Artist Call Out Food Dialogue

Dialogue Festival: Artist Call Out

Dialogue are seeking an artist to develop an interactive piece of work involving food to open the Dialogue Festival in November 2015. The chosen artist will be given a fee, travel and accommodation to the festival (if needed).

The first Dialogue Festival, Talking/Making/Taking Part, took place at Ovalhouse Theatre in London in November 2014. Featuring the work of more than 15 artists, the festival gave audiences the chance to interact with one-on-one pieces, large-scale participation work and discussions, and also eat together.

The 2015 Dialogue Festival will take place in Plymouth and Exeter in 7 and 8 November, and follow a similar format. Through discussions, performance and food we aim to connect artists and audiences across both cities, exploring big topics through gentle participation and informal conversation.

To find out more see Call Out Document here and see the 2014 Dialogue Festival information and documentation here.

Deadline to apply: 25 September 2015, 5pm

Image by Marc Horowitz via a Creative Commons licence. Dialogue Festival is supported by Bikeshed Theatre, Exeter and Barbican Theatre, Plymouth, TOAST and Making Room.

Criticism and artist development/a provocation

This is the text of a five-minute provocation I (Maddy) gave at This Thing Called Artist Development, a brilliant one-day discussion event that took place at Ovalhouse in London on 22/5/2015. When I proposed taking part, I felt really sure that what I wanted to do was talk about this notion I’ve picked up, ad hoc and at several removes, of the critic-as-dramaturg that seems to be common as sauerkraut in Germany. But when it came to writing it the argument wouldn’t form itself, and I lost confidence. So instead it’s a series of questions, of which the most popular on the day was: “What do you REALLY want from criticism?” Three years into Dialogue’s existence, this one still vexes me.

Among many excellences, one of the best things about the Ovalhouse event was the emphasis that what works for one person/artist/theatre company won’t necessarily suit others, let alone everyone. Just as there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to scratch/work-in-progress showings, or to development schemes, there shouldn’t be one kind of criticism. Jake and I have consistently argued that Dialogue isn’t calling for an end to 300-word reviews assessing a show, and we’re even prepared to concede that a lot of people actively like star ratings. But the criticism subcultures don’t have to look like that.

Still, I wish when I’d been writing my provocation, I’d managed to get as much fire under it as Alex Swift got under his

The title of the provocation was: No stone unturned: writing about artists and/or work in development.

This starts with a column by Lyn Gardner, published in the Guardian in April 2012, in particular this paragraph:

I love the chance to see work in development. Furthering the dialogue between critics and artists can only be good. But after trying and often failing to assess potential in 300 words, I’m increasingly wary about subjecting fledgling work to critical scrutiny. Although the show might change, the review remains set in stone – or at least in cyberspace.

When Lyn wrote that, I was in the process of setting up Dialogue with Jake Orr, with the specific aim of furthering the dialogue between critics and artists – and audiences. There was a lot about critical practice that frustrated us: the idea that performance work was being “subjected” to “critical scrutiny”, and the authority criticism acquired as a result; the idea that writing about performance couldn’t be as fluid as the live work itself but was “set in stone”; the idea – surprisingly prevalent, even on the internet – that responding to work meant assessing it in 300 (or 500, or 800) words.

A lot has changed since then: we have a much more vibrant, creative critical culture, in which writers use the internet to respond to performance work in surprising new ways, and write conversationally, but also with consideration, about fledgling work and work-in-progress. A lot has changed for me, too: I’ve moved out of journalistic criticism to a place where most of my response to theatre happens in the context of post-show conversations, dramaturgical discussions, and rehearsal processes. But I feel quite alone in that, and wonder what our critical culture might look like if there were more people like me. At the risk of pursuing a selfish line of inquiry, what I want to think about here is whether the space for research, reflection and change opened up by what gets called artist development might also create opportunities to think about criticism and what else it could be.

I want to do this by asking a set of questions. Some of them are for emerging artists, artists at the beginning of developing a practice.
What are you looking for when you invite critical engagement?
Critical scrutiny? A conversation?
What do you think the rules are about critic-artist dialogue?
What do you want them to be?
What help are you getting from artist development programmes in approaching critics?
What writing about theatre do you read, and what do you get out of it?
Do critics feel like people you could work with?
What might be gained or lost from doing that?

Some of the questions are for established artists, artists who already get attention from the Guardian, and who invite critics to designated press nights.
What do you want from criticism?
What do you really want from criticism?
What story do you tell about your work, and what stories do critics tell?
Do you talk to venues about whether or not you want a press night, and how they’re inviting critics to see your work?
Are you interested in reading about how others make work, and why?
Do you think our critical culture is too focused on the product?
What are your feelings about having a critic in your rehearsal room?
What do you think that might enable?
What might it hinder?
What do you think the relationship might be in the UK between criticism and dramaturgy?
How much do you communicate about the process of making work?
How important do you think it is that theatre-goers know how work is made?
How do you talk about your research?
The work that doesn’t work?
Do you write about other artists’ work?
What does that mean for them and you?

