to commit to Adelaide for at least the next year, I can't exist in a culture where from interstate I'm seen as the only blogger - that's not healthy for anyone, including me.

But enjoy the Festival. Good luck!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jane - good luck to you, too!

I think one of the interesting things about blogging is that it makes something very clear about criticism: that it is a conversation. Blogging is sociable. It's not something that can be done on your own: it exists best in a shimmering network of discussion. We all need to be challenged, to be asked to think again, to be surprised, to learn from others. "The only blogger" is kind of an oxymoron. Or should be.

Jana P said...

Dear Alison and Jane, lots of love to you from the übercold Berlin, hope festival time is treating you well. I will be looking forward to your reflections on the works in the program, particularly the ones I've seen elsewhere.

I wrote here recently that the question of whether we need critics really needs to be put aside for a while, but I think there is actually a useful question hiding inside the useless one, and that's the question of how culture is going to be shaped once we, in the Anglosphere, have done away with all the traditional media. Culture is a product of both dialogue and pure authority, and both are being destabilised at the moment.

Anyway, just a quick pointer: some very good points about criticism, reviewing, culture, performance, and all that, have been raised recently at Culturebot, which has been steadily discussing them for years now. Here is one of the editors' recent NYT piece, in which the difference between criticism and review is conclusively defined, and a recent Culturebot piece, which suggests criticism to be closer to advocacy and dramaturgy. And here are some older ones from Culturebot, discussing the audience knowledge and expectations, and the critical landscape in NY in the 2000s.

There is no point to discuss this in isolation, because it's a shared problem (and that old idea of Australia being innovating due to isolation is BS).

Anyway, just to finish - what strikes me as the most remarkable difference between Australia and the rest of the developed world is that in both Europe and the US there have, since the invention of the internet, developed online magazines for critical engagement with the theatre that have been able to both survive financially, and produce seriously good criticism. Magazines/portals such as, Exeunt, or Culturebot. In Australia, it has been exclusively one or the other, and that's probably why the blogging is still going so strong - there are no other outlets.

I have my theories for why that might be the case, but I'm interested in hearing other opinions.

Alison Croggon said...

HI Jana - good to hear from you! Though that NYT round table is linked in my article... As you say, and certainly for me, blogging has always also been an international conversation. Re those discussions on what now, there is also my earlier essay The Return of the Amateur Critic, which Culturebot tells me informed their thinkings.

There was a national magazine for some time, Theatre Australia, but that died in (I think?) the 80s. Every now and then there was discussion about bringing it back, but it never happened. Specialist mags like TDR and so on are based out of universities. No, never happened here, although again there is the odd academic publication. I'd say the basic reason for that lack is that no institution was prepared to fund it, either government or academic.

jeremy eccles said...

Oh Guys
Where's your corporate memory???
Theatre Australia magazine had 2 seasons - both funded by the Theatre Board, which then withdrew funding when its 'professional' members decided that new writing, women directors, etc were more worthy causes than criticism. The absence of any engagement with the industry in Australia is one of the main, on-going causes of criticism's unloved status here.
As the founding editor of the Australian (& NZ) Theatre Record (an idea borrowed from the on-going Theatre Record in the UK), I could cut and paste 10 or more substantial reviews of a play like Harold in Italy in 1989, Justin Fleming's controversial effort that lead to 3 writs, and might (had they gone to court) have decided what a critic's responsibilities were and what a dramaturg really does! One Alison Croggan was writing for The Bulletin in Melbourne - so she ought to remember those fertile days. The reviews were all out there and proud, not online and meaningless because their authors (apart from Ms Croggan)have no reputation against which anyone can critique the critic.
So, are newspapers to blame for hiring and firing critics randomly? Is the theatre profession to blame for failing to engage with criticism, or failing to present plays that matter these days rather than indulgent rewrites of once-great plays? Or could it even be that academia, which once supported the ANZTR and then dumped it for a much better funded online effort that failed to include the criticism in a production's record and has, as far as I know, disappeared without trace, has contributed to the dearth of intellectual rigour in the interface between the stage and its audience?
I leave people who are more engaged today to decide. Theatre criticism and I parted company in the 90s. But there is a history that shouldn't be forgotten.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jeremy - yes, I do now remember Theatre Australia being out and then not out, and countless conversations before and after about the need for a serious national publication. Thanks for bringing your own recollections: there is much history that ought to be remembered. But is it true that "new writing, women directors" were to blame for TA being defunded? Is it so different from the situation now, when funding bodies feel they ought to fund art first. And given there's now a category called "unfunded excellence" it's hard not to agree with them.

Interesting on "out there and proud", though: one thing I like about being online is that the archive is immediately available and accessible, unlike print reviews. I don't even know where mine are from those days. Further down the line, though, there will be problems: it's much harder to archive electronica than paper, as techonologies change. And I don't agree that online=meaningless: most of my reputation as a critic, fwiw, has been earned by my online presence, and not by my previous work, which was so long ago and far away that most people don't know of it. Good, regular bloggers do gain regular readers, who decide whether or not to read them in the usual ways, ie, by making their own judgments about what they read. It's a complex world out there, but given all my reservations about the current situation, I assure you that quality still exists in the flux.

Jana P said...

Thank you for reminding me that not only is there no mainstream performing arts publication in Australia, but there has not been one for a long time. (Although there is Real Time, which is one magazine with an international reputation. We have all forgotten about Real Time.)

But I wasn't talking about that - I was talking about online magazines able to obtain both excellence and income, outside of major media conglomerations, for criticism. That is, I would say, the biggest difference between Australia and the bit of the developed West I have been staying in lately. It is a question that ought to be discussible (discutable?) without reference to either the academia or the Australia Council. This to me opens up another set of questions altogether: about the ability of Australian cultural workers to come together and work, about the understanding of the importance of culture, as opposed to art, about the culture being a system, and arts a professional eco-system, not simply a path to individual glory. And the fact that theatre commentary is connected to a profession, in Europe (dramaturgy or theatre studies), means that there is a career interest for many people in producing such commentary. But it has suddenly revealed to me the generosity that exists overseas (criticism and commentary, and publishing, as all auxiliary activities to art, are inherently generous acts) and that is lacking in Australia, and I am wondering why.

Alison - yes, sorry, you linked to the summary article on the debate which included the NYT piece I linked to later. I didn't realise on time!

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, we mustn't forget about Real Time! I agree about cultural generosity Jana: there is actually a lot of it here, as is evident in events like the Australian Theatre Forums; as you'll see if you click the link, the question of criticism was raised there last year. And yes, culture is about more than individual arts or artists: it's about connections, exchange, energies working in broader networks both within the arts and in our society. Here both artists and those who respond to art face a real poverty of resource, and there is a problematic split between the academy and other public commentary. If, as seems all but inevitable, the LNP win the next election, the squeeze will be on well and truly. We only need to look at what's happening now in Queensland to get a preview of what is likely. The problem with the feeling of embattlement so pervasive now is that it lowers the horizons of what is possible: if you're fighting to survive, ambitions tend to step back. But, as somebody said about feminism recently, that's no reason not to keep imagining, to keep fighting for something better.