After 150-odd years of confining readers’ opinions to the letters page, the New York Times is finally deigning respond to some high-profile voices of opposition. First to ongoing onslaughts from Trump’s Twitter feed, and then (in a less high-profile, but no less surprising development) to a vitriolic Facebook post by Jack Viertel, artistic director of Encores!, who took exception to a review that mildly criticised the timing of their production of Big River, and its racial politics. [Nicole Serratore’s excellent summary here].
In a quieter way, most theatre reviewers become used to entering into conversation with theatremakers, whether informally, or through emails/Tweets/FB messages in response to reviews, on a sliding scale from friendly to thoughtful to disappointed to ragey. But are theatremakers right to respond? And if so, what are the rules of engagement? What would a respectful theatremaker-reviewer dialogue look like, and where could it happen?
Gillian Greer: Creative work is inherently emotional. When we make art, we put our souls out for inspection. I guess this is why the ‘dialogue’ between critics and artists often becomes something so messy and charged – it can feel so easy to tot up in a flippant 200 words everything that’s wrong with a piece of our beating hearts. Having said that, some of the criticism I’ve written has been just as emotional… I had a little cry writing my most recent review for Exeunt. Sitting on the fence between ‘maker of things’ and ‘judger of things’, I think the sooner we realise that the critic/artist relationship is a symbiotic one, the more productive the dialogue can be. After all, we both love the things! I imagine a utopian world where critics and creators alike approach a dialogue with growth in mind. Where we remember that we both hold a passionate, heartbreaking love of the medium, and a desire to always, always, always make it better. Where we’re not shouting, but listening, talking, and respectively getting better at our jobs. I think that’d be lovely.
Rosemary Waugh: “Dear Ms Waugh, I was highly interested to read your review of my work…” When I receive letters of complaint in response to reviews I’ve written they always start with the same very British passive aggressive sentiment. “Highly interested” could be better swapped for “enraged to the point of writing a very lengthy and angry email”. I used ‘letter of complaint’ because that’s what these responses are. I don’t feel moved to ‘engage in dialogue’ with the writer because I don’t believe that’s really what they’re looking for either. These angry missives function more as a cathartic act to allow them their chance to basically tell me where to go, normally accompanied by insinuated or direct comments that I’m crap at my job.
The one exception to this was when the creator of a fringe show I had seen in Bristol contacted me. This response was different for two reasons. Firstly it was in relation to a largely positive review (whereas the complaints are in response to largely negative ones). Secondly, the artist was genuinely interested in discussing the piece of work, and not starting an argument about how I was wrong. I actually met him for coffee and although I’m not sure how useful my comments were to him, I found it really interesting to hear more about the creation of theatre from, essentially, the other side of the fence.
‘The fence’ is important here. Many people straddle it or cross over entirely, but I am very firmly rooted on the writer/critic side. My primary allegiances are with readers and fellow critics. I passionately believe in the importance of being able to create negative criticism when necessary. We need to live in a society where we can vocally object to things presented in the public domain. And, yes, that also includes your right to tell me how ‘highly interested’ you were in my review…
Nicole Serratore: I’ve only ever been approached by UK artists about my reviews and some of these interactions have been incredibly kind–what’s in the water over there? I got a request to DM me on Twitter and panicked I was about to be lambasted for a mixed review. But instead it resulted in a complimentary conversation about my willingness to engage with the work and was very encouraging about the quality of my writing. An actor approached me IN PERSON in Edinburgh to thank me for a positive review. The show had gotten a mixed reception overall and he seemed genuinely grateful someone had “got” what they were doing. I always welcome handsome actors telling me I understood a work. Honestly I was super socially awkward so probably best to send emails guys. But in a couple of instances I have I been approached by artists who wanted to “explain” their work to me. In one case, I definitely hit the work hard. The artist seemed compelled to give a background on the piece and why he made the choices he made. He wanted me to understand where his efforts perhaps failed to be as well presented as he had hoped—owning a bit of what I was criticizing. We did not speak but it made me more willing to see his work in the future and not let this negative experience be the end of it. But as Rosemary has said, these kinds of venting comments from artists need not be responded to generally. We’ve got to be truthful to our experiences whether that’s negative or not.
As for the US side of things, I once wrote a heated blog post about how a Broadway show was racist and sexist. There was a whole message board discussion about how stupid I was and also a Facebook post noting how I don’t have a sense of humor or understand satire. Not comments from the artists and certainly not worth dignifying. But oddly similar in tone and stance to the Big River comments. I stand by my review of that piece of trash—Honeymoon in Vegas.
Rafaella Marcus: I straddle the fence pretty firmly, if not equitably – I’m a theatre-maker first and a critic second. (Although, disclaimer: I’ve never responded to a review, either publicly or in private. Raging with the designer over a bottle of wine, however.) The number of reviews I’ve had where I felt the reviewer was mischaracterising something very fundamental about the show in a damaging way is only a handful – but more and more I feel that yes, maybe there should be a platform to respond.
The first issue is that in those cases, I felt that the politics and identity of the work were being misconstrued in a way that was unfair, i.e. had very little to do with the actual show. Certainly, if the show hasn’t adequately communicated itself then something hasn’t worked, but there are also times when you can sense a reviewer’s preconceptions, unconscious biases – hell, their taste – and they simply don’t align with the work. I’ll admit, I’ve looked at the names of reviewers attending press nights of my work and had a sinking feeling – I’ve got a sense of who will like it and who won’t and besides, I’m usually making work for a specific audience, one the critic might not naturally be a part of. Why shouldn’t artists be able to pre-emptively appeal against the choice of reviewer who attends their work?