Some of the questions are for critics.
What’s driving you: a desire to hold artists to account, a desire to influence audiences, a desire to tell stories?
How do those desires manifest in your work?
How much do you question your use of language, for instance “emerging artists”?
How much attention are you giving to non-established artists, grassroots and community work, work that happens off the press-night schedule?
How differently, if at all, do you watch work in progress?
How much do you know about how venues and producers operate, and how that affects how work is made?
Do you think of writing about performance as a non-staged performance?
What stops your work being interchangeable with marketing copy?
How often do you revisit shows, even just in your head, and rethink your response?
How often do you feel wrong?

Talking/Making/Taking Part: the full line-up

There’s just two weeks to go until the Dialogue festival at Ovalhouse, and we’re finally ready to announce our full programme. But rather than give away too much about what everyone will be doing, we thought we’d describe why we wanted these people to talk/make/take part with us, and what makes them special.

Both mornings begin in the main theatre space with a discussion hosted by Andy Horwitz of Culturebot – the person who inspired Dialogue to begin, and continues to inform the work we do. Andy is brilliant at many things, but not least running Long Table discussions: informal events in which, instead of a panel, there’s a big table at the centre of the room, and anyone who wants to ask a question, make a contribution, or get involved in any way, can take a seat and join in without needing permission.

There are no speakers as such, but we have invited four key people to bring particular perspectives to the table to turn over in the discussion. On Saturday, they are Jess Thom, who performs as Tourette’s Hero, and has often been made to feel unwelcome in theatres, yet from her seat in the audience makes theatre more alive; and Hassan Mahamdallie, a writer, director and policy-maker, who was instrumental in developing Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity. On Sunday, they are Jo Bannon, a Bristol-based artist and producer, who is part of the Residence collective and makes remarkable participatory work that reveals the unseen and speaks the unspoken; and Julia Taudevin, a playwright, actor and feminist, who travelled Scotland encouraging people to get involved in the Scottish Referendum.

Each day we’ll have lunch together in the cafe, which we’re providing free. Maddy spent a long time thinking about how the lunch should feel like a pot-luck party, or a big family celebration where Mum does the meats and salads, one aunt brings stuffed vine leaves, another aunt brings baked pasta and baklava, and so on. But those aunts mostly live in Greece, so all the cooking has fallen to Maddy’s Mum. Who is possibly more excited about this event than anyone else.

Inspired by Chris Goode’s argument for theatre as a place where people live, play, eat and dream together, and model a better way of living, lunch will happen at the same time as the one-on-one work. The cafe and nearby studios will be full of artists inviting participants to have a conversation, play a game, share a story or moment, recognise something about themselves, envision the future – there are as many approaches in this bit as people. Here’s the full line-up:

None of Us Is Yet a Robot will be in the cafe both days with doodle: a work Maddy experienced at Forest Fringe in August, which involved a knotty, considerate and properly useful conversation about feminism, gender binaries, coming out as trans, and queer experience – and ended with a massive illustration of this and other conversations, drawn over the course of the day. As an added bonus, these doodles will act as our festival documentation, alongside other ephemera.

Rachel Mars (Saturday), Laura Mugridge (Sunday) and Brian Lobel (an absent presence) are people whose work Jake has encountered in various festival contexts: they’ve gotten him to dress up, dance around, be naughty and take a harder look at what passes for “normal” in social and cultural interactions. We thought they would bring lots of serious humour to the festival.

Sheila Ghelani (Saturday), Rajni Shah (Sunday) and Peter McMaster (Sunday) are people Maddy has worked with in other contexts: they’re warm, generous, and brilliant at making spaces for quiet contemplation.

Hannah Nicklin (Saturday) and Andy Field (another absent presence) are generally among the most thoughtful, and politically sharp, people working in theatre today, but specifically were invited for participatory work they’ve done outside London: Hannah for a piece she made in a swimming pool in Shipley, getting its users to tell her stories from their lives; Andy for a piece he made in Stockton, getting people to tell him about different kinds of loves. The kindness of these works, not least in the way they encouraged people to tell personal stories, is definitely a quality we want at the heart of the Dialogue festival.

Ehsan Gill (Saturday) and Vijay Patel (Sunday) are people Maddy discovered online, looking for unfamiliar and, in particular, BAME theatre-makers to join us. Ehsan has performed at Hatch and other excellent festivals in Nottingham; Vijay is a recent graduate from Chichester, who has worked with Duckie. It’s been great getting to know them a bit in the run-up to the festival and we hope to stay acquainted with them long after.

