Friday, 8 June 2012
A YEAR DISSECTED BY ME
This weekend marks my one year anniversary of writing this blog and what a year.
So I felt it was worthwhile recapping my writing, my outing, this blog and its consequences.
As most of you know I started this blog out of initial frustration. The mainstream voices I heard that were critiquing theatre seemed to be catering to the companies and not to the audience, rewarding the potential and not criticising the product, even when it never lived up to its potential. I was not alone in this frustration, as evidenced by the viral transmission of the blog when it first hit the net in the June long weekend 2011. I was tweeted, posted and plastered over social network sites and bang, that baby was born.
But anger wasn’t the only motivating factor. I am a teacher, as is well documented by now (more of that later) and I wanted to ensure that I teach students the ability to articulate elements of theatre when deconstructing and reviewing its success or failure. So surely I had to teach by example and apply my own knowledge and experience to what I see and what I take students to see in order to open a discussion on the very art itself. I've never claimed you have to agree with me but please, have an opinion and justify it.
Australia, more than anywhere, has a reputation in theatre if not the Arts in general, of not really giving honest feedback. Our industry is insular. Partly I think it’s because our industry is so small that it is better for insiders, friends and practitioners to just say a vague ‘well done’ or ‘I liked it’ and then let the audience decide whether it succeeds or not through the box office. Amongst your friends in quiet corners, you can all agree that it was a complete stinker but whatever you do, don't say it in public. If the emperor knew he was naked, all hell would break loose.
Europe and the States would not hesitate to slap you across the face with your own mistakes and gee, it’s hard to hear, but if you take it on board it can make you a much better performer or practitioner. How many times have you desperately wanted real feedback but people are too afraid to say it because they are frightened when it is their turn to create or perform, you’ll stick the knife in?
See- in that way I was liberated. I am not beholden to the industry for my bread and butter. I don’t mix with a huge circle of luvvies. I am in a job where I am expected, generally in the kindest way I can to the most sensitive souls possible, help them improve. Sometimes it is with gentle sidecoaching, sometimes with clear concise constructive criticism and sometimes it’s with a sledgehammer. Many of my ex-students work in the industry in one form or another. They can tell you. I’m not there to wound but I will give them honesty, in whatever fashion I can depending on their age, ability, sensitivity, investment and respect for whatever advice I can offer. I dearly love my students and they are some of the most intelligent, resilient and fearless people I know. But most of all, they love to feel that you care enough to help them improve and be honest with them. Why should theatre be any different?
Apart from teaching, I do practice my own craft- improvisation. I have been performing both nationally and internationally for over 15 years. I even did a stint of stand up over a decade ago with some success (now that scene is tough). I trained with Keith Johnstone and I’ve been teaching impro workshops here and overseas too. So I do understand about baring your soul on stage and trust me when I say, improvisation can create for you the best and worst of times in performance. You have to learn from your mistakes constantly.
Finally, the blog was also aimed at mainstream theatre companies (and their reviewers) to hear the voice of the audience to tell them that we expect more from them. You can’t always churn out the dross or experiment on the audience and expect to keep them. And it seemed that they were forgetting that.
I guess there was some initial naivety in writing the blog. I knew the title was controversial but didn’t really understand how much of an impact it would have across the Arts sector who seemed to believe the sole purpose was to attack and destroy and not see the layers of meaning in the title- and the first two posts on ‘Baal’ and ‘The Seagull’ would have suggested, I suppose, that it was true. So the posting of my next review on ‘Terminus’ was a surprise to some that I could also praise when a production deserved it.
In the very early days I also had my name on it until friends advised me to take my name off it because a) they felt my workplace would be put in an awkward position and b) the theatre luvvies will rip my little throat out. 'Give it a chance to be heard before people stick the knives in' was the general thought and so it became an anonymous blog. Just enough insider info to suggest I might be a player but enough distance to indicate that I really didn’t have too much personally at stake in the industry voicing such criticisms.
Thus 'Shit On Your Play' was live. Constantly evolving, like theatre itself. I mean if directors are allowed to subvert their form, why can’t I subvert theatre criticism?
So I lived in my obscurity, quite happily, until Stephen Crittenden from a yet unlaunched and unknown website, The Global Mail, contacted me and asked for an interview about how my blog perhaps represented a new voice in theatre criticism that seemed to mirror dissatisfaction from audiences with the current offerings in the Arts.
And in a little café with notepad in hand, off we went.
Now I never suspected that when The Global Mail went live a few months later that I would be in the first ‘issue’ and most of all, that it would attract the attention it did and so many haters who also happened to be other theatre review bloggers. Perhaps they were outraged because my voice is different from theirs, maybe it was because often many of them were just more detailed versions of mainstream reviewers because many bloggers seem to want to be ‘part of the industry’ and so wouldn’t ever really criticise work or maybe it was because they weren’t asked and their noses were out of joint.
