Monday, 19 November 2012

saying things out loud in public

Note added 9 July 2021: following the discovery that, through all the years I was working with him, Chris Goode was consuming images of child abuse, I've returned to a self-evaluation process rethinking the work I did with him. That process began in 2018 and some of what it raised is detailed in this post from December that year, in which I acknowledge that I was complicit in some of the harms he caused, for instance by erasing the work of other women who worked with him, fuelling a cult of genius around him, and consistently asking people who criticised his work (particularly the sexually explicit work) to see it in softer ways. A second post is now in process in which I look in more detail at the ways in which Chris coerced and abused particularly young men who worked with him, using radical queer politics to conceal these harms and police reactions. I hope that any other writing about his work on this blog, including the post below, will be read with that information in mind.

Further note added 27 July 2021: that new post is now written and undergoing an extensive rewriting process as it's read and commented on by people who appear in it (that is, other people who worked with Chris in the seven years when I did). It could be up to a month before it's ready to share publicly, but I'm happy to share it privately in the meantime.

In two hours and 30 minutes I shall be Saying Things Out Loud in Public. Usually this makes me pretty nervous but a) I've had a fair bit of practice at it lately, what with Dialogue at Northern Stage/St Stephen's and at BAC and at the Risking Together conference at Parabola Arts and Chris Goode's The Field of Performance event mentioned in last post and last week at the post-show discussion on political theatre organised by Hannah Silva following her performance of Opposition at which Andy Field quoted Christian Slater's closing speech from Pump Up the Volume and I rediscovered the faded tattoo of those words on my heart and b) there is so much else to be properly nervous about right this minute that this, quite honestly, is small fry.

Also, I was at the Bush on Saturday night (my first visit! awful that it's taken me so long) and being in the room where I'm going to be doing the talking was curiously reassuring. It's not that big. And, oh blessed consolation prize, Kieran Hurley is performing Beats afterwards so even if I do come across as a total idiot, afterwards I'll be able to sit in the dark and listen to a gorgeous story of people making mistakes and carrying on, and that will make me feel much better. As will listening to Aphex's Alberto Balsam at high volume. Bliss.

Anyway, because I know the room isn't that big, and because I know Chris Goode won't be there (he's podcasting at Stoke Newington International Airport) and I talk about him in the speech and it feels odd to me that he won't know what I'm saying, here is the speech. The title of the event is How Is Critical Discourse Keeping Pace with Contemporary Theatre? and the title of my contribution is What Are We Afraid Of? which isn't the title I'd have chosen after writing it but is the title I felt compelled to give when asked to provide one in advance. There's a comment box at the end, or you could email me:

What are we afraid of?

Back in the dark ages I wrote photocopied fanzines, the last of which was a collaboration with a friend that could be read from the front or the back and, depending where you started, detailed things we hated – our bugbears – or things we loved – the bearhugs. I no longer recall which side theatre was on. One reader, who had changed his name by deed poll to Titus Toilet Seat [memory failure! Bughug co-writer tells me it was someone else with a more normal/less memorable name. Apologies to all concerned], told us that my friend's writing for it was all right, but mine made him want to string me up by a noose.

Now everything I write is published online, with a comment box beneath, in which readers can broadcast their irritation and belief in my irrelevance internationally. People who are really riled write entire blog posts excoriating my work sentence by sentence. Or maybe that's just Andrew Haydon. It's not easy to read these things. But I do. I breathe with them, absorb them, and carry on.

I realise this sounds like a crass way of saying that critics have to deal with criticism, too. But that's not quite my point. There is a criticism that increasingly I struggle to assimilate, and it's the commentary that comes pre-publication – during the process, if you like. I'm becoming the kind of abysmal egotist who considers the unsolicited intervention of editors, professional or otherwise, an affront. Woe betide anyone who glances at my computer when sentences are unfinished. Writing is precarious and a matter of taste. Once something is published, I'm happy to face all commentary. In the process, I like silence.

And this is the irony. Over the past few years of writing about theatre, I've drifted away from conventional criticism, the quick-fire review of a press night, and become much more interested in writing about process. Some people have been happy to open the doors of their rehearsal rooms to me. But more people haven't. They feel the process needs to be protected. I have a lot of respect and sympathy for that position.

But I also think those people believe that a theatre critic in their rehearsal room would be formulating judgment, in a way that an assistant director, or a dramaturg, or another playwright or performer or maker, wouldn't be. They believe that fear of that judgment would encourage the performers to make safe or conventional choices. Both of these things could be true. But I hope not of me.

If theatre-makers are afraid of a critic encroaching on their work, I'm no less afraid of affecting it, for good or ill. When I walk into a rehearsal room, I understand that my presence has an effect: I embody the audience to come. But beyond that, I want to influence the process as little as possible. I want to witness silently and unobtrusively. I want to think and I want to learn. And if I do say anything, I don't want to comment but to question, dig, understand.

Like many people who write about theatre, I have little experience of making it. I painted scenic backdrops for friends at university, and designed a set for an Edinburgh show which mostly involved running around charity shops and trying not to asphyxiate myself with fire-resistant spray, but none of that proved especially edifying. When I started going into grown-up rehearsal rooms, as research for Guardian features, I felt I was witnessing alchemy. No matter how much I learn about the nuts and bolts of making theatre, there is much that remains thrillingly elusive.