Samantha Ellis (Saturday) and Rosalie Schweiker (Sunday) are contrasts. Maddy and Samantha have known each other since they were 11, bonding over the weirdness of our immigrant parents; Samantha is now a playwright and author, who wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. Rosalie is a conceptual artist Maddy came across very recently on the Artsadmin website: she runs events called “Why do it at the Tate when you can do it in your living room?” which makes Maddy very happy indeed.

Chris Goode (Sunday) wasn’t going to be part of this festival, because a lot of Maddy’s favourite work already happens with him, but the closer we got to it happening without him, the less conceivable that felt.

At about 2.30pm, we’ll gather in the cafe for what we’ve called Afternoon Ideas: another informal discussion session, led by some of the people we most admire and enjoy collaborating with. On Saturday, that person is Tanuja Amarasuriya, who is a producer with Theatre Bristol and co-director of her own company, Sleepdogs; on Sunday it’s Mary Paterson, a producer, extraordinary writer and lead artist of Something Other, a new creative project rethinking how live art is documented online.

Each day of the festival will end back in the main theatre with an hour-long interactive show. On Saturday, it’s Class Act by Harry Giles, which Maddy saw at Camden People’s Theatre last year and vividly remembers for its playful approach to discussing the fraught issue of class, and excellent use of sweets and Lego. Maddy and Harry have been quietly working on the show to create more games, more space for fragility, and more incitements to revolution, so we’re looking forward to finding out what people make of it. And on Sunday, it’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? by Ellie Stamp, which Maddy and Jake both saw when at the Edinburgh fringe, and is a really subtle look at tricks of the mind and what might be described as mental illness.

The festival should be finished each day by about 4.30pm – but on Saturday, as a bonus, we’ve organised with the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill a block of tickets to see the third preview of Chimera (please use the code DIALOGUE when booking), part of their season of work by and about women. We’re hoping those who see the play will join us on Sunday morning for a Theatre Club (like a book group) discussing the show.

And that’s it! Writing it all down, it feels even more astonishing that so many ace people are involved. We really hope you’ll join us – and, better still, take advantage of the low ticket price to encourage a friend or sibling or work colleague who wouldn’t normally take a chance on a festival like this to give it a try. Thank you for reading, we look forward to seeing you there.

Dialogue Festival

Our festival, and some ace ACE news

There was a time when the scariest word in theatre for me was “participation”. In 2005 I was living on the same street in Oval as the former factory in which Punchdrunk were performing their breakthrough show, The Firebird Ball, and I didn’t go, because it sounded too alarming. I met Adrian Howells last year, to talk about and later take part in his one-on-one piece Unburden: a gentle, generous encounter that made me regret every moment of timidity that had kept me away from his other work. All those early shows by Ontroerend Goed? Missed them. Quite often when theatre critics write reviews of participatory theatre, they say that it requires and rewards courage in an audience-member, adventurousness, a willingness to take risks. Time and again, their phrasing has made me look at myself and think: nope. That’s not for me.

When I think about who might be in the audience for the Dialogue festival Jake and I are curating for Ovalhouse in November, I think about the person I used to be. I think about how angry with most naturalistic theatre I was, for being boring, truthless, irrelevant to the world around me. I think about my first tentative steps towards participatory work, how nervous it made me feel, to walk in a room and have another person see me, address me, respond to me. How I’ve come to cherish that connection.

There was a time when it wasn’t only theatre I didn’t participate in: I didn’t properly participate in society, either. I didn’t vote. I didn’t do any volunteering work. At school, I failed to complete a youth award scheme because it required some community service and I couldn’t be bothered. It’s not just my sense of my place in a theatre that’s changed: it’s my sense of my place in the world.

The relationship between those two senses of place is at the heart of our festival. We’ve called it Talking/Making/Taking Part because, for a weekend, that’s all what we’ll be doing. Talking about theatre and society and why they might need each other, why each matters. Making stories together, and different ways of looking at each other, and ourselves. Taking part in something other than a virulently consumerist culture. We’ve asked some brilliant people to work with us: including Andy Horwitz, the inspiration for Dialogue, who last year co-wrote one of the most impassioned and articulate arguments for the value of art I’ve encountered; Harry Giles, who plays games with Lego and sweets to get people thinking about class; Hannah Nicklin, another game-player, thoughtful and kind, capable of getting the most reluctant people to share their view on the world; Rajni Shah, whose work is dedicated to finding new ways of being, thinking and sharing together. They’re all people who won’t demand that you’re courageous or dismiss you for being unadventurous. They’re people who know vulnerability, exude patience and kindness, and understand how words like risk can inspire fear: of failure, self-exposure, insufficiency. They’re people with whom it’s possible to participate and not be scared.

