Day 204 - Do we know how to be critical of theatre in Wales? - Aberystwyth

"Working in Wales the debates surrounding independent media work are quite advanced and within those fields there is a preparedness to address issues of meaning, issues of process, issues of representation, and really get in amongst the art form, really pull it apart and analyse it, and move on into pieces of work that synthesise that analysis. That may be because if you make a film you've actually got the thing there, so you can rewatch it, and you can debate the thing. With theatre once it's gone it's gone and that might be part of the problem. So I think the criticism, the level of debate around theatre is either around the 'holiness' of the act, the kind of liberal, magical nature of the event, which I don't think gets us anywhere, or it deals with the play script and other remnants like that from a different kind of theatre from the one we are engaged in?" Cliff McLucas - Artistic Director of Brith Gof (1995) (Thanks to Richard Huw Morgan for generously providing me with a copy of this interview).

What struck me back in March was that there was a huge potential within this online community for constructive critical debate around the work that was being created. NTW had then, still has now and will have in the future a positive and open agenda with regards criticism of the work that they do. It is part of what makes them a thoroughly unique organisation. My question here is more to do with how the online community and the wider theatre community in Wales take up that very open invitation for a critical conversation about the work?

I don't entirely agree with McLucas, I do think that the critical vocabulary is there, I listened to deeply thought through arguments that explored the successes and failures of NTW's work so far, in accordance with their aim to explore location and place, at TAPRA in Cardiff a week ago. But no-one from NTW was there to hear them so how do these arguments from the academic world feed back into the working world of theatre in Wales?

As part of my research I have spoken at length to many people involved in the arts in Wales over the last six months. There are many highly considered and constructive things to be said. The question is why is it not possible to say those things publicly? Vicky Featherstone recently spoke about the honeymoon period having come to an end for National Theatre Scotland, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru are in a period of review in which they are asking questions of themselves that they should arguably have asked at their inception. What if we got over the idea of honeymoon periods and began to talk frankly about the work, so that all those involved could synthesise the criticism and apply it to their practice, rather than wait five years to try and fix things that would be better discussed now?

What would be the most appropriate forum for debating the performances produced by National Theatre Wales? Is it possible to speak in critical terms within this community? What is it that might prevent people from finding and sharing their own critical voice? How, in the most simple terms do we get beyond smiles and pats on the back and begin to simply, honestly and respectfully say what we think when we think it? I really don't have any answers, I am simply keen to know whether anyone is interested in having this conversation.

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Comment by Tom Beardshaw on September 28, 2010 at 22:12
This is a fascinating and important discussion for NTW and beyond - thanks John and Tom for kicking it off. I'll chip in from my perspective on how media shapes human conversation. There are a lot of threads in here, and I'll try to unravel a response to some of them.

It's useful to think about how the mediascape as we knew it before the web shaped critical conversations. Beyond verbal discussions, any opinion about theatre had to find it's way through print, radio or tv it if was to enter public discourse. Print media shaped, for example, the "press review" - an single authority (engaged with the profession), a single piece of text limited by wordcount, an immediate response, a verdict of some kind, often by means of a rating, a large readership, no means to engage the review's author.

Print also shapes academic discourses - the studied preparation and presentation of 'papers', deadlines for publication, a firm statement of opinion, debates held at conferences, conversations within and between institutions and people 'of letters'. Without access to public media, I wonder those outside the theatre, critical and academic professions had much of a role in critical discourse about theatre at all. If there were no way to access public media channels, your view was not made known - and perhaps there's been more of a tradition of theatres getting public reaction for their own purposes, rather than for public consumption.

The web is a very different communications medium. As a platform it provides the means for anyone to say anything publicly to the world, using any media - text, sound, images, video, animations, data visualisations, slideshows to name a few - and crucially it also provides the means for anyone to respond and link to anywhere else. This is changing the type of conversations are taking place.

Audiences are organised differently online - an infinite amount of content is potentially available to those who link to it, so viewers are more likely to be fewer than mass media, but more engaged as they have opted to look at what they're viewing. They can and do talk back. They don't necessarily see it at the same time, as media persists through time, unlike the more transient forms of broadcast media. All this has huge potential for the kind of discussions that can take place, and are worth thinking about when creating web content and holding conversations online.

I think there are two communities being talked about in this conversation - the professional theatre discourses conducted by academics and critics and the views and feedback of the general, non-professional public. If we take the first, we can see that conditions on this community site are quite similar to the conditions under which these professionals are used to carrying out their conversations. It is public and writers are encouraged to own their comments through the use of real identities.

The only significant differences are that the readership (which can and does include artists from the show) can respond. The traditional forms used by critics and academics may however not be the best communication styles for the community site. A verdict like short text press review doesn't take advantage of the potential for expanding meaning and intent through different media forms, asking questions, inviting responses and continuing the conversation over a period of time. Perhaps these are things to explore about as a new generation of 'critics' emerges.

