Zuzana Uličianska[1]



Deux degrés de séparation

Si la critique de théâtre est menacée de déclin dans l’industrie des journaux et des magazines, avec des incertitudes économiques existentielles pour les critiques – qui sont souvent pigistes –, ces problèmes sont d’autant plus aigus dans une petite nation comme la Slovaquie ! Comment, dans un petit pays, le critique fait-il respecter une éthique d’indépendance à l’égard des gens de théâtre dont il rend compte des travaux ? Dans cet article, Zuzana Uličianska étudie ces enjeux très immédiats et pertinents.

The ideal theatre critic is a highly educated and rational person, yet extremely sensitive and emotional, involved in everything while not being involved with anyone, not married to an actress or a theatre director, experienced and capable of seeing 1048 productions in a row with the same insatiable curiosity. In opposition to God, who is often granted a permission to love someone in particular, the poor critic is doomed to imaginary objectivity.

In reading some interview with actors or theatre directors, it seems to me that a theatre critic should not only be omniscient but also omnipresent, seeing five shows at the same time.

How can a human being possibly stand up to such expectations? I will make this question even more difficult. How can an ideal critic survive in a small country with only three non tabloid dailies, one theatre monthly, two academies of performing arts with a love/hate type of society?

If everyone in this world is at most six degrees of separation away from any other person on Earth – according to the theory set out originally by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy – then in Slovakia, the chain of “friends of a friend” would connect any two people in at most three degrees of separation. This I can tell for sure from my journalistic experience. Inside the theatre community there are two degrees of separation, at the most.

This intimate situation can be sometimes charming, but for a theatre critic it represents a real threat to his/her professional and personal integrity.

How can you possibly avoid writing about your colleagues, bosses, past or future collaborators, friends, ex-partners or even partners in such a small scale country?

In my paper I would like to present the most common dilemmas of a theatre critic in Slovakia.

Let’s examine the premise that an ideal critic should stick to his profession while avoiding doing art, management or anything that can represent a conflict of interest at all costs.

Let’s start with a little bit of economy. You can be paid 20-30 euros for a regular review of 450 words in a daily, in a theatre magazine it is even less. To sustain yourself as a freelancer, an imaginary Slovak critic should write a minimum of two or three reviews per day.

As there are around 150 productions in Slovakia per year, out of which only 50 or 60 gets broader national coverage, he/she would very soon run out of productions to cover.

Even if this was technically possible, does anyone really believe that this would benefit the critic and his reader? Will such a critic be still able to love theatre?

A slightly easier position is to be an internal cultural editor of a newspaper or magazine. In that case, however, you are inevitably asked to write other articles as well, including the preliminary info about theatre shows based on press conference optimism. This can be misleading. Even more experienced readers have sometimes difficulties in distinguishing between the review and the PR article. In my newspaper we try to separates those who write common articles and those who write reviews. But sometimes that is just not possible for various practical reasons.

Making interviews with creators of some show might look OK, but it is not that easy. In doing an interview, you try to listen with the highest empathy; you are paid for finding the best side of the person you talk to. In writing a review you are not expected to be overpolite. If I am asked to do an interview with some theatre person, my first question is: Have I mentioned him/her recently in some of my reviews? Will I need to write about him/her in the near future? Surprise, surprise, the actors tend to remember lines from your review for years and years.

And, this is still a lightest version of the possible conflict of interest. It can get much worse. While working for a daily as you forced to write the articles about cultural and personal policy and theatre management, too. We all know, that the great artists can be sometimes totally incapable as organisers, even corrupt as theatre managers. If you write a positive review about a production directed by such a director, does it means that you are supporting his staying in the managerial position? The case is even more complicated if there is some political background of this person.

To stay on the academic soil might look like a much safer option for a theatre critic, as you can write reviews in addition to your academic theatre research. In Slovakia, however, the Department of Theatre Theory is a part of the Academy of Performing Arts. All teachers of this school are theatre makers as well.

This means that in that case you have a very big chance of writing about your colleagues, even bosses from the Academy. If you are a student of theatre theory, you would be writing about your teachers. The young critics should be by definition cheeky, but this situation, however, doesn’t allow this.

Few years ago the students of Academy in Bratislava declared a funny theatre awards for the worst productions of the year. The reaction of their teachers was hysterical.