We’ve been planning the festival since July, and last week we got some good news: Arts Council England has given us a Grant For the Arts, which means we can pay everyone decently to perform, provide lunch for all participants on both days, and work really hard to ensure that we reach out to people who would usually ignore an event like this. Maybe it’s because they prefer traditional theatre, or because they think it’s arty-farty, or because they don’t bother with theatre at all. Whatever the reason, we’d like to invite them to try it out.

Curating a festival feels like a curveball. It’s not what Jake and I thought we might do when we set up Dialogue. But then, we didn’t think we’d host a theatre club (thanks, Lily Einhorn, for the inspiration), have two residencies at Battersea Arts Centre, or talk to Theatre Royal Margate about starting a local theatre-going group, either. We’re regularly asked: what is Dialogue, anyway? What does it do? What is it for? The core idea remains the same: to rethink the relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. We ask questions about criticism, and engagement, and how theatre is marketed and discussed; we experiment with different ways of talking about theatre, writing about it, and getting people interested in it. We agitate. Not everything we try works. Sometimes it works brilliantly, but only for one or two people. Often it feels like we’re living in a future in which theatre is something people talk about as easily as television and criticism is a popular art form – then the balloon of idealism pops and we land back in the present with a crash-bang-wallop. The festival is an attempt at making the kind of theatre we’d like to live in. And through that, making the kind of world we want to live in – even for just a weekend.


Dialogue Festival

News: Talking/Making/Taking Part: a festival of theatre and discussion

Dialogue are proud to announce Talking/Making/Taking Part: a festival of theatre and discussion looking at participatory theatre. Throughout the weekend of 22/23 November Dialogue will be taking over Ovalhouse with speakers, long-table discussions, two large scale participatory performances, ten one-on-one performance pieces and a communal meal.

We’ve teamed up with Culturebot, Theatre Bristol, Something Other and Ovalhouse to bring you this festival.

Talking/Making/Taking Part
22/23 November, 10am-5pm, Ovalhouse
£7 day or £10 weekend pass
Book online

Do you love watching plays but find participation alarming?

Do you love thinking about theatre but find it hard to talk about?

Then this is the festival for you…

Talking/Making/Taking Part invites you to play, chat and share through informal discussions and interactive performances. Let’s spend a weekend together and see what new ideas we can grow and communities we can build.


Dialogue at Forest Fringe, August 2014

ANNOUNCEMENT! For eight days in August, Dialogue will be based at the Edinburgh festival, working with the magical people of Forest Fringe to create a completely different critical conversation. We won’t be doing reviews as such, and certainly won’t be slapping a star rating on anything, but we will be hosting lots of book-group style discussions (Theatre Clubs listed below) and doing lots of chatting with theatre-makers in public places where anyone can join in (listed as Small Talks). Also we’ll be encouraging people to recommend their favourite shows/places to meet friends/beer/hideaway/etc, filling a wall at Forest with responses to the work in the building, and – if we’ve got the energy – creating a fanzine or two to distribute around Leith and further afield. If you’re in the vicinity, please come and join us: most of our activities will be at Forest Fringe itself, but a few of the Small Talks will take place elsewhere, with venues to be announced on twitter (@TheatreDialogue, @maddydeliqette, @jakeyoh). Here’s the timetable so far:

Friday 8 August
10.30am: Small Talk
Annie Rigby (Unfolding) and Laura Mugridge on making and mothering, venue TBC but close to Summerhall.

3.30pm: Theatre Club
on Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, at Forest Fringe. Let us know you’re coming here.

Saturday 9 August
11am: Small Talk
Selina Thompson and Louise Orwin on body image and women in the public eye, venue TBC but near Northern Stage at King’s Hall.

5.15pm: Theatre Club
on Louise Orwin’s Pretty Ugly, at Forest Fringe. Let us know you’re coming here.

6.30pm: Small Talk
Sammy Metcalfe (Sleepwalk Collective) and Christopher Brett Bailey on visions of apocalypse, at Forest Fringe.

Sunday 10 August
10am: Small Talk
Bryony Kimmings on success and failure, at the Black Medicine Coffee Co.

Noon: Theatre Club and party picnic
Sleepwalk Collective‘s Karaoke, but also an excuse to have Sunday lunch, starting at Forest Fringe but (if the weather’s kind) moving to the nearby park. Bring party food! Let us know you’re coming here.

Tuesday 12 August
7pm: Small Talk
Action Hero, probably on making a living as an artist, and I’ll Show You Mine, venue TBC but probably Forest Fringe.

Wednesday 13 August
1.30pm: Small TalkChris Goode and Peter McMaster, on… well, we’re still trying to figure that out, but men, or masculinity, or masculinities, or putting down guards. Venue TBC.

