Taking ourselves (seriously) online: a case for the artist as critic in New Zealand theatre criticism

Art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop. Clifford Geertz 

Several weeks ago a New Zealand theatre maker offered up a question on Facebook regarding qualities of our theatre criticism. The post touched on a whole lot of interesting issues; the role of the reviewer to utilise various critical frameworks through which to read work, the danger of the critic imposing arbitrary or defunct criteria, and the frustration of artists making work and it not being met by empathetic minds ready to wrestle with what the work is and what it is aiming for. The post wasn't a sullen attack following an unfavourable review, rather an objective question regarding how happy we as artists are with our theatre criticism in New Zealand and what pathways need to be created to improve it. These questions are nothing new, but the very fact that Facebook often appears the only forum is indication enough of the current health of our critical commentary.

Let me first make the distinction everyone makes when writing a piece on criticism: 'reviewer' and 'critic' are two separate entities. This distinction is important here because if you're going to read me advocating for the artist as critic it pays if we're both on the same page about what I mean when I talk about criticism. I don't simply mean writing reviews. While the reviewer does just that, 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. 

I've spent the past year based in Melbourne. While surrounded by Australian theatre criticism I have had lots of thoughts about our own. Comparing aspects of the two different theatre landscapes has become something of an obsession. Linked by traces of colonialism, parochialism, and a theatre culture as peripheral to mainstream (read: sports) culture as you could get, New Zealand and Australia have much in common. However despite a tendency among Australians to strangely regard these islands as just another large off-shore state (surprisingly a recent Arts Hub article was titled Could New Zealand be the new cultural capital?) there are marked contrasts in the two cultural landscapes. Especially when focussing on our national critical conversations.

I'm not launching a comparative analysis here, but it is certain that these differences have offered a springboard for my thinking; sweet and easy cultural perspective for the price of a flight to Melbourne. Why does any of it matter? Because good criticism opens a dialogue; elevating and wrestling with a work of art for the benefit of a more informed and engaged public. Repeatedly bad or lazy criticism can do real, perceptible damage to an arts ecology by shutting that dialogue down. As seasoned Australian theatre critic Alison Croggon tweets, 'criticism draws connections, illuminates contexts, advocates for the new, remembers the past. It's the ongoing argument of culture'. Good criticism goes beyond liking or not liking to consider, as cultural commentator Tom Vanderbilt notes, ‘what the work said, what the work did, and what [the critic] brought to it’. It's a deceptively simple statement that one. Adhering to it demands a kind of nakedness: deep empathy and acknowledgement of one's own subjectivity.

In New Zealand, many artists have opted out of the conversation. Not only that, but I've recently been reminded that something else occurs: the subject simply becomes a joke. Humour is armoury and conversations about criticism in NZ swiftly become threaded with tried-and-tested cynical humour, the common salve for embarrassment. So wary of the debilitating cringe of a review that is not as serious about the task of reviewing as they are about the task of making, or their critical input perhaps being misconstrued as sullenness, artists are stepping away from public discussion.

This is a shame. Not only because culture is dialogue, but because artists are some of the most well-equipped for the task. For a long while I've felt uneasy about the artist splitting their focus as a critic - an ethical minefield! A fast way to Nigel No-Collaborators! Similarly to critic and editor Rosabel Tan, I've often recognised that the proximity of practice and criticism carries with it the danger of amassing inconsequential love-ins which only add to 'our own cultural fatberg'. Yet over the past year I've changed my mind. I now reckon that in our small country the critical advocacy of the artist is one of our best bets. We must experiment further with the nature of digital criticism and the activation of the artist as critic, not only as an arbitrary symptom of her environment, but to be taken seriously as one of the best possible translators of art to its public. I'll attend to your reservations soon. But first, let's look at the current state of things.

As we all know, print is in its final death throes. The global changes to the media landscape have severely affected print criticism. The endangered newspaper critic in New Zealand suffers the same word-limit pressures as her Australian counterparts, yet is even closer to outright extinction; print reviews of theatre in the three main metropolitan newspapers are few and far between; whole arts sections of metropolitan papers have been removed in the last five to ten years and reviewers/editors are increasingly selective of which shows receive a review. The occasional preview or artist profile piece remains, usually focussing on a main stage production. Newspaper print reviews ordinarily don’t extend beyond show description and credits with a sentence or two of opinion. (Sometimes, just for fun, a clickbait columnist is sent along to review a show just to make some useless statements and tell us how awesome it was when he saw Laurence Olivier that one time). That said, two periodicals - the Listener and Metro print slightly longer (up to 700 word) reviews in their online editions. Metro magazine has provided some of the most considered, illuminating theatre reviews in recent years. 

