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Features Published 9 January 2017

A dialogue on theatre criticism in the digital age

Last month, debates on online theatre criticism raged after incendiary pieces by Michael Billington and Matt Trueman. In their wake, critics and academics Duška Radosavljević, Mark Fisher and Karen Fricker hold an international conversation about theatre, democracy and the role of criticality.
Duška Radosavljević, Mark Fisher and Karen Fricker

Every now and then an article comes about on the subject of arts criticism in the digital age. In his latest piece, Matt Trueman seems to think that, in comparison to a few years ago, the quality of this particular conversation is slowing down to dangerously complacent levels due to the radical dissenting voices apparently leaving blogging behind. A few weeks previously The Guardian had published one of Michael Billington’s usual lamentations about the problems faced by “serious criticism”, this time prompted by the occasion of a subsidised critic being appointed by the Boston Globe. Though they did receive some attention on social media and in an Exeunt response, Billington’s typically solipsistic remarks (blatantly untouched by years of online discussion), did not meet with the kind of outrage and vehemence they would have been greeted with a few years ago. Was this a matter of most people turning a deaf ear, or a vindication of the loss of dissent diagnosed by Trueman? The truth is, the issues raised are certainly still high up on everyone’s agenda, but it does feel that the nature of the conversation itself needs to change. Trueman’s piece is getting excellent responses in various forms – here is Vaughan’s quick but reasoned retaliation. What it highlights is that where the scarcity of time and energy might be slowing down the quickfire conversations of the past, a slow burning contemplation can be just as important, if not even more far reaching eventually. In one case at least, Billington’s article did prompt a private transatlantic email conversation, which evolved into a much broader contextual reflection on the state of theatre and democracy at this moment in time. The conversation between Karen Fricker, Mark Fisher, and Duška Radosavljević took place over five weeks in November and December 2016. Given Exeunt’s profile as an international platform for critical debate, we thought we’d offer an edited version of the conversation here.

Duška Radosavljević: Here we go again. “Anyone can be a critic in the digital age.” For all its inherently empowering potential, this statement has also been one of the most enduring complaints held by the surviving twentieth-century arts journalists. The traditional expectation is that a critic must be an expert in their field and a skilled craftsperson duly remunerated for their labour. The advent of the digital media has upset the existing hierarchies and processes by which these credentials used to be bestowed. Whether or not this is a good thing is probably the most contested question of our time. My own position on this is that instead of focusing on the issue of *entitlement* to criticism as a valid personal response we should be focusing on how we raise the general standards of criticality among the public. In other words, to put it in even more topical terms: instead of keeping critical faculties as a privilege of the chosen few, how do we enable discernment, reasoning and critical thinking in the place of trolling, hate speech and mob mentality? Given the rise of the political right throughout Europe and the USA and in the aftermath of Brexit, this seems like a matter of political urgency, a place where the necessity for criticism and democracy meet. What do you think?

Mark Fisher: Yes, the distinction people sometimes miss when they say everyone’s a critic is that expressing an opinion is only part of the story. No audience member in the history of theatre has ever left a show without an opinion, even if the opinion is, “I was indifferent,” or, “I didn’t understand it”. Social media enables us to hear those opinions, where once they were were restricted to post-show chats in the bar. In that sense, it’s no more true to say that everyone’s a critic today than it has ever been. That being the case, the critical act must come after the opinion. Criticism is about argument and reasoning. What you thought about a show is less interesting than why you thought it. As Irving Wardle wrote, “Criticism begins with the word because.” And, as you suggest, Duška, the great democratic potential of the internet age lies in the capacity for anyone to take that step from bald opinion to reasoning and to have their arguments heard. I think you’re right to make the connection between the critical thinking we can apply to a piece of theatre and the critical thinking we can apply to a political policy. The better we are at thinking, the better chances we have of reaching mature decisions. And the more people who can participate in the public debate, the more democratic the debate will be.

But before considering your question about how we “enable discernment, reasoning and critical thinking” to take place, I’d like to raise a question that the Brexit and Trump victories have exposed. In both cases, there are many voters on the winning sides who would say they reached their decisions based on ”discernment, reasoning and critical thinking”. Similarly, if you scan through the comments beneath my recent Guardian article about What Shadows, a play about Enoch Powell and the Rivers of Blood speech, you will see quite a few well constructed arguments from people whom my inner troll would like to call right-wing racist fantasists, but who appear to hold their worldview as honestly as I hold mine. I think I’m right in saying that in a lengthy debate, with a lot of polarised opinions, the Guardian editors removed only one post for falling below its community standards. In other words, this was a civilised discussion in which people forwarded arguments which, I’m pretty sure, you and Karen would strongly disagree with and yet are held in good faith. My question, then, is that even if we could come up with a way of enabling “discernment, reasoning and critical thinking” would it be a guaranteed antidote to the “rise of the political right throughout Europe and the USA”? Are we deluding ourselves to imagine that if only everyone had good critical skills, they’d all think the same as us?

