Developing Critical Communities for Theatre Writing

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In the brief time that I have been in New Zealand (I’m currently traveling for a month around New Zealand and Australia), I’ve come to realise that much of the concerns about theatre in the UK (or London) are being felt by the practitioners and arts organisations I’ve spoken to here. In particular, it would appear that there is a need for further critical communities to be able to discuss and engage with work outside of the current established media outlets.

My experience has primarily been in Wellington, the “Little Capital of Cool”, where the theatre industry is alive and buzzing but intimate in equal strides. There are few subsidised venues, supported by the equivalent of our version of the Arts Council England in the form of Creative New Zealand sitting alongside larger commercial venues. Feeding into these venues are the students of the New Zealand drama school, and those from the university here, which also supports it’s own venue. Naturally there is a creative community whose work finds a place in the city or to the bigger lights of Auckland in the north. I can’t say much for Christchurch on the South Island though. So Wellington is small but a significant place for the development of theatre (and the arts as a whole), seen particularly by the presence of the Fringe Festival and International Festival that finds its home there too.

For all the work that is taking place within Wellington there is a small critical community who appear to sit in harmony of each other. There are the established print media, The Dominion Post for example, sitting along more ‘fringe’ online outlets such as the Theatre Review website. But here lies the problem, and it is not one that is unique in Wellington, or New Zealand as a whole. It is a problem that I’ve witnessed repeatedly. The diversity of the critical community is minimal, and because of this the commentary and reflection upon theatre is limited, stifled repeatedly by the same voices.

Much like the growing concerns in the UK that some art forms are unrepresented because of the lack of high quality critical commentary, the same is true in Wellington but for all theatre. With such an intimate community of theatre makers and venues, and such a small critical outlet, there appears (from what I have seen) to be frustration. A lack of understanding for some work, and the biased opinion of some writers dogs the theatre and the reviews.

This has come to light this week when I attended the opening of a youth theatre show at one of the large fringe venues, Downstage Theatre. The production, Perfectly Wasted, was, in my opinion, a brilliant examination and experiment in theatre for young people. I wrote highly of it, although noting that it was not perfect, faults lie within. Other outlets seemed to take it upon themselves to use their reviews as springboards into negative criticisms, without possibly realising that the work was not aimed at them, in terms of their demographic or readership. Hilary Beaton CEO of Downstage Theatre took to the Downstage website to vent some frustration at what appeared to be an obvious misunderstanding of the work, and cited my own review as coming from the right diversity of reviewer and reader that the show needed.

Sadly I’m only passing through New Zealand so I won’t get to witness other work, but it appears that my writing has stirred some waters within the Wellington community, with Facebook and Twitter offering discussions on what reviewers theatre need. Now I don’t want to knock those writers and outlets that are already established in Wellington, but I think my presence has at least highlighted the importance of having a diverse critical community responding to theatre work within a city.

In the few years that I have been writing and reviewing, I have learnt that not every show is going to be tailored to my needs or to what I deem to be ‘good theatre’ (whatever that is). I know for example I could not review a dance or opera piece with full justice because I do not have the right language or skill set to effectively respond. Equally I know that the ‘kitchen sink drama’ is not for me, I’d much rather revel in the experimental work. I will naturally see dance and opera with the intention of spreading my critical wings, and experiencing in the hope of learning, educating myself slowly. I do know however that certain pieces are not designed for me when they are being created in the rehearsal room. I have to accept this, and if I review such a piece I have to make it known that in my opinion it was not for me. Reviewing is subjective after all. There are others who can respond more effectively than me. This isn’t the case within Wellington, too few media outlets, too few opinions, and too few willing to challenge this.

So what do they do? What does any arts organisation or theatre scene need in order to grow their critical community? That is not to suggest that they should cultivate their own community who will be like puppets at the mercy of their masters string pulling, but at least they could help to develop a language and community that fulfils their need. Whatever their work.

I would suggest that args organisations need to:
– Bring together potential communities to respond to their work
– Advise on the needs of their work in response to the critical commentary
– Demand more from media outlets, or work in bigger partnerships between the two
– Experiment with different forms of commentary from their audiences
– Discuss and evolve with audiences
– Encourage a more diverse response from their work.

Most of the above is an in idealistic frame of mind where time, space and money where not an issue, but even in the smallest of gestures – a frank discussion between theatre and writer can have a large impact.

This all feeds into the work that I’ve been conducting with Maddy Costa under the name Dialogue the UK. Dialogue was born out of the frustration for a set establishment and we’re keen to develop to the best of our abilities further critical communities away from the preconceived model that is in place. One of these is looking at the development of critical communities in ‘rural areas’ that aren’t served by the multitude of work or responses that London or other cities have to offer. Developing critical communities isn’t just about encouraging those that do write or those that have an academic background to write, but we hope it encourages those that see work to have the courage to respond with effective authority.

Audience members are the gate keepers to the theatre work. Theatres need to develop advocates for their work, and by doing so encouraging a critical community around it.

Postscript: Since writing the above I have moved on my travels to Australia, first in Sydney and now in Melbourne. It appears that the same need for a more diverse and differing critical community is needed in Australia too. Support is a big need for writers, as there are so few of them but in much demand. I’ve even heard of the local authority getting in touch with writers who have stopped reviewing asking them to return to their writing – the arts needs a legacy that they were once providing in their reviews. Also I’ve noticed that a notable blogger in Melbourne was quoted in the season brochure of the Melbourne Theatre Company – perhaps showing how big and influential someone who writes in a city of few critical community can have. It makes me wonder though, why is there such a small critical community? And why does London (and the UK as a whole) thrive with responses to theatre, print or otherwise?