The mysterious processes of acting or devising, I can't articulate. The nuts and bolts, however, I can: not to create user manuals on the subjects of directing or designing but to contemplate the political implications of how theatre gets made. Ask people what a theatre critic should do and they will probably paraphrase Irving Wardle's bible on the matter: you should work out what the production is attempting, and assess how successfully it achieves that goal. But just as the means of production at Prada and Primark differ widely, so do the circumstances under which theatre is made. This is nothing to do with persistent, nonsensical binaries of “new work” and “new writing”: it's to do with opportunity. What compromises had to be struck with time or money or resources in the makers' journey towards their goal? What supported or thwarted their success? What had to be sacrificed or fought?

I'm interested, too, in thinking about the temporary communities that are forged through the making of theatre, the relationships between the people in the rehearsal space, and the projected and actual relationships between those people and the others who engage with their work in the performance space. How supportive or enabling are those relationships – and what are they supporting or enabling? Is this a genuine collaboration, a truly open participation, or a covert hierarchy? What difference does it make if the work purports to be nurturing, but the process isn't?

For the past 18 months I've been working with theatre-maker Chris Goode as he develops an argument for the rehearsal room as “a space in which we experiment with ways to live together”. Ways of generosity, of care; listening attentively to other voices; enabling the articulation of marginalised human experience. Ways of living denigrated in a competitive society driven by market forces. When Chris first invited me to be part of that space, he said it was because he wanted someone in the room who could be: “A cross between a dramaturg, an archivist, a documentary artist, an outreach officer, a brand manager and Jiminy Cricket... Not just an outside eye (and ear) but also a memory, a conscience, a nagging voice. A heart.” So that's a fair bit to live up to.

Writing about Chris' work is by far the most challenging thing I now do. Earlier this year, I put together an essay about the Chris Goode and Company show 9 that was one-part semi-conventional review, one-part investigation of the effect of Chris Goode and Co's flexible and organic working practice on the more conventional operations of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who co-produced it, and one-part contemplation of the role of the non-professional members of the community performing the work. It ran at approximately 10,000 words, four months after the two-night run had finished. Outside of academia – and truly, I'm no academic – I don't know where the home for such writing is.

It could be argued that no home exists because such writing is superfluous to requirements. But that smacks of a narrow appreciation of theatre criticism's role. I've been with the Guardian for 12 years and remain astounded that I have the opportunity to write not only for a national newspaper, but alongside Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner, both of whom make me look like an ignorant upstart. But as soon as I put a star rating on a Guardian review, I contribute to the commodification of theatre and the reduction of criticism to consumer guide. I need that consumer guide as much as the next cash-strapped, time-poor soul struggling to choose between a plethora of shows. But critics, or theatre-writers, as I prefer to call myself, can and must give more.

We are story-tellers, narrating our perception of theatre for the benefit of its makers and its myriad audiences, now and in the future. We are advocates, arguing for theatre's necessity to those who are suspicious of it or would dismiss its voice in society, reaching out to those who need it but have been misled into thinking that theatre is for a social or academic elite, even convincing funders to cough up some cash. We are ecologists, as Andrew Haydon usefully posits, identifying and elucidating evolutions in theatre, examining the veins carrying blood and oxygen to and from theatre, art, society, technology, politics. We are theatre's memory, conscience and nagging voice. Does it really make sense for us to be sitting on the outside, invited in only for press night?

And of course we can write and publish this stuff ourselves, on our blogs. But those are monologues. I'm interested in dialogue and the communities it can forge – which is why I'm perplexed that there's no Q&A time at this event. Earlier this year I set up a website called Dialogue with my friend Jake Orr, dubbing it “a collaborative playspace for people who make, watch and write about theatre”. We don't call it a playspace to be whimsical: unless you've never been a child, you know that people learn and share and communicate and laugh and fight and love and reveal their secrets best through play.

Dialogue shares a central tenet of its manifesto with a New York website called Culturebot, an ongoing inspiration for me and Jake, whose proposal for 21st-century theatre-writing is rooted in the idea of “critical horizontalism”. Rather than deliver a judgment on a production or performance, the critic offers a response that is “the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist”. Star ratings not included.

There is a strong argument against critical horizontalism: who can trust a critic who works alongside makers? The critic who observes rehearsals, Irving Wardle reasoned in that bible on the matter, becomes “the company's mascot... You make friends. You sympathise with their difficulties. … Having made the journey with them, you are only conscious of what they have achieved; and you want what they want – unconditional approval.” That makes two bibles I don't believe in. Friends, true friends, are not only sympathetic but understand the importance of honesty, no matter how difficult or painful.

I have my own advocate in this. A few weeks into Dialogue's existence, Chris Goode texted alerting me to a passage in a book he was reading. “Our relations with critics may be strained in a superficial sense,” it read, “but in a deeper one the relationship is absolutely necessary: like the fish in the ocean, we need one another's devouring talents to perpetuate the sea bed's existence. … The critic is part of the whole and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?

“The more the critic becomes an insider,” it continued, “the better.” As you can probably tell from those slips into the male pronoun, the book wasn't new. It was Peter Brook's The Empty Space, published in 1968. And there we were kidding ourselves we were so bloody forward-looking.

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