The Boundary Between Playwright and Critic.

When you’re fresh out of University, with a Drama degree in one hand and a limp mortar board in the other, just how do you decide what to move on to? Especially when one has studied disciplines that coincide, yet potentially cannot be used reciprocally without endangering one’s narrative credibilty… I refer to the line between the playwright/artist/actor, and the critic.

There’s nothing to say that at the start of a career, one can’t just hop on the playwright boat at one point, then decide to commandeer the criticism barge to add to your fleet (oh yes, i am digging the sailing cliches today). But what knowledge or experience is appropriate and/or safe to transfer from one to the other? How could you do so without making your artistic principles abandon ship? *pun groan*.

As a playwright myself, I’m aware that my critical approach to other work is often centred around the meanings of the script; as an actor, I like to talk about cast performances; as an artist, I like to talk about set design. So the job of reviewing a production based upon it’s aesthetics, acting quality and use of the text, is surely much easier if one has prior, personal knowledge of the processes involved. If you are creatively minded, I hazard to say that your imagination reaches quite far, and is perhaps more willing to find interpretation and meaning in every detail, than that of a more logically minded person: therefore I suppose you could (theoretically) be accused of letting emotions get the better of you. Either when gushing about or deriding (constructively of course…) a production, there’s always the possiblity that your insider knowledge bars the ability to watch the production as an audience member, whom, possibly, won’t have such knowledge to form critical opinion. Is that not the job of the critic? To watch the production as an audience member and give an opinion about it afterwards?

To a certain extent: yes. However, there are as many critical styles as there are creative works, logically making generalisations about critical perspective somewhat difficult when you consider the variants involved…

1) Has the critic prior knowledge of the text/ director/ company?

2) Can/should the critic empathise with the processes involved in producing a show?

3) Should a critic simply be the ‘voice’ of the viewing audience? Or should they arrive with enough background research and information to analyse the show on a deeper, perhaps more academic level?

There has been alot of recent controversy about the appointment of new theatre critics without prior knowledge of the theatre itself, but whom have established themselves as a voice in the public forum via other means. This would then, argue the case for the former argument of the third point: these new wave of pre-established journalists would surely be analysing the productions they see from the perspective of any other audience member. No or little prior knowledge of the intricacies and processes of production or historical/cultural/social context, they would judge upon what they see on stage that night, and what they read in the program.

This being the case- why do they need to be paid for the ‘expertise’ they bring when there are a great number of forums, blogs and online information which provide non-informed opinions for free?

Critics with prior experience of theatrical endeavour, from the perspective of playwright, designer, actor, director etc. would be far more in tune to assess the productions on merit of originality of aesthetic, quality of performance etc.

Then of course there are the pre-established critics whom fall into neither category. These are the pale, male and stale big-wigs of the critical world. Mainly educated through Oxbridge, and falling into theatre critic jobs after (sometimes tenuous) links with the theatre, with a high degree of education to allow a logical and informed argument.

So- which of the three breeds of ‘professional’ critic shall inherit?

The pre-established journalist with no prior experience?

The pale, male, stale Oxbridge middle-aged?

The students, fresh out of University with a range of experiences and new academic, analytical tools with which to form well-rounded opinions, striking a balance between what they see as audience members, and what they know as creative academics?

Post up a comment, let’s see if we can’t just strike up a discourse…

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2 comments on “The Boundary Between Playwright and Critic.

  1. emmaberge says:

    I don’t think there’s a right answer if you’re talking about one predominant critic to which we should listen. However, there is more than one publication of newspaper, of magazine, of website to which we can listen, and within each there is more than one critic. The problem is that the people hiring the critics swing one way then the other without finding the happy medium. As I said in my Crisis for Critics blog, I want a mix.
    Give me the Billingtons of the world to read when I want a play that’s intellectually stimulating, but give me the Purves’ of the world to tell me what to take my mum too. I’m not saying that a less educated theatre goer will be able to tell me why I should take my mum to see a particular show, but they won’t have years of experience blocking their enjoyment of a show.
    We’re in the age of the internet. We can compare reviews – we’re not limited to one opinion. So lets hear from the seasoned theatre goer and from the newcomer, from the black, the white, the young, the old, the working, middle and upper class. The more information we have, the more informed an opinion we can make.

    • Thanks for posting!

      I think one of the problems I have is the major newspapers hiring critics without experience of the theatre: this new wave are effectively getting paid to do what the bloggers are doing for free- I honestly think it pointless. If you’re a major newspaper, you might as well a) acknowledge the scope of on-line theatre-lovers willing to give free opinion, and remove the critics column altogether (and risk ostracising a particular portion of your readership) or b) acknowledge the prevalance of the perhaps less-academically driven bloggers and hire someone with more experience/expertise/interest in order to do the production justice, and to maintain a ‘hard copy’ of that reciprocal relationship between critic and artist which has existed for so long.

      I agree with you in that there is no one particular ‘category’ of critic whom should be listened to- i guess what i’m asking is, in this uncertain era where the role of the critic is unstable, who is the most likely to survive what is effectively a critic-cull?

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