Last October, when I first saw the draft of Tomasz Milkowski’s introduction to our colloquium, I was very pleased that its theme was related to contemporary theatre. It is so insightful and thought-provoking that we can approach it aesthetically, socio-culturally, or historically.
This phenomenon of “theatre beyond the theatre” is stronger in Western theatre than in Asian theatre. In Asia, theatre has always been theatre, a kind of role playing, a kind of game. It never tried to provide a version of reality until Western theatre was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century. As a result, in the East, style has been more important than narrative. In the West, however, the theatre has long been seeking a form of reality—either in the illusion of reality, or in the reality of illusion. Reality has been by far the highest priority of this theatre. For example, for actors outside of Asia, the goal has been to “real-ly” identify themselves with their roles; for directors, the goal has been to utilize all the theatrical elements to achieve a poetic reality on the stage; for playwrights, the goal has been to record or invent many layers of reality. On top of all these lies today’s preoccupation with the hyper-reality of everydayness. The critics, too, have tried to follow the same track, to achieve “reality” by being scientific rather than intuitive, or observant rather than impressionistic, or analytical rather than judgmental in critiquing.
Today’s new, strong trend, the practice of theatre beyond the theatre, reflects a shift in the focus on reality, from fictional to non-fictional, from spiritual to physical: site-specific theatre aims at achieving visual corporeality of place; in-yer-face theatre emphasizes the physical presence of the performers; the Rimini protocol uses real experts who are amateur actors, rather than professionals playing at make-believe; directors often seek non-traditional spaces such as cellars, attics, technical rooms, or corridors because these are the real working places where “real” reality is created.
All these trends lead to physical reality. This post-dramatic era does not believe in the logos of theatre and has attempted to de-centralize, de-manipulate, de-construct, or even deny the process of signification in the dramatic theatre. If we can say the presence of an actor’s body is the signifier, and his interpretation or representation the signified, then we can say there used to be some difference between the signifier and the signified in the theatre—and that difference has been one of the major attractions for spectators, allowing them to see different productions of the same play over and over again. In today’s theatre, we can detect a tendency to have no line of demarcation between the characters and the performers. In dramatic theatre, actors were supposed to personify their characters, but now, particularly in the transcendental theatre, their presences are personified as characters. Therefore I would like to call this trend the theatre of physical reality, or the corporeal theatre, if you may.
In May in Novi Sad, IATC will collaborate to organize a conference to take place in the frame of the 57th Sterijino Pozore, the Serbian national drama and theatre festival. The theme of the conference will be a kind of continuation of this congress’s colloquium; called “The Actor is Dead, Long Live the Actor!” we will deal with the actor’s presence and representation. I am very excited about these two thematically inter-related colloquiums, which deal with one of the most contemporary theatrical phenomena. Uncovering and creating relevant themes for conferences is among the important jobs that critics perform. I congratulate Tomasz Milkowski and Ivan Medenica for identifying such brilliant topics and for creating such tempting introductions. And I am very much looking forward to the rich and diverse discourses, from our colleagues from around the world, delving into the theme for the next two days.
Here, our theme, “Theatre Beyond the Theatre,” has made me ponder as much about criticism as about theatre. Theatre has been seeking new ways of addressing our zeitgeist and communication with contemporary audiences by going beyond the theatre, “drawing them into closer proximity with the artists,” and addressing “dramatic, spatial, and aesthetic reconsideration,” as Tomasz says in his introduction to our colloquium. I wonder, however, whether we critics have made the equivalent effort to forge more effective and closer communication with our readers, about new approaches of the practice of theatre and their relevance to our society.
As you may already know, I am an optimistic man. I never cease to hope for better: better theatre, better criticism, better society, better world, and better life. At the same time, I am fair-minded and not afraid to face hard facts. And the facts we are confronting now concerning our profession are bleak: the media space for criticism has been increasingly reduced, or in some places, even eliminated. The most recent case is CBC Radio in Ottawa, Canada, which has eliminated all its broadcasts of theatre reviews; in turn, the critics’ impact on the theatre community has weakened. Most tellingly, we are paid much less now for our critical work—so little, in fact, that our profession can hardly be called a profession. For example, I know that one of our very active colleagues, who is a well-respected critic in his country’s capital city, does not earn enough even to pay tax on his income as a critic.