It is important to outline the above if only to make clear how this stunted print landscape obviates the presence of an online space for considered, in-depth criticism (not simply consumer-focussed reviews). Exempt from the commercial imperatives of print media and maybe more importantly, the deathly rush to the deadline, the beginnings of change in our critical culture and dialogue will only begin online. That is the territory I shall be focussing on here. 

The constellation of blogs aside, there are four main online reviewing sites in New Zealand: Theatreview, The Lumière Reader, Theatre Scenes and The Pantograph Punch. (There are no sites akin to Alison Croggon’s once-vital Theatre Notes, in which a reputed independent critic solely engages in serious theatre criticism and commentary and some pretty robust debate). As can be deduced from their titles, Theatreview and Theatre Scenes are focussed solely on theatre, while The Lumière Reader and The Pantograph Punch are wider arts and culture magazine-style sites.

Having been in existence the longest of the four, Theatreview, created and edited by a former print critic, holds an important archival function within the critical landscape. It is the only place one can search for historical reviews of productions, and no other site provides such a hub for theatre news, discussion and reviews with a national focus. Yet the site does not pay its writers; it is contributed to by an innumerable range of reviewers - from enthusiasts to academics - in addition to the editor, therefore if one is to assess the quality - it's a wonky donky wild west out there.

This brings me to my first observation peculiar to New Zealand online theatre criticism: due to our small population size and extremely limited resources, there are several parts of the sector ecology which must serve several functions. Their processes and output may be of variable quality, yet due to their dual or triple functions they endure. Longevity begets longevity. The advantage of a small population means anything is possible. It also means that some facets of the culture hold more weight than they possibly would in a wider pool. Essentially Theatreview is a review site and directory fuelled by the considerations of one editor (with an overt bias towards traditional text-based theatre) and many unpaid enthusiasts who are not always equipped to provide considered and contextualised analysis; the skill of making the ‘work of art live for the spectator’. Yet due to Theatreview’s national reach and archival role, it endures.

Secondly, despite the online environment providing an opportunity for editors to approach forms of criticism afresh, the majority of NZ online reviewing sites follow a print style with all the traditional structuring and tonal qualities that entails. Experimentation with form or tone is not a priority. It’s confounding, considering the fact that our tired and somewhat compromised newspaper reviews are possibly not the best place to look to for templates. 

Thirdly, to briefly touch on the convergence of academia and criticism - within the performing arts in New Zealand, scholarship and criticism (and indeed practice) cross paths less frequently than in Australia. There are several reasons for this, one of which being that our major drama schools (developing practitioners who feed the theatre sector in general) have historically been practical conservatoriums which are not linked as strongly to academia. Australian figures such as Julian Meyrick or Peter Eckersall, traversing literary management, dramaturgy and academic roles are very rare in New Zealand. And even rarer for the offerings of the great theatre academics we do have to extend beyond the boundaries of scholarship and into public critical conversations.

Tom Vanderbilt writes ‘the Internet was supposed to wrest criticism from the elites’. This is an interesting notion to consider from a New Zealand cultural perspective. Within the cobweb-thin ecology of New Zealand theatre criticism where the full-time paid critic does not (cannot?) exist, there are no elites, just newspaper journalists-cum-reviewers offered no space for in-depth commentary, various online reviewers and enthusiasts, and somewhat disconnected academics. It’s a flat heirarchy. At it’s worst, theatre reviewing in New Zealand is ahistoric, grasps at generic systems of judgement (highlighting one system of measurement for all), offers a general wash, blindly miscontrues and passively decontextualises. Thoughtless, go-to, pat phrases are consistently used so as to empty them of any meaning, and confusing frameworks are imposed, not to illuminate the work but to serve the ego of the reviewer. 

The situation is not without hope. Two promising online homes of more considered theatre criticism (including interviews with practitioners alongside reviews) - The Pantograph Punch and The Lumière Reader - are sites which are not dedicated purely to theatre criticism. Both umbrella various art forms (The Pantograph Punch with a more literary bent, The Lumière Reader with a focus on film) and this most certainly impacts upon their approach to theatre. The quality of one conversation can only lift the quality of another. 

In her essay The Critic in New Zealand, Rosabel Tan notes,While critics shouldn’t tell us how to think, they should illuminate new ways of seeing. We want them to be invisible but we’re making them ineffectual…Critics are gut flora. We can survive without them but it will only make us weaker’. So what can we do about our debilitated discourse? How do we stop artists opting out of the critical conversation and create an invigorated, relevant exchange between artist, critic and public? 

