Features Guest Column Published 12 October 2012

Critical Conversations

Carving a space to talk critically.

Selma Dimitrijevic

In 1950 Alan Turing defined a test that was going to determine if a machine is capable of “thinking”. In an adaptation of a Victorian-style competition called the Imitation Game, Turing asked if the Interrogator is able to tell the difference between another human and the computer.

Just a few days ago, in a modified version of Turing’s test in which players are asked to differentiate between human and non-human combatants in a first-person shooter game, an AI gamer managed to convince a number of players that it was more human than humans.

Which is fascinating. And brilliant. And a bit scary.

What I was intrigued by was a piece of information that was casually mentioned during the conversation about this breakthrough: a machine, any AI machine, no matter how powerful, apparently still can’t tell the difference between an image of a puppy and a kitten.

That piece of information made me think about things that we, as humans, can very clearly know, but at the same time we find impossible to precisely describe. We all know if we are seeing a puppy or a kitten, we probably know it from when we are 3 or 4 years old, but if we have describe to a machine what it is that makes a puppy a puppy, and kitten a kitten, and how to tell the difference, it appears we struggle.

When experiencing a piece of art, I am often certain how I feel about it. I know if I connected with it, if it moved me, if it angered me, if that anger was of a productive or of a dull kind, if I was bored. What I don’t know is how to precisely describe what that piece is and why it made me feel the way it did.

I try anyway.

In my attempt to describe the experience I ramble, I mention pieces I believe are completely different to the one I saw and then say, “well, the opposite of that”, I wave my arms and spend ages trying to remember the name of “a guy who did the thing with the woman from the other thing” in the hope that it will help me clarify my thoughts. It doesn’t.

What does help though, is having people around me who have an ability to see what I mean, and to put it succinctly in a way that not only clarifies to me what I was trying to say, but that also provides a context which explains why I responded to that piece of art in a certain way.

I go through a very similar process when talking to others about my work, both as a writer and as a director.

At times when I’m really good at my job, what I produce comes directly from instinct and subconscious, and is automatically shaped by years of training, discipline and experience. At that point, I find it invaluable to have someone who has not participated in the making – whether that is a peer, an audience or a critic – to describe to me their experience of what I have made, so that my understanding of what I have is placed within a wider context created and perceived by others.

As a writer, I have worked with many wonderful people who can do this – directors, artistic directors, designers, actors and producers – and I hope I have done the same for other writers. In the most basic sense, this is good dramaturgy. I believe that the dramaturg’s job, when working with a writer on a new piece of writing, is purely to serve as a filter that allows the writer to see the play without the emotional co-dependency. (Although I also believe that a dramaturg shouldn’t be working on a piece of new writing at all, especially in a culture where many directors intuitively and skilfully engage with the development process, but I guess that’s a completely different conversation.)

On the other hand, as a director I find it much harder to find someone who is prepared to offer this kind of insight honestly, directly and unapologetically. I need to emphasise that there are no lack of people who would be capable of describing the production, offering their perception of it and placing it in a wider context – what is missing are ways of that information reaching the maker in a productive and co-operative way.

This led me to think about the difference in these two experiences. How come there seems to be a well-developed, accepted, if ever-changing process for script criticism that is aimed at and in service of makers of the script, but when it comes to a production, most criticism seems to be aimed at and in service of everyone else but the makers of the piece? (And I talk only about theatre here, I don’t know how exactly critical conversations function in other art forms.)

I suspect that the reason for this form of critical, developmental engagement with a written text and not with a production is a perception that, compared to the text, a production is a finished piece of work that has stopped developing and wouldn’t profit from outside engagement. And this is, very simply, not always the case.

I’m not suggesting that every production needs to change and develop via outside input if the makers don’t desire it. Some writers don’t either. Some writers work in isolation and produce beautiful, complete scripts ready to be produced. But shouldn’t we try, for those makers, companies and venues who welcome this kind of conversation, to find ways and structures that allow this to happen?

We have been forced, by many fortunate and unfortunate elements, into complex multiple co-productions in order to create a piece of theatre that would be, maybe ten, fifteen years ago, simply commissioned and delivered. The result of this is a long list of partners, co-producers and associates squeezed below the title, and although it’s sometimes a struggle to fit them all into the brochure, I still think this is a beautiful thing.

In most cases, this means that the show will be seen in several regions, sometimes by very different audiences, and the makers will have the support and expertise of many generous people who are backing the project. Which is fantastic. Maybe even more importantly, the makers will also have more time with their audiences and the time in between meeting those audiences when they can (if they wish to) learn how someone else perceives their work and how they describe it. The makers can see their work in context, perceived by people who don’t have that emotional co-dependency with it, and they might (if they wish to) learn from those observations and make that piece, or their future pieces, even more of what they would like it to be.

Going back to where I started, and talking about instinctively knowing, and intellectually describing, I observe that there is a group of people who have this ability to precisely describe and who are not part of the conversation in a way they could be – and they are critics. (Although sometimes, and some of them, refuse to be called that, but again that is a completely different conversation).

Put very simply: reading an engaged critical response on a piece of work within a field that I understand, in this case theatre, provokes me into questioning and clarifying my own view on work I see and work I make. Even if it often comes from disagreeing with what the critic is proposing. (I hope it’s clear that I’m not talking about 300-word pieces with attached start ratings but about engaged, thoughtful pieces – the difference described so well here.)

Having a chance, as a maker, to engage with this kind of response while there is still time to hear it and apply it to the work it talks about, seems like a very exciting thing that doesn’t happen often enough. How exactly to do this, I’m not sure, but with so many productions that tour, transfer and meet their audiences over several months and even years, I believe that the space for these conversations can be easily found.

One of the most valuable lessons I ever learnt in theatre happened years ago, and it came from Purni Morell, after I showed her a programme I was asked to make for a production of The Tempest. I was the dramaturg on the show, and one of my jobs was to create a page about the production to go into the brochure and serve as a programme to be bought by the audience. She carefully read it, thought about it for a bit and then said: this is not good. She proceeded to explain how she saw it, what she thought my programme did, and why, in her opinion, what it did was not what a programme should do. She then explained what she thought a good programme should do, and generously shared that this was told to her by someone else, and that it was not her own invention. At the end she left it with me to agree or disagree with this.

On that occasion, I fully and completely agreed. What I did was not very good, and I didn’t have enough experience to know that. Unfortunately the brochure had already gone to the printers.

The reason why this moment felt important was that I talked to several people, who later admitted that they thought the same, but knowing it was already being printed they wouldn’t tell me and instead offered “well done, great job”, thinking that if they were honest I would just get hurt and no one would profit. Purni also knew that it was too late to change anything, but she had the balls or the wisdom to say it anyway, knowing that no one profits from false flattery either.

So, I guess, that is kind of what I’m hoping to get from possible future conversations with critics, in whichever form that may happen.

I am hoping that we can have a conversation between critic and maker about the critic’s individual experience of the work, and its relationship to other works, in the hope that the conversation will spark new thoughts for both and make the work in question and any future work better. And that, surely, must be good for everyone involved, especially the audience.

Selma Dimitrijevic is the co-artistic director of Greyscale Theatre Company.

Photo: Idil Sukan. From Tonight Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and Box.

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Selma Dimitrijevic is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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