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?