SCENE BY JAMES: If New Zealand theatre criticism sucks, then it’s always sucked.

Bruce Mason: Our original 'hobbyist' playwright and critic

[Which is to say, it doesn’t]

Yesterday playwright/director/lip sync dynamo and “professional theatre critic” Sam Brooks went full Addison DeWitt against his own profession, dripping venom over the crappy theatre criticism in this country. On The Spinoff he argues: “theatre criticism in this country is fucked… the result: a critical culture muddied by hobbyists, people who aren’t truly passionate about engaging with or discussing the work – so they don’t.”

I’d heard this before. Was it on Twitter, where every other week @sbrookbrooks takes down Theatreview and suggests that we email editor John Smythe with our views about the quality of the reviews on the website?

Yes, but not just there. Brooks’ tirade is just the latest salvo hurled at the impoverished state of local criticism.

Take, Court Theatre director Elric Hooper, writing in Act in 1978:

…the standards are not high. There are notable exceptions. On the whole however theatre criticism is placed far below apart and even underneath gardening, so often junior members of the press staffs are delegated to do the “write-up”. The prose, let alone the judgments, is often abysmal. Too often that dreadful New Zealand failing that stretches from parliament down, ad hominem criticism, personal prejudice and personal attack creeps in spoiling what often might be sound judgments.

(Interestingly, in 2016 Sam thinks Kiwi reviewers are too nice and too scared to offend anyone – either way, our personal failings are getting in the way of us being objective, whatever that means).

Or John Hale, in the same publication in 1980:

We don’t do these things so well in New Zealand, where reviewing is still done by irregulars…. New Zealand reviewing is not professional or systematic enough” Surely theatre in New Zealand could only benefit if all productions of new plays by New Zealand writers were reviewed by a single roving reviewer? Such a move would greatly reduce the isolation of our theatres and the vagaries of the current standards of reviewing.

(Compare this with Brooks: “It’d be awesome to have a Simon Wilson in every centre in the country, writing diligent and thoughtful reviews ranging from professional touring shows to local semi-professional productions to amateur performances put on by the church.”)

These were two examples I could quickly find in the archives. Usefully, The Spinoff also published Peter Calder’s 2002 defense of the critic’s lot.

If our theatre criticism sucks – is “fucked” even – then it always has been. But I don’t agree with that premise.

Brooks provides Theatreview as the case-study as to why we suck. Now, I have no particular desire to defend or debunk Theatreview. If you have an issue, by all means, challenge the editor, as Sam continues to do (and as you should with me for Theatre Scenes, and Sam for The Pantograph Punch). The buck stops with us.

But are things really all doom and gloom because of one website?

As Theatre Scenes editor, I feel myself holding an acute (and sometimes crippling) responsibility for our role in all this. To do better, to be better. As editor here, I’ve got a degree of power, and I need to be accountable. I feel like I need to articulate something of our tūrangawaewae, and add an alternative perspective of how we’re all doing.

My issue with The Spinoff article is that in Brooks’ one-man crusade to destroy the Smythe dynasty, he’s lost sight of the larger backdrop.

The Hobbyist

Bruce Mason led a characteristically witty defense against John Hales’ comments in Act, tinged with a drop of hurt that his own critical contributions had not been recognised. Mason pointed to a wealth of reviewing activity, including his own. Back then, Downstage’s Act magazine was a hive of reviews, opinions, and shade from across the country.  The comments section could be the car-crash that you couldn’t look away from (a bit like Theatreview now). Mason was often the chief troll (as well as founder).

Brooks’ once-over of the critical landscape leaves out what is happening in the regions and print media. It leaves out the historical context of local criticism. And it leaves out the heated international debates in criticism, where the ‘amateur’ bloggers are often pitted against the institutional critics, and paid jobs are becoming scarcer.

How are we doing here? Like anywhere, at any time, quality varies. We at Theatre Scenes certainly don’t always get it right. It’s our job, ultimately, to be wrong. We scribble in our notebooks, and scratch in the dark. I like Sam’s mantra: we’re the first word (clearly we’ve both read).  I want to give something that people can measure their own opinions against.

Brooks says we have a critical culture “muddied by hobbyists…  It’s like hiring the maitre’d to run the kitchen: they have an understanding of how everything works, but you wouldn’t trust them to make a gourmet meal.”

My reviews for Metro Magazine makes me one of a handful of ‘professional theatre critics’, but none of us are full-time. Our critics are hobbyists because we are always critic, plus something else. That’s the way it goes. And yes, many of us are leading double lives as both artists and critics (though is this necessarily a dichotomy?). Sam does it. I do it.  So did Roger Hall.

And of course there’s the pioneer, Bruce Mason. As he attempted to write a nationalist theatre, he was there to pass judgment on all those who also did the same.

Almost all of Theatre Scenes reviewers cross-over as practitioners. I see this as an advantage. We know what it’s like to have skin in the game. We know what it’s like to be a receiving end of a review. That does not mean that we can pull our punches, it is our responsibility not to. But the hope is that we bring a healthy level of informed respect while still being honest (or at least, that’s what I try to tell Matt Baker!). That’s not to say that the dual-role doesn’t come with tensions that I often agonise over.

