So you’ve worked for 6 long weeks on this production of your musical. You have laboured for years on the creative end, writing, and spending more time drumming up the funds to put your baby on, than many people spend maintaining a functional marriage. Today is the day though, today is your first preview and there’s a palpable weight in the air. A critic is in.
A few days later, they publish the most rancid collation of faeces mounded together since the outbreak of the plague in 14th century England. Who is this childish ogre?! Why are they so joyfully bounding through the careful sand-castle that you and your team have laboured over? “Sexist and abhorrently chauvinist”?! Aren’t the two basically the same thing?
Slowly a rage builds deep in the centre of you. Words and fists and crockery fly out of you. They just don’t understand. How could they not understand?! And now, in their small-minded tyranny, their words have guaranteed that whatever percentage of their readership you may have wooed to your audience, is now lost. Your future ability to mount productions is directly challenged. And they’re all alike, the demonic parrots. They all just copy one another and say the same thing. Stupid gits.
The function of the critic within a vibrant theatrical context is frequently misunderstood. Either people accord them too much reverence, or not enough. Everybody agrees that it’s fine to have disagreements over what is fundamentally subjective. People say it all the time “Oh that’s just my opinion, it’s subjective I can think whatever I want”.
But what does that really mean?
Today, we’re going to do a brief overview on reading the words of your theatre critic.
1. Bias and History and Function
Ben Neutze of The Daily Review is one of the nation’s most prolific up and coming critics, and he is biased.
David Jude Allen of Diva Knows Best, ran an infamous theatre blog that was closed due to an industry wide backlash over what was seen to be too much bias.
Mr. Neutze runs an occasional column called “Talk” for the Hayes*, which fittingly, is run by the Hayes Theatre Company in Sydney. Does that mean that he is incapable of providing impartial observation about things produced at the Hayes, seeing as he looks to have a direct stake in its success? Can you simply expect everything he writes about the Hayes to be candy and popcorn and sunshine? Not at all. (http://dailyreview.com.au/the-fantasticks-review-hayes-theatre-sydney/35418).
Mr. Allen, allegedly (http://www.theatrematters.com.au/blog/diva-knows-best-or-less) blurred the line between subjectivity and ad hominem in what seemed to many, as directed attacks against creatives in the industry. Ad hominem (latin: to the man) is an argument directed towards cutting down the speaker of a point of view, rather than the point of view itself.
Is the difference in the way these two critics were received simply down to writing style? What can we learn?
Celebrated writers like Mr. Neutze don’t live on an island (to the person triumphantly pointing out that they do: if you’re going to be a stickler, this is going to take a while, so shut it).
They have connections and relationships and associations with people who presumably share some creative ideology with them. These ideologies and sometimes these relationships colour what they write. It is a widely acknowledged prerequisite of critique that the critic themselves note these biases when they occur. Something which Mr. Neutze does at every opportunity. (http://dailyreview.com.au/author/benneutze)
Sometimes writers have pronounced unproven biases like that (allegedly) of Mr. Allen, but there are others that are just as insidious.
How do you know that your critic isn’t full of shit? Against what whetstone have they honed their craft? If a man has been writing reviews for 20 years, does time in itself mean that he is qualified to give an objective measurement of theatre? What are his barometers of success and failure? What are his reasons?
2. What’s the angle? How do they get theirs?
Is a critic trying to make a name for himself by coming out with punchy wordplay and bold assertion? What is a critic’s literary history? How have they trained? Has a critic written nothing but overly sweet compliments for the last 20 years? Does a critic have a sideline where he teaches acting/singing? Do they work sometimes as a director for the local society that they are reviewing? Have they got an outspoken agenda against an organisation because of a bitter history?
Critics are writers with objectives.
Whether those objectives are lofty things like the upholding of a rigorous standard, or of asking difficult, important questions to provoke thought, or more mundane things like maintaining the interest of a readership, writers are writing with a goal in mind.
Sometimes those goals have nothing to do with an objective discussion of the art in front of them. Sometimes those goals force critics to publish unpopular opinion because theirs is the only platform from which it is possible.
3. Why can’t you support emerging art instead of spreading your poo all over it?
Do critics have a responsibility to support emerging works by treating them more gently? Is the publication of “puff pieces” permissible if it a workshop performance better legs?
That’s an interesting angle predicated on the assumption that critics wield influence over ticket sales, or industry recognition.
The counter argument is that critiques should always be as high quality as possible, no quarter, no mercy, no Vaseline on the camera lens – because the sharper the nation’s artistic aesthetic, the closer we come to having an industry that can repeatedly vie for the highest standards in the world.
That’s the ideal, but let’s takes a look at the practicalities.
What little opportunities remain to theatre makers are highly prized and very difficult to get a hold of. Capitalism dictates that those few that survive the gladiatorial ideal, be the best of a titanic pile of corpses. How heart breaking is it then, for these few battered challengers to emerge blinking into the sunlight only to be cut down by cruel critics before they are fully fledged.
What’s more, if you have just seen your buddy get massacred by withering arrow fire, how likely are you to be unaffected?
So goes the argument.
To which I respond: pick yourself up buttercup.
Sometimes critics don’t know what they’re talking about. Sometimes they do. Sometimes the work that you have just made is shite. Not completely shite otherwise you wouldn’t have been produced to begin with. Either way, pick yourself up, work on making your work better, and keep on trying. Your energy is wasted trying to convince a man who has already published an opinion, and a man whose opinion can be swayed by gladhanding isn’t worth much anyway.
On a macro level, critics *should be* concerned with a national context. If your one production falls, it is their hope that another will rise, stronger from having absorbed the lessons that yours didn’t.
So suck it up, and keep working, precious child.
4. The importance of dissociative voices, other influences
As someone in the industry, you can’t publically say bad shit about somebody else’s work. If you say bad shit, it has the potential to directly limit your opportunities to function. Because you can’t say bad shit, everything you say, by default, has to be neutral or good.
Because everything you say is either neutral or good, whatever you say has no critical relevance.
That’s why it is important to have people outside of the world, commenting on the world. Because otherwise, nobody can say that the Emperor is naked.
But wait a minute Chris. Didn’t you just say that no critic is an island?
Yes I did, and thank you for noting friend, that there are degrees of permissible bias. Who sets those permissions? What are the repercussions? The answers to these questions lie in that tangled mystery known as social interaction.
And that’s why Critics should be more free than other industry folk to give the straight dope. (http://www.straightdope.com/)
5. The difficulty (and difference) between being a critic and a creative.
Your job as a creative is to do the best job you can with the tools you have available to you. You are worried about the job in front of you. You know things aren’t perfect, and you know there are problems, but your concern is to make sure you meet your creative and financial goals for the production. You care about the world of your play.
Critics are concerned with a wider scope. They care about how your piece and its components fit into the context in which they are writing. That context covers a huge array of *things* from artistic style, to morals included in the show, to demonstrated technical ability in relation to other performances.
Two very different positions.
Critics care about how a play fits into the rest of the world.
Bad critics don’t tell you why they think that way.
* Editor’s Note: Correction made from original post