For all the crap I give it, I do love the Melbourne theatre scene. It’s colourful, largely varied and full of huge personalities, some of whom are brilliant, some of whom are awful, most of whom are fascinating. It’s a booming subculture that means there is too much theatre for one city, and so everyone pretty much knows everyone. You’ll often see the same actors in plays just weeks apart, have the same regular auditionees, and notice that somebody reviewing a play one day is writing or acting in one the next.
In a perfect world reviewers and playwrights should not be one and the same. Traditionally they’re mortal enemies, and having one foot in the camp that tears plays apart and another in the camp that gets furious at said eviscerations seems inherently contradictory. But here we are. I’m one of those people, writing occasionally for both Theatre People and Australian Stage Online, all the while working on new plays of my own.
I review plays for a couple of reasons. First because it means I get to see a lot more theatre than I otherwise would, and secondly because it’s yet more practice for my non-fiction writing, which brings in the bulk of the money writing makes me on a day to day basis. Writing about theatre also means having to analyse and think about what makes things work and why, which is helpful when it comes to doing my own stuff.
But honestly, reviewing theatre has become more trouble than its worth, and that is predominantly because people in the Melbourne theatre scene seem singularly unable to understand what the role of a critic is and why they do it.
Let me make a couple of things clear; I have had bad reviews of my work before. Anyone who knows me well is probably familiar with a certain review of a certain play of mine that probably has earned the crown of the most vitriolic review in history, hurtful especially because much of what it said was correct. And look, bad reviews suck. Of course they do. You spend months, sometimes years working on something, and then somebody comes along and tears it apart. A natural part of that process is to get defensive, and I have. I have told anyone who will listen why a review was wrong, or unfair, and I fully expect the people reading my reviews to do the same; just because somebody spouts an opinion in print doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. An opinion, after all, is just an opinion. I’ve had reviews of my plays where I can quantifiably point to why claims the critic made were just outright wrong. Likewise I’ve had reviews that failed to justify why they didn’t like certain things, which to me is actually more offensive as a writer than as the target of their animosity; reviewing is about making an argument, so justifying what you say is key.
But here’s the thing; all of the above is fair game. What is not? Making it personal.
Now this cuts both ways. It’s wrong of a critic to make a breakdown of the failings of a play about the playwright. In the aforementioned most vitriolic review of all time, the great points the critic made about my terrible play were weakened by assumptions he brazenly made about me as well as implications about the quality of work he hadn’t seen. Target the script, target the acting, target the direction; don’t target me as a person.
Now on the other hand, disagreeing with a review is one thing, but to outright state that I shouldn’t be reviewing theatre because I’m ‘too young’ or ‘too inexperienced’ or ‘an arrogant upstart who has no idea what he’s talking about’ seems a little over the top. I get that it’s easier to assume that there’s something wrong with me than with your play, but my relative youth is not in any way relevant to my ability to construct a critique. If you thought my review was badly put together, by all means say so, but don’t bring irrelevant contextual circumstances into it as if they invalidate any of what I have to say.
I should probably clarify where this comes from before I go on. Recently I reviewed a couple of plays at a theatre I used to have a lot to do with. Both plays were mediocre at best, weak at worst. Out of respect for the theatre and the friends I have who still work there, I gave both plays three star reviews, going out of my way to soften and limit my critiques. Can I point out that this is me doing a bad job as a reviewer because I value people’s feelings too much?
Anyway, I needn’t have bothered. The responses to both reviews have been furious. People have lambasted my apparent lack of any credibility on Facebook, people who I know and am friends with. Others have deleted me on Facebook. Others have cornered friends of mine at the theatre to rant and rave about my having ‘dared’ suggest that the show they were involved in was anything less than perfect, going so far as to claim that because they didn’t like a show of mine they’d seen, I had no right to criticise theirs.
Again, is that relevant?
If external circumstances lend any credence or lack thereof to my ability to critique theatre, then maybe I should start mentioning my own accolades. My awards, glowing reviews of my own work, my status as a professional paid critic for a major website. Should any of that have any bearing on whether or not I’m allowed to criticise theatre? Of course it shouldn’t. Nor should my youth.
The fact is this; in Melbourne’s theatre scene you can’t express an opinion without hurting someone. Furthermore, apparently it’s fair game to make personal attacks on the character of a reviewer rather than a reasoned, if angry, response to perceived injustices in the review itself. It goes beyond theatre; I have been abused in email and on Twitter and Facebook by people who listen to the podcasts I do with Sanspants Radio and are simply outraged that I dare express an opinion about a film or TV show that is contrary to their own. Apparently I am ‘everything that is wrong with the internet’ or ‘the most unlikeable person in the history of recorded audio’. Add those to the list of delightful admonishments above. I’ve got quite a collection.
When all is said and done, trying to be both a critic and a playwright is a thankless, impossible task. Clashes of opinions shouldn’t be justifiable grounds for personal attacks, but apparently they are. I’ve had fruitful, exciting meetings with Melbourne theatre companies about working with them, only to never hear from them again after publishing a less than glowing review of one of their plays. Because what, I’m meant to lie about my opinion? It seems to be a common misconception amoung theatre-makers that the job of a critic is to tell people to see a play. As a playwright, I know that inviting a critic is a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. And while I have certainly been hurt by critics before, I also know never to hold anything against the reviewer. They’re just doing their job. And speaking as a critic, I know that I never want to see a bad play. I hate writing bad reviews. I hate telling hardworking creatives that I didn’t like what they produced.
If everyone in this city was nearly as professional as they claimed, they’d know that a review is a review and a play is a play and negative opinions about either needn’t extend to the people behind them. I like reviewing theatre. But I value my career as a playwright more than my career as a critic, and frankly, I’m doing myself more harm than good by trying to be honest in an industry that only seems to reward sycophants.
Just some thoughts.