Theatre-Makers and Critics: Beyond the Press Night

Across the industry theatres undertake a ritual that has been in place for decades; the press night. After several weeks of working on a production and a few short days (or long weeks) of testing and calibrating it in front of preview audiences, the industry enters a state of suspended reality. Press nights are a strange place to dwell for too long. Faces of producers merge with faces of marketing teams and everyone clinks their glasses of complimentary wine and laugh heartily. The assembled audience take their places in the auditorium and the critics flip to a fresh page in their notebooks with their pens sharpened to critique mode.

The show begins, the show ends. A rapturous applause goes up and everyone congratulates the cast with beaming smiles and more glass clinking. “You were magical”, “Simply gorgeous darling” and other phrases are called forth whilst the critics, those curious breed of observers, give the theatre the slip to write their word counts and file to their publications. The next night, another theatre, another press night. Repeat.

This process has been in place for decades and the industry conforms to it every season as shows open across the country. As a writer on theatre I dread the press night. The false smiles and friendly faces, the acting before an audience whose very presence is to confirm that the work is a success regardless of its real merit. Surely there is more for all of us than this pretence we put ourselves through?

Out of this frustration and questioning I began working with Maddy Costa, a theatre writer for the Guardian, who shared a mutual frustration on the press night and distance between the artist and critic. Together we began Dialogue, an experiment in bringing together those that write about theatre and those that make it, beyond the press night, beyond just reviewing.

Through Dialogue we’ve thrown a crowbar into the faint lines that blur the audience and critics from the makers. We’ve questioned the relationship between the critic and the maker, brought them into the same room outside of press nights and asked them to speak to each other. To engage in nothing more than a dialogue. No giving the theatre the slip on press night and writing in a darkened room in praise or hatred of the work.

By bringing them together we’ve unearthed a deep frustration. Artists are often resentful of the words critics use to describe their work. They question the time a critic spends writing their reviews compared with the months that the maker has developed their work, an hour of writing against countless hours of making. The makers were frustrated with the little understanding the critic had on their work, and how the critic bends the focus on the work to make it into their own version, or the version they wanted it to be. The critic meanwhile, the majority of who (likeNoises Off writers) do so in their free time, needed the artist to know that their writing comes from a place of love, often obsession. How squeezing in writing between day jobs and the other pressures of living often crept into their writing, it has to, writing is a personal engagement.

Dialogue has spent a year asking questions between audiences, theatre-makers and critics, or theatre-writers as many prefer to call themselves. By questioning we keep ourselves, and the industry in which we work, from turning stale and comfortable. Theatre-writers should be held accountable for their words as much as the makers themselves, and above anything else, we’re all doing this from a place of love.

So throughout NSDF there’ll be roaming theatre-writers seeing work, pulling apart the material and asking questions in the Noises Off office, and on these pages. If we want to take the conversation further we shouldn’t be afraid to, in fact, like Dialogue itself, we should embrace the simplicity of sitting in a room and having a dialogue about the work. Let’s not get comfortable with how our industry operates or how student drama is made or facilitated or even reviewed. Let’s discuss and engage in a dialogue beyond seeing a show and slipping away, beyond the press night or festival night.

Originally published in Noises Off.