CRITIC WATCH: once more into the quagmire (pt1)

07/03/2012 at 10:23 am 8 comments

March 2012

GRACIOUS! A THEATRE CRITICISM PANEL billed in the usual hyperbolic fashion as “The Reviewers vs The Reviewed” offered a formidable line-up of critics and playwrights ready to make war upon each other but any controversy was subtextual at best – and oddly seemed to revolve around the use of personal pronouns when writing about theatre. There’s more to this than one might think. For some the act of responding to theatre is an inherently personal thing – so it comes naturally to insert yourself into the writing and put it in the first person point-of-view. For others this sets alarm bells ringing when writers are unable to separate themselves from a cogent assessment of a work of theatre and (ZZZZZZZZZZZ – seriously this is what our finest theatre minds are talking about – for fuck’s sake using the personal pronoun “I” in a review is just bad writing who else’s fucking opinion do you think we’re reading in your article? It’s not fucking Gaddafi’s that’s for sure) we must aspire to be as objective as we can; to both serve the reader and to serve the work. The other highlight of the session, for me, personally, I very much enjoyed the sneering look of someone avoiding stepping in dogshit when the subject of anonymity came up. Because it’s an anathema to traditional theatre journalism to write under an assumed name. At least, it is for those who know not-a-great-deal about the history of theatre journalism. But I digress…

Anonymity, of course, is a myth. Because six billion or so people on earth are strangers to each other, so everyone’s anonymous apart from the people we already know. Does one henceforth devalue all of their views? A cute piece of sophistry one might say. But perhaps this short narrative might illustrate the converse of the argument… Let’s say you’re at a play, it’s half-time and you’re still trying to make heads or tails of it. You’re with a friend and they offer an opinion over a crafty smoke out the front of the theatre but it doesn’t really fill in the gaps. Next thing a stranger pipes in with their views, because that’s what people do outside theatres, make random chatter about the performance. But the stranger offers a new perspective in their remark, and you see the play in a different light. Do you

A) Thank the person for their insight and strike up a further conversation about their views?

B) Turn your back on them and say to your friend “I don’t know that person so I had better not listen to anything they say”?

C) Start viciously tearing strips off the person because you didn’t ask them for their opinions and they should have the courage to introduce themselves and provide a CV outlining all their credentials before expressing themself?

So all in all the session was a little light on fizz but you could slam it down fast, and it made an amusing aside to the more chunky sessions fore and aft. For the record those wondering I am not anonymous nor ever have been if you don’t know who I am that’s merely your lack of research at play and that is the final word on the subject of my anonymity you will see on these pages

The panel of industry heavyweights talking frankly about their respective companies’ ways of programming new Australian work was a revelation. It was stated from the outset that as the various reps from five major playhouses would be talking very openly – audience were requested not to make any recordings of what was said, and while one made copious mental notes at the time – we won’t be quoting panellists here out of deference to that request and respect for the positions held of those involved. You had to be there. Let’s hope these kinds of discussions happen more often at the various theatre forums nationally. Because the tyranny of distance and economics means most playwrights only get to attend this kind of thing in their own area. The shift towards transparency and accessibility in the sector is inspiring, even if that transparency means it’s just seeing how hard the path to the mainstage can be –being able to glimpse the long and difficult road now and then makes a big difference. So on behalf of everyone in the room… thanks!

The discussion on women in theatre is alive and well, I (that’s me, the writer of this article) am glad to report. Happily ‘tis more than just a complaint; with the panellists really unpacking and teasing out some of the complicated arguments surrounding the nature of privilege and the sorts of institutionalised factors at play that have created the imbalance that we as a community are dealing with. For those blessed with the chromosome known as ‘Y’ the important lesson is to constantly interrogate the things what you don’t know; and let’s face it – women’s experiences rank pretty high on that list. This is where the excavation of covert patriarchal power systems is so valuable, because it’s entirely possible (and frequent) that men can go their entire lives without being aware of their privilege. I may have been hopelessly näive on the subject in the past, because I have always just met people as people, seen or read plays as plays, not plays by a woman or plays by a man. It seems really weird that anyone would see a show and think “ahh- clearly the work of a woman”. Or worse, some will look at a woman and think “ahh- look at this, she’s putting on a play. How nice for her.” One prefers to think that most people are above that kind of thinking but the anecdotal and hard evidence given across the panel suggests otherwise.

