Saturday, 14 February 2015

BLAH BLAH THEATRE CRITICS

I was on a panel at the Lyric Hammersmith yesterday, a sort of post-mortem thingy on their Secret Theatre rep project. As clickees on the first link may glean from the interesting spelling of my name, I was a late addition to the bill – subbing for a more important journalist who had to pull out in sad circumstances – but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a pretty partisan crowd and I was worried that I was possibly there to represent the bastard mainstream media in a sort of mainstream bastard capacity, but I think it went alright and that while generally the contributions of my fellow panelists were appreciated more, I didn't make a tit out of myself and was able to express my slight ambivalence about the project in a fairly constructive way. And I got a few laughs, which is obviously the most important thing when on a discussion panel about avant-garde theatre.

But there were two things I wish I'd said. The first is so minor that it's basically petty: there was a really cheap shot made by somebody on the panel about a theatre I'm a big fan of, and I wish I'd said something manly and rugged in said theatre's defence, hopefully history will note (it has been recorded and archived for the V&A!) that I pulled a bit of a face. It wasn't really a big deal.

The main thing, though, is that I wish I'd got to give an answer to a question one of the audience asked. I don't think there's any particular reason it didn't happen: mostly all three panelists got asked their thoughts on every question, but we were getting towards the end and Tom the chairman was trying to hurry things along and I'd certainly done more than my fair share of talking.

Anyway, the question was something like 'does a project like this require different models of criticism to respond to it?' with the general consensus from the room and the rest of the panel that the bastard mainstream bastard media bastards (there was no such hostility, just mild disappointment) hadn't sufficiently engaged with the terms of the project.

And this reminded me of some thoughts I'd had when much acclaimed etc cult theatre person Chris Goode did a popular tweet the other day (popular enough that I got an email from Twitter about it!) that said this:


And I suppose my longwinded answer to both of those is that I think for reasons that are partly completely understandable, and partly to do with the chronic self-absorption of artists, there can be a great misunderstanding about why bastard etc theatre reviewers write their bastard reviews. 

I suppose my background is music writing, and while I might have given the odd small artist a helping hand and probably encouraged the occasional record purchase, essentially the idea that any music writer beyond the very top tier writes to have any influence over musicians is absolutely hilariously absurd. And even then, I think you look at somebody like Alexis Petridis at the Guardian: he does have clout, but clearly he is very much from the tradition of writing entertainingly, for the love of it, for an audience; not offering academic critique for the artists or – god help us all – feedback

I would say the hallmark of a mainstream bastard is that we write for an audience first and foremost, both in the sense that we are trying to couch things in a useful way to that audience, but perhaps more importantly, creating works of entertainment for that audience, and I think some theatre artists really don't see that, or believe that a lengthy academic critique would be of equal value and entertainment. Time Out London's magazine readership is about 750, 000 people, many of whom read the theatre section, many of whom don't, some of whom might only do so because they're idly drawn in by a nice picture or a rude pull-quote. But I'd never try and write something that wasn't nominally for all of them. 

I don't think even those readers who are regular theatregoers would on the whole enjoy long academic explorations etc. But I think the main thing to say is it's not a compromise to have to entertain them: it just means that the article has to exist somewhat independently of the artist - if a bastard bastard bastard has any importance to readers, it's as a voice that is trusted because you rate their writing THEIR DARE I SAY IT ART. And I understand why that's a bit irritating to artists, to have jokes and analogies and theories and conceits and clunking beginner's context shoved in when they'd just like a piece of writing that was useful to them as feedback. But the review is not for them, it is a piece of entertainment that conveys to an assumed audience another person's opinion of a show. It's more op-ed than academia, though I hope it comes from a place of enough empathy to try and be helpful to the person reading it.

But what of the contrasting writings of the young bloggers?

I don't think the assumption that the young bloggers and the bastardbastardBASTARDS are essentially doing the same thing is at all helpful - it would be arrogant and not a little bizarre for a young blogger to write 'for' a large, general interest audience. Instead they're generally driven by other things, in many cases a desire to completely explore and interrogate their own response to a show, and I think as a rule that's quite appealing to an artist. And certainly beyond that one can even enter a conversation etc with an artist in a way that would be unimaginable in popular music.

So if you're an artist you enjoy the young bloggers more than the bastardBASTARDBASTARDS and maybe the general decline of print media gives you a sort of thought that maybe the print media is in decline because they're not writing 2,000-word-long critiques of your work, or is at the very least poetic justice for it. But maybe, and accepting it would be manifestly moronic to suggest every development in print media in the last 50 years has been good, maybe Kenneth Tynan wouldn't have been that arsed about your show and maybe we're just living in a moderately positive era where the young bloggers are kind of a new thing that wasn't there before and it's nice the young bloggers and the BAAAASSSSSSTAAARDSSAH are living side by side, like when mammals and dinosaurs hung out together.

And having said all that – brilliantly – to the bloke in the Lyric Hammersmith audience, I'd be all like 'so the newspaper reviewers probably were giving a reasonable response to Secret Theatre in light of the fact that they were writing for the nominal man on the street, but the young bloggers were also doing so in light of the fact they weren't, and let's all be friends, here's a cake'. And I'd have got a round of applause and everything would have been alright, forever.

Postscript: hilariously, a week or so after publication, The Stage got in touch to ask me if I'd be up for turning this here blog into a 500-word article, for money - so maybe I'm wrong about the motivations of bloggers, or possibly I'm such a corporate shill that I can't even write an obscure blog post without it going mainstream.

3 comments:

Ian Watson said...

What's your favourite word?

I enjoyed your blog.
Entertainment needs to be the priority in all these things, even blogging, I feel.
If you took cake, you should have displayed cake. I'm sorry to be so harsh but that's cake for you- it's not a toy.You'd definitely have been given the chance to answer that question then and manliness would have prevailed.
You are a bastard.

Andrzej Lukowski said...

To be perfectly honest, because of the way the discussion was being organised, I basically sat there grandly assuming that for that particular question, surely the entire room would be desperate to hear my opinion, so rather than interjecting as I'd done on other stuff, I just serenely waited to be consulted, oracle-like. The cake/non-cake is a metaphor for that, maybe.

Robert Dawson Scott said...

Smashing piece. I was a mainstream bastard for about 30 years in the theatre but before I descended into bastardy, I loved the theatre (and still do). I can remember going to a panel thingy rather like the one you describe at the Edinburgh Fringe back in about 1790 and being shocked to hear the likes of Coveney and Billington (yes, they were young once - well, youngish) articulating something similar to what you said about critics writing for their newspaper (remember them?) and its readers, not for the theatre. But I reflected upon what they said and realised they were right. Your additional insight about bloggers and their contribution seems to me very helpful. At lot depends, after all, on who is paying the piper. If I could add one more thought from Joyce McMillan, doyenne of critical writers in Scotland (and another theatre lover); she puts it well when she says that she wants her writing to be the beginning of a conversation - with readers, artists, academics anyone who is interested enough - rather than the last word, as reviews are often seen.