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Why I don’t write about theatre anymore

9 Jun

Everyone loves a rant, don’t they? So perhaps I should begin with a complaint about disorganized publicists who never had my name at the door, a whine about painful productions by hopeless incompetents, a whinge about competent productions by cynical CV-fillers, and a despairing howl about my inane colleagues who wrote only fluent cliche.

Unfortunately, I have no such rant in me. I’ve enjoyed writing about theatre and I have met some truly wonderful people.

But, before I explain why I no longer write about theatre, I’d like to explain why I began in the first place. Over the years, some people have responded as though there was something inappropriate about me doing so, suggesting it was either wrong or unwise for a working dramatist to comment on other dramatist’s work. But surely artists should be able to talk about Art? The moral discomfort seemed based on the assumption that if I wrote about theatre my aim must be to criticize. I don’t think this is the only way we can respond to Art.

Paul and Croc

I wrote about other artists’ theatre in the way I wished my own theatre was written about. I wrote about theatre in an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the gift being given. Evaluation is the default position in most critical writing and, of course, it has its place. But I don’t write as a dramatist to be judged. I write to share.

As a playwright, I write to share my vision of Life. I use the theatrical form because it allows complexity and contradiction. (Dramatists who say they’re writing the Truth are simply substituting that word for an expression I believe more humble and honest.)

My vision of Life is joyful and hopeful – I hope. But if it were sad and miserable I would share it anyway, because you have to bring to the table what you have. (Occasionally as an artist I’ve come up against the view ‘Who are you to do that?’ and my response is ‘Who are you to not?’ Sharing is not arrogance. Deliberate isolation is.)

There are many qualities required in order to write about theatre well. One of them is time. I find I have increasingly less of that, and so I can no longer write about theatre, not when there are plays to write.

However, I have enormous admiration for those who do write about theatre (whether they’re driven by the need to evaluate or not). It’s not an easy task, as I’ve discovered. But I believe it is vital. If we don’t discuss our Art, it’s as though we are spitting Life in the face.

Paul Gilchrist

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Open Letter to Sydney’s Theatre Critics

14 Dec

Firstly, thanks so much. The job you have chosen is not an easy one, but it is important.

About this time, some of you will publish your “Best of the Year” list.

This is not something that usually interests me, unless subtlenuance is on your list – and then I’ll social-media-the-shit-out-of-it.

What I would love is if you’d spend some time discussing what is happening in the scene overall. After all, you see so much theatre, much more than the rest of us. Some of you, I know, will have seen over 150 shows this year!

keep-off-the-stage

An interest in quality control is what many of you have in common, so by all means tell us what shows you enjoyed the most. But there are many other things I’m also keen to know.

These include:

  • As a culture, what sort of things do we produce theatre about? Are there any themes we seem obsessed with? Or are there important issues not being explored? What conversations are we having with our audiences?
  • How much new writing is there? And what’s it about? And how does it compare to overseas work? Is there a distinctively Australian voice? And is this new work reactive, attempting to take part in existing contemporary conversations, or does it ambitiously address issues explored nowhere else?
  • How much work is actually genuine art? (Now, that’s a term to start a conversation.) How much of it is simply pure fun? And how much is merely produced as a showcase for the talents of the actors and directors?
  • When non-original work is produced, where is it from? Is it predominantly classics or is it recently imported material from theatrical hot spots like the UK and the US? Having seen the productions, why do you think these choices are being made?
  • How does the indie scene differ from the main stage?
  • There is a vital push for more diversity in programming and on stage. What impact is this having on the actual work?
  • What is the house style of particular theatres?
  • And what isn’t happening in the scene that you really think should? After all, a good critic recognises what’s happening, and a great critic knows what is not.

Go on, make outrageously broad generalizations. You’ve earned it!

And thanks again.

Paul Gilchrist

The Wit and Wisdom of Veronica Kaye

26 Oct

The trouble with reviewers is that, ultimately, they’re always writing about themselves. Every evaluation is simply their world view writ large. The more sophisticated critic will acknowledge this, but rarely in a review (usually in a bar).

I, however, will not hide behind any pretense of objectivity.

If it’s going to be all about me ULTIMATELY, then it may as well be all about me INITIALLY.

So, while other theatre writers might present lists of the best they have seen, I prefer to present the best of what I have written.

 

The Wit and Wisdom of Me

“Theatre is not space flight. When you get it wrong, no-one dies. We just don’t get to visit new worlds. (So, I suppose, it is like space flight.)” By Way of a Manifesto

“We judge art so it does not judge us.” To the Death, 2011

“Don’t give me that crap about theatre being the most natural thing in the world. ‘All the world’s a stage’ is just professional myopia. To footballers, all the world’s a game. To risk assessors, all the world’s an accident waiting to happen. To fishermen, all the world smells of fish.” StoryLines, 2012

“We should be wary when too many of our conversations about theatre sound like demarcation disputes, performance reviews, price negotiations, quality control panels, courts of petty session and magistrate’s verdicts. Only one conversation is vital. And it happens in the desert, when the artist battles with the devil – alone, naked and true – and in that battle forfeits her ego to win her soul. And tired but free, she returns to the city, and scratched in the dirt if necessary, she offers a vision of the kingdom of heaven.” Let the children keep their paint boxes