Karen Fricker: It’s taken me the better part of a week to find the head-space to respond, and in the meantime, the Oxford Dictionaries have named “post-truth” the word of the year (runners-up include Brexiteer, alt-right, and woke); Buzzfeed has published research about the extent to which “fake election news stories outperformed real news on Facebook” in the US race; and we’ve heard a lot about how filter bubbles are blocking communication between left and right. This argument has been sticking in my mind since I heard it last Monday: “The way we’re using media now to get information has shifted, but we’re not necessarily being as critical of what that means for democracy, and getting good critical information.” It’s not my understanding, Mark, that the three of us came together to discuss an antidote to the rise of the political right throughout Europe and the USA, and getting into what we would agree or not agree with personally doesn’t seem productive here. For me, underlining the continued, urgent importance of criticality in the public sphere does not necessarily bring with it a desire to make others think more like I do. I read the comment strand below your What Shadows piece closely and was struck – as indeed you were too – by the length and relative civility of the exchange. I learned things from reading it: about how different people interpret the same history and put it to widely diverse ideological uses; about different conceptions of British identity, and particularly within this a debate about that identity being inherently diverse (or not); and about the divisive and complex figure of Powell himself. TBH, for me these are more valuable take-aways than information I may have gained about Chris Hannan’s play or Ian McDiarmid’s performance, which I’ll never see (I say this acknowledging that there might be more new information in that exchange for me, as a North American, than yourselves as residents of the UK).

So, not to big-up this one exchange too much, but it seems to me a positive example of how the mainstream media can provide a platform for debate that’s inclusive of points of view from across the political spectrum, with a piece of contemporary theatre as its stimulus. Even if not everyone in that debate was upholding particularly high standards of criticality, that the comment strand is there for people to engage with and think critically about seems positive. But that debate was still taking place on the site of left-leaning newspaper, and I’m likely to have encountered it even if you’d not drawn it to my attention. In our post-truth age, a meta-level of critical thinking about where we’re getting our information and how reliable those sources are, who we’re exchanging ideas with, and how we can get outside our media bubbles and into contact with, and perhaps even dialogue with, people whose views are radically different to our own seems imperative. But… but again. Back to your final points, Mark. What’s the endgame of gaining such a meta-critical perspective? What is the place of personal commitment at a time when so much is at stake for politics, economics, society, ecology… the planet? Criticality is all fine and good but to what purposes are we putting it? I hand those toughies back to you, colleagues.

DR: I guess what we mean when we claim shared roots between theatre and democracy is not just a matter of historical coincidence of their origin in Ancient Greece. It is rather the potential theatre affords for nuance, complexity and multiple perspectives being considered in parallel. Like McDiarmid, many actors who have played villains would testify to the necessity of fleshing out a morally controversial position. I also don’t think the ultimate purpose of raising the standards of criticality is about getting everyone to think the same. On the contrary we need to cultivate dissent in order to make progress. I’m more concerned about important political positions of our time (Brexit, Trump) being made – democratically! – on the strength of the politicians’ appeal to the voters’ sentiment rather than critical thought. (The media have certainly played a part in this and particularly those outlets which are subjected to private ownership). So my starting question, if I could rephrase it here would be: how do we cultivate a critical response – given the useful distinction you have provided above, Mark – in the place of mere personal “opinion”? How do we raise the standards of public discourse? Or is this question too naive and obsolete in a post-truth age, at a time when the US president elect has even attempted to control the behaviour of a group of actors?

Hamilton, whose cast had a highly publicised altercation with Mike Pence in December. Photo: Joan Marcus

Hamilton, whose cast had a highly publicised altercation with Mike Pence in December. Photo: Joan Marcus

MF: The story of Mike Pence seeing a performance of Hamilton – and effectively changing the meaning of that performance – is a great example of Duška’s connection between theatre and democracy. Pence is reported to have said that the booing in the audience is “what freedom sounds like” – and, reluctant as I am to agree with him, he’s quite right in that. Trump’s knee-jerk offence-taking is, of course, wrong. Because of the changing nature of the world, it’s possible for a piece of theatre to provoke a different reaction from one day to the next. Hamilton means something different in the era of Trump than it did before the election and it means something different again if the vice-president elect is sitting in the audience. The words, music, performances and intention behind the show may be exactly the same, but as far as the audience is concerned, it’s always a reflection on their own, fluctuating present-tense experience. That’s why theatre is so well placed to initiate critical discussion. And perhaps one answer to Duška’s question about how to raise standards of public discourse is for us to promote the idea that theatre is not all bourgeois entertainment and Broadway pizzazz. Rather, it carries meanings that will always relate to how society functions and will always, therefore, provoke critical thought.

