1. I had absolutely no idea what pictures to pair with this so Sarah Walker supplied these production shots of MKA’s The Unspoken Word Is Joe (Zoe Dawson, directed by Declan Green, the actor is Nikki Shiels). I think they work almost too well.
2. I feel that posting this will open me up to criticism because, now that you know what I am aiming to do, you’ll be able to tell when I fail. I apologise in advance. As I acknowledge in my post, good criticism is bloody hard work and we all learn as we go.
Here we are now, entertain us.
It is all too easy to sit in the theatre exuding an aura of dissatisfaction and demanding to be entertained. It is all too easy to turn to your friends and mutter ‘this had better be good’ or ‘they’d better earn that $15’ or ‘$70’. It is easy to carry the panic of finding a car park into the space with you. Easy to ask ‘who the hell makes theatre in Yarraville anyway?’ We’ve all done it. I used to be particularly guilty of this with long shows. I love 50 minute theatre – concise, breathless storytelling – and I have in the past sat down with resentment and a silent challenge to the creators that they had better justify every one of their 240 minutes. The excitement when a company wins you over is delicious but it has been years since I’ve entered a theatre in the ‘entertain me’ mind set.
It goes without saying that I am passionate about theatre but a few years ago I decided to change how I entered a space*. I decided to be the most excited person in the room. Today, I am Pavlov’s dog: my ticket is taken, I find my seat and my heart rate goes through the roof. Honestly, I am pretty much bouncing in my seat by the time the lights go down. It never ceases to thrill me that someone is about to tell me a story. I try to view every show whilst asking ‘what are these artists doing that I could not do myself? What ideas are they thinking that I have never thought before?’ Be it student theatre or main stage, I try to come seeking.
I know how naïve and pretentious this sounds and I know that many theatre makers will be reading this and thinking ‘give it another decade, sweetie’ and that’s fine. But I really hope it lasts. I love loving theatre. I acknowledge that when you demand to be entertained, sometimes you will be entertained and similarly, when you go in ready to learn, sometimes you are punched in the face. But it means a lot to me that I enter ready to love. Even when I have heard nothing but terrible reports of a show, I walk in hoping that I will be the person it wins over. Alison Croggon wrote in Theatre Notes that when someone creates art, she can “offer in exchange the gift of (her) attention” and later her intellectual response. I think that is beautiful.
But I say all this only as a preamble to tell you what it is like when a play doesn’t work for me. A few months back I was explaining to a friend why I didn’t like a particular show and I found myself becoming very distressed because I couldn’t intellectually grasp the show as a whole. I want to be a good dramaturge and to be able to articulate what is and isn’t working (for me) in every project. When there is nothing that redeems the show for me, I self-flagellate like crazy. Good criticism is hard to give, particularly if you are an artist yourself. What you should not do is talk about the play you would have written: ‘I mean it would have been great if they had focused on this sub-plot, scratched this character and set it in a convent.’ That isn’t the play they have made. You must work with what you’ve been given and it is bloody hard. Chris Mead says that playwrights often make terrible script assessors because they can’t help but re-write the play. I hear this in my head every time I sit down to do an assessment or write a dramaturgical analysis.
How to give and receive criticism are two of the toughest things to learn in art. Good criticism should make an artist want to race back to their desks and keep writing. It should start a conversation rather than end it. I want to be good enough that my response is never as unhelpful as ‘change everything’ but sometimes I do believe that a writer must step away from the body of their play, grieve a little and start something new. Perhaps that just means I am the wrong person to write about or dissect that particular project. Perhaps in three years I will look back on what I perceived as an unsolvable mess in 2013 and say ‘oh easy! They were almost there and only needed to focus in on…’ and my conscience will be cleared. Perhaps I just take it all too personally and need to let some plays crumple without seeing it as my personal failing that a project I had nothing to do with didn’t engage me. For the moment I will simply keep silent on such plays because I am not the right person to talk about them. I am not here to give verdicts. I want my responses to always be of use to the artists. If I think it will be useless to hear what I have to say I won’t post it**.
I want to leave you with a few more beautiful thoughts from Chris Mead on dramaturgy. (Perhaps paraphrased a little because my pen couldn’t keep up.) “(Some artists) fear that dramaturgy is an academic endeavor rather than an active creative process. It is both a technique and technical. It is the connective tissue of the play. A constellation of practices. It makes potential energy kinetic… it is the process of being undecided because art exists in uncertainty. It is the process that reflects on the production from the production. A memory of possibilities. At worst it is meddling. At best, inspiring; nurturing” (Chris Mead, 2013).
*Note: If you see me before a show, I often look downright terrified because I’m an introvert and, about sixty percent of the time, I’m just trying to remember to do basic things like smile at people or remember their faces. Once I get into a theatre, I lose my shit.
**Note: this is specifically about what I post here. Reviewing for publications is a different act but, naturally, I still try to do it with love and consideration.