 “‘I’m only being honest,’ says the bully……It is naïve to think we communicate primarily to tell the truth. ‘Pass the salt’ is far more typical, and meaningful, than ‘That is the salt’. Truth maybe crucial but it is always secondary. We speak, we write, to impact on the world.” A Hoax, 2012

 “The obsession with acting in the drama theatre is like an obsession with anesthetic in the surgical theatre. Of course, you have to get it right, but it’s hardly the point of the process.” Masterclass, 2015

“There have been times and places where drama has been entirely banned. If you can’t see why, you haven’t seen it done well.” The Venetian Twins, 2012

“Reviews are our revenge on theatre. (And not just when we dislike it; after all, even 5 stars is rather parsimonious, considering how many stars there actually are.) In answer to the beautiful multiplicity of theatre, reviews offer a stern monotone. Which is why no-one takes them too seriously. Which is why I don’t write them. (They’re like trying to catch starlight in a jar.) When the Rain Stops Falling, 2012

Rochester

Now, where are those pigeons?

“To be honest, I find it difficult to be overly interested in judging the technical details of a production.  Maybe I lack something. But I want a play to give me more than the satisfaction that I am superior to it and its creators. No-one survives this life, but I intend to go down fighting. I want a play to arm me for that fight. I want to leave the theatre with more than I entered. And that “more” is not disdain – or even admiration – for the artists. The plays I need are fuel for life; logs to feed our open fire. They give warmth. They give light.  So we’ll gather, in silent fascination, and watch. And as one flickers out, we’ll throw on another, and no two will burn the same. And so we’ll pass this night, the dark and the cold all around us, and know that no dawn comes, except of our own making.” But What’s It All About?

“If a piece of theatre doesn’t appear truthful, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s original.” Conservatism in Theatre 2

“Whenever someone begins a comment with ‘I see a lot of theatre’ I’m left wondering whether it’s a claim to expertise, or just a cry for help.” The Small Poppies, 2013

“People go to the theatre for all sorts of reasons. For me, one of the greatest attractions is the insight it offers into how the world is viewed by others. If we’re asked our values we’re often lost for words. It’s hard to sum up our worldview in a few pithy sentences. It’s like asking a fish to describe the ocean. (Feel free to test the truth of this analogy.)” Shopping Centres and Gutters, 2011

“The problem with the pursuit of excellence is not that you’ll never catch it. The problem is you miss so much else. Doing something without fault is a secondary virtue. The crucial issue is what you’re trying to do, not how well you do it. Surely, it’s better to fail at something worthwhile than succeed at something worthless. Do you really want to be remembered for producing the play that most effectively keeps the world small and cold?”  The Pursuit of Excellence

“I’ve come to accept that people will attempt to inoculate themselves from art. In terms of theatre, most people do this by not going. Those of us forced to go – because of career, or the pursuit of career – adopt other methods. Most of us don’t want to be changed. We don’t want to be challenged. And, considering the lives of unparalleled privilege that most of us enjoy, that’s perfectly understandable.” Theatre as Just a Trick

“Only God knows the complete Truth. And She’s not sharing…What we call the Truth is simply the point at which we cease asking questions.” Dangerous Corner, 2013

“Remember when the most important question was ‘What is to be done?’, rather than ‘Who am I?’” Indian Embrace, 2013

“We reviewers need to keep in mind that if the artist really valued our opinion, they’d ask us to read the script before the production, or at least get us along to a couple of rehearsals. As it is, they ask us in when they’re finished. Obviously, they don’t intend taking what we say that seriously. (Analogy: We think we’re specialists, yet we’re only ever called in for the autopsy.) What are reviews for?

“It’s difficult to see you as serious writer if you won’t help mount a production of your play that could be truly awful. Worthwhile writing challenges established values, so a writer seeking status is as absurd as a spy wanting recognition. ‘But if it was any good wouldn’t someone pay me for it?’ That attitude is loud and clear in our society, and perfectly designed to silence dissent.” Natural Born Producers

“In a capitalist society, co-operation is not encouraged. Competition is. Careerists – people interested primarily in personal advancement – are held up as model citizens. To support this world view, it’s expected that writers about theatre will focus on evaluating performers and productions, as against discussing ideas. And so the prevailing economic structure influences everything; even trivialities like theatre criticism.” His Mother’s Voice,  2014

“Theatre’s particular oddness is that it is not first person. Theatre presents Life from the outside, which is decidedly not how Life is experienced.” Tell Me Again, 2014

“Every evaluation is a political act.” Truth in the Theatre Foyer

Veronica Kaye

Reviewers say the darndest things

14 Oct

Over the last 8 years I’ve been reviewed as a writer and director over 200 times. The vast majority of responses to my work have been very generous-spirited, and some of them have even been intelligent.

There have been exceptions. At times, I’ve been described as unimaginative, mean-spirited and self-indulgent. And I’ve been branded a coward, a racist, a misogynist and a homophobe.