But still, we are staying. We have braved many difficulties over the years: anti-intellectualism, commercialism, financial hardship, and professional skepticism. For what? For love of the theatre, Stupid! For our passion for writing, Dummy! But I just wonder, as I said a minute ago, whether we critics have fought our fights effectively and efficiently. If we can fight better fights, there is still hope that our work can become more relevant again; if we become more communicative, we may become more influential, more motivating, and better rewarded.
Since post-modern and post-dramatic practices and theories have prevailed in the critical and theatrical communities, we critics have strived to meet the new challenges mostly through scientific analysis based on semiotics and cultural theories. This has been the case more with academic critics than journalistic ones. These approaches have contributed to our moving away from impressionistic critiquing, which has long been deplored, especially by the theatre practitioners themselves. However, it has also distanced our readers from criticism, mainly due to the esoteric quality of our writing, and the boring political correctness that comes with it. If you, like me, agree with the notion that critical writing is a work of art, then how can we possibly allow ourselves to be boring, to be merely politically correct, or to deny the importance of creative thinking and effective communication with our readers? This is the most self-destructive approach on our side, in our worthy fight against today’s criticism-unfriendly culture. We should move criticism beyond the criticism, the prevailing scientific analysis.
I may sound old-school serious and heavy in my serious approach to criticism at this time of unbearable lightness, but let me ask you to heed what Michael Billington says in his 1998 anthology, One Night Stands, about the function of theatre criticism: “Criticism… is simply part of a permanent debate about the nature of the ideal theatre.” I would like to ask you to keep in mind the two key words in this definition: “debate” and “ideal.”
First, we have to ask ourselves, “What is the ideal theatre?” It sounds archaic to talk about the “ideal” in this lost era of philosophical agnosticism. But our long obsession with scientific analysis, and the attempt not to make value judgments, did not stop a director like Alvis Hermanis from criticizing the critics: Hermanis stunned me, with his keynote speech for our Sofia congress in 2008, by saying that we critics have encouraged that deplorable trend of sensational violence in a theatre of excessive blood and sperm. Despite—or because of—our enormous efforts to be scientific and value-neutral, we are getting this kind of criticism from theatre practitioners. Recently, I had several talks with some dedicated Korean directors, who told me that the critics should be concerned with the nature or direction of the theatre of the future, rather than with reporting what is already going on in the theatre using uncommunicative jargon. If this kind of criticism of us by theatre practitioners bears even a small amount of truth, it is much fairer, and better for us overall, to be more aggressive and dare to stand up for our own ideals for the theatre, to be explicit about them, and then perhaps to be criticized for them. Our post-modern culture of value-neutrality may serve theatre artists to express their zeitgeist of uncertainty, but it does not serve us critics whose job is to communicate effectively, in language of certainty, the uncertainty of our times.
Second, in the “debate” that Michael Billington talked about, I think debate between critics should be included. Debate is the most exciting and lively form of intellectual interaction. For today’s general public, so unused to intellectual engagement, debate between one critic and another could be a most effective way of arousing intelligent curiosity about the theatre. Unfortunately, however, I find from time to time that critics do not like to debate with their colleagues; this is certainly so in Korea. Critics make it their job to criticize, but they are not very open-minded about being criticized. This is an unfair game. We expect theatre practitioners to be mature about our criticisms, and demand that they be more accepting of our judgments. Likewise, we should be more accepting of criticisms from our colleagues, whether they are practitioners or critics. When we frequently say to ourselves that critics like only to agree to disagree, and are reluctant to debate publicly among themselves, the contradiction is very evident. We may perceive our judgment or criticism of a practitioner to be objective, but take that same kind of criticism against ourselves to be personal. I hope I am wrong. I also hope that this is not a frequent case in your countries. Anyway, this psychological barrier should be removed, to facilitate those debates on the ideal theatre, both among ourselves and with practitioners. In this way, we can all move beyond the multi-layered dilemmas of the contemporary theatre and today’s critical practice.
As a citizen of the Country of Criticism, I see our situation deteriorating. Our territory is being reduced very rapidly. Our standards and positions are also being degraded due to the value-neutral culture of our times. And I am saying what I have said as one of my patriotic duties.
 Yun-Cheol Kim is President of IATC; recipient of the Cultural Order of Korea; Professor in the School of Drama, Korean National University of Arts; and editor of The Korean Theatre Journal, a quarterly. Two-time winner of the “Critic of the Year Award,” he has published nine books so far, two of which are anthologies of theatre reviews.