Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lyn Gardner has made reference to the (now rather infamous) row which kicked off on this blog after the 05 Jan entry below. I think she has missed the point. You can read her whole post here, though the bit relating to us is reproduced below.

I have left the following Comment for her on her Guardian blog, but some of you may well want to contribute too. But please play nicely - remember we're representing our profession here. I don't want the whole world to think we're like Jade Goody ok?

My Comment to Lynn:

"Those theatre-makers who sincerely believe that it's easy being a critic as well as a friend and colleague have only to take a peek at the row that erupted on playwright Fin Kennedy's website just before Christmas to see what happens when the boundaries blur."

Whilst this point may be true, the row which erupted on my blog was not about this. It was started by an Anonymous commenter making a below the belt remark about another blogging playwright's girth, and drawing a catty analogy with 'flabby plays'. This playwright rightly saw red and responded in kind. He was then vilified for (wrongly) being perceived to have responded with violence to a criticism of his work.

Whilst the resulting furore was indeed gruesome reading at times, in amongst it all was an interesting and important debate about how playwrights in particular are writtten off as oversensitive 'difficult' old buggers the moment they take issue with something someone has said, even if it isn't about their work. We are always in a position of weakness because once we have written our plays and had them performed, everyone else has the last word. For a writer to take part in any ensuing debate is seen as defensiveness.

The traditional balance of power between theatre-makers, critics and audiences has always served to effectively neuter the theatre-makers. The internet and particularly blogs are changing all that, and it is making some critics very uncomfortable. But surely the more people that take part in debates about plays, and the more numerous their views, the more likely we are to get to the truth of a piece of work through being able to see it from all sides, and thereby reach a more accurate (or at least democratic) consensus on its value or otherwise?

Of course, this does mean a bit more work on the part of audiences. They will have to read through comments boxes in more detail to get to the heart of the matter, rather than rely on one critics opinion. But we already consult comments when we buy electrical equipment from Amazon, or Tripadvisor before we book a hotel, or decide whteher or not to trust an eBay seller - why not plays too? One man's Royal Hunt Of The Sun is another man's Love And Money...


Tickle Theatre said...

Fin I think you're absolutely right. If we only produced work according to our dialogue with the critics, I'm sure many of us would have dried up long ago, and I'm not sure this is limited solely to playwrights. I know directors who have actually considered giving up on the basis of a few negative words from someone they've never met, despite the fact that the show itself was selling well.

I dream of a critcal democracy where theatre-makers and audience drink and talk about the show afterwards, but I also think it is crucial for artists to hold onto their reasons for creating the work in the first place. Hold your nerve.

Anonymous said...

Problem with the Guardian site so can't post this there, so I'm going to put it here instead:

How many critics don't have a free drink or two on press night, even if they don't stay on to hob-nob?

Bringing the skirmish on Fin's blog into it confuses the matter - a lot of that was about making personal comments about established writers on the web using the cloak of anonymity the Internet can potentially provide. We all know what Lyn and Michael and co. look like (there are pictures of them on the website), and David Storey knew who the critics were when he famously accosted them in the Royal Court after they'd given a mauling to his latest play (a rather better illustration of the issues Lyn raises here).

I think those of us who are not involved in the industry (and I'm always keen to hear the opinions of my mates who work as lawyers or accountants) may rely more heavily on critics, but ultimately you start to discover the agendas that a particular critic is following, as you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with their opinions. For example, there are reviews that offer nothing but an assessment of the play as sociological study, there are also reviews that praise the intentions of the practitioners rather than the end-product. The more you see and the more you read, the more you find you can navigate your way towards the sort of stuff you really want to see - neither ignoring reviews entirely nor relying on critics like small children rely on their parents.

Brace said...

I've worked as a professional critic and as a playwright (in turn getting reviewed by Lyn Gardner once). I gave up reviewing because I couldn't bring myself to sum up shows in three hundred words anymore, it felt like a betrayal.

But the key thing I learned in my time is this: Critics care. They are not heartless taste fascists, they have their own strong feeling about where the future of theatre lies and they want to propagate good work and nurture promising talent. Some have become a bit Moon and Birdboot, but most are extremely conscientious. A new play by a new writer can't market itself, so it enters into this pact with the critics with its eyes open. it says to them: 'make me or break me'.

Lyn, particularly, is a very good critic. She acts as the counterweight to Billington and his 'one person's voice, well made play' preference. I think she has genuinely furthered the cause of an exciting brand of highly theatrical work.

Fin said...

Thanks for these everyone.

I think its important to point out that I wasn't having a pop at Lyn, nor did I want to resurrect the previous row. But I thought it was important to set the record straight about what took place here, and not let an erroneous understanding of it pass into the Guardian blog archive unquestioned.

For what it's worth I like Lyn's work and think she is a real champion on the industry (you only have to look at her recent campaigns re arts funding and the closure of BAC to see that). I also think she's right not to schmooze with us too much. But I don't share her discomfort over us theatre-makers knowing each other and engaging in critical debate about each other's work. Holding up a vitriolic row that was about something else entirely as evidence of this was a mistake.

Funnily enough, there's one critic I know a bit and have socialised with. He sometimes even employs me to lecture at a University where he works. In the past, the subject has come up of whether this is like the Judge fraternising with the Defendant before the trial, and neither of us have really been bothered about it. He always says he'll say what he likes about my work and that's fine by me. I have an outlet for a right to reply because I know him and can argue with him, and actually I think this leads to a far greater understanding between a critic and a theatre-maker than the wall of estrangement inherent in the traditional set-up. Aren't blogs just another form of this right to reply? I think they're a healthy outlet for an exchange of ideas.

We don't see that much of each other these days, but when we do we have quite lively disagreements about what has and hasn't been worth seeing lately. Our tastes are very different but it's always friendly. And it's that friendly tone which I think is the key - that and maintaining one's identity. If there's one thing which I learned from the row I inadvertently played host to here, it's that.