The nice thing about this picture is that it is difficult to tell which is the artist and which is the critic.

In recent times there have been a few discussions on theatre criticsm rolling around in the blogosphere and beyond. Why, even yesterday in Griffin Theatre’s e-news Secret Squirrel had a little post about it:

What exactly constitutes a ‘good critic?’ Well, there is the critic who gives you a summary of the show, then there is the main stage sycophant, the critic who love to bash the co-op, the critic who’s own personal style guide gets in the way of objective reporting, the critic who is also a frustrated director/actor, and the critic who has their own blog and wields their power accordingly…
Someone once said to me, “if you are going to hate a work, then hate with generosity”. It’s become something of a mantra ever since. And let’s not forget to critique the critic from time to time. I say that the art of criticism should not be without its fair share…
Secret Squirrel

I’m not sure how I identify really- I suppose I must be being referred to in SS’s description as a “frustrated director/actor” – except I don’t feel frustrated. I’m too busy to be frustrated. I’m not frustrated but I am sometimes confused. Sometimes people confuse me. I get confused about how they see me. And sometimes don’t know how I see myself. When faced with the traumatic position of introducing myself in a public forum in one sentence or less – I stumble, I’m awkward. What is my role? Well that depends who you ask, where I am, what I am doing. I am the Season Artistic Director of Brand Spanking New, Project Coordinator at Queen Street Studio, Board Member of Shopfront Theatre, Creative Producer of Stories from the 428, playwright for the Colourblind Festival, Freelance Director, reviewer for, independent blogger. Recently at the launch of Empty Spaces I was introduced to someone as “a theatre activist” – which I guess is pretty close to how I feel about what I do…

But here and now I thought I’d write a little on why I review, how I review, what I think of reviewing and criticism in general.

In 2007 I wrote a regular online column called “Return to Oz” for Artshub- about being an ex-ex-pat returning to the Sydney Theatre scene, tracking my aspirations, disappointments, observations, successes over a year. By the end of 2007 I had realised that there was a serious lack of conversation around new Australian work- especially that for new Australian works mounted in the independent theatres. The conversation was without context and missing a big slab of the theatrical landscape. I wanted to promote the good stuff I was seeing and analyzed the stuff that I didn’t enjoy. I applied to to be a reviewer as they gave a generous 48 hour turn around time for reviews and gave the reviewers stylistic freedom in how to approach reviewing. It remains, I believe a wonderfully eclectic and accessible record of Australian theatre on a national scale.

My first review was for Lally Katz’s show at Wharf 2 Loud – “Wakiki Hip” – I had seen the moved reading of Wakiki earlier that year, and knew Lally’s work from 7 years prior (I was in a production called The Starlet Twins- I played a decapitated head )- I was a fan. Easy to write about. I thought. I was wrong. It was really difficult. It was hard to write about because I cared. Desperately. Insatiably. I cared not only about Sophie Ross who was in her first year out of WAAPA, but I cared about Lally. I wanted to do their work justice. I wanted to support them. I didn’t know what I was doing. What are the rules to reviewing? What do I say? What do I mention? How much of the plot do I tell? Should I take notes? OH MY GOD WHAT AM I DOING?!??!? I AM A FRAUD. I’M NOT TRAINED TO BE DOING THIS- THIS IS SOMEONE’S ART I’M WRITING ABOUT, THEIR CAREER ON THE LINE. I AM A HACK! IF I WRITE ANYTHING LESS THAN GLOWING THEY’LL HATE ME AND THINK I’M JEALOUS!!!!! Breathe… Breathe… Breathe…

Needless to say. I did breathe. And not my best review:–wharf-2loud-755.html
but I got it in on time and all was fine… no negative repercussions for having an opinion in the public domain.

The next few months, reviewing was tough- I felt the expectation of formula.I read everything I could. I even received a snarky email from a lighting designer who took great exception to the fact I praised the lighting, but didn’t include his name in the review- he claimed I was disadvantaging his career, as he needed the review as a marketing of his skills on his website. I ended up ammending my review.