5.15pm: Theatre Club – on Laura Dannequin’s Hardy Animal, at Forest Fringe. Let us know you’re coming here.

Thursday 14 August

11am: Small TalkSam Fox (KILN) and Rachael Clerke on identity, venue TBC.

3.30pm: Theatre Club – on Greg Wohead’s The Ted Bundy Project, at Forest Fringe. Let us know you’re coming here.

In Battalions: building a new framework for talking about theatre

This was posted from the heart of In Battalions, a one-day festival organised by Fin Kennedy to talk about money, theatre, NPO, value and what we can do to shift the conversation about what we do, why we do it and why it’s important. The speech was delivered by Jake and Maddy together, alternating paragraphs; we shared a panel with the ever-inspiring Stella Duffy talking about Fun Palaces:

Dialogue has existed since the spring of 2012, and we’re still trying to figure out what it is. Is it an organisation, a proposition, a website, a series of actions? We don’t know. Just as it takes multiple forms, it has multiple starting points. Perhaps the first dates back to 2009, when Maddy spent a month behind the scenes at the National Theatre, watching a production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour come to the stage: sitting in rehearsals and tech, seeing changes in the show through previews and press night, comprehending the extent to which what the directors wanted to do was compromised by a lack of time and money, gaining a much richer understanding of the work than she’d otherwise have had. Other starting points date back to 2011, when Maddy began an experiment with theatre-maker Chris Goode, trying to discover what role a critic might play in a rehearsal room, writing about the work from the inside, acting as a bridge between a company and their audience; and when Jake wrote a blog on his website A Younger Theatre, criticising the dominance of broadsheet-style reviews in online theatre writing, wondering where the argument was, the imagination, the creativity. At the beginning of 2012, there was the session Maddy held at Devoted and Disgruntled, asking what new dialogue might happen between people who make theatre and people who write about it; and an essay by Andrew Haydon thinking through the pros and cons – mostly pros – of what he called “embedded criticism”.

But if we had to pick one inspiration, it would be this: an essay by Andy Horwitz of New York website Culturebot on “critical horizontalism”, a flag-waving argument for a new democracy in criticism, not the thumbs up-thumbs down value judgements that clutter up twitter, but conversation about theatre in which makers, critics and audiences could engage as equals. That essay vehemently rejects “the traditional ‘reviewer-oriented’ model of newspaper-based arts writing … predicated on advising the potential consumer whether a given performance is worth the investment of time and money,” and declares an ambition instead to “distinguish the performing arts from corporately manufactured consumer-focused entertainment product and apply a different framework for analysis and dialogue”. Yep, we agreed. That’s the work we want to do.

Building that different framework is a long, slow process: Andy Horwitz has been at it since 2000 and still struggles to persuade other critics or writers about performance to collaborate with him. In the two years since Maddy and I wrote the Dialogue manifesto, we’ve seen star ratings introduced at the Observer and the Stage, and an increase in attention paid to websites that adhere to the 300-500 word review with star rating model; we’ve seen critics crow about the star rating they’re giving; we’ve seen theatres and theatre-makers across twitter excitedly quote the star rating their work has been awarded, not the conversation points raised in those reviews… We’ve seen opportunities for young theatre critics in mainstream press diminish, along with opportunities for young critics, or even experienced critics, to be paid for their writing. Often it feels as though we’re seeing change in our small bit of the world, and it’s all for the worst.

Although we frequently sound antagonistic, we’ve never sought to break or replace the mainstream model: we appreciate that for some critics, makers and readers, it works perfectly well. What we want is to create an alternative practice to exist alongside it. For a long time, we didn’t describe what we did or wanted to do as criticism at all. Critics were people who went to press nights and wrote 300 words within a few hours or days of seeing the show. Dialogue meant different kinds of writing about theatre. It meant remembering that theatre is a process, not a product, that a review – especially online – doesn’t have to be a judgement set in stone, that it’s possible to write about the subtle shifts that happen when a show is performed night after night, and trace the bigger changes that take place when work is rethought and re-rehearsed over several months. Dialogue meant recognising the political dimension of the process: does a rehearsal room operate as a democracy or a dictatorship? Is that dictatorship benevolent or oppressive? How do time and money affect the way the work is made, the form it takes, the story it’s able to tell? Dialogue meant remembering that how you feel about a show changes over time: instead of writing about a show as quickly as possible, what might happen if you wrote about it two weeks or two months later? You wouldn’t sell tickets for it – but your reflections might be enriched by the extra time. Dialogue meant remembering that theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that shows exist in conversation with other shows, with cinema and music and visual art, with feminism and politics and history and current affairs, and that in writing about theatre you could be writing about all those other things. Dialogue meant remembering that a review could have a distinct form, just as the work being reviewed has a distinct form; that words can be sculpted into shapes different from the familiar. Dialogue meant remembering that if you want to engage more people who watch theatre in a conversation about it, maybe the best thing to do isn’t to write about it, but start up an actual conversation with them.

