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.