As noted, one of the issues Tan discusses is the ‘blurry occupational distance’ in such a tiny industry in which critics are also working as artists, creating a vacuum for any real objectivity. I too was once sceptical of this awkwardly close relationship, especially due to my own ethical aversions. Yet if we are to search for ways forward for the critical conversation in a country in which the entire population numbers near that of Sydney, awkward closeness is never going to be something we can avoid. So I propose as part of our critical reinvigoration we wholeheartedly embrace the notion of the artist as critic. 

The duality is not at all new - there are numerous instances in NZ of artists working as reviewers, however by consciously choosing this as one solution among many - by recognising a paradigm already present but like most aspects of the critical culture, taken for granted (or worse - regarded with scepticism), we allow ourselves to explore all the imaginative possibilities of a criticism driven by the artist. It means actually drawing on the artist/critic's skills in empathetic creative analysis in encountering another's work. It means taking all the energy in our private critical discussions and transforming that for considered public discourse.

It also means that 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.

The latter consideration may be one of the most important. Theatres and independent artists pour much of their energy into marketing, yet all the audience segmentation in the world can’t help the fact that we need better cultural translators. A critic’s cultural awareness, as Mark Fisher notes, must be broader than average. A good critic must have a strong grasp of the inspirations and associations of the artist; wherever the artist decides to travel with form, subject or theme, the critic must follow. Too often in New Zealand work is measured against arbitrary and unexplained yardsticks. Who better then than the engaged artist to draw upon her own awareness to explicate, dissect and expand the work? To return to Clifford Geertz, who describes all of this in one beautiful line: ‘art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop’.

The artist as a figure of action is of potential benefit to a reflective, critical conversation. There is work being created in Aotearoa that isn’t happening anywhere else in the world. While the singular critic can trace international influence, the artist is often at the vanguard of a national conversation. The artist isn’t watching and waiting but doing; not simply collecting derivative cultural trinkets last, but looking at what we’re doing first. Here, the artist/critic is the ideal advocate.

Of course, there are natural pitfalls of such blurred critical and artistic boundaries. While it would be nice to wholeheartedly agree with our mate TS Eliot when he says that for the artist, ‘criticism will be criticism, and not the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish - which, in most other persons, is apt to interfere fatally’, that is not to say that a Pandora’s Box of other afflictions would not affect the artist/critic to skew their analysis. The potential thud of envy lurks in the bar after every successful show. And perhaps most detrimental to the possibility of an assertive and engaged New Zealand artist/critic is the fear of offence to potential future collaborators. She shall never be immune to these tricky navigations, however, as mentioned at the outset, I'm not advocating narrowly for the artist solely as reviewer. We need to shake the idea that reviews are the only available mode through which to activate public critical thought. We need to imagine more for our theatre criticism.

For one, I'm not sure we always need to climb into the critic's spiky costume in order to apply their authoritative voice. It's simply one voice we've heard repeatedly and one which many reviewers unconsciously hold fast to in order to hand down the requisite critical judgement - but once again, from where did this tone and the standard review structure derive? Print? If so, why are we using it now? If the art is doing what it wants, constantly shifting, embracing cross-modalities, interrogating the role of the audience, and as American director Anne Bogart writes, 'finding resonant shapes for our current ambiguities', how do we reflect that in our responses; find the reflective shapes in the written word? (I recently found Mal Ahern's great piece on 'Naked Criticism' in which she uses the same image to question the need for the critic's cool voice of authority. She makes the point more extensively and gracefully than myself - it's a good read).

When new work emerges in New Zealand, it’s a common occurrence to defensively and swiftly decide whether it’s worthy of praise or not. If not, it’s duly forgotten about. If it is, reviewers will often trip over themselves in a stampede of assent that seems to say ‘Oh thank god, not a dud!’ After a successful show in 2013, one respected reviewer breathlessly dubbed the work ‘our new national flag’. I love outright positive assertions, I mean, why not? Yet in a landscape in which the review is the sole mechanism for public critical reflection - in which in-depth analysis and commentary outside of academia is absent - what happens in the space between quietly forgetting and new national flags?

If the online environment untethers us from the commercial imperatives of print; if there are many engaged and passionate artists in a sector who are not being met on equal terms by reviewers, or whose work is not being interrogated in meaningful critical commentary, then it is up to the artists as critics to sit at their laptops, forget about ‘reviews’ modelled on defunct print media forms, and create online homes for in-depth analysis, for advocacy and for taking other artists work as seriously as they take their own. Perhaps then we can begin to traverse that space between the ‘great’ and the ‘terrible’ and add to a wider, more engaged and - most importantly - more useful critical conversation.