We were reconciled to the word “critic” by a blog post by theatre-maker, performance poet, playwright and librettist Hannah Silva, a woman who knows a thing or two about being labelled. She argued that it’s important to stretch the meanings of words, so that they begin to mean new things. She made us think about the ways in which we want to stretch the word critic, and the shift in the focus of theatre criticism that might help that be achieved. When you write for a newspaper or journal, your work is journalism. We’re interested in criticism that looks more like advocacy and engagement. As a journalist, your first responsibility is to the editor, and then the reader. But what if a critic’s first responsibility was to the ecosystem of theatre? In natural ecosystems, there are symbiotic relationships in which creatures help each other survive – Andrew Haydon, in that first essay on embedded criticism, talked of the birds who eat scraps from between the teeth of crocodiles; even better are the pilot fish who protect sharks from parasites while feeding on the sharks’ leftovers. When your first responsibility as critic is to an ecosystem, you don’t focus all your attention on the big shows with commercial imperatives, but pay attention to grassroots work, alternative work, innovative work that doesn’t repeat what theatre knows how to do but pushes it to do something new. You focus on theatre that invites audiences not just to sit back and be entertained but to engage in a conversation – and do your utmost to facilitate that conversation.

This is what we mean by advocacy: it’s not about just praising work, but finding new ways to inspire people to go to the theatre, and giving them tools to get more out of it. Often, the way theatre is written about is – unintentionally – off-putting, because it gives the impression that there’s something you have to understand, or something you have to be particularly adventurous to appreciate. Sometimes the problem is that theatre is written about by people who “speak” theatre, which can leave anyone who isn’t already engaged feeling perplexed. Sometimes the problem is that innovative theatre is written about by people who don’t speak its developing language, and the critic’s befuddlement gives no invitation to others to make up their own minds. We’re interested in creating a space in which people are encouraged to describe what they saw, and what that meant to them personally. In which people don’t look to critics or theatre-makers to explain work, but share responses and the sense of meaning they create for themselves.

For the past year we’ve been doing that by holding Theatre Clubs – informal gatherings based on the book group idea, in which people get together to talk about a show they’ve all seen. The idea originated with Lily Einhorn, manager of the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs Project, which gives 10% of its tickets away free to local residents, and creates a variety of ways to engage more deeply with work, from workshops to parallel performances to Theatre Club, a space for discussion for those who attend the shows for free. Adopting this, Dialogue’s Theatre Club empowers audiences to speak about work, giving a voice to people who would otherwise only speak through their ticket buying, and maybe 140 characters on twitter. We’ve had the usual people attend – actors, directors and theatre professionals – but it’s when we get the bus drivers, the child protection officers, the translators and baristas and legal secretaries, that’s when Theatre Club really comes into its own. We give people food, drink, and a space in which they don’t have to worry about asking clever questions, or pretend they understood everything, or even anything, about the show. All opinions are valid, and Theatre Club creates a space for this to be acknowledged and shared.

What we’ve discovered, through Theatre Club, is that people think they don’t know how to talk about theatre, that they don’t have the language for it. Until they enter a hierarchy-free space in which no one has the answers, no one controls interpretation – at which point they discover that the language in which they can talk about theatre is their own. This is why we’re so passionate about other organisations, from artist-led companies to theatre buildings, finding new ways to talk to people, and getting people – audiences and artists – talking to each other. It empowers people to articulate themselves, to engage in discussion, to recognise themselves not merely as consumers but people with a voice in society. Andy Horwitz, who continues to be a source of incredible inspiration, last year published a brilliant document, The View From Here, in which he and his collaborators articulate this concisely and thrillingly. Theatre, it states, “provide[s] a necessary opportunity to develop the skills of socialisation and communication required by a healthy democracy”. It “offer[s] us the opportunity to practice ‘intentional liveness': to be in community together and preserve the depth, nuance and meaning derived from negotiating the complexity of direct social contact with others”.

The View From Here creates a thoroughly reasoned case for funding the arts as an essential public good, recognising that funding enables a far wider diversity of people to make art, which encourages a greater diversity of people to participate as audiences, and in discussions. There’s a lot of crossover between that document and the I’ll Show You Mine movement: both question the way money is used as a measure of art’s value – something we’ve seen this week in responses to NPO funding, in which the language of winning and losing was rampant, and far too many organisations portrayed their NPO status as an “endorsement” or “recognition” of their excellence, as though companies who weren’t given this funding were somehow less committed or excellent. Dialogue works to question all this language, and find new ways to talk about the value of theatre; as part of that work, it seeks to form a bridge between theatre organisations and artists, encouraging better conversations, and the transparency around money that can bring new understanding of what each party needs.

