First draft - links still to come. Ditto: italics, bold, spelling, grammar and sense checking, and, oh, everything else...
As I mentioned yesterday, running alongside the SpielArt festival - and the other reason I was in Munich - was a series of workshops run by Festivals In Transit (FIT) under the banner of their Mobile Theatre and Communication Lab. Led by Lyn Gardner, these sessions sought to explore the challenges facing critics and writers-on-theatre dealing with about new forms of work. As yesterday's post on the work we saw in Munich hopefully suggests, the SpielArt festival was an ideal setting to confront this issue.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these workshops, however, was finding out about where theatre criticism was at in other European countries. The situation in Britain, for better or worse, is that theatre critics here are untrained journalists whose interest in theatre is most frequently evidenced (if at all) by their directing or acting in amateur, university theatricals during their student days (often at Oxbridge, or, if not, almost certainly at a “red-brick” university). In this respect, they differ very little from those who have run the NT, the RSC, the Royal Court and so on.
Theatre reviews appear in all five of the “quality dailies” (formerly “broadsheets” until they all went format-crazy), The Daily Mail and occasionally in the Express [is this true?], as well as across the equivalent Sundays. Strikingly, the Sun/News of the World also has a theatre critic (along with a wine critic!) in the form of former Fleet Street editor Bill Hagarty, who is dispatched to report on the opening of occasional West End musicals. Aside from this, a majority of the remainder of writing on theatre comes from academic journals, and is conducted in characteristically dense, idiolectal, and frequently opaque language.
As a result of this situation, there can be observed a disjuncture between the demands of the newsroom and the needs of the artform. Mark Ravenhill recently mooted the possibility of reducing word counts for reviews of West End musicals and correspondingly expanding them for densely written plays of ideas. Apart from the incorrect idea that there is less to say about a West End musical - there may be less intentional intellectual content, but imagine if our critics had space to deconstruct the semiotics(!) - Ravenhill's basic idea is doomed since reviews are largely commissioned according to mass news values. Open The Sound of Music after a ten-week TV series to find its star and even if there are only fifty words in the review (plausible), they will be accompanied by a photograph taking up enough column inches to write a minor treatise on the Western musical since 1939. Being British, we love to grumble about this situation and despair.
The differences across Northern Europe - the group of twelve writers included two Brits, three Germans, two Poles, an Estonian, a Latvian, a Lithuanian, a Slovakian, a Slovenian and a Finn - are quite pronounced. Most notably, there is a clear divide between the continuing dominance of the academy in former "Eastern Bloc" countries and the more free-market ethos which flourishes in capitalist Germany, Finland and the UK. That said, the Channel/North Sea does seem to put a good deal of distance between mindsets in terms of ways to approach theatre. Watching a panel debate including a presentation by __ __ of UK theatrical pioneers Blast Theory, in which he suggested that theatre was a contract between audience and performer (I paraphrase - a lot), the German sitting next to me turned and asked, “but isn't theatre the contract between the artist and the audience, that everything staged is a sign?” (cf. Berliner Erika Fischer-Lichte’s 1983 book Theatre semiotics). It's a fascinating difference in perception. Similarly, in a conversation with Tomas, the Latvian writer, he explained that he was studying/had studied in his university's faculty of visual arts, which - naturally, he thought - included theatre. Obviously this is surprising to a Briton who is brought up to think of theatre as a subset of "Literature". The gulf in thinking could not be more usefully and starkly rendered.
Elsewhere, Ott Karulin, the Estonian critic, explained the requirements for writing about a production in his country. Admittedly this was for a theatre magazine article, but his description was of watching the “play” (almost certainly the wrong word) several times, seeing everything else that the company had produced, and doing a good couple of months of background reading. My inner sadist briefly pictured Charles Spencer being subjected to the same rigours. Of course, this is writing of an entirely different order - but one of the subjects we discussed was what reviews are actually for. Who are they for? What purpose are they supposed to serve? Are they simply consumer guides? Should they seek to provide a definitive artistic judgement? If we are scared of alienating non-aficionados with complexity, can we hope to get close enough to the subject to talk meaningfully about it? One thing that seemed nice was that there appeared to be far less anxiety about the possible ignorance of audiences coming from the other critics. On the other hand, underestimating the intelligence of “the masses” is a British pastime from time immemorial, which should be resisted.