An academic paper is unlikely to be read online, but that's not to say that new communications media could be easily used by academics to convey their intent and make their ideas more accessible and intelligible to both the artists and general public. I'd be fascinated to know what was in the academic papers Tom mentioned, have they been published online? Its easy to link to anything from the community site. But better yet, for the sake of an engaged open and constructive conversation, could the authors do a short piece to video setting out their views (which would convey more richly the intent of their criticism through non-verbal cues and any other tools they could use to explain their views)?

Are the academy and those critical of NTW taking the opportunities to develop it's work and engage with its subjects through conversational media? What John has said (and community history has backed up) is that NTW is open to that, it's just that he and the NTW like a certain quality of engaged, critical response. My hunch is that the community is a good platform for that kind of conversation. It is open, public and accountable, so should hold little fear for academics or critics, used to 'publishing' as they are. The difference on the community is that the audience can talk back, so a 'dialogue' mode is more important in a web based media culture than the clear statement of thesis that a text based broadcast media culture engenders. It needs people to be brave and clear with their views and a culture to form through the setting of example - it would be good to see an engaging critical response to Love Steals Us from Loneliness - my hunch is that a serious attempt to engage will help improve the future work of NTW. There is potential for dialogue, but I have to ask whether the academy and critics is taking these opportunities - there's nothing stopping them posting on this site, and the valuable stuff is likely to get attention.

When it comes to the 'amateur' critical public, this is where I think there is more potential to think creatively about the adaptation of technology to encourage feedback that is both useful to the company and informative to the more strategic debates occurring between the academy and artists. I agree that the architecture of the community is perhaps not best suited for encouraging public critical response - it is open and public and people are accountable for their views. Anonymity can allow for a greater degree of honesty, although also letting in the possibility of abuse. Design of a system that would be effective in bringing the public's response to NTW is crucial… and a bigger conversation than we can have now. A map based tool (as with is a possibility, but then there are other models as well. The greatest difficulty would be in creating an app or site that contained built in incentives for the public to easily and effectively return useful and constructive information to the company and inform the public debate. It would be easy to create something that those really interested in saying something about NTW to use, the harder task would be to create a tool that reached beyond this group and became something that the general public and audiences wanted to use, because it gave them value in itself.

A final point about the 'informed' part of John's formula for useful conversation. I don't know how much time newspaper critics spend getting to know the artists and the work they're trying to create, but I'm sure that the kind of digital sharing of the creative process that we've been doing on Love Steals Us From Loneliness is an important part of informing feedback and comment in the future, and I imagine an important part of cultivating the kind of conversations we'd like to see.
Comment by National Theatre Wales on September 23, 2010 at 11:01
Cheers Tom. Very useful. FYI (and others reading), one other plan in the works is some kind of a big event next summer - an open forum in real space/time and online where the widest possible range of people get to reflect on the work so far and dream about the future. I'd be very interested in your ideas, and other people's, about what this might look like - what would it feel like for example if a community TEAM member from Prestatyn was discussing past work and future possibilities alongside a PhD student like yourself and an emerging playwright - would that be a useful and exciting debate - and how would it all really feed into programming choices.... j
Comment by Dr Tom Payne on September 23, 2010 at 9:32
Thanks John, I think that an uncomplicated digital platform that combined public and private means of responding to work could be an extraordinarily open and innovative way for a national theatre, or any other arts organisation for that matter, to gather a broad range of responses to its work and to give a voice to its audience. For what it is worth I have a few thoughts on this subject which I will share as they might feed into the development of your discussion forum;

A single page platform might be better than a website. Easy to find and easy to understand. Like your platform for the current show,

Simple tools for interaction. It might be enough to have a comments box and a choice of 12 tick boxes. So that people arrive at the page, select the show they want to talk about, write their comment and then press send.

An additional feature might be that people can post their comments to a discussion thread or can send them privately and anonymously directly to NTW.

I feel that it is important to resist overcomplicating such a tool, and that while there might be some information such as age and location that would be useful to gather in order to help contextualise the comments, it should be possible to understand the platform and get down to the business of leaving a comment with as little hassle and ICT literacy as possible.

Also, might there be ways of engaging in discussion about the work offline? In light of Theatr Genedlaethol's current consultation process, and Vicky Featherstone's recent comments that suggest that voices of dissent are now, four years into National Theatre of Scotland's programme, beginning to make themselves heard, would it be prudent to develop an ongoing consultation strategy that brought in voices from the arts, the academy and the wider public in order to explore concerns and issues as they arise? Part of this consultation strategy might involve meeting with colleagues from Aberystwyth to discuss the recent papers at TAPRA and Reading. This would provide an opportunity to challenge one another's theoretical frames and to begin to ask questions of one another that might help shape both the future of the work and the way in which the work is read and understood.

I would also like to say thank-you again John for engaging me in this conversation and helping to demonstrate that this online community can be a place for difficult questions and respectful debate.
Comment by National Theatre Wales on September 22, 2010 at 22:57
Hi Tom. I think your list of questions is really good: 'What was the work saying about this place? How did the work go about saying it? How did this piece of work enact this location? What have both NTW and the audience learnt from the encounter? How do the different performances reverberate together within NTW's map of Wales? What new questions are there? Or, on the most basic level, did we like it or not?'

