Sunday, 29 March 2015

The camera in the mind's eye never gets a hair in the lens.

Over on Facebook, the charming Gemma Hirst asked an innocent question.

Is it possible for a theatre reviewer to be involved in the theatre as an actor as well?

The charmless answer I left in the comments - absolutely not - needs some clarification, not least because I appear to have been very rude. But it is a question that has formed a great deal of my policy as an editor, from my days at The Skinny through to my exciting career as an all-round media node.

Before I launch into the Big Rant, a few qualifiers. First of all, the word actor can be replaced by dramaturg, director, producer, stage-hand  or any other active role in a professional theatre company.

Then there's the question of objectivity. I don't believe it exists (and, a bit like my mum when I swore in an argument, immediately discount any argument that uses it). It is not the case that a performer is any less subjective than a critic. 

Finally, I am not discounting the validity or importance of the voice of the actor: it is a fascinating and valuable addition to the discussion of theatre. It is the specific area of the review that is under consideration - an activity performed by journalists, reviewers and critics. At another time, I might discuss the difference between them.

There is a period of time when an individual can be both theatre-maker and critic - the early years of their career. At some point - a mysterious one, but hopefully one that a conscientious editor can support - the individual slips into one of the two camps, and any crossover needs to be carefully monitored.

And so, rant-fans, here we go.

If objectivity is rejected, a multiplicity of subjectivities replace it. While there is no hierarchy of subjectivities in my argument - I am not saying one way of seeing is better than another - different subjectivities filter experience in diverse ways.

A critic (we'll be dealing with the critic rather than other people who write reviews) has a specific way of interpreting theatre. It's not entirely possible to make a generalisation about what that specific way is, as it will differ between critics (or in my case, whether I am pretending to be Gareth K Vile or Mad Cyril).

A theatre-maker will have a different approach to interpretation (see above for a qualifying ramble). These perceptions of theatre are both crucial.

The nub is that the theatre-maker, the actor, if they are engaged to any serious degree in their own process, will primarily observe a production in the light of their profession. If they are any good, they'll be asking something like the following question:

If I had the same budget, and the same intention, how would I have presented this work?

Potentially, the actor is not just watching the action on stage: they are also following their own version, going on in their head, without the friction of the physical world. It will be perfect, and the act of watching will not be based on generosity...

The camera in the mind's eye never gets a hair in the lens.

A critic, hopefully, will have a different question:

What is this work trying to do, and how well does it do it?

Again, this does not mean that the critic has a better opinion, just one that works better for reviewing purposes. In fact, the theatre-makers' interpretation is a crucial part of their creative process. And that opinion is well worth reading - but is not a good foundation for a review.

Add in the possibility of conflicted interest - is it likely that the actor might have some advantage in undermining a production or performer? - or just the general problem of not upsetting your colleagues (seriously, I am lovely most of the time, but I get hate-mail), and the actor is a bad bet as a critic.

Counter-arguments abound (like needing to know about the experience of performing, but there are ways around that), but, frankly, there's not enough work for critics without letting actors in on the rich pickings.

(Of course, my own artistic presentations make me a hypocrite. Over to the internet...)

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