Why critics shouldn’t be invited into the creative process (but writers should)

So I have been reading this: Andrew Haydon on ‘embedded criticism’

& this: What new dialogue can we set up between people who write about theatre and people who make it?

& I can see some problems with having critics/reviewers inside the process of making theatre…

The star system or a university marking procedure – which is worse? Hannah Silva & Chloe Langford performing at Dartington College of Arts, 2006

Artists wanting critics to come into rehearsals perhaps want to build a model closer to their experience of college/university.

When university lecturers in a drama department go into student rehearsals it is often because they are also assessing the process. This was true to the extreme at Dartington College of Arts, where I did my degree. There, a performance module was assessed 100% on process. In other universities, the process also impacts on the mark and feedback (like at Exeter uni, where I did an MFA and taught).

The main reason for this is that theatre education is focused on the artists, the makers and the making of the work itself, and not on the final product, or, in some cases, the audience. Performances that would bore a public audience often get high marks due to the working process, concept and research behind them; performances which would entertain and delight sometimes got lower marks due to lack of thought, little collaboration and poor research during the making. The work suddenly coming together on the night doesn’t make up for a weak process within these contexts.

However, outside of university, in my opinion, it is the final piece of work and the audiences that matter. The working process is necessary not for its intrinsic value, but to produce a good piece of work. Some celebrated companies have appalling working processes yet still produce phenomenal work. That’s not to condone treating actors like puppets, but still, I expect the theatre world would be very divided between those with closed rehearsal doors and those with open studios.

Another reason for taking process into account in university is that there’s only one chance to perform – things can go wrong on the night, and it might not be fair to judge the work based on a bad night/circumstances. We also have this problem with reviews. Having a press night means critics are all reviewing the same performance and if it wasn’t a great one then the review can be significantly impacted by this….as much as critics, audiences and anyone else might think they can take into account factors such as technical failures, small audiences, their own bad mood or a show in its early stages – they can’t. I don’t think the solution is to invite critics into rehearsals, but perhaps getting rid of designated press nights would help.

Hannah Silva in Opposition at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth 2011. Photo by Eileen Long

It is already near impossible for new companies and artists to persuade critics to come and review their work, particularly those of us making work regionally. It would be impossible to get them to view the process too. There’s a risk this would push regional and lesser-known practitioners even further to the margins, resulting in some work being even more disadvantaged than it already is.

If coming into the process has no impact on the review – then what’s the point? If, as Andrew Haydon suggests, it is  to remind critics that artists are human, and to avoid personal attacks, there must be an easier way!

Audience by Ontroerend Goed

I think critics should be able to get angry about a bit of work, (although the one star ratings in What’s on Stage’s reviews of Audience de-values the points made). Maybe that anger wouldn’t be there if the critic had drinks with the cast the previous week and knew how much they’d slogged. But the work is the work, it should speak for itself, and it should be able to provoke reactions in a way that day-to-day human encounters cannot. Anger is part of that – audiences often feel it.

Like Action Hero recently blogged, the best scenario is if a critic experiences the work as the audience member does. Which means sitting within the audience, not on the edges of the work, and maybe not taking notes during the show. Of course the ‘synopsis of what happens and then a short note at the end saying whether or not this story was pleasing to the critic’ as Sarah Kane criticised, is not much use.

Perhaps critics could have a blog dumping ground for their full review, before it is edited down to however many words they are allowed, so that those of us who want more depth can find it. Another interesting thing might be to re-visit reviews. To have one response directly after a show, and another some time later, when the impact of the work is more apparent. Although many shows are reviewed more than once by the same publication (lucky bastards) so maybe this happens already. And I think it’s more important to spend time reviewing regional and little known work.

Most performances are made for one viewing. Having seen a disastrous run through before seeing the final show lessens the impact of seeing the work live for the first time. Performers and ideas come alive in front of audiences. Some parts of the work need to remain beneath the surface.

I’m reading ‘The No Rules Handbook for Writers‘,  Lisa Goldman writes:

It was a senior reviewer who pointed out to me that most of his colleagues simply didn’t understand new writing. Some critics do write creatively themselves or are involved in the theatre-making process and this helps. Perhaps it would serve theatre to bring some critics together for a playwriting workshop.

Why inviting writers into the process is a great idea:

Inviting a writer into the rehearsal process and inviting them to write about it could be interesting. But in this case they are not reviewing the work and they are not critics. What they produce might be useful to the artists, students and audiences, what they write might be a piece of art in its own right. Their thinking and responses could be very useful to those making the work. I believe there are quite a lot of people already doing this – perhaps it just needs better dissemination, outside of academia.

I suppose artists are starting to consider different models for making work, and inviting different kinds of artists into the process to support it. Ten years ago, while I was living in Holland, I worked on a couple of pieces with this approach. The director invited an author (of a non-fiction book related to the show), a dramaturg, and me as a writer (I wrote the short story the piece was based on, the piece had no words in it) to join the group discussions with the others involved in the work (a choreographer, architect, composer, video designer). These conversations were not rushed, were not directly related to what was being made, took place mostly before the rehearsals and were given a lot of importance. I think this interest in inviting critics/writers into a process is perhaps British theatre finally carving out its own role for a dramaturg, whilst avoiding calling it that for as long as possible.

Nikolaus Fotiadis (first soloist of the Royal Swedish Ballet) and Anna Valev (principal dancer of the Royal Swedish Ballet) in Passion. Photo by Ranno: http://ranno.eu/about/

One of my most memorable moments in the theatre was seeing a Swedish ballet company from the back row of a large auditorium when I was seventeen. As I watched, I was writing in my head, a stream of ideas and understandings about who those dancers on stage were, interpretations of their movements, sudden understanding of the (intended or not) metaphors, the relationships between the dancers/characters, and therefore relationships between humans. It was the experience of ‘reading’ the performance that was so exciting. The text I wrote in response to it was entirely personal and in no way a review. However, it might have said something about the nature of watching dance, interpretation and how dramaturgy can happen in the mind of the spectator.

For me, that experience was not about discovering dance or the particular company/choreographer, but about a sudden ability to write in my head, and also about discovering the potential of performance to produce words, images and ideas for the audience. I guess for me, that moment of insight, inspiration, understanding  – is at the heart of making work, it’s the reason why I do it. And I want to feel that when I’m in the audience, I think that’s what theatre can do.

Having a writer around to respond to a creative process could produce some great writing. In this case I think the writer is not working for the company, not there to document the process in a systemised way, but part of the company, there as an artist in their own right, to explore writing around the process and the ideas, to collaborate.

The writer invited to write about the work from the inside is not a critic, and we will still need critics.

2 thoughts on “Why critics shouldn’t be invited into the creative process (but writers should)

  1. Thanks for the response. I think I’m going to need a whole new blog-post to respond, but I suppose somewhere in there will come the idea that I suppose I’m also interested in re-drawing ideas about what “a critic” could mean. It might be easier, though, to just call what I’m interested in doing something different.

    But, so many good points raised. And so glad this idea is at least something people feel interested enough to write about… 🙂

  2. Thanks for reading! Yes, I guess what I was doing with the blog was separating out a bit the writer involved in the process from a critic. (Although of course critics are also writers) So perhaps when I said critic I should have said ‘reviewer’. I think it could be interesting to continue calling yourself a ‘critic’ and to change what that means – calling it something else would have less impact on the role of the critic. Although – I do think it would be great if the idea of a ‘dramaturg’ was looked at differently/ more broadly – rather than worried about!

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