KF: The lived example I have right now of theatre meaning something different from one day to the next is the musical Come From Away, which just opened in Toronto on its way to New York. It’s based on the true story of the generosity shown to over 6,500 airline passengers grounded in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. As I wrote in my Toronto Star review, “the show really really believes in goodness and it really really wants you to believe in it too,” and I believe that the changed world order-post Trump’s election may temper response in New York to its XXL dose of Canadian Nice. That is, Americans may be more open to this story of Canadians being civil and generous than they would have been before the election given the uncivil nature of a lot of Trump/alt-right rhetoric, and given all the jokes and memes (which mask deeper fears) about mass emigration of blue-voting Yanks north of the 49th parallel. This idea is not original to me, of course – I’ve talked a lot about it with friends and colleagues – but it was important to me to include this context in my review exactly to promote the idea, as you suggest, Mark, that “theatre is not all bourgeois entertainment and Broadway pizzazz.” Or, it can be those things (Come from Away surely is), and also resonate in a particular socio-political moment in particular ways that it’s our responsibility as critics to tease out.

DR: We started this conversation nearly a month ago, prompted by Michael Billington’s piece about the problems faced by “serious criticism”. In the meantime the political reality seems to have hijacked this conversation – and the news of Fidel Castro’s death in the long line of triumphs of the political right certainly does make 2016 seem like the end of the world as we’ve known it. However, thank you, both, for returning us to the subject of theatre itself and for pointing out that its main distinguishing feature, by comparison to other political platforms, is the ability to generate hope. Last week I had a conversation with a British person who has spent decades working in German theatre. From a casual conversation we had I learnt that German critics are considered to have a far greater significance as cultural commentators than their British counterparts who can come across, by comparison, as mere enthusiasts. One of my aims in compiling Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes was to try and create a possibility for considering different forms of theatre criticism in distinct cultural contexts. Some examples have included post-Soviet critical practices and their perceived reliability, an exploration of the Italian critics’ deeply engaged position in their cultural landscape and the ways in which the German and the American critics respectively, have responded to the specific expectations of their readers. For the end of our own multinational transatlantic conversation here, I am prompted to raise the question about specificity and difference in the face of notable globalising trends. What are our personal hopes for the future(s) of theatre criticism(s) from our individual vantage points?

MF: I’m glad you’ve raised that question because theatre is an artform experienced in small rooms by relatively few people and yet discussed in the public sphere as a thing of importance. A maximum of 1319 people would have been in the Richard Rodgers Theatre to witness the booing of Mike Pence at Hamilton and yet the incident has been discussed globally. That’s an extreme example, but it points to theatre’s capacity to have a ripple-effect impact disproportionate to its scale. That in itself should offer resistance to the globalising trends you refer to and, in that sense, I hope theatre criticism continues to celebrate specificity and difference, to tell the outside world something of what it means to be in that room on that day in that place and, in so doing, deepen our understanding of each other.

KF: Regarding how we see the changes in theatre criticism resonating in our own environments: This is something that’s been my focus for more than 18 months as I’ve co-edited (with Michelle MacArthur) a themed issue of Canadian Theatre Review magazine on theatre criticism; it’ll be published next month. While many of the issues discussed will be familiar, some are specific to Canada – the size of the country and hence the existence of quite discrete arts scenes and critical spheres; diversity in all its forms (including Francophone/Anglophone) as a central national issue and therefore one at the foreground of the arts and criticism.

The final thing I want to say about hope is to note how much progress has been made in our field over the past five years in pushing through the old critics v. bloggers impasse that, in my view, was holding us back. As I wrote in an earlier issue of Canadian Theatre Review (163, Summer 2015), the argument that blogging is contributing to the demise of quality journalism was in need of some basic Marxist correction. The means of production of contemporary media is shifting in our times, and online criticism is a superstructural response to changes at this economic base level. Those who write for free are responding to a changing media landscape, not causing that change, and are working to fill perceived gaps in the dialogue about theatre (even if, in some cases, the gap can be as simply articulated as “the lack of my voice”). This is a global reality, and what I celebrate in our field is how dialogue about it is now happening internationally. It’s so important for those of us in the Anglophone sphere to learn, via Margherita Laera’s fascinating piece in your Changing Landscapes volume, Duška, that the notion of arts-organisation-sponsored criticism that so worried Michael Billington (to bring it back to the piece that sparked this conversation) is a normalised part of the arts landscape in Italy. Such knowledge puts our own scenes, attitudes, and biases in perspective; prompts conversations (such as this one); and I hope will create further solidarities and opportunities for creative thinking about and action around the critical.

DR: There isn’t much left I can add to such heartening visions for the future. I recognise that my quest for raising the levels of criticality might itself be outdated by possibly being rooted in the Enlightenment ideas of criticism. Meanwhile, the changing means of production (digital technologies) are in fact creating a paradigm shift the effects of which (such as post-truth for example) we are yet to learn. Perhaps, paradoxically, the threat of the post-truth approach to information manufacture will force us all to take more responsibility for how we reason, discern and evaluate. Perhaps we will be driven to want to interact with each other more as a means of verifying the state of our reality. Perhaps theatre will become the source of truth itself.

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