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?