That said, the idea of “masses”, or even “a lot”, seemed pretty remote in many of countries represented. It is important to remember the sheer scale of everything in Britain. We have a population of 61 million, and rising rapidly (hilarious conversation on first night. Me: “So how many people live in Lithuania?” Her: “Well, about 3m, but about 100,000 of them are in your country right now.”). Aside from Germany and Poland, most of the other countries were populated so sparsely as to make any Londoner, living two to a floor in a sectioned-off semi, green with envy. Many of their theatre scenes were on so small a scale that they knew literally everyone else working in the industry. Do you know how many people graduate annually from drama school in Slovenia, for example? Seven to ten. And that’s too many, apparently (from the same conversation, after trying to explain how actors might find work in Britain, having explained that there are probably around 1,000 drama school graduates a year and plenty more actors who don't even train, and describing the agent system, my interlocutor said: “Oh yes, we have an actress in our country who has an agent. She is considered very exotic.”).
There is a similar emphasis on training for critics in former Eastern Bloc countries. Very few people are admitted to the courses, and there is essentially no chance (if I understood correctly) of being a critic without such training. On one hand, one marvels at the commitment and rigour, but at the same time, feels a slight swell of pride at the more buccaneering spirit of the British free-market commentariat, where anyone who likes can attempt to prove themself in an open arena. On the other hand, there is a concomitant pang of regret when a brilliant piece of work is pulled to pieces because the attendant critic didn’t have anything approaching sufficient mental furniture to deal with the concepts on offer. In Britain, it does often feel like critics are required to be primed with a hair-trigger radar for “pretension”, which Must Be Stopped At All Costs. The converse situation in mainland Europe might be that over-trained critics enjoy work which appeals to their extensive understanding, but which would alienate a lay-audience. However, the European laity does, on the face of it, look a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with what would be considered “extremely challenging” work. It goes back to the point about anticipating a contract of signs. If that mode of semiotics is woven throughout one’s entire education, rather than being presented as an exotic add-on at degree-level, then clearly one’s approach to the work is bound to be different.
These differences aside, the core question remained: how do we usefully describe work that is, for example, largely visual? Rose Fenton, the founder of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), commented that much the same problem had faced her, when writing brochures for the Festival, as had faced the few critics who came to consider the work. Namely that without sufficient terminology and a set of protocols which largely denied the possibility of writing something subjective or - God forbid - “heartfelt” about the work, it was very hard to adequately sell it. She admitted that often spurious intellectual/social-realist notions would be tagged on to descriptions of work in order to make them more comprehensible to British critics and audiences. But, when faced with largely visual work, an interesting problem emerges. If nothing much is given by way of context, then the interplay of signifiers, signified, and signification becomes, in a perfectly Barthesian way - wholly subjective. A fascinating early example was provided in the second workshop where we were all reading out our deliberately subjective response to Stifter’s Dinge. While Mark Romisch (German) and I both likened the early troughs of brightly-lit white power gradually covered in dark water to sand being covered in oil or blood (or both), Goda, a Lithuanian, swore blind that it was clearly meant to be snow. And while for me and Mark the visual symbolism suggested the war in Iraq (isn’t everything about the war in Iraq?), for Goda it was about snowy landscapes and state oppression. Cultural specificity is a fascinating area, but in the field of international theatre, does it matter that readings across national/geographical boundaries vary wildly? If part of a critic’s contract is to read the signs, does it matter if the language in which they are reading is different to that in which they are written? Do we need to be anxious about fixing meaning at all, or might there be room for a multiplicity of meanings, out of the creators’ hands, which can be accorded equal weight and value? If so, where does that leave the critic?