The Delicate Balance of Criticism, II

I’d promised last month to talk about Lara Shalson’s article in the latest issue of Theatre Topics.Theatre Topics, by the way, is an excellent, accessible academic journal that addresses theatre and performance practice as well as ideas about contemporary culture. One of the latest special issues addresses “devising” theatre, in which groups of artists collaborate on texts that they create from the ground up, often with local communities. I highly recommend the journal for its reports on innovative approaches to practice, and its very good critical engagements with the teaching, as well as the making, of theatre and performance.

Shalson’s article, “Creating Community, Constructing Criticism: The Women’s One World Festival 1980-1981,” addresses the critical community that participated in the international performance festival which, 25 years ago, prompted the founding of New York’s WOW Café, which became the most vital generator of feminist performance in the 20th century. Shalson uses this historical event to launch an inquiry into critics’ position vis-à-vis community-based performance, and to challenge some of our received notions about the relationship of critics to the work they review. She describes our understanding of the critic as “outside” of the theatre-making community, and how community-based work is presumed to be “insular” and “confined,” “preaching to the converted.”

Shalson does a good job of arguing that what she calls “constructing criticism,” on the contrary, might contribute to the process of creating community through performance. “[T]hese two activities,” she writes, “are mutually reinforcing rather than oppositional and must be thought together” (223). That is, performance helps to create communities as well as the critics who write about it; critics, in this model, aren’t outside the work, but are part of its creation in the moment in which it’s seen. Rather than asserting power over a performance, or positioning herself as the intermediary between the community and the presumptively larger, more important dominant culture, the critic is a participant in a local process of witnessing and engaging performance.

As Shalson points out, the festival nature of the Women’s One World event highlighted the mutually constituting relationship of critics and performers. The festival, she suggests, “created the same reception conditions for critics as they did for all participants,” which resulted in a “heightened self-awareness on the part of critics about their role in relation to this community-based performance” (234).

When I was starting out as a feminist theatre critic, I, too, bought into the traps Shalson outlines. I felt my duty was to report on feminist theatre and performance to the larger audience I presumed should be intended for the work. I decided that aesthetic considerations were more important than political ones. As sympathetic as I might be to the “cause” that much of the work I reviewed espoused, I held it to the same rigorous standards I might bring to any performance. I indeed saw myself as separate from the performers/theatre-makers, with a duty not necessarily to be objective, but to side with the audience, which I presumed cared more about theatre than they did feminism.

As Shalson quotes in her article, when one of the groups I wrote about in my first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, wanted to see what I said about them before they’d give me permission to use a photograph of their work, I declined. I resented the implication that they should have any input into how I saw them and what I said. I recall, too, even earlier, my righteous guilt when I gave a Boston political theatre group a less than complimentary review in Sojourner, the feminist newspaper I wrote for at the time. Although I’d worked with Maxine Klein—an important leftist theatre-maker who’d actually been my teacher in the theatre department at Boston University during my first semester as an undergrad—I felt compelled to say that her company (Little Flags Theatre) had created a slipshod production of a didactic play without much artistic merit.

Who did I think I was serving with that review? And why did I guard my words so jealousy from preview by At the Foot of the Mountain, the feminist group who wanted to exchange viewing rights for that photograph? I was buying into exactly the assumptions about the relationship between critics and artists that Shalson challenges in her essay.

How should we, then, approach community-based theatre and performance, especially when we’re part of the community being addressed? How do we balance considerations of political meanings and intentions with aesthetic and artistic execution? These aren’t new questions; they have a long history in theatre criticism and I’ve mulled over them throughout my career. I feel urgent about them today, knowing that so much of the theatre and performance about which I care a great deal has lost funding and is under attack by right wing ideologues who haven’t even seen it, who will never take the time to truly look at work they despise a priori.

Shalson’s method of “constructing criticism,” which acknowledges that critics, too, are part of the audience being addressed by community-based performance, that they’re equally a part of the community, rather than people with pens who sit at an Olympian remove, is perhaps one answer. The presumptive reader to whom critics write might, in this case, be the community-based audience who has shared the moment with them, rather than some assumed, anonymous audience who might never, in fact, see the performance.

A community-based critic might write for other reasons than judging artistic or aesthetic merit or measuring consumers’ investments. They might write about the moment itself, describing the audience, the context, the importance of the event, as much as they write about the production, per se. In this way, a record of a moment of community is entered into our common store, not simply an assessment based on standards that might not, in fact, be relevant.

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez and Jaclyn Pryor and I have been working on what we call “colleague criticism.” Paul began this conversation in a graduate seminar I taught at UT several years ago; Jaclyn joined this work shortly after, and I began participating a year ago, when we presented on the subject at a local conference. Colleague criticism changes the relationship between critic and performer by embedding the critic within the work as it’s being generated, much as a dramaturg might work on a production.

Rather than assuming that the critic comes to the performance with the same knowledge as the spectator, as a kind of tabula rasa with few expectations except for maybe some knowledge of the script, the colleague critic might be part of the process of generating the work; might have seen it in earlier incarnations; might know the performer very well; and might understand in a deeper way the context in which the performance is generated. All of this knowledge goes into the writing, so that the colleague critic’s account is a kind of thick description, a layered discussion of the process and product of a performance, rather than a surface gloss on what’s seen in the moment.

Colleague criticism, it seems to me, is a way of writing about performance as a rich cultural process. It takes into account the multiple stages of generating a performance; it describes the desire of both the performer and the audience to have an intimate, meaningful exchange; and it opens a record of not only this performance, but of a history of feelings, desires, choices, and moments on which the performance is constructed and on which it will continue to change, grow, and live.

There’s much more to say about criticism, but I’ll consider this the beginnings of an on-going conversation, one I’ll use as a reference point in future posts. As usual, I’m happy to hear your thoughts. Thanks for all your posts on my holiday movie musings.

Happy New Year.
My best,
The Feminist Spectator

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