Earlier this year Kate Prior made the case for the artist as critic in New Zealand. She says:

rather than lamenting the ubiquitous ‘portfolio career’, within our critical culture we use our necessary nimbleness to our advantage. Yet instead of spreading ourselves thinly over a various collection of roles, those who balance a strong artistic and critical capacity hone this particular duality; utilise the rub between the two supposed polarities to approach new work with a critical empathy, an awareness of process and hopefully an understanding of the theatre maker’s associative world, which as critic Mark Fisher notes in How To Write About Theatre, is a central part of the job.

Hobbyist critics are not new. And artists as critics are not inherently bad. There are great critics too who are not artists. The good people rise to the top. People read their critiques, readers will decide for themselves if they trust them, based on how it measures with their experience. They keep writing.

So why are we doing it? It’s not for the plaudits, because there aren’t any. It’s not for the pay, because there’s barely any of that, if at all. It’s not for the free tickets. At Theatre Scenes we’ve been abused, banned from shows, and had our property defaced. For me, reviewing is an act of service towards a community that is my lifeblood.

When Brooks say “If you love theatre, you want to do theatre, you don’t want to talk about other people doing theatre” I cannot relate to this. I love writing about other people doing theatre because I love writing about theatre. I want more people to go to the theatre. I want more people to talk about theatre. That’s why, I think, many of us do it.

I enjoy, when I can, being able to take a longer view, such as my end of year reflections, these Scene by James columns, or my occasional criticism on The Pantograph Punch. Often with Theatre Scenes I find myself treading water, our critics barely able to keep up with all the activity that is happening in Auckland. But we care, and we do what we can. You don’t have to like them or agree with their opinion, but I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who is prepared to take the time to craft a written response to a show. The hobbyists should not be denigrated.

The Critical Utopia

We need good role models. I look back and blush at my early reviews. Brooks suggests that he would too. I didn’t trust his reviews when he first began writing for the Lumiere Reader. Every single review was positive. He has since become a formidable and unforgiving taskmaster. It’s good for the discourse.

Brooks’ twitter take downs? Not so much. They’re hearted by his followers. He posts the thread on his Facebook and they’re liked there. Nothing changes. It’s a one-sided conversation in an echo chamber. We critics don’t actually talk to each other nearly as often as we should.

Brooks channels the community’s dissatisfaction towards Theatreview, but the danger is that it plays into those other arguments about why reviewers are no-nothing parasites. But that’s not good for me, nor Brooks. Nor is it good for our theatre in general.

Let’s have a more robust engagement with why good criticism is important, and what that might actually look like. Let’s talk about we aspire toward, what utopia we’re dreaming of.

Prior makes a distinction between reviewing and criticism which is not made in Brooks’ piece. While reviewers write reviews, Prior says the “the critic’s remit is much broader, including commentary, advocacy, and among other things an awareness of New Zealand and international theatre contexts. The terms ‘reviewer’ and ‘critic’ are unconsciously used in equal measure in New Zealand, yet true criticism is sparse”.

Brooks says that “we barely train people to engage with theatre on a critical level and we definitely don’t train people to write about theatre critically, because why would anybody train in a craft with so little pay off?” Hey Sam, my university fees would like to have a word with you.  I have evolved as a critic as I have continued through the University ranks. I’m on a mission to document New Zealand theatre history, to think and write critically about what we make here. It’s my bread and butter.

When I was entrusted with the care of the Stage 3 Drama Students at the University of Auckland this past semester, I introduced a review task. Their major assessment was to make a 5 minute solo. In order to do so, I believed they also needed to be able to critically assess the work of other solo performances, to grapple with their ideas and techniques, to try to distill some sense of what did and did not work about the experience for them, in order to help them articulate their own wants and desires for their piece. I think that the discipline of critical practice does make you a better artist. They don’t need to be published, but everyone should try writing a review. Even try writing a review of your own work.

Criticism is more than just reviews. There are a number of academics doing great work, conducting research, writing chapters and articles. I suspect that most of the community is oblivious to this. We need to tear down more ivory pay-walls.

My utopia? I hunger to read as many voices as possible about the work we are making here.  I want to see critics debating each other’s ideas, not just their copy-editing. Call me a Pollyanna, but critic and artist are in this together; we want to build this country’s theatre to the be the best that it can be. An impossible goal, but it’s why we all strive. The critic must be there to contextualise, champion, and call-out.

Brooks is doing some good things: he led a critic’s workshop. I started the Theatre Now Project, supported by Auckland Live, which has got writers, directors, actors, and critics in the same room as peers to work together on new material and talk to each other.

Brooks concludes, “when a culture is choked by the twin leashes of oppressive niceness and under-investment – both in time and money – it’s impossible for it to thrive. And when the critical culture isn’t there, the artform in question can’t achieve to its true potential.” We are here. We are passionate about what we do. We want to make the art form better. We want to be better too.

Sam Brooks has done his job as critic. He’s been provocative. He’s got me talking. Let’s keep going.

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2 Comments on SCENE BY JAMES: If New Zealand theatre criticism sucks, then it’s always sucked.

  1. A very good piece James. Arguably those who review without being paid prove they are compelled by a passion – a love of theatre. Amateurs, after all, as Bruce Mason noted in his celebrated exchange with Pocock, means ‘those who love’ theatre.

  2. While I also often find Theatreview’s ‘niceness’ cloying, my main objection is the way the editor shuts down conversations. A discussion has barely begun and you can rely on him (and/or brother) to leap in usually at great length and thoroughly deprive the topic of oxygen. It could be a good place for the theatre community to share and develop its thinking on all sorts of topics, including reviewing – but you haven’t got a hope in hell. I do wish he’d ban himself from commenting unless specifically addressed.

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