by Iulia Popovici
There is no worst sign for the subjective state of (theatre) criticism than the time and space that theatre critics are dedicating in recent times not to (re)define but to defend their own profession…
Even if the history of local (Romanian) criticism is not exactly my field of expertise, one thing I know for certain: it has never ever had the chance of being totally, truly independent. Independent from the theatre system itself and, for 50 long years, from the political imperatives of the moment. In Romania, theatre criticism has never been–and it doesn’t look like it will ever be–a form of journalism, even in the golden ages of serious newspapers that were actually paying for the published articles. It started with playwrights, literary critics or authors and aspiring theatre practitioners writing about shows and the art of performance; it continued with trained critics writing for newspapers and magazines controlled by the Communist power and looking for professional legitimacy not amidst their ‘civil’ audience of theatergoers but amidst theatre practitioners themselves. It ended up with the theatre criticism almost evicted from the pages of the few remaining newspapers (in the best of situations, being replaced with 500-word ‘informative’ pieces which in fact are rewriting press releases) and with theatre critics turned into festival programmers, lecturers, consultants, literary managers, promoters, etc., while still identifying themselves as critics. The less we actually write about theatre, the more we want to call ourselves theatre critics. The more we deny the ethical transformation of our critical position, the more we talk about our ‘independence’ of opinion and ‘objectivity’ of perspective. The more we pretend to be outside observers and agents of objective hierarchies, the more we lose the chance to capitalize the subjective expertise (of theory and practice) that marks the identity of a theatre critic. It is not the new world of technology and democratic participation in the public sphere that threatens most the position of the critic but his/her nostalgia for the times when having access to writing was in itself an attribute of the few. Are we going to be so hypocritical as to lament the mere fact that people can now read, write and self-represent because that makes us, THE critics, less important?
Does it all go down to the mere definition of theatre criticism as a special communication tool? Probably yes. The most consistent trend in defining the inner nature of criticism in Romania sees it as second-degree form of theoretical and practical reflection, lacking autonomy in relation with the actual theatre work (I would like a dollar for every time I’ve heard the phrase ‘We as critics are here to serve the artists’…), but still mimicking its function as a ‘consumer guide.’ Which it is not–not anymore. All the recent audience surveys dealing with spectatorship practices are showing that people tend to choose the performances they are going to see based on recommendation of friends or because they like an actor, the stage director, the play; they don’t read theatre reviews for that. Some actors do read them. Some directors, some set-designers, some playwrights. And surely people in the marketing departments of each and every theatre. Maybe some of their managers also–the reviews are an important part of the management assessment by the financing authority and an important part of any grant application. So there is a certain need for theatre criticism–in its reviewing form. Positive reviewing, of course–because we don’t serve the theatre as art; we serve the theatre as a particular system of hierarchies. And so, we are willingly limiting our freedom of expression to almost one thing only: the freedom of choosing one side or another, knowing full well that sometimes this means giving up the exercise of our own critical subjectivity. Which means not only explaining, creating a context, even describing, but sometimes saying ‘no.’ It’s not like critics are neurosurgeons–they can afford to play with ‘yes’ and ‘no.’
Writing about theatre is, of course, a quest for power; besides the self-esteem and social positioning factors, which are important but don’t keep anybody from hunger, it endows the critic with various degrees of symbolic capital that, in the end, is supposed to be traded into livelihood. Since lately theatre criticism is only marginally seen, in my country as everywhere, in general, as a form of journalism (and journalism per se tends to be largely seen as a noble hobby more than as a profession), the turning of this symbolic capital into livelihood happens in fields other than the regular writing; namely, it happens inside the system of public, independent and private theatres, of classical and experimental artists, financially and symbolically rich or less rich institutions. And that’s how a new, original form of economy is born; an economy in which the critic trades his/her symbolic capital (more than his/her knowledge and expertise), usually acquired as part of the symbolic capital of the publication he/she writes for or of the personal affiliations and connections he/she has developed, in exchange for a financially rewarding relations, through contracts, commissions and consultancy, within the theatre system. Is it unethical for a critic to assume such relationships that question his/her assessment of the general theatrical landscape as such? Does it mean that it’s a free market for every theatre to ‘buy’ its own critic and do they actually do it in order to secure positive reviewing? What is it sold and what is it bought in the framework of this economy? Well, it depends. And the most important thing it depends on is how much the critic values not the public visibility of his/her writing but his/her theatrical expertise. Because everything goes down to this simple reality: it’s about money and how we could still earn our life through criticism.
As somebody who has worked for theatre institutions and with artists, in other capacities than a theatre reviewer, I cannot but consider myself part of this critical economy. To use a clever wording coming from the British theatre, I’ve practiced ‘embedded criticism’ many times in my professional life. But could I still pretend I practice the objective, independent kind of criticism so much praised, discursively, in the theatre culture I belong to? Can I in good faith consider this new economy as being functional and useful for the theatrical ecosystem?
Useful, yes. Since the very beginning, the job of theatre critics has been that of mediators–starting with mediating between an artistic language and its potential audience, through a judgement of taste and experience. Then they’ve been mediators between the art of theatre and other arts, mediators between various, sometimes very different artistic perspectives, and masters in reading artistic and non-artistic contexts through the performative grammar. They work in the field of theatre theory and are practitioners of their own creative language. In its full sense, performing arts criticism is far more than theatre reviewing and far more than a second-degree form of reflection. In its more extreme version, theatre ‘theorization’ and even ‘criticism’ can exist in the absence of a conventional theatre performance. (I wrote once a piece on Ceaușescu’s trial–and on show-trials in general–from a performative perspective; was it criticism? This could turn into a real discussion, to match the one about whether what Rimini Protokoll does is theatre…) But most of the times, in its every day existence, it does talk about theatre performances and theatre art, from a theatrical perspective. When it stops giving to an uninformed potential theatergoer a reason to see or not to see a certain show (from the modest position of a ‘privileged’ member of the audience), it becomes an instance, a part of theatrical creation itself. And since it is more needed by the participants in theatre production than it is by general audience, it is in the best interest of the theatre system to take care of the ‘checks and balances.’ But that’s why the economy of theatrical expertise is not functional: because most of us don’t actually know how much we are worth, after we’ve had to step down from the pedestal of providers of truth in the judgement of artistic taste. Because the ‘critical market’ is not regulated, it’s an informal, black market where there is, as on any black market, exploitation and no price control. ‘Critical workers’ pretend to still be ‘objective’ judges, representing not their own taste but the ‘taste of history,’ in their writing and by consequence, they are chastise–by the artists and producers–the moment they are getting down from the ivory tower of presumed objectivity. May I have the right to openly say that I don’t like classical theatre? Am I still valid as a critic and theatre expert if I work with artists and institutions I believe in and, at some point, write about them? Does this mean that they’ve bought me? Is my conscience and expertise so cheap in the context where writing is to precious? How deep is, in Romania, the feeling of theatrical religiousness sp that artists hate critics as to attack them on that instrumental tool of the public space called Facebook, considers them ‘parasites’ and ‘non-objective,’ but each and every one wants critics to write positive things about them? Because yes, the critical crisis is not related to the disappearance of newspapers and the raise of the amateur reviewing but to the declining of the critical right to subjectivity, personal beliefs and to being, on a long term, wrong…
‘Traditional’ Romanian criticism has not resigned in the face of new media and the democratization of opinion–because, in this culture of ‘success,’ theatre has failed to democratize itself, and success among the audience never equals success inside the theatre system. In Romania, ‘citizen journalism’ hasn’t lead to the flourishing of platforms for theatre reflection for the simple reason that popularity among ordinary theatergoers and even artists does not guarantee a position of power that could be traded on the exchange market of the critical economy. The new media has only lead to the replication of the classical form of theatre criticism on online platforms and to other good excuses for the lack of financial value of critical writing. Sometimes, it has also showed the invaluable role of editing and proofreading–the first journalistic instances to be discarded in this process of ‘digitalization’–in maintaining certain standards (now declining) in theatre writing. To my great amusement, I read from time to time articles in online theatre magazines that lament the absence of ‘old-fashioned’ performance reviews in the print press, trying to glorify the online magazine itself for dedicating large spaces to this delicate and dying art. In a very awkward manner, in Romania, the online democracy hasn’t lead to the redefining, transformation and rediscovery of the multiple forms of existence of theatre writing but it has provided an infinite medium for the preservation of ‘good old’ criticism as it used to be since the dawn of times (say some…). A kind of criticism that truly believes in forms of non-reflective celebration of the artist more than of the theatre itself. That truly believes that ‘value’ in art is transcendent, unquestionable and self-evident to everybody, so it doesn’t have to be proven or debated. That because the practitioners of this criticism cannot raise themselves to a level of authentic art, their existence on earth should be dedicated to worshiping artists, making them unable to stand any negative opinion. That behind the extensive use of ‘I’ as subject of the opinion given lies the sharing of a universal, innate ‘feeling’ for the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ in the arts (the inflation of the pronoun in the first person in many pieces of Romanian theatre criticism is not influenced by blogging practices and doesn’t presume a relativization or an assuming of opinion; following the practice of well-known critics of the past decades, it is a glorification of theatre as a personal, untranslatable experience of those few accepted in the temple of culture).
