Wednesday 8 January 2014

Brave New


“The theatre blogosphere feels quietly buzzy again, after a couple of years of unmistakeable doldrums. By 2011 it all seemed a bit depleted: a dwindling faux-community of tired commentators all jogging round the same block nattering to themselves about cramp while the real conversations seemed to be happening elsewhere. It doesn't feel that way at all right now, to me – though that may be a trick of the light, I suppose: I might just be doing a better job of paying attention. But even so, the decisive impulse seems to be, simply, a deepening – and/or broadening – understanding that Twitter, in particular, won't satisfactorily contain many of the important conversations that need to be had in the sector: not just for nuance but for developed argument, it's necessary to migrate back to the longer-form, and perhaps the sense is stronger now that those conversations have to be had, that we have much to say to each other, much to learn and much to share; that we are not simply free-floating pixels in an atomised making-culture, whose principal mode of engagement is a cheerful, acquisitive networking behaviour of the sort that Twitter and Facebook foster so excellently: but that we need the means to express more powerfully and more ardently our sense of being with each other, of working not in secretive competition but in open concert and continuous dialogue.”

So began 2014, with some of the best news imaginable (at least in the niche world that is theatre/writing-about-theatre). Chris Goode restarted his blog.

Thinking about how to phrase this next bit, it seems grotesquely self-absorbed to discuss Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire largely in terms of how influential it was for me, but. It’s probably fair to say that it was reading the complete Thompsons in 2007 (I copied and pasted and printed the whole thing out so I could read it on the bus to and from work – even then, when it was only a year old, on 28 May 2007 “The Complete” ran to 183 pages of 12pt Times New Roman) that laid more than half the foundation stones for Postcards. (Credit also due to Andy Field, Alex F, George Hunka, Alison Croggon and David Eldridge), which actually started as an “everything but reviews” blog. Which seems strange now. But it also brings me to the sad news that the first online place I ever wrote for, CultureWars, shut up shop on the same day Thompson’s reopened. Starting in 2000 in Edinburgh as the Review Section for The Institute of Ideas (formerly Living Marxism), CultureWars was pretty much the proto-Exeunt of its day (insofar as it was online and run by Marxists), and, well, they could probably argue I owed them my entire career if Noises Off hadn’t got there first.

What’s interesting (and bloody terrifying, frankly), is that we’re now talking about a 14 year history of “online reviewing” in the UK – my whole “career”, in fact – kicking off with British Theatre Guide and CultureWars and winding up, well, here. Now. It’s something I’m going to be thinking a lot about over the next few months, as I’m due to write a chapter on it for Duška Radosavljevic’s forthcoming book on Theatre Criticism...

What I think is most interesting about the period, especially the latter half that Postcards and Thompson’s span, is the way that the very function of these blogs has been imperceptibly (at least to this author, at the time) changed by the way that the rest of their internet environment has changed.

Put simply, if you go back to early Postcards posts, you see some stuff that basically amounts to a Facebook Status Update. And possibly, at times, A Tweet. I think I had only just joined FB when I started Postcards. And Twitter didn’t exist (and I didn’t even join it until I lived in Berlin). There was a lot more commenting *in the comment threads themselves*. (If you want the best example, go and look at the comment thread for my review of Seven Jewish Children. It’s probably about seventeen separate blogs all on its own.) It now feels like that sort of sustained, long-form discussion normally takes place on the author’s own Facebook page, but mostly has been replaced by short tweets and retweets.

Similarly, it feels more unusual for someone to write a whole blog post in response to another whole blogpost. Things feel a bit more fast-paced now. I have to say, I quite miss that sustained long-form argument. (And, my God, don’t I just feel like Michael Billington mourning the passing of the Newspaper Letters Page argument in saying so.)

The positive result of this it that it has actually freed up blogs to become what they seem to currently be: homes for a serious, alternatives way of writing about theatre. Of course, this viewpoint has its dissenters. Megan Vaughan makes a neat point in her piece Criticism: some thoughts that “long-form blog thinkpieces are not new or groundbreaking. They are simply preserving a culture of theatre criticism that the printed press can no longer sustain.”

Having thought about this for a while, I think I’d say that where a lot of theatre blogs are now at is a place that print has *never* sustained. I’d be surprised if even Tynan would have been allowed 3,000 words on American Psycho, and certainly not in that way. That said, anyone with eyes and a red pen could also tell you that my piece could have probably been 1,000 words shorter without losing an ounce of substance. The advantage of of having infinite space comes with the disadvantage of sometimes not self-editing nearly as much as would be polite. However, I do think Vaughan’s accusation that blogs still “follow the standard form of some-words-with-some-pictures-provided-by-the-theatre’s-PR-team” is kind of nonsense as a problem.

While I also admire Vaughan’s heroine Eve Nicol for her various experiments with totally different media, I found her end-of-year “what worked, what didn’t?” blog refreshingly candid about their success. Call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I’m not fully convinced that pictures of cats are really ever going to be as much use to an archivist. Not least because cats are notoriously difficult to interpret. And we don’t want to be agonising over reviews wondering if the slightly anthropomorphised smile that we think we can see on a particular cat’s face is the reason the critic included that particular cat. (What I mean is, having read those cat reviews, I wasn’t actually sure what Eve had thought of half the shows. Or what happened in them. Or what they were. Fun though pictures of cats are to look at.)

The sorts of things that some blogs are now doing with “some words” now are increasingly streets away from anything that any mainstream theatre criticism I’ve ever read has ever done. I wonder if, in part, it’s the net result of the sort of “team sport” approach that Matt Trueman was talking about. I’ll be honest, I like team sports about as much as Maddy Costa likes militarism (oh, that was a private email so I can’t link to it, but it was her reservation about the term “embedded criticism”) but I think the premise is an excellent one. The fact that you know someone else has got your back in critical terms (that someone else might have covered the plot, or someone else focussed really hard on the design) means that it’s no longer irresponsible – as an online critic who is part of a constellation – to not cover everything. At the same time, it’s amusing that actually, given the amount of space we have, we can give a far better and more detailed account of every aspect of a show than any mainstream writer doing it “properly” has space to. Or we can just choose to do every aspect that interests us. I am still rubbish at writing about what actors actually spend their time doing on stage, for example.

But, yes. 2013, probably the best year yet for coverage. And there’s an optimistic sense that things really might keep improving.

[And now I’m going to stop this here because I’ve a review to write, and also because George Hunka has published this interesting piece on the critical scene Stateside, to which I want to write a response after writing the review...]

No comments: