Sunday, 6 May 2018

It's Critic and Dramaturge Time!

I am writing down all this blather because I care about criticism. Criticism is my art-form. I believe that it serves a function within theatre – it can contribute in the movement towards more exciting, vital performance and the purging of vicious emotions – and that it operates as a medium of art. It’s a bit like poetry, only where poetry comments on life, criticism comments on theatre.

I also study dramaturgy. You know I am a student, right? I love dramaturgy. It’s a contested word – it doesn’t have a single definition – but it roughly means the study of theatre as a performance and not as a mere script. For a log time, theatre studies were a sub-set of literary studies. Dramaturgy demands that theatre is appreciated in its manifestations on the stage (whatever the stage might be).

Dramaturgy is done by everyone involved in a production. It’s the process of staging a play. But today’s banter is all about the difference between a dramaturge and the critic. I used to live with a dramaturge, an immensely talented man who put up with me for two years. Frankly, for that alone he deserves a medal. He also inspired me hugely, so I’d like to take a moment to thank Elliot and say that if anyone needs a dramaturge, he’s worth a shout.

Much as I love dramaturges, the critic is not a dramaturge. They do share skills and knowledge, but they approach theatre from different angles. I think it is a problem when critics forget this, and act like dramaturges. Let me explain.
The dramaturge works within a production, with the makers, and notices problems before offering solutions. The critic works outside a production, and notices problems and does not offer a solution. They both notice good things too and support them. It’s not all doom and gloom.

An example from life (or art, I suppose)

Imagine a play: a dramaturge is invited in and concludes that the production is half an hour longer than it needs to be. They chat to the director, and suggest ways to cut out that half hour – negotiating carefully so that the central conceit doesn’t end up getting lost. It’s a delicate process, and by working with the production, they help to prepare the work for public appreciation. They are in the rehearsal studio, they have the privilege of talking to the makers (they are part of the production team), but they have a responsibility to the performance. They are supposed to be making active suggestions. They get to say stuff like ‘it needs to be shorter’.

A critic sees the production when it is judged to be at a point where the public can see it. The critic concludes that it is half an hour longer than it needs to be. They write a review, and state that it was too long, and give a reason why they felt that. But they don’t get involved in suggestion solutions. They are reporting on what they have seen and their own subjective experience. They have a responsibility to the audience and the privilege of a public platform for their opinions. They are supposed to be either developing the ideas for broader discussion or giving a consumer report. They get to say stuff like ‘it is half an hour too long’.

Pop Quiz: which of these are dramaturge’s statement and which are critic’s statements?

a)   The show does not have enough content to justify its length.
b)  It needs to cut out half an hour.
c)   It feels half an hour too long.
d)  The whole scene with Ophelia is irrelevant.
e)   Cut out the scene with Ophelia.
f)    The main performer is really sexy.

Answers: a and d are both the dramaturge and the critic, although they lead to different conversations. Then b and e belong to the dramaturge; c is the critic and f is just really dodgy (unless it is a review of erotica or pornography).

Actually, statements with the ‘is of identity’ are generally a bit dangerous. I mean, we are talking about acting, which is more about ‘seeming’ or ‘appearing’. I mention that realising I have failed in this frequently.

Anyway, I might try to deal with that later. The point is, there are certain types of statement that critics might want to avoid, and they usually involve taking on the role of a dramaturge – a desire to ‘fix’ a production. On a brute level, critics are not paid enough to do that job, and don’t have, in their reviews, the space to develop a dialogue that can effect change in a production. They don’t have that responsibility. In the words of the legendary teacher Roy off Catchphrase, ‘say what you see’.

I do believe that the critic has a responsibility to be compassionate, though. Again, I have failed in this but, being one of those bloody Christians who yap on about God’s love all the time, I do believe it.

To end: a request for forgiveness. If that doesn’t make sense, it is a hard difference to elaborate and I am trying to make a start on defining the critic. This is a blog, I am not getting paid for this and I do have a big essay to finish for university. I am sorry.

And I am making some big claims for criticism, and I have no doubt failed in living up to my own standards. That happens. However, going through my blog and cataloging my mistakes is just going to start a flame war. And please don’t use this commentary as a chance to castigate other critics. I mean, it totally is, but I am trying to advance a conversation of mutual respect.

If you agree with my position, then check out Lorna Irvine’s writing and retweet it. If you disagree with me – I have written a thousand words. That’s a fair length to answer me. I’m cool with criticism (obviously), but I am a wee delicate snowflake. Don’t get personal, please.

1 comment :

  1. I don't think you make any bigger claims for criticism than Hazlitt, Archer, Agate, Tynan or John Peter did. Critics need to think bigger, more generously, more ambitiously, more supportively. Compassion, too, (as you say) is essential; the great 'Irish' actor and playwright Micheal MacLiammoir said that a critic should never destroy one dream unless he/she replaces it with another. Most people present their work with the best and sincerest of intentions. I do, however, have a problem with one of the senses in which you use there word dramaturgy, but only because I firmly believe that writer, director and cast should know their crafts well enough to be able to sort out in rehearsals the problems you describe a dramaturg addressing. The other meaning you give to dramaturgy, I would call mis-en-scene. But, that aside, I'm broadly in agreement with what you say, and I applaud you for wrestling so passionately with your craft. I hope this doesn't sound too pompous; the compliment is sincere.