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March 31, 2012 / Jessi

Err on the Side of Critique

JessiBeag

I enjoy critiquing theatre and performance, in my blog, in conversation and on social networks. I think discussion about, and critique of, performance is important for its progress and advancement.

When I see a show that I think is interesting and good quality I write and talk about it a lot.

But when I see a show that I think has a lot of flaws, or wasn’t thought out very well, or played it too safe… I am quieter. I err far more on the side of caution.

Part of this is because I am more doubting of my own negative opinions. I fear that my own prejudices may be clouding my view. In an Irish Theatre Podcast interview, theatre critic Peter Crawley talked about this, “The hardest thing sometimes is just getting your opinion across in as lucid a way as possible. And in as justified a way as possible.”

But I am also concerned about who will hear or read the negative things I say. In a way I want everyone to hear and read them, so that they can be thought about. But in other ways, that idea scares me. And so I voice my negative opinions far less.

A lot of the time I am resigned to this system I have constructed for myself. But then there are times when I will have seen a ‘bad show’ but all I hear and see is hype about how marvellous said show was. That concerns me. People are allowed to have positive opinions, that’s great. But it’s not all that should be heard. And if I thought the show was bad, it’s likely I was not the only one who thought so, and yet I hear very few people say it. And what looks to me as quite an unbalanced view emerges in the collective conscious.

Manchan Mangan wrote an article in The Irish Times where he spoke about his experience of viewing Irish theatre. “Last year I spent €1,023 going to 59 plays. Of these about 20 per cent were enjoyable, a further 60 per cent were reasonably diverting and the remainder had me silently begging for release.” And yet how often do you hear people speaking specifically about any show’s flaws? I certainly find it tough to express those thoughts to anyone but my closest companions.

Maybe if I wish to critique performance in an honest and unfettered way I ought to have some distance from the theatre community. This might free me from fear of offending people. Crawley expressed his view that distance is necessary when critiquing theatre. “I think my community is probably journalists, more specifically than theatre-makers. I have a position that’s sort of nearer the (theatre) community which is not in the community. That’s probably important. Because you can get too close.”

I, however, work in this industry, and wish to keep doing so. I am only at the very start of my career in theatre and performance and am very much in need of the assistance and opportunities offered to me by people further up the ladder. I also want to continue critiquing performance, and wish to improve at that. But could one of these adversely affect the other? If I write a cutting review of a top company’s show, will this come back to haunt me when I apply to them for a job?

But this isn’t just about me, it isn’t just about written critique. It is about all of us who watch performance, and the way we then speak about it in conversation and on social networks. The people who go to the shows most often, and the people who work in the industry have the most to lose by voicing negative opinions. But it is these same people who may have the best chance of positively influencing the world of theatre and performance by pointing out the bad and not just the good.

[Quotes taken from Manchan Mangan, The Irish Times, Feb 11th 2012. And Peter Crawley, Irish Theatre Podcast, March 1st 2012.]

5 Comments

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  1. Sheila Creevey (@she_c) / Mar 31 2012 9:21 pm

    I think your concerns are valid. We work in a very small pond with some very big fish. However, you should feel free to express your opinion, and develop your critical expertise in this field without it prejudicing your future. I understand, as I find myself in the same position time and again.

    My approach would be to choose my words carefully. Think through your response before posting – ensure that if you are challenged that you can articulate yourself well, and stand firm by your position. If a challenge holds valid, then don’t retreat. You have to be able to accept criticism of your own work, in order to validly critique others.

  2. jackett74 / Apr 1 2012 1:40 am

    How can we get better if we are afraid to voice our opinions in public for fear of lack of employment as a punishment for an opinion expressed? The conversation should be as open and diverse as possible, It should represent as wide a view as the population from which it originates. If this is not the case we lose and our theatre is diminished as a result.

  3. elva carri / Apr 1 2012 1:59 pm

    This is so true and of even more areas that just theatre and performance. I wonder if this is more so the case in Ireland as it’s such a small community of arts in general? Great questions to bring up. I’m not sure how one would go forward. Suggest alter ego for saying bad stuff? And a disguise?

  4. Danny / Apr 1 2012 3:36 pm

    If those closest to the core of the industry are pretending, the less-involved masses passing around the periphery can hardly be expected to pipe up. It’s very clear that in practice any change in intentions and values has to come from those who are most, and most often, engaged with the industry – think of involvement simply as time spent.
    The same thing is true of the visual arts. There we now have a situation where artists are themselves commentators. Art practice was allowed to get so comfortable and confident in itself that art was allowed to evolve into whatever the fuck it is now – a collaberative performance piece where the underprivileged young are rolled around in crinkly leaves in inner-city public greenspaces – and no-one bothers commenting. The work is itself an indeterminate process: critique is almost impertinent. On no wall is this art fixed in honourable, candid exposure for whoever might pass and look. This timeless state of presentedness was what filled me with awe for the great and the good alike, when I first visited the museums of London, Paris, Madrid.
    If art becomes something which doesn’t expect critique, it will evolve – that is for sure. In my beloved visual arts it has evolved into a monster. As Omar said (probably), Do what you feel.

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