I then wrote the most negative review ever- for a show that was an absolute stinker- I felt utterly invisible as a reviewer (mistakenly so) and I felt a responsibility to call a spade a spade… for the punters. IN the name of theatre! I wrote a less than complimentary review the worst of which was:

“As the programme cover states: “One Night, Three sisters, a whole lot of trouble…”
Trouble indeed… lots of it. Primarily, Paul Zindel’s play feels dusty and dull. Though valiant attempts to make the 1967 script pithy and relevant to a contemporary Australian audiences with mentions of “myspace” and “being sent to Iraq”, the sloppy structure of the play, decorated with functional and fleeting characters, namely Mrs Pentrano (Bernadette Hughson), an Avon lady of sorts and a hip hoppin’ delivery boy, leaves a lot to be desired. The lengthy and monotonous conversations of the sisters are made even less tolerable due to the complete lack of character development within the script: what you see is truly what you get. Relief arrives briefly in the characters of Fleur and Bob who drive the scenes with animated and vivacious confidence until they too wear out their welcome. Lloyd can be commended for her complete commitment to character, and for imbuing some subtext into, what, on the surface may be regarded as an homage to Fran Drescher. Accompanying the stale script drenched in exposition are cumbersome American accents that fluctuate as they flirt with the occasional Australian diphthong. One wonders what compelled the contemporization of the script, without neutralizing the accent? A change of time, but not of place? In addition to this, this reviewer was also left wondering what is the genre? At times played as an intense familial drama, at others action is fractured by the appearance of farcical fancy as the staunch vegetarian is encased in a fur coat… Is this a black comedy? Is it a comedy? How am I to understand the tragedy of woman’s breakdown? Who am I to believe? According to the New York Times’ quote on the website “The audience went berserk with the humour of this play” and I sincerely wonder why.”

.. and I consequently received nasty, nasty email response claiming I was unprofessional amongst other things – which made me realise I was not as invisible as I had thought. That review also garnered responses from the general public defending the play. I had to write about it on opening night- the night when the director/actor forgot his lines and called out to the stage manager for help from the stage. It was embarrassing. I still stand by that review, despite everyone else’s opinion.

I’ve been criticised for reviewing shows at theatre’s where I have worked (unavoidable I’m afraid). I’ve been publicly abused, I have been emailed abuse. I have been flamed several times. I am in the fortunate position of choosing what I write about- and I try to choose shows that I think I will have something positive to talk about.

There are things I try to provide to people who read the reviews- I try to provide an honest reading of the show. I try to give context- either in the context of a body of work of the artists, or a theatre’s programming, or in the theatre culture, Australian writing, theatre history, theatre sociology… I try to engage with the themes and style on its own terms. I declare my hand when I can. I avoid talking about the plot. I never give the good jokes (or any surprises or any jokes) away. I try to focus on the positive and acknowledge my prejudices.

Does that mean I never write a negative review? Does it mean I lie when I am reviewing? Nope. When I lie, I feel nauseous… Sometimes you can tell how I really feel about a show by finding what I am not saying…
It’s not easy, because I care. I care alot.

I can tell you a few things. Every show I go to see, I feel honoured to be there. I can’t wait for the show to be amazing so I can tell people about it. I walk in ready to love, never ready to hate it. I don’t write in a certain way so that the shows or theatre marketing people will quote me- I am not writing marketing copy. I am there because I want to be there and believe in being there. I believe in a conversation about art. I believe that reviewing is also recording, and is also about developing our theatre culture. About developing our language, developing a style of articulation which can progress our theatre making. I still review and feel the responsibility acutely- everytime I write- I critique my own criticizm- and I am sure others do too. And that’s important to me. I must ask- “do I mean this?” ” Is that what I meant to say” “have I been honest?”

I can tell you that I don’t consider myself an ultimate authority- or even much of an authority. My friend Tim says that I am. I say to him that I am starting a conversation with people who see theatre and want to know more- or feel confident or conflicted in their response to the work, for those curious and want to talk about it- or want to see it from a new perspective. I say, I provide a point of view for discussion – John MacCallum is the authority. I’m but one little voice in a chorus of perspectives.

We are all needed in this discussion- and some of us carry a huge history of Australian theatre in us. James Waites has amazing context and social history. Jason Blake gives a pithy plot summary for the regular punter. 5th Wall an actors perspective, Lloyd Bradford Skye writes cleverly in an entertaining fashion, Kevin Jackson critiques the work of his ex-students and for those who went to NIDA, Troy Dodds loves large scale Musicals. I reckon when you see a play, and you want to read a review- READ ‘EM ALL! Compare and contrast. See where you sit. Have your own discussions… and be brave and generous and clear and honest about what you see- if you aren’t, the artform suffers.