audiences, conversation, criticism, interview, Theatre

in conversation: on the voice in the crowd, generosity, deadlines and dialog

Jane Howard

I love Jane’s work. The care and time she takes is so evident. I also love that her entire ‘back catalog’ is up on the net so you can see how her approach changed over time. Perhaps my favourite post of is Jane’s response to ‘my Shotgun Wedding’, written a whole year after she found herself married by No Show in the name of art. Go and check it out, if you haven’t already.

Setting: My parent’s kitchen table in Adelaide. Grape vines out the window. Terracotta tiles under foot.

Ingredients: White wine, stuffed mushrooms and Jane’s homemade gelato.

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Jane’s ‘wedding’, No Show’s ‘Shotgun Wedding’, Next Wave Festival 2012

Jane: It took a while for Adelaide theatre to accept me. For a long time criticism (in Adelaide in particular, but additionally everywhere) was, ‘we’ll tell you whether you should buy a ticket or not.’ I was never interested in doing that. It took a long time to convince artists that I was trying to do something different.

I really believe that everyone has a right to talk about theatre. Everyone has a voice and it is valid. Perhaps, because artists have had a reviewer ‘not get it’ and because those reviews come with a position of power, some artists get this idea that they don’t want people to have an opinion because it might be ‘wrong’. I think that is really scary. You might be talking about a small group of critics, but when you extrapolate that out, it is your audience that you are silencing.

SFB: I think it is important for both sides of the art world not to dehumanise each other. It is important for artists not to be scared of these mystical critical figures. We need to say ‘they are people and they are part of my audience. They are a voice with a megaphone among all the other voices in my audience.’ But also, when critics remember that artists are people, their responses are more thoughtful. I’m not saying more positive, but there is a way to thoughtfully say that you didn’t like something that acknowledges that a person has spent however long and however much creating it.

Jane: Yes. That’s what I’m trying to do now with my blog and I’ve done it all of twice. My long form things, yes. Taking in different references from disparate places. The first one that I did that withBaby Teeth – I went twice, because that’s what I thought those artists deserved. That’s not always going to be true. I’m probably going to write long form reviews where I didn’t like it, and I’ll be okay with seeing it once, but this was a very particular circumstance where I chose to go a second time. It is really interesting writing like that because it is a different sort of – I don’t know, I used the word ‘generosity’, I don’t know if artists would – a different sort of generosity on my part, saying ‘I am going to really research this.’ Not that the same thoughtfulness does not enter into it when I’m just writing six hundred words, but it is a different mindset.

My deadline for The Guardian is the morning after, which is better than some. Some people have 6am or 9am to make publication. That means that I’ll work on the review until I can’t stay up any more. I’ll set my alarm for 6 or 7 depending on how much work I still need to do and I’ll finish it. You just do it. There are people who can write it off in 20 minutes. There was a time when critics had to file within twenty minutes of the curtain which is insanity.

SFB: Yes! Those old images of critics on Broadway running to the phone to call it in!

Jane: To the phone! Yes! I’m glad that I learnt – learn – still learning – I’m glad that I started on my blog in an environment without deadlines. I could take time and there wasn’t pressure. No one was reading me for a long time, which was really good, I think. But it was still public. Had I been writing in a journal, I wouldn’t have learnt the stuff I learnt.

SFB: So much of theatre I come out of and go ‘I need a week to process that’. It must be fucking hard to not be allowed a week.

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‘Monster Body’, Next Wave 2012; photo Sam Ackroyd

Jane: I saw Monster Body in Next Wave (2012). John Bailey was my mentor at the time. We went together and it was so outside anything I had ever seen in my life. We walked out and I’m standing in this foyer and there was John Bailey and Chris Boyd and Alison Croggon and Em Sexton and a whole bunch of people standing around having a drink and I’m not saying anything. I’m trying to process and I must have looked like a ghost. John keeps looking over and saying ‘are you okay?’ And I’m like ‘yeah-no, I’m just processing.’

People start asking me ‘what did you think?’ And I’m like ‘I know I didn’t not like it’ and that was about as far as I could get. Four days after I saw it someone asked me again what I thought. I said ‘I know I didn’t not like it’ and they were like ‘what does that mean? What happened?’ And I explained it. As I explained it, I could hear in my voice how excited I was and I was like ‘Oh! I guess I loved it!’

