Paper read at the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Conference.
Santa Cruz, Bolivia, April 22-25, 2013.
Writing in the dark: reflecting on the work of the theatre critic
My entry into the world of critiquing theatre productions began in earnest while writing a Masters of Philosophy thesis on the work of Earl Warner, one of Barbados’ leading directors, who died in the late 1990s. In need of newspaper reviews of his work written in Barbados, I could find very little and what was touted as a critique was really a rehash of press releases; a tendency adopted by journalists who, lacking the necessary experience, use this trick to cover their inadequacies. That discovery spurred me to begin writing on the existing productions as long as they were in the public domain and required admission fees. I would attend with notebook and pen and, in the breaks between scenes, scribble down all the ideas that came to me in the dark of the auditorium. From that ‘writing in the dark’ – an unusual space that touches on the seen and the unseen – came my reputation; so much so that producers, playwrights and actors nowadays are wary about my turning up to see their work. This ‘writing’ became, for me, a way to inscribe my perspective on the process and the product. My critiques emerged from the experience of sitting in that womb space where the dynamics of voice, emotion, movement, colour, light, sound and life raised my interest and expectations about Barbadian theatre.
The context of the critic: Third World vs First World
I am concerned about the practical application of the critic’s work in the Caribbean setting where we still struggle to identify what is taking place on our stages. Critics give a reading of the work based on what has been described by others as ‘informed opinion.’ Interpreting the various languages of the play, the critic, through a process of decoding and redefinition, and an employment of deep knowledge of the aesthetics of theatre (in my case a Caribbean aesthetic), arrives at her opinion. The critic, who is, according to Richard Palmer (1988), “an essential, unavoidable variable of the dramatic experience,” does influence the process of deriving meaning by both external and internal means. Newspaper reviewers achieve that external influence through their publications’ roles in shaping public opinion. Internal influence is more effective if the critic is attached to a theatre company and fulfils roles as historian and dramaturge.
But all of this is in the best of worlds. In the UK and North America, the treatment of the arts and theatre differs from what passes as patronage in our Caribbean region. The First World, with its plethora of theatres and newspapers anxious to cover the fare of established theatres, affect the livelihood of producers, directors and actors who are dependent on the opening night reviews. The critic in this world wields considerable influence in determining the future of companies and their workers. This situation, and a series of historical events, have encouraged the growth of theatre as free enterprise; a growth which sees careers as wells of opportunity for those trained in their particular aspect of theatre.
Critics in the First World, while subject to public scrutiny, are well established. So, whether there is dissatisfaction with their commentary or not, they are still regarded as a necessary part of the life of theatre.
In the European Union, member states practice a variety of approaches to the arts. Where issues arise that are related to freedom of expression, especially in formerly Communist ruled states, the concern is whether criticism should be self-regulated or be the preserve of the state? I can see this question having great relevance to this debate, for within the reformed states the critic has obligations to both the process and the product, especially if the theatre is viewed as a liberating agent. In contrast, theatre in Barbados is not state sanctioned, supervised, or funded except for the annual Crop-Over celebrations. Although there are numerous moments in this street theatre for self-expression, the individual theatre companies, dwindling in number since the 1980s and 1990s, have not benefitted from the kind of financial attention currently given to opening galas, calypso competitions and street parades. Local theatre has been bankrolled by individual producers, with some sponsorship from friends and companies which know these producers. Consequently, the work of the critic has become secondary and she is not considered a valuable player in the creation of theatre.
With the tenuousness of a Caribbean theatre economy we can see why the weight the critic carries is minimal. We can also see why, now more than ever, the role of the critic must be addressed, in order to assure that it is meaningful in the future. Our discussion today, therefore, may appear superfluous or perhaps irrelevant to those trying to make ends meet in our homegrown theatres. This is against a history that has been far from ideal. A nation of some 270,000 people, we are served by three daily newspapers, one of which is available exclusively online. The dailies carry no pages dedicated to the arts and no consistent reporting of theatre events. My contribution has been to create a Facebook page calledTheatre Eyes, which addresses local productions, some regional works and any theatre-related activity, local or foreign. For a society forged out of the dynamics of a slave colony, the existing institutions – political, economic, judicial, social, artistic and cultural – have been contaminated by a less-than-savory history. The state is not interested in furthering the cause of theatre artists and theatre critics, given the tendency to downplay the importance of the arts. Indeed, the political and social bodies have been very tardy in supporting the artistic community as a whole even, in the face of a phenomenon like Rihanna. But our politicians are very happy to use artists – musicians, singers and actors – to further their political agendas. The recent political campaign (Barbados had elections late February 2013) showed that we were not concerned with the long-term sustainability of theatre artists.
This lack of interest in the welfare of our artists and the absence of informed arts critiques from local newspapers in Barbados are two sides of the same coin. This situation stems from a short-sightedness that is hatched from ignorance of one’s historic mission. It is a continuation of the unbalanced view that what does not sell papers should be omitted. But of paramount concern is the residual effect of the colonially oppressed mindset which privileged the ruling classes over the ordinary folk and, in the process, created two artistic worlds. As a consequence this stifled the growth and development of national theatre, an issue we struggle with still in 21st-century Barbados.