Certainly the fact that I was a teacher (just a teacher- I mean who IS she?) was an issue. It was the anti-teacher sentiments from the Arts that probably most surprised me. You often think of the Arts as a left-wing-social-justice banner for freedom- relying on liberal arts education and diversity of expressions. So for it to present itself as one of the most archaic and conservative creative bodies was an eye-opener. I’ve always known that teachers are treated as second class career opportunists but to hear that from the Arts sector was unexpected, especially given that I am in the seat of introducing and fostering the next generation to go to the theatre, to appreciate and articulate the form. Obviously I missed the memo that said that I wasn’t worthy enough to criticise it. To condemn is to show your ignorance. To praise is the only agenda. Whoops.
It got nasty there for a while. Key voices of opposition like Alison Croggon called in all her cronies and made sure that every site possible called me a (middle-class middle-aged- don’t even get me started on the gender implications here) troll and interestingly enough, if discussion on her own site started to praise my blog and criticise her viewpoints, discussions were shut down. And if you didn’t want to upset the apple cart, distancing yourself from me was the soup de jour. Best way to do that…shit on shit on your play.
Most criticisms were aimed at my style of writing- 'she can't write', 'she doesn't understand grammar', 'so simple', 'just griping "This play was crap and so I didn't like it"'. Discredit the voice by making the author sound like a bitter, barren old teacher who can't string a sentence together. They completely missed the point. My style is not to dazzle you with language- in fact- quite the opposite. I want to make theatre criticism as clear and evocative as possible, not because the audience don't understand 'big' words but because the scene painted is not obscured by trying to be clever. It's my voice, not my thesis. This is how I speak. The blog is conversational and it is its chief appeal.
Well you don’t write something like I do and expect just love and admiration so I let the vitriol run its course and gave the haters plenty of room to express it. Isn’t that the beauty of it all? That different voices are allowed to emerge in this public forum? So then I was criticised for not entering the fray. Well slap me down with a fish. This middle-class, middle-aged troll just couldn’t pull a trick.
It was lovely to be told by Raymond Gill in The Age that I sounded like the next Dorothy Parker or to hear that Colin Friels loves my blog. And the generous support of other respected bloggers like Kevin Jackson, who defended my right to write on more than one occasion, was heart-warming.
It was a whirlwind. Belvoir, perhaps a little stung by how Ralph Myers was presented in Crittenden’s article, decided to run a special Sunday Forum on theatre criticism, with me as its showcase (dates revolved around my availability). Originally titled ‘The Dark Art of Criticism’ (hello- I wonder what your agenda is here) it eventually became print vs blogosphere with Darryn King, Croggon (flown up and accommodated by Belvoir for the event), Elissa Blake and Chris Hook. It was rather disappointing that it only went for an hour- it was just getting interesting when it had to be shut down. And what was most interesting? Croggon shaking her head every time I spoke but not launching in on an attack in her polite (middle-class, middle-aged?) soft vocals after so vehemently roasting me online? Or perhaps it was the question of credentials in order to see yourself as a legitimate reviewer? Apparently performing, teaching, studying of Drama as a double major in my degree, being an audience member for over 20 years was less valid than a degree in journalism unrelated to the Arts and given the portfolio of theatre reviewing as part of your job when it lands on your desk. It’s a strange world.
I should say, as a side note, that since the forum I have asked Belvoir if they would give me free tickets to their shows but they have made it clear they won’t. I do understand in a way. You don’t want to legitimise my blog by acknowledging it. I get it. Perhaps your choice is right. I have continued to buy my own tickets and frankly, ‘Every Breath’ paid for itself if you know what I mean. Belvoir can get it so right or so wrong. Buying my own tickets means I don’t have to feel compromised by voicing my opinions. Maybe next year I’ll just publish the dates I’m going to the theatre, start my own ‘Meet me in the foyer’ club and we can all sit around with a cup of ‘middle-brewed, middle-aged’ tea and deconstruct the experience.
It was lovely to have complete strangers approach me post-forum and thank me for the blog. And why did they do that? Because how many audience members feel represented in what they read? They feel like most reviews are there to sell the show and have been duped enough to feel like they’ve been sold a lemon. My blog paints the picture of the experience of going to the theatre. From the moment you sit down until you leave, I will tell you how it feels, what you’ll get out of it, why you might have not responded to it, what was missing. I’m not going to generally underscore every pause, every full stop, every note and unpack it for you. The text is often a springboard for the show. Tell me about the show. Is it worth seeing? How often do you turn up to a show and know nothing about it? Doesn't matter. What matters is, will the show engage me and will I get my money's worth.
Interestingly enough, I have noticed a few trends in reviewing styles now, especially in the mainstream, trying to be a bit more critical in analysis. Well hoorah. Hope I’m not becoming a recognised iconoclast after all of this. I’ll have to mainstream myself.
So a year later, here I am, 54,000+ hits (why didn’t I sign up for google ads and make some money from this?). There’s still much to do on the site as I am a luddite when it comes to technology. I even joke that a whole ‘shit on’ series must be worth considering…who knows.
Don’t be concerned that I’ll be a little quiet for the months of June & July. I’m heading overseas. But I will be back and bigger than ever.
In the meantime, keep your voices alive, keep the companies on their toes and strive to ask for and deliver the best art you can.
Your audience is worth it.