I wrote about it in a group review of the Next Wave Festival maybe two or three weeks after that. I still didn’t really think I got it, but I got to write about it again as a solo review maybe five or six months after. The editors I worked with on that were really enthusiastic and young and that worked for me. It helped to have a really strong edit and a couple of drafts for that review, even though it was only six-hundred words. Two or three months after that – I wasn’t even thinking about it – and suddenly my brain went ‘That’s how I should have reviewed it!’

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The Rabble’s ‘Room of Regret’, Melbourne Festival, 2013; Alex McQueen, photo David Paterson

I came out of The Rabble’s Room of Regret again going ‘I don’t know what I’m going to write about this.’ I went home to where I was staying and I wrote something terrible. Something rambling. I hope I deleted it. It is probably still somewhere labelled ‘draftonemakesnosense’. I woke up at 6 in the morning and sat there just writing words – not liking most of them – then at some point it just clicked and I got it and I’m really proud of the review I wrote. It was quite different to the voice I’ve taken in other reviews for The Guardian, so I wasn’t certain how my editor would take it and she emailed back ‘this is beautiful writing’. It was the process of forcing myself to think about it and write – even though it wasn’t very good writing – for five or six hours before I cracked it.

SFB: How do you feel about artists commenting on a review?

Jane: I wish they would do it more! I mean, I don’t like it when I’ve written a negative review and the artist comments within an hour of it going up. You know when you review a show that you are writing a review over a matter of hours when they’ve made the work over a matter of months if not years but, at the same time, I did take hours and a lot of thought has gone into it. When a negative comment goes up that fast, you know it was written without thinking about it. That frustrates me. I want to meet artists with a level of effort. It frustrates me if an artist doesn’t meet me with the same commitment. Even if I see a play and I’m angry about it, I always take a breather. You can’t respond in anger.

But artists are so good at talking about art. Of course they are! They are so intelligent! But it feels like they’re too scared to have these conversations publicly, particularly in Adelaide where it is such a small town and there is so little work going. You don’t want to say the wrong thing about the wrong person, because then you won’t get that job and it becomes a sort of petty reduction: ‘I can’t say anything bad so I won’t say anything good’ and then nobody says anything at all. I really want to explore how we make everyone a part of that conversation. That’s artists and that’s audience members. But I wish artists would comment more.

SFB: It is such an interesting thing because that phrase ‘start a conversation’, is always used around arts criticism and is really not followed through on. For the most part it is because artists won’t talk back, but perhaps that is partly a bi-product of the fact that a lot of the conversations online aren’t very civil. I think artists don’t comment because there is a viciousness in the exchanges that scare people off.

Jane: That’s what’s nice about the people I follow in London. Even though these people might disagree, from the outside it always feels very respectful.

Have you heard of a critic called Quentin Letts? I want to say he writes for the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail. (Fact check: He writes for both. Look at that memory!) All the other critics disagree with him. He reviewed the first show for the new artistic director of Royal Court, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. Big deal! She came from the National Theatre of Scotland, her first show and he gives it one star. The Royal Court’s social media goes crazy: ‘QUENTIN LETTS: ONE STAR! BUY NOW!’ All of the responding tweets and Facebook comments were like ‘well I’ll have to go now! If Letts hated it, I’ll love it!’ This is why it is so important for people to know who critics are. There are going to be people who read Letts’ review and say ‘well I’m not going to see that then’, but that’s not Royal Court’s audience. They want to get the people who think ‘if Quentin Letts gave it one star…’

I’m stealing this idea from someone else, I’m not sure who, but there is this idea that your experience of a piece of art starts the first time you ever hear about it and ends the last time you ever think about it. At some point in there, you see the art and at some point in there, a critic reviews it, but the ends are so far away from each other.

Thank you to my proof-readers Ari and Lauren. Even if Ari left nothing for Lauren to correct.

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One thought on “in conversation: on the voice in the crowd, generosity, deadlines and dialog

  1. Pingback: School for Birds | No Plain Jane

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