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.