It’s a 19th century criticism ‘embedded’ in the concept of art as religion, artists as illuminated apostles and critics as their equally illuminated followers or, even better, priests. To say that art and criticism alike are not some form of faith but professions requiring certain training and practical experience, that they exist inside a specific economy, which should not be ignored, that in a largely, up to 90%, subsidized system, accessibility (including financial one) and a relationship with the potential more than the actual audience is fundamental, that theatre is also about the securing of the future (especially in terms of people) and the reproduction of a conscious public, not only about securing a glorious posterity–this is total heresy…
Complaining about the decline of the critical voice (i.e. of critics’ presence in the news media and by extension in the public foreground) because of the democratization of communication sounds actually not very honest and altruistic. Are we really, seriously!, lamenting access to mass-education and democracy of speech? Are we defending a privilege instead of taking advantage of the world of opportunities that mass access to technology and information in front of us? Complaining that the society has changed brings neither critics nor the theatre in general (since yes, we are part of the same story, in many forms different than that of journalism and media publishing) any nearer to assessing the real problem: what’s the place of performing arts in this new society and its economy, what is its future? Surely it is not that of an unquestionable religion where everybody is suppose to worship and give money. If we don’t change, we won’t be able to take care of the next generation of theatre people–and the theatre will die with us, of the simple but mortal disease called selfishness. Everything goes down to money. If the theatre as an art thinks it needs critics and criticism as more than ‘publishing nice things about our work,’ it should find ways to pay for that expertise and accept its subjectivity, not always worshiping. And then together, critics, artists and producers should go out and look for a mutual satisfying economical model–as a form of self-organization and relationship with the outside world, its real audience.
 Why is it (more) needed in the frame of theatre production? Criticism/ critical perspective/ theoretical insight is part of the ‘checks and balances’ system, offering an external, yet ‘embedded’ mirror that the traditional instances involved in production don’t have the… expertise to give.
 Iulia Popovici is a performing arts critic and curator, with an MFA in Playwriting (National University of Theatre and Cinematography, Bucharest) and a B.A. in Literature (University of Bucharest). She works as an editor for the performing arts section at the Observator cultural weekly cultural magazine (Bucharest).
A member of EEPAP–Eastern European Performing Arts Platform, initiated by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw in 2011, she is the author of the EEPAP report on the independent/ alternative performing arts scene in Romania, and has written a number of texts on the alternative performing arts scene, collectives and artists published in Romania (ManInFest, IDEA, Scena.ro, Observator cultural, Long April etc.) and abroad (UBU, France; Szinház, Hungary; Dialog and Teatr, Poland).
Since 2011, she co-curates the Independent Performing Arts Platform presented in the framework of the Temps d’Images festival in Cluj, and in 2013, she curated a pilot-showcase of independent and experimental performing arts in Bucharest.
She is the author of A Theatre by the Side of the Road (2008), a book about the Romanian alternative theatre collective dramAcum.
Copyright © 2014 Iulia Popovici
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