So, on the verge of celebrating 50 years of political independence, it is ironic that, as “strict guardians of our heritage/firm craftsmen of our fate” (words from our national anthem), we are still burdened with questions as to whether we should accord to theatre as valued a place as technology or science or medicine. We do not see as important, meaningful or necessary the role of the artist, much less the role of the critic; and this is in the midst of appropriation of actors, musicians, singers, dancers for the agendas of political parties. I believe this short-sightedness stems from the fear, dislike and disdain for criticism, which can be traced to our history, in which to challenge the status quo meant ostracism or, worse yet, profound suffering. The artist and the critic are thus seen as agents provocateur, even though we have not reached the stage where our theatre can be regarded as subversive. Critics are viewed as doubtful in their support of the state, open to quick changes in allegiance and individualistic, rather than interested in the collective will and aspirations of the community.
Discussions of arts criticism are irrelevant to newspaper houses, which do not make critiquing an established practice. They are irrelevant to producers, who do not see the critic as an integral part of theatre activity in general (i.e. the critic acting as a chronicler, dramaturge, historian, or spokesperson for a theatre company). Cultural workers, who will receive payment and maybe accolades from uninformed writers on the theatre, will also consider the critic’s role to be unimportant. I suspect that these circumstances might apply across the entire Caribbean region, where, to a similar degree, theatregoers suffer from a paucity of informed accounts of the process of theatre and its finished product.
The role of the critic
In our developing states, critics are primarily chronicling a theatrical event. However, we also act as the outsider, the thinker looking in on the creation and making comment, taking into account the history, the psychology, and the aesthetics, which are so crucial in analyzing the plays. The talents, or lack of them, of the critic affect the audience. By commenting, the critic is shaping future trends, bringing to the public’s attention the traditions that underpin the society and pervade the existing work. The critic, if s/he is an astute historian, also provides a link between pieces that went before, showing the connection between them. By identifying these traditions and the chain of work, the critic makes clear the similarities and differences and redirects attention to the playwright’s entire oeuvre. These actions can only be meaningful if the critic understands the part s/he is playing in the public’s interaction with the work of the dramatists.
As one of the few freelance critics in Barbados, I can say unequivocally that the critic must have a passion for the theatre so that commentary becomes a form of consciousness raising leading to new vistas for the audience. The critic becomes that other voice, through which the work speaks to the whole of humanity, and her commentary must continue, particularly for the sake of posterity. It is only the critic who can say what impact a play has on its audience and its time.
The critic’s attributes
To communicate her passion for the theatre the critic must be endowed with certain qualities. Reporting for the American Theatre Critics Association, Sherry Eaker (2011) provides a blue print for potential theatre critics. These qualities include:
good writing skills,…a broad theatre-going experience in order to have a context upon which to judge… personable, open to suggestions…. an optimistic attitude to life…
In addition, the potential critic should have an “educational and work background” and display some profile of publications. If we follow Eaker, this flexible, personable, well-qualified and empathic writer will influence the readers by what s/he says and shape via her/his communication the outlook of the theatregoer.
Unfortunately, the critic in the Caribbean faces the danger of being sidelined. Some of our societies ‘cultivate’ the profession, thus compromising the role of the critic. According to Eaker, the critic must indulge in “constructive criticism”, which is intended to improve the work of playwrights, directors and producers. The ability to mentor upcoming students or cub reporters is another attribute of the critic. Without this guidance, there can be no new generation of critics.
So what is the critic really doing? From her/his privileged position, the critic sees beyond the presentation to comment on the theatre’s messages, and its meanings for the future. Apart from reflecting the concerns of the public she serves, the critic must be able to distinguish between the types of theatre and say whether each has been successful. S/he must support the interests of the theatregoers, use educative methods, be reflective and make suggestions for improvements. The critic must also enforce critical standards so the public can make informed judgements about what it sees. With the numerous blogs, internet sites and social media pages that publish theatre critiques, we experience the skirting of both professional accountability and the ethical standards expected of newspaper critics; we note, too, that these sites cannot be regulated. This is one of the growing hazards, the ease with which these sites can garner authority and status based on a profile on the internet.
First and foremost the critic comments on the quality of the work, pointing out the successes and the failures. It is on the basis of this reflection that playwrights, producers and actors gather what is good about the critique and act on it or ignore the comments altogether. The reviewer does not set out to damage the reputation of directors who show fundamental failings. Instead, the critic is concerned with pointing them out so the mistakes are not repeated. The ‘love/hate relationship’ that exists between the critic and the producers is made more difficult when attempts are made to ascribe meaning to actions or lack of actions in the play.