I used to be a secretary of the Department of Directing at this Academy and I can tell from my personal experience what writing reviews on a production directed by your boss is like.

From that point of view, those who work for the more theoretical Theatre department of the Academy of Sciences are in a slightly better position.

Option four is to work for a Theatre Institute. I used to write reviews for a daily while working there. I was frequently attacked by my ex-director that my harsh reviews were discouraging theatre makers from collaborating with the theatre documentation department of this institute.

Conflicts of interest can take many different forms.

For already 15 years I have been organizing the theatre awards Boards – DOSKY. The winners are the artists and the productions which got the most points as voted by critics. The results are the exact summary of a vague feeling.

The winner of the DOSKY award doesn’t necessarily need to be my cup of tea, but I have to organise the presentation of winning shows without respect to my own critical views. Studying the individual voting for the DOSKY awards is in itself a great research field of the all possible conflicts of interest. Is it OK to vote for the work of your lover, ex-lover, father, brother, teacher, student or just a friend? Should it be stated in the status of the awards: “critics should avoid voting for any relatives or persons they had or are still having sexual intercourse with? And if yes, what about one night stands? Should they be included or excluded?

Similar stories can go on. Critics are by definition writing creatures. Then it is not surprising if he/she has some ambitions to write plays or at least to translate them. As we know, many dramatists started their career as theatre critics.

As an author I had recently taken part in the project consisting of several small dramas. I had a real problem to resist the temptation to criticize my own work. To be a professional critic is sometimes an industrial disease!

In order to avoid any conflicts of interest – possibly the best choice is to be a dentist or a lawyer and to do theatre criticism as your hobby. This is the case for a few dedicated Slovak critics. However, in that case, you will never get rid of remarks: “He is just a medical doctor!”

So is there any cure to this no-win situation? Can’t a critic get rid of his own personality, his own interests?

The most banal metaphor of theatre is that of being a mirror of the society. We, critics, are there to make photos of the images that theatre reflects. Have you ever tried to take a photo of a mirror? Were you able not to catch yourself in the picture? I am quite sure you weren’t.

Similarly, it is hardly possible to take a picture of this theatrical mirror without seeing yourself in the image.

Unless you are a vampire. Vampires are transparent. Light passes through them.

I am afraid that critics sometimes become a sort of mythical creatures that no one has seen. Unless they are cast on the jury of some television “You’ve Got Talent” type of show – they are definitely not media stars, their faces are not generally known.

I have been contributing to the daily with my theatre reviews already for almost ten years. It has happened to me many times that people look at me very suspiciously after I have introduced myself. Uličianska? Really? They sometimes even start to giggle. I have never got any answer whether they expected someone taller, prettier, older, younger, or blonde.

Another story happened to me quite recently at the first night of the musical theatre production The Boyband. The setting of the story, written by Peter Quilter, was moved from Britain to Slovakia. One of the characters, young musicians, read out a part of a devastating review. Suddenly, he pronounced my name as the fictive author of this article. The audience started to laugh and I started to feel uncomfortable. Suddenly I realised that no one looked at me. People around me in the audience had no idea that this harsh critic mentioned in the show was sitting right by them. I realised that my name is living the life of its own with some imaginary body. People tend to make their own phantom images of critics, similar to those that the police make of killers and robbers.

Critics are often considered to be phantoms of the theatre, living somewhere in the basement, disfigured, manipulative, terrorizing the actors, having their own protégés.

The truth is that they really like to be hidden in the darkness, to take part of the scenes emotionally, not physically, to stay voyeurs. Voyeurism is not only a sexual interest, but also an ultimate state of empathy. The one who looks is absorbing and being absorbed, he/she is a medium of collective hypnosis of a theatre.

It would be nice if a critic could totally disappear for a moment, but in real life he or she will always be seen in the mirror, taking part in the broader image.

The only thing he/she can do in this delicate position is not to lose face – writing with no respect to the possible economic consequences of presenting his/her version of the truth, still not writing anything that he wouldn’t be able to tell to the artist in person and not writing anything false in order to benefit from this lie.

Then a critic can take a look in the mirror.

The highest but also the lowest possible form of criticism is a sort of autobiography, as Oscar Wilde stated in the prologue to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.


[1] Zuzana Uličianska is president of the Slovakian section of IATC

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Two Degrees of Separation