Saturday 24 November 2007

Munich - part two

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?


Daria Feherova said...

regarding the first part of your article about perception of theatre - the slovak word (translation) for theatre comes from word "watch", "look at". so theatre is first of all visual. if i wanted to listen i could turn on radio...

next comment: from thiy writing it´s quite obvious who you spent most of the time with in munich.

Anna Teuwen said...

I think the latter really is the essential question that we have to be aware of when writing about “theatre” – maybe already ever since, but nowadays probably even more. And this surely was the aim of our workshop: to sensitise for this question and to make clear: of course and definitely it does not matter if the reading-language is different to the writing-language, because – if understanding “language” more widely, which definitely has to be done when dealing with theatre – they can never be the same, as being always subject-dependent. And this just answers the next question: Thus it can’t be the point to fix a certain meaning or even THE meaning, and I really think that most often there is no “meaning” in the way of a certain statement, which in my opinion is clearly a bonus: Arts are not the ones to state things, more to make people think – and haven’t they been ever since? To give answers and statements, Dos and Don’ts there are enough parents, teachers, priests and politicians. And you see: Nobody ever listens to them. And a multiplicity of meanings – independent from right or wrong – certainly is the most valuable thing to achieve.
Well – where does this leave the critic? Certainly not in the position to look after THE certain meaning. And certainly not in taking the subjective experience for universal. Probably most spectators – and writers – are overcharged when not able to fix a meaning. And are very fast in judging hard – but actually with closed eyes and ignorance – just to block this inconvenient feeling of uncertainty. But after quite easily defining this quested position of the critic by the exclusion principle, it is much harder to sum up the needed qualities. Having the exposed things in mind, the job of a critic can only oscillate – as you state already in your essay – somewhere between choosing a more subjective way of writing that does not try to say too much of universal statements, trying to find a personal access, a way of understanding, that goes beyond the simple understanding of “a meaning” and finding new words, expressions, or – if you want – terminologies, that are appropriate. What about the judging now – which in my opinion still is desired and needed? I think, it can be done – but not without first following the concept of the piece of art, not without first engaging oneself in it (or at least trying to), and thereby showing respect towards it.

Anonymous said...

Respect is a two-way street, however.

Let's go back to first principles. What is the artistic impulse? To create, obviously, but more than that, to create something. The "thing" may be physical, visual, aural, temporal, spatial, whatever, but the process of creating results in an identifiable creation. Something specific. Something which is the thing it is and not a different thing.

And therefore, during the process of creating that thing, decisions have to be taken which make it that thing and not a different thing. Decisions to include certain elements and exclude certain others. What was the basis of those decisions? What was the intent of including X and not including Y?

It's not a matter of trying to pin down the singular meaning and delineate it precisely, but there is - must be - surely an identifiable zone of signification. And, for criticism to move beyond the description and reportage which is its foundation but surely not its entirety, we must engage with the matter of signification.

This is why, as Andrew knows, I am infuriated by the line "It means whatever you want it to mean." My immediate response is, "Well, why did you make it, then? Why did you make this in particular?" And of course, in the normal activity of criticism, such questions can't be asked literally or directly. So, for me, it's the process of divining such matters that forms a large part of criticism.

And then, yes, judgement. The two-way process of respect: I respect the artist's time and effort in creating the work; does it, does s/he, respect mine in watching and considering it? And, of course, trying to take it beyond subjectivity: not just "What did I get out of this work?" but "What is there to be got out of it?" and "Is it worth getting that out of it?"

One other thing: none of the comments here seems to have acknowledged there is a third party to criticism, that's it's not a duologue between the critic and the work, or between the critic and the artist. The critic in fact mediates between that source and the reader. There seems to be no consciousness here of how best to serve the reader.

The International Association of Theatre Critics in 2006 held a colloquium entitled "The End of Criticism?" Now, there are many ways to interpret that phase: in an apocalyptic sense, or with "end" meaning "purpose". But looked at as a process, the "end" - the final stage in the process - of criticism is the reader. And, to that extent, the reader is also the "end" in the sense of purpose. As art is about expression, and expression is a form of communication, and communication must be communication to someone, so criticism is also communication and must therefore have a consciousness of its recipient(s). It's not all about our negotiations with the work.

Anna Teuwen said...

I know that this might sound silly now - but in fact I mostly agree with you. I'm aware of you having set up clear contra-arguments to my comment, but actually I don't regard them as contradictory. So let me clarify some of my points:

I don't vote at all for there not being "an identifiable zone of signification". And this really isn't the question for me. It's more about closing the eyes towards it - only because it is not presented in the way people are used to it.

And with "it can’t be the point to fix a certain meaning" I certainly do not say: "It means whatever you want it to mean". Because there is a huge difference between "whatever you want it to mean" and a subjective experience of the "something" - which of course is not totally arbitrary. And can never be. Making certain decisions in the work will cause the spectator's rendering of a certain subjective meaning - but that can never be regarded as totally independent from the certain experience that caused it.

And the criticism of course should have the duty to analyse, whether the reason someone made the piece the way it is, and especially in THIS way, was a good one. I'm not talking about the amount of time poor artist had put in his work being the reason for not having the right to criticise it.

I'm totally aware of the reader being the most important part of this system of communication - but the reader can be all: a reading spectator, a reading artist, and an 'innocent' reader. So it is essential to regard this while serving - doesn't everyone have the need to be served?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think we do mostly agree. And yes, everyone has the need to be served, but we cannot hope, each of us individually, to serve everyone, so towards whom do we direct our principal efforts? It depends, obviously, on the character of the particular outlet - we must write with a view to communicating with the kind of readership we are reasonably sure will have. (Which, of course, absolutely does NOT mean tailoring our actual views to match theirs!).

AICT-IATC has a major symposium scheduled for late 2008 in Toronto, on the teaching of theatre criticism. My expectations of it are ambivalent, because I suspect that it will be driven by a scholarly agenda. Now, I'm absolutely not anti-intellectual (in fact I'm a fairly strong, and entirely unashamed, intellectual snob), but I wonder, for instance, what's the point of our agreeing on a critical taxonomy if it's one that we share but our readers don't? We don't serve people by talking to them in a language they don't understand. Again, I stress that understanding here is not in any way related to intelligence. The readership of a mainstream-journalistic review, for instance, is far from certain even to know what, say, "traverse staging" is, and that's not because they're in any way dumb, just not immersed in the jargon.

What do we communicate? To whom? How? Why?

Anna Teuwen said...

Thank you for your comments - I think we got about stuck here, this really is a bottomless pit with too many variables. The last questions you posed are probably exactly contouring the problem. Just one more question: Do you really think, that there is this big problem of a language or a termology, that people possibly do not understand? Shouldn't this be the easiest problem to be solved? Or at least - isn't this another problem, which I can't see in a direct connections to our worries? But maybe I just got you wrong. It's late already.

alexf said...

Dária - by contrast in England the idea of going to see a play is a recent(ish) invention. A Shakespearean audience would have gone to "hear" a play instead. i don't know when the usage shifted, sadly, but if anyone does it'd be nice to know. Likewise when the word "show" popped up to describe a theatre event...