Wednesday 26 September 2012

On Criticism: The Ecologist and The Curator

[a slight introduction to some of the things knocking about in my head]

When we discuss “the critic” it feels that subject tends to be confined to “reviews”. How to write reviews? What should be in reviews? What shows should be reviewed? And so on.

Something that never seems to be addressed, or articulated, is the role of “ecologist” in which the critic also finds herself.

Let me first explain what I mean. There is a lot of talk these days of “the theatre ecology”. I don't know who coined the term, but it strikes me as a useful one (even if it does use the word incorrectly). Wikipedia defines ecology thus:

“Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of"”) is the scientific study of the relationships that living organisms have with each other and with their natural environment. Topics of interest to ecologists include the composition, distribution, amount (biomass), number, and changing states of organisms within and among ecosystems. Ecosystems are composed of dynamically interacting parts including organisms, the communities they make up, and the non-living components of their environment.”

It strikes me that much of the ancillary work undertaken by the critic beyond reviews-of-productions is precisely this. Looking at how the theatre ecosystem is functioning. Seeing what it contains; assessing how well it seems to be functioning; looking at the structures that underpin it; identifying evolutions within this environment.

In the past week, a second job-title has kept on recurring in relation to ecologist: that of “curator”.

In other sections of the arts, the concept of the curator is already the subject of some irritation at its overuse (this article seems typical of the sorts of dissatisfaction being voiced). Perhaps it's a sign of theatre's interesting separation from other disciplines that this backlash against the concept would be wholly irrelevant in theatre, since it feels like even the concept of curation is in its infancy here – if that.

However, I propose that the ideal contemporary writer on theatre already performs both these roles.

Something that came up a lot in the discussion at the DIALOGUE event at BAC was the articulation of the newly perceived differences between the widely read blogger and the n-string critic of a national daily newspaper (the role of the Sunday critic perhaps allows slightly greater latitude). That difference was not one of taste, style, age, or ability, but of freedom, expectation, and even “duty”.

The job of the newspaper critic, as befits their employment by a newspaper, is primarily journalism. It is the reporting of an event – of course – but it is also subject to the strictures of “newsworthniness”. In very basic terms, in relation to theatre this boils down to economics and unusualness (or perhaps “Michael” and “Lyn” in Guardian terms). That is to say, either the things that cost the most to put on, or things that strike the general reader as interestingly offbeat or quirky. “Best”, “Most artistically exciting” or “Important” are perhaps more difficult items for which to make an argument (though plainly not impossible).

The remit of the individual blogger can (and I will argue, should) be more diverse.

Since returning to blogging/criticism/writing-about-theatre in April, I've felt much more confident about ignoring economically significant work and just trying to see stuff I think will be interesting, and even about writing mostly/only about stuff that did indeed turn out to be interesting.

After all, in London, as in Edinburgh, it's not possible to see everything. It is perhaps possible to see nearly everything, depending on how much you also want to write about it. But if you're reviewing long-form, hoping to write anything beyond reviews, have any desire to ever see people socially, cook, wash, eat, etc. If you also want to see stuff outside just theatre, then there have to be choices.

Beyond this, I'm increasingly keen to catch more opera, contemporary dance, Live Art, music, Art and gigs. It can't be done if you're wedded even to the best combination of 1st and 2nd string critical lists for a week. Because that means pretty much every evening and several afternoons taken up with theatre (and possibly even only one sort of theatre).

So, why would I want to? Because, in short, I'm increasingly convinced that breadth might be as importance as depth. Or, put differently: because it feels like it's too easy for writing about theatre to start to situate it (both the writing and the theatre it's about) only in relation to itself. Even just small subsections of itself.


Some of the best feedback I get from writers/directors/performers is when I make unexpected comparisons between their work and a performer/writer/director working in what is usually positioned as a totally partitioned-off area or artform. It feels much more possible in Edinburgh, where part of the joy of reviewing is the sense that within that slightly sealed environment unexpectedly parallels and synchronicities can suddenly suggest themselves. Glimpses are caught of a new angle that writing seems to have taken, or a new mode of direction which seems to be taking shape. But I wonder if we might not be able to treat the broader ecosystem or systems as our own Festivals.

The critic Robert Hewison (stop me if you think that you've heard this one before) tells a lovely story about getting a letter from Steven Berkoff, following Robert's review of Berkoff's Decadence. Robert, having also worked extensively as an art historian, found it second nature to compare the aesthetic of the piece with the paintings of George Grosz. Berkoff, I think from the story, hadn't happened to come across them before, or at least, not consciously, or something, but anyway, the upshot was, he'd found the comparison really useful, and actually inspiring.

Not “embeddedness” by a long chalk, but it's perhaps my favourite story about criticism that I know. It represents for me, the most hopeful, useful dynamic that can exist between a critic and an artist – where the critic appreciates and understands what the artist/s has/ve done, but where the artist also gets an unexpected insight into their own work, or catches sight of it in a new and productive way.

So, that's the direction I'm hoping Postcards... is headed. And not alone.

A large part of the reason for Postcards... currently feeling more productive than it has in an age is the strength of the other blogs and reviews currently being written. And the ever deepening sense of community and respect between those writers. This new criticism represents a significant plurality of views and approaches, as well as diverse specialisms and tastes. But it is a plurality also underpinned by massive care and interest in each other's work.

As always, this might only be a snapshot of an optimistic moment. And it's impossible to know what will happen next. But at the moment, not only does Britain's theatrical ecosystem seem to be thriving and throwing out interesting work at a remarkable rate, but there is an incredibly wide, smart generation of writers covering it warmly, searchingly, rigorously and innovatively.

At some point soon, hopefully I will articulate some of these ideas about curation and ecology a bit more clearly. Part of the original impetus for this piece was a niggling concern that if we critics/writers-on-theatre are to act as theatre's unofficial ecologists, then perhaps we need a bit more training. And following on from that, there is a question about where that training might be found and what forms it might take. But for the time being that concern seems to have been leapfrogged by optimism.


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