I'd also add that we should leave a space (despite my own investment in our 'theatre map') for people to raise things that are nothing to do with the location of the piece. I guess my overall point is that if this kind of engagement is framed as a discussion rather than just a statement, it is more useful for all of us.

Stimulated by this discussion of ours, I will certainly attempt to set up an online forum, once Love Steals Us From Loneliness is open, where people are invited to respond to, and have a discussion, about the piece.
Comment by Dr Tom Payne on September 22, 2010 at 12:46
Thanks for your response John. What interests me is that the mechanisms that are in place in the UK for discussing and debating theatre, particularly immediately after or even during an event, seem to function in and around the press - the review. A press night is held and then we wait and hope that good things are said about the work. A critical response is openly invited, is immediate and certainly runs the risk of hurting the feelings of those involved in the creative process. However, despite the potential for upsetting those involved it is still an actively sort response. So while I agree with your point that it is important to protect the people involved within a creative process, there does seem to be a tension between the welcome immediacy of a press response and then the delayed invitation to a response from the more general public, or even from the academy. What interests me particularly is why we seem to fear giving and receiving criticism, particularly when the consequence of unshared critical thoughts can often do more damage to trust later down the line?

The terms of critical debate don't need to be negative, and importantly, for NTW's conversation about the philosophy of place to function properly there needs to be an immediate dialogue with each piece of work. What was the work saying about this place? How did the work go about saying it? How did this piece of work enact this location? What have both NTW and the audience learnt from the encounter? How do the different performances reverberate together within NTW's map of Wales? What new questions are there? Or, on the most basic level, did we like it or not? This last question surely contains the terms by which all spectators will and do talk about a performance.

What is of importance here is that the immediate response of the audience contains information that is crucial to the development of a theatre company, in this case NTW, and if there is not a mechanism through which to collect this information and it is lost, then the way in which we understand the work in the future is likely to be dictated by whatever archive is collected rather than by being informed by the immediate audience response to the actual work itself. Therefore NTW's future is potentially going to be shaped in relation to a record of it's own work that is essentially being written within this online community, and my feeling would be that there is, due to the nature of this particular type of digital platform, a bias towards positive feedback rather than constructive criticism. With this in mind I think that it might be appropriate for academics to take the spectator position within their analysis in order to ensure that they communicate with integrity exactly what a particular piece of work, standing by itself, was saying to them as an individual.

Were the public and the academy to take this online community as a genuine invitation to contribute to the debate strand of NTW's work, then it might become a forum that was owned by the community rather than a marketing/archiving tool for NTW, and one which contained a more balanced response to NTW's work, a response that would inform planning and therefore lead to a more stable and successful future for the company, one that moves beyond old divisions between the academy and the working theatre community (this has happened in practice in the first six months of this year) and that invites questions about the work and incorporates answers from all parts of the nation.

So my questions to anyone reading this are; in what ways is this online community a functioning platform for debating the work of NTW? If it is not functioning then how might it begin to do so? What other digital platforms might provide an opportunity for an audience to quickly, anonymously and privately feedback to NTW both positively and negatively about their work, with a view to protecting both the individuals involved in the the creative process and those giving the feedback? What offline opportunities might there be for the public and the academy to engage with NTW and associated artists and to participate in the conversation about the philosophy of place? What is it that is silencing your critical voice and preventing you from sharing your thoughts publicly in response to this blog conversation?
Comment by National Theatre Wales on September 19, 2010 at 18:50
Thanks for this thoughtful blog Tom. For what it's worth, my feeling is that there should always be space to engage with criticism, but that it's always important also to remember that we are dealing with real people who have feelings, and hopes, and worries. When you've just finished putting on a show, and you've put your all into it, there is a time for pats on the back. After that there's a time for conversation about what went right and wrong, and how to push yourself harder and get to a better, or different place next time. For me, and for a lot of the artists I've worked with over the years, this kind of critical pushing works best when there's a dialogue - when there's an opportunity to discuss the work, and ask questions of the people who made it. I also find that you are much more likely to trust and and value criticism from someone who has clearly made an attempt to undertstand the work and what you were trying to do. When working on development of plays, to give a parallel example, I often find that identifying something that is working can be as helpful to a writer as identifying something that isn't. Online space should be a good place to have a more dialogue-based criticism, with questions asked and answered and lessons learned. I think maybe the 'review' format isn't in the longer-term going to be the best online format for discussing and critiquing work, but I'm not sure yet what might replace it. In the case of academic criticism, when you're dealing with living, breathing people and art, there is surely an opportunity and even a responsibility to talk to your subjects about what they are trying to do, and to challenge your own theoretical assumptions as well as theirs. Online or off, I think the best critique is that which is willing to ask questions and incorporate answers.

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