I know that women are activating on this issue in a few ways autonomously (“storming stages” was a phrase used), and we hope that in festivals to come it won’t be a conversation we need to have anymore. But for now it isn’t going away and for my money it’s really important that we sort this out, collectively, once and for all.

That was Saturday. Sunday’s events are a different beast entirely.

To be continued…


Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.


8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Benito  |  07/03/2012 at 10:41 am

    Apart possibly from a rather brutally honest comment from Belvoir I didn’t really see why the larger companies were so worried about their talk being repeated. Was there something I missed there Sancz?

    Also, what did you think of the indie/fringe panel?

    • 2. anvildrops  |  09/03/2012 at 11:54 am

      i found that quite interesting but as an old indie theatre hackn it wasn’t a massive learning experience (like some of the other sessions)… I did like the indication that the old guard of independent production houses (TRS etc) are settling into a more mid-mainstream niche now, which is opening up all kinds of new avenues for the next generation…

      i think that actually warrants a blog post all it’s own come to think of it!

  • 3. derek  |  07/03/2012 at 10:45 am

    i think the whole personal pronoun thing is a little zzzz too, but i don’t think that means the way to review is to write the way you think. i think.

    & i must thank you, because this entry prompted me to ‘do my research’. i’ve been back-&-forthing with you on twitter for years but have had no idea. now i know: ‘Sancz [is] a 34-year-old freelance copywriter from Chippendale who also enjoys dance and art exhibitions.’

    • 4. sancz  |  08/03/2012 at 8:57 am

      well played, sir. i also take occassional long walks on the beach, but my copywriting days are few and far between…

  • 5. Elissa Blake  |  07/03/2012 at 10:49 am

    For the record, I’m OK with the personal pronoun in reviews so long as it’s not overused. It’s fine for a critic to have a personal response and to share that with the reader.

    • 6. anvildrops  |  09/03/2012 at 11:57 am

      yes it is almost impossible to avoid, but the issue speaks to the larger question of what a piece of criticism *should* be. excessive use of the word ‘I’ tends to indicate the reviewer is really just writing about themselves…

      one prefers the royal pronouns as they avoid direct personalisation while simultaneously mocking the sanctimonious tone of the critical *authority* that comes with the territory.

  • 7. Augusta Supple  |  07/03/2012 at 10:53 am

    Hey there Sancz – or can I call you by your full and proper name? No? OK, then.

    So what did you really want from the Reviewers V the Reviewed? A fight perhaps?
    A fight or some heavy fizz could have happened IF the panellists had some point of joint reference. But they didn’t.
    For my own part:
    I have commissioned Van Badham once. But never reviewed her work. I saw Katherine Thomson’s King Tide – but I didn’t reviewed it. I have also directed/commissioned a Kate Mulvany piece – but never reviewed her. I have however reviewed Kevin Jackson’s work – both as a director and blogger. – but he was on “my side” of the panel…
    So I really didn’t have much to say except sweeping generalisations about why I review and what I think of the field of reviewing as an artist and a blogger.
    The fact of the matter is that reviewing is subjective and highly conditional – anyone that thinks its an objective pursuit is a silly person!
    For me, it is a subjective, and for me very personal contextual analytical pursuit.

    But keen to hear what you really wanted to see and hear – and perhaps I can address a bit?

    Much love, over and out,

    The very non-anonymous,
    Augusta Supple.

    • 8. sancz  |  08/03/2012 at 9:01 am

      ahem. Sancz is a name I have gone by for many years. I even was introduced to our foreign minister after he saw me in a performance many years ago as ‘Sancz’ … so for those who simply must know, in order to put their little category boxes to tick … Just ask around at the UN


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