The second is a practical one: with most new work on the fringe, a show is at the mercy of reviewers. The difference between three and four stars can be the difference between a loss and breaking even, between making your next show or not making it. The temptation to dash off the email is crushing: “This reads like a four star but you gave it three, could you just tell me why?” I never have – but I’ve really wanted to. I don’t know what a formal platform to respond to reviews would look like, but something that attracts a few thousand words of interesting back and forth around it potentially has a much longer lifespan, even in memory – as Nicole said, she’s more likely to see that artist’s work in the future having had a conversation about it. Entering into public discussion about new work could be a way of nurturing emerging artists without ‘going easy on them’ – and makes theatre criticism something much bigger than just a consumer guide.
Alice Saville: I’m really grateful to Raf for her reminder of what’s at stake for theatremakers – particularly at fringe level. As someone who (along with Rosemary) is involved in the more admin-type side of the reviewing machine, I’m constantly aware of the review as this quite formal thing. Theatre companies (sometimes directly, sometimes via PRs or venues) invite you to attend a press night. And in return, you respond with a review: in a reasonably set format, to a set timeframe, moderated by the spoken or unspoken formal restrictions of whatever outlet you’re writing for.
Inevitably, you lose sight of how much a review means to companies. But then you sort of have to: as a writer (or editor) on a deadline, you’d go slightly mad if you thought too hard about the impact of your words. There’s this huge monstrous imbalance between the weight of their months of time, thought, effort, and money, and the few hours you have to pass judgement on it. Sometimes you feel warm oceans that you can’t put into words, and sometimes you hold back from anatomising everything you didn’t like about a performance because it feels cruel – or boring to read.
On Exeunt, those pressures are relaxed a bit. But that imbalance is still there, and I think any kind of response has to be considerate of the fact that this isn’t personal, and that the words in the review were addressed to readers, not to you-the-theatremaker. I’m not sure you can ever start a true dialogue with a 250-word review. But there’s so much room for memorable conversations around work – particularly with emerging artists, where star ratings often end up speaking to production values more than ideas. I’d love to read a post-show dialogue between a company and a no-longer-really-a-reviewer – but I’m also aware that many companies rely on the positive pull-quotes/star ratings that the normal review system provides. Maybe writers need different kinds of invitations – including ones where real conversations can happen on an equal footing.
Dave Ralf: I think Alice’s mention of the formality of reviews is a really important point. And both outlets and theatremakers contribute to this formality.
A theatre production changes night to night – depending on the crowd that show up, what’s been in the news, what day of the week it is. I know directors who insist that a show isn’t ‘finished’ until the final performance, but both critics and companies tend to collude to fix things in place around press night. The director moves on to their next show, the designers don’t make any more tweaks, and often the cast and stage management are left to it. The critics, for their part, give their verdict.
There are advantages to this of course. As a producer, I don’t want to delay a critical response, because – as Rafaella says – reviews can be hugely helpful to a show’s ticket sales, especially on the fringe. And as a critic, I want to offer my thoughts to readers as soon as possible (and my editor will certainly want the same).
But shows do change: they bed down and they get shaken up. I love seeing the responses of people who see a show a little later in the run. I love critics tweeting a week after their review about the bit that they didn’t mention but has really stuck with them, or joining in a conversation that has sprung up between the lines of various reviews. And it would be lovely to disrupt the pressure and authority of the press night and the formal review, to frustrate the impulse on both sides of the fence to draw a line under a show and move on. We can create more opportunities for critics to dialogue, nit-pick, round-up and back-track, and more opportunity for directors to respond not in the letters section but on the stage, finding clarity of thought and execution. These are things that we can especially do on the fringe, as emerging companies, in blogs and in trade-specific outlets, and it will repay us all: sustained conversation beats endless raves (even with their pull quotes and stars) for companies and critics alike.
Maddy Costa: I’ve struggled to find a way into this conversation, and I think it’s because the premise of it – despite involving people who have dual practices as both makers and critics – has been oppositional. Two camps squaring up, requiring rules of engagement even to speak. Rafaella talks of straddling the fence: I want to talk about knocking the fence down.
I know why the fence is there: theatre is hard to make. Financially, intellectually, physically. I question my right to stand in judgement over another’s work, which is why I avoid writing the kind of reviews Alice describes. I want that choice to be active, repeated, and for it to be open in rejecting the hierarchy that separately and differently empowers makers and critics, separately and differently silences them. Power is the thing we’re really talking about here: who feels they have the power to say what, when, how, and to whom. I want to talk about letting power go.
Most of the work I do as a writer now is in dialogue with theatre-makers. I work that way because I want to change the world, by which I mean change the structures that govern human behaviour. The relationship with the review is one of the ways in which theatre makes itself complicit with capitalist and patriarchal modes of existence; another is its practice of exploitation. I want to talk about that.
Sometimes the dialogue I have with theatre-makers is just in my own head. I think of it as dialogue because the work I’m drawn to write about also seeks to change the world. Change requires community, community requires dialogue, and the premise of this particular conversation is a dispiriting reminder that theatre is an industry, not a community, and staggeringly slow, indeed resistant, to change. All we can do is keep having the conversation, patiently pushing at the fences and structures, until the edifice falls down.