This has been a pretty quick survey of why Dialogue is attempting to build a different framework for dialogue and analysis in the theatre industry, and how we’re attempting to do it. As embedded critics, we seek to tell new stories about how theatre is made, to give people different tools for understanding innovative work, and find new ways of talking with artists and audiences. As advocates, we move away from star ratings, and sometimes even more away from just writing about work, we think about how we can extend theatre’s invitation to people who aren’t already coming, and build new bridges between theatre and the society within which it’s made and seen. In seeking to engage, we open up space for people to find their own voices, to say what they think, not what they think they should say. The more we can do this in collaboration with theatre organisations and makers, the better. This is our invitation to everyone here today. We’re passionate about theatre – more passionate than a 300-word review with star rating would ever give us space to express. How can we work with you better to share that passion with other people?

New voices, new arguments

I knew Jake and I were kindred spirits months before we met. In June 2011, he published a column on his website A Younger Theatre with the title “The Stagnation of Theatre Blogging – what is a theatre blog today?”, lamenting the preponderance of reviewing online, and the lack of wider thinking about theatre. Dialogue emerged from our shared desire to get people who write online to do more than emulate Michael Billington or Lyn Gardner, be it in 300 or 500 or 700 words: to experiment with form and content and think harder about what they were doing. We were never going to change things overnight, and Jake’s final line, “we’re in desperate need to move away from just reviewing”, feels as valid now as it was three years ago. For every incisive, argumentative blog, there’s an entire website that is content to churn out star ratings and synopses of shows.

On the odd (in both senses of the word) occasions when I get invited to run critical-writing programmes, I’m torn between asking participants to stick to a 300-word limit and encouraging them to be more free-form. Writing to length is a vital discipline: you can’t be sloppy in 300 words. You can, however, easily mask the fact that you have nothing to say with judicious application of adjectives and some waffly description. There’s a lot in Irving Wardle’s book Theatre Criticism – as far as I can tell, the one nuts-and-bolts manual to this nonsense that exists – that I disagree with, but on the following he is basically unassailable: “What counts is not that everyone declares the show to be wonderful or dreadful, but why. … Criticism begins with the word ‘because’.”

To coincide with LIFT 2014, I ran a critical writing workshop for 12 IdeasTap members, and this point – the necessity of asking why – was central to it. Our first session was spent looking over six reviews, in three pairs, which I put together partly to encourage them to think about different ways of writing, the possibility of experimenting with style, but also to look at how much each author wrestled with the why of each show. It was a really useful exercise: it made the participants alert to writing that followed a formula rather than a line of argument, that lacked analysis or context or the desire to do anything more than nudge people into buying a ticket; more positively, it demonstrated the difference between writing to order and writing from passion, writing for a general audience and writing as though directly addressing the reader, writing that closed discourse and writing that invited a conversation, writing through a veil of “objectivity” and writing with a declared bias, writing that skated the surface of a production and writing so in-depth that it made you feel you’d watched the show even when you hadn’t. None of the reviews were attributed until after we’d discussed them, but it was pretty clear to everyone who was a national reviewer, who writing for their own blog, and who writing in an artistic context that wasn’t traditional reviewing.

The point wasn’t to dismiss one kind of reviewing as less valid or valuable than another (except when executed badly), but to demonstrate how all these different approaches existing together make for a significantly richer critical culture. And it was fascinating to see how many of the participants were liberated by yet struggled with the new forms presented to them. Being informal and conversational in a blog review is very different from replicating the spoken word and starting your sentences with “anyway” or “still”. My favourite pieces of writing used this informality as a way of finding out what they thought about a show, taking a line of argument for a walk and forcing it to travel further than it wanted to, resulting in genuine insight. And a particularly wonderful piece conveyed the spirit of the show by using cut-up sentences and the positioning of text to mirror the movement on stage, incorporating reflections on its import within that structure.

I’m still working on the pedagogy of all this, not least figuring out what pairings of reviews might inspire the most invigorating, inspiring discussion. But young writers developing a voice don’t just need inspiration to help them achieve more than a lifeless imitation of mainstream media reviewing: they need editing, critical readers who can help them see where they’re copying press releases, where they’re delivering a synopsis, where they’re failing to back up their opinions with description, where they’re labouring a point, and where they’re holding back from asking why. The next step (among many) for Dialogue is thinking about how we can provide that support: anyone who wants to help us, especially financially (ha!), please get in touch.