I believe that critics who love the theatre bring special skills to the table. Certainly in my case, training in directing and a knowledge of playwriting have had a part to play. Research on Barbadian theatre and the Caribbean aesthetic that governs our plays are other interests that should bring some light to critiquing. These skill sets would serve any reviewer in our Caribbean well and certainly would allow for a reasoned approach to the work presented.
Why the critic is ‘an unavoidable variable of the dramatic experience?’
One difficulty to overcome is the simplistic approach adopted by entertainment reporters who summarize the plot and rehash press releases. In the same way that critics comment as a matter of course, critics are also influencing attendances through the critiques they write. Unfortunately, the outcome gives rise to heated debate over whether the critic’s views are justified. I have had my fair share of criticism for my reviews. My advice to producers, directors and players is: ignore the commentaries if you feel you are being attacked; raise the issue with the critic, or offer a rebuttal of the comments. However, by ignoring the comments, producers and their workers run the risk of burying their heads in the sand when perhaps there is need for a revamping of the work. On a cautionary note, advice from critics should be approached with restraint, as changes suggested by the critic may create more problems for the producers. The solution really lies in the confidence producers have in their work and their ability to address the critique without rancour.
Critics do not live in a vacuum. They are a part of the community, and they represent, to a large degree, the views of the audience. They reflect back to the audience their view of the work. Where the producer decides to question the critic’s views, this is best done away from the public glare.
One has to remember that the critic is giving a personal view of what was seen, an ‘informed opinion’. If there are instances where there has been a misreading of the play’s intentions, it is the duty of the critic to correct the statements made. There is no harm in retracting an opinion. The producer, however, would do well to itemize the concerns and address each one with the critic to arrive at some clarification of the issues and perhaps some consensus. A rebuttal in the newspapers also constitutes a major step outside of the usual dialogue about performances. I had that experience once, when the director and the playwright took issue with my critique and set about justifying their work through columns in the newspaper. Where directors, playwrights and producers feel their work has been treated unfairly or well (although critics never succeed much in garnering praise for their accurate analyses) the best solution, I think, is to ignore the comments and soldier on. Accept that negative commentary on one’s criticism comes with the territory, and use the critique to raise standards, rather than vilify the messenger. There will come a time when the work will merit its own praise, so the work of the producers is to continually revisit their strategies, their choice of work, and the choice of actors, in order to find the best outcomes for the productions they offer to the public.
Creating meaning for the piece and the theatrical moment is perhaps the most significant aspect of the critic’s work. Interpreting the psycho-social significance of the work, what it teaches about the society from which it springs, how the over- turning or the appropriation or new readings of certain ideas change the approach to the play; these are the areas that attract the most attention from the audience and the producer.
The way forward: grooming experts for the future
We have progressed beyond ‘writing in the dark’. With the advent of technology and the pervasiveness of social media outlets, a play can live and die in an evening. The critic would be well advised to think critically before publishing the review. The understanding of the play’s many narratives can only come with training to perceive such, and of course constant exposure to a fairly high standard of productions. Mediocre work will not commend itself and any reporting of it will make criticism a chore rather than a delight.
The future of theatre criticism lies in the hands of the institutions that train students to work in all areas of theatre, and in the newspapers that will begin seeing critiques as useful tools for analysis. In the secondary level, institutions where Theatre Arts are taught for public examination, the publication of good student reviews will go a long way towards making students accepting of such training. Eventually they may forge a career from it. Also the performing arts colleges should create, with advice from trained critics, courses which expose students to the fundamentals of theatre criticism.
Mentorship is an important factor in the creation and sustenance of entertainment reporters. From within the leadership of newspapers there needs to be a cadre of mentors who can provide that guidance for the novice. Where the critics are freelancers, the novice will have to attach herself/himself to the expert to gain the exposure and confidence.
In conclusion, the critic is concerned with more than the externals of the play. In any event, these have to be viewed in conjunction with the wider knowledge s/he brings; such as a profound grasp of the schematics of theatre. How a social realist play captures the world it creates is one concern, another is the way in which non-linear storytelling contributes to a symbolist or surrealist reading of the work. Thus the critic should be interested in all genres and styles and how these are suited for the transmission of the message. Thus the various aspects of the presentation of theatre – how the play appears on stage; the end product and its creation; the processes by which the story is told, as well as its origins – become the domains of interest for the critic.
To carefully bring together these elements in a masterful way that excites, informs and trains the audience, that is the work of the critic.
Eaker, Sherry. “The Contemporary Role of the Critic.” AATC. 2011. Accessed 20/4/2011. <americantheatrecritics.org/position-papers/2011/4/29/the-contemporary-role-of-the-critic>
Palmer, Richard H. The Critic’s Canon: Standards of Theatrical Reviewing in America. Connecticut:Greenwood Press, 1988.
 Holder of an M. Phil in Literature from UWI, Cave Hill, Barbados, Icil Phillips taught Literature and Theatre Arts at a public secondary school until 2010. Currently retired, she runs her own company, Shoestring Theatre, and writes reviews for local newspapers.