(The last three accusations all came in a single review. Admittedly, it was the work that was so labeled, not me; but when you’re the writer and director of the production such a distinction seems somewhat irrelevant.)

So what do you do when you get a review like that?

I complain.

Of the derogatory reviews listed above, only once did I fail to take the reviewer to task – the time I was accused of cowardice. Insert own joke here.

Each of my complaints was successful, in that the reviewer was willing to discuss the issue in a public forum, or in the case of the alleged racism, misogyny and homophobia, the review was withdrawn.

I want to make clear that I haven’t complained every time I received a less than glowing review. Who’s got the time?

What I do want to suggest is, that every time I elicited the type of response I’m discussing here (that is, a personal moral attack), it was perfectly obvious to me that the play had hit home. It had angered someone. That was never all that happened in the audience; each of those plays received glowing reviews from other critics.

But that anger? Was I pleased about it?

No.

And yes.

Paul Gilchrist

What is the role of the reviewer?

15 Oct

I like that this question is being asked. It gives me the opportunity to point out that it’s a question that panders to elements in our society that support repression.

(Fireworks being far easier than thought, I’m being deliberately provocative and downright simplistic.)

If the question was rephrased as “What can a reviewer achieve?” it would be more indicative of an open society.

Choose the view

                       Choose the view

But the question “What is the role of the reviewer?” presupposes a concrete answer. It implies that there is something definite reviewers are supposed to do and if you don’t do it you are somehow doing something wrong. I missed that memo.

The question also implies that writing about theatre somehow needs a justification – as if there were something inherently suspicious about sharing ideas about art.

I know that reviewers sometimes do use the word role. They use it in sentences like ‘I see my role as educating both the public and artists.’ Being an annoying pedant, I like to point out it is not their role, it is their aim. And it’s a laudable aim, and one I might share if I thought I had any knowledge worth passing on.

But I am troubled with an aim being described as a role. There’s an assertion of authority behind that word role. It suggests that a personal aim is somehow sanctioned. But by who? By society? By the God of Theatre? By your editor?

If it’s merely the last of these, it might be better described, not as a role, but as a job description.

Veronica Kaye

Theatre Red is Reopen for Business

13 Oct

Except, of course, it’s not a business. The whole purpose of this blog is to treat art as something other than a commodity.

I’m back in Sydney and looking forward to writing again about theatre – but I’m not particularly interested in evaluating it.

I’ll continue with my usual (some may say) self-indulgent approach. I will not grade theatre. I’ll write about what theatre makes me think about and feel.

Yes, I know, what an outrageously inappropriate response to art.

And a point of clarification: Veronica Kaye is not a pseudonym. My creator, Paul Gilchrist, doesn’t hide behind my name so he can write nasty reviews. I don’t write nasty reviews. Don’t believe me? Read everything I write and see. Please.

I am a character. I am not my author. For starters, I’m far wiser than him.

Paul being less wise than me.

Paul being less wise than me

But can an ‘imagined’ character write about ‘real’ events?

Of course! What’s stopping me? (I mean apart from some really disturbing elements in our culture, like our love affair with authority, our fear of diversity and our deep, deadly conservatism.)

So here we go again………

Veronica Kaye

“Approval and Validation”

25 Nov

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that whenever a playwright writes a good play, she will be vigorously pursued by prestigious theatre companies.

“My dear Mr Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Prestigious Theatre Company has a new artistic director?”

Mr Bennet replied he had not.

“Apparently,” returned she, “he is very interested in new Australian work.”

Mr Bennet remained silent. His wife took this as invitation to continue.

“Interested in new Australian work! What a fine thing for our girls!”

“How so? How can it affect them?”

“Mr Bennet, how can you be so tiresome? You know they are all playwrights. This new artistic director will no doubt want to produce their plays.”

Mr Bennet returned to his book.

“Now I’m the first to admit,” continued Mrs Bennet, “I find Lizzy’s plays a little confusing. Other people find them amusing, but to my mind, she never seems to be saying what she really means.”

“It’s referred to as irony,” Mr Bennet stated flatly.

“I know that!” replied Mrs Bennett.

“Of course you do, dear” said Mr Bennet, even more flatly.

Satisfied, Mrs Bennet continued. “And Mary’s plays are so wordy, and I can’t quite understand them, but they’re very clever, I’m sure. And Lydia’s plays are skittish, the work of an immature artist, but they were good enough for Short and Sweet. And Jane, quiet unassuming Jane; she’s always done the right thing. Who wouldn’t want to produce her plays?”

– from the manuscript of the (unpublished) Jane Austen novel Approval and Validation 

JaneAustenCassandraWatercolour

Sometimes you just gotta to do it yourself .

You can write a damn good play and it still mightn’t get produced.

Maybe it’s political. And I don’t mean who owes who, or who’s competing with who, or even who’s sleeping with who. I mean political.

Every play is an attempt to convince the audience to see the world in a particular way. Every play is an attempt to affect the world. Your plays will be put on by people who share your vision of the world. And, if there already are a whole lot of people who share your vision, you probably wouldn’t have bothered writing the play in the first place.

So be prepared to do it yourself. And be proud of it.

Veronica Kaye