If you want to read more about the materials used in the workshop, and look at our not-so-edited writings, please look at the LIFT/IdeasTap Critical Writing Workshop page in our Projects section.

All the edited versions of the reviews have been published by LIFT, and can be read on their website.

Up the Junction

by Maddy Costa

Since Jake and I first hatched plans for Dialogue, we’ve wanted to inspire, and build an argument for, local critical communities. We feel certain that our centralised critical culture, with the majority of critics based in London, results in a limited conversation and skewed document of theatre nationally, while contributing to the unfair funding system, in which money goes where attention is already focused. And we want to provoke change.

As with everything Dialogue does, it’s a slow process, with setbacks as likely as progress. In May 2013, we hosted a conversation in Bristol, where theatre-makers are active in supporting each other, to ask where critics might sit in their community. The producing network Theatre Bristol had already committed to funding a critic-in-residence position; Jake and I like to think that our Hideaway weekend at Bristol’s brilliant Residence the previous November, and a long conversation with Theatre Bristol producer Tanuja Amarasuriya about Dialogue, helped usher that plan into being.

Theatre Bristol’s writing-in-residence blog is now one of my favourite places online to encounter writing about, from or inspired by live performance. It’s discursive, conversational, searching, and never follows the conventional path. It understands the commercial value of the straightforward review, but also appreciates the pleasures of travelling with readers on a journey to who-knows-where. I’m back in Bristol this weekend for Mayfest, and I’m looking forward to talking with Tanuja and writer Richard Aslan about the residency so far.

At Cambridge Junction, meanwhile, producer Daniel Pitt is two-thirds of the way into a workshop series designed to prompt a local critical community, which he hopes will open a window into the Junction’s sometimes challenging theatre programme. Daniel invited three very different critics – Matt Trueman, me and Donald Hutera – to lead workshops, watch a performance with the group, then offer feedback on their writing. I had a brilliant time running the workshop, although I can’t say giving practical advice was high on my agenda: our conversation was more philosophical and inconclusive. I wanted to know why they wanted to write about theatre, why criticism is needed at all, how explicit it’s useful for critics to be about their individual or specific perspective, how critics can take care to ensure that their word isn’t definitive, but leaves space for the work itself to breathe within their writing. They shared Matt’s description of criticism as an act of decoding, which I countered with my own unlocking metaphor: performances – at their best – contain several doors, several possible points of entry. Far from using a single key to unlock a single door, a critic should aim to give people a variety of keys, and the confidence to test locks and find passageways for themselves.

My ideas about criticism are developing and fluid: I contradicted myself a lot. But this feels right. It’s because the blueprint of criticism practised in mainstream media has become so fixed and seemingly intractable that Dialogue agitates for something unfixed and other. I realised how evangelic I’ve become about new forms of criticism when I put together a little package of reading materials for the group: Megan Vaughan’s review of Three Kingdoms (pretty much my favourite piece of theatre-writing ever); a blog by Lyn Gardner, arguing that theatre critics need to beat their own paths; a piece of polemic by Helen Dawson, which I came across on Andrew Haydon’s blog; and some writing by Andrew himself, positing that the critic occupies a dual role, as ecologist and curator. I’m much more interested in these wider responsibilities of the critic: there will always be uses for a consumer guide, but we can agitate for the less obviously commercial, illuminate the little-seen, help to connect disparate communities, contribute to shaping the future while creating a richer store of the past.

Talking to the Cambridge Junction workshop participants, and looking over their work, what fascinates me is the richness of their diverse voices, experiences and approaches. These things can feel heterogeneous in London critics, even when they disagree. Inevitably Cambridge has a coterie of people who just want to write straightforward 300-word reviews encapsulating a production’s main themes and offering some kind of commentary on the direction and acting. But there is also a woman in the first stage of starting a blog, who wants to articulate the relationship between the theatre she sees and the life it reflects, impacts, enhances; a man with a career in political journalism who wants more attention paid to the processes of the brain when making and experiencing theatre; a former teacher using the performances she sees as the springboard for writing poetry; and a former roller derby girl turned (primarily visual) artist exploring the role writing might occupy in her practice. A participant in Matt’s workshop, who wasn’t free for mine, wrote one of the most scintillating things I’ve read this year: a live artist himself, he’s spending this year performing writing-about-performance. This multiplicity is thrilling – and creates a complexity of critical response that invites the reader to participate actively in imagining the performance that inspired it.

It’s not yet known what the Cambridge Junction workshop will turn into: for the moment, the writing is gathered on a semi-private blog, but I’d like to see Daniel take the leap of placing that conversation within the Junction’s own website. Can criticism maintain an independent voice if embedded within an institution? No one will believe it can until we start doing it – and with space for criticism, let alone new forms of criticism, so contracted in mainstream media, it feels vital to create such opportunities.