Monday, 3 September 2007

Blogland burnout spectacular

Don’t panic; I’m close to hitting the wall in my current run of blogorrhoea. What did it for me was clicking through from a link in Lyn Gardner’s take on whether critics should have friends who are theatre makers (no, apparently), which was helpfully provided by fellow blogger Natasha Trippney of Interval Drinks.

This in turn took me to Fin Kennedy’s blog back in December and January [scroll down to the 14th] last year, which was cited by Lyn as an example of what can happen when poacher turns gamekeeper. As Fin noted in the comments section under Lyn’s original article, that’s not strictly what happened. But, It still makes for pretty depressing reading.

Not having had enough of arguments, and feeling somewhat chastened by the description of my blog as “a great resource for the London theater scene” on The Shalimar’s blog (not the intention, I know - but no one wants to feel parochial, and I really am far more guilty of it than most), I went on to have a look at the rumpus recently being waged over at George Hunka’s website concerning his committing the first cardinal sin of criticism - writing up after leaving at the interval. I was alerted to this by Australia’s Alison Croggan’s own excellent response (oh yes, I was really doing the rounds today). Actually, George's position is something of a grey area, and one which (to the best of my knowledge) does not exist in Britain - he was on a free ticket (to a preview performance) and had been invited to write-up, but as a "blogger" rather than as an "actual critic".

In his defence, Hunka can be found musing on: “useless dichotomies -- critic/playwright, amateur/professional -- which only serve to Balkanize the practice of theatre production, reporting and criticism in the United States. Preserving these dichotomies only serves to more firmly entrench the status quo in which these dichotomies encourage antagonism and separation.” This reminds me a lot of what I wrote about at no small length yesterday.

Anyway - yes: he makes a full admission that he left at the interval. No: I’m not sure that’s enough. Nor am I sure that I’m not sure. Obviously it’s terrible manners. But then so is boring someone half to sleep. Obviously a critic can’t report accurately on a play if they haven’t seen it all, and that is their job. By the same token, a blogger is probably well within their rights to leave at the interval if they really can’t face the second half. It is - as Ian Shuttleworth once remarked when someone threw a chair at my head - practical criticism in action. I’ve certainly felt no compunction about not returning for the second halves of West End shows that I wasn’t reviewing.

Hunka in turn points to theatre director Isaac Butler’s attack on US dramaturgy, which he describes as an “annual churlish slog” - this seems a little harsh given that Butler appears to have directed two of Hunka’s plays. Or perhaps “churlish” is a term of approbation in New York. That, or Butler didn’t do a very good job with the plays. Either way, in many respects Butler’s post seems to echo quite a lot of what gets said over here when writers are complaining about the culture of dramaturgy. What is heartening however, is Christopher Shinn’s comments on the matter. Specifically his praise for:
“other societies, which have much healthier new-writing structures in place -- where young playwrights are getting full and enthusiastically-received productions -- [which] have nothing even approaching "development" as we understand it in America. [...] Dominic Cooke's season since taking over the Royal Court is an example of what happens when structures exist that support the writing of plays (new writers' groups) and then productions. The intermediate step of readings and development without a commitment to production is largely lacking in the U.K. I am a product of a culture that produces, at the highest level, the untested plays of untested writers, and over there I'm one of dozens.”

As the row on Fin Kennedy’s blog, and several spats like it since across a variety of other blogs, attest, we in Britain fret and stamp around a lot worrying about our lot and about theatre here. For the most part, I try not to despair too much. Three years of being paid to read the Daily Mail and the tabloids has instilled in me an almost complete mistrust of hand-wringing and worst case scenarios. Yes, there are issues that want looking at and talking about - most obviously: the ongoing prominence of the British tradition of text-based work, the models of theatre management this can put in place, and the wider issue of what audiences want, expect, and are prepared to work at, or indeed are equipped with the intellectual reference points to deal with - but in our collective passion to improve everything, let’s not forget that we've got plenty to be pleased about too.

1 comment:

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I had a correspondence on the subject of interval walkouts a while back with my esteemed FT predecessor Alastair Macaulay.

His view was that he had no qualms about writing a show up if he left at the interval, but would always be explicit on the point both in the text of his review and to the editorial desk so that they could arrange alternative coverage if they so wished.

I feel that walking out is a valid act of criticism in itself, but that it does pretty firmly disqualify one from undertaking another such act in print. Conversely, I have no problem (in theory, you understand, it never ever happens in practice) with the idea of a reviewer falling asleep during a show, since the possibility always exists of something compelling happening to rouse them.

Alastair's barbed riposte to this was that walking out suggests that one has a life elsewhere that one could usefully be getting on with, whereas staying and dozing suggests one hasn't.

Alastair is now the chief dance critic for the New York Times. I wonder whether he's had cause to exercise his views on early exit yet in this capacity, and if so, what the desk's view has been...

And all that said, I suffered slight culture-shock when one of the commenters to George's blog entry said that the fact of leaving early was as important as including the date of performance reviewed. Well, I don't consider the latter at all important in the ordinary run of things.

If a production contains a degree of spontaneity, topical response, whatever, then a case can be made out, but otherwise, for all that we bang on about the uniqueness of each live performance, the utter distinction of any given then-and-there experience, the fact is that in the normal run of things we expect all the salient points of a production to be reproducible from one perf to another.

Understudy performances, yes by all means ought to be remarked; also, in Britain with its culture of embargo until a specific single press performance, when one negotiates permission to attend a preview it is in practice always under the condition that not only is the print embargo still observed (naturally) but that the fact of preview-attendance be included in the review. And, to be exhaustive about these things, it would probably be helpful if the likes of the St Martin's Theatre made clear which of the glowing reviews of "The Mousetrap" posted up on the marquee come from which points in its half-century-plus run.

But other than that, where does it end? If the date on which one saw a show may determine one's response to it, why, so may the state of one's digestion on that day - should we publish Bridget Jones-style lists of our various intakes?