Audiences, Parasites, and Personal Revelations

Perspectives on Criticism and Playwriting

Ava Wong Davies: I’m a critic and also a playwright, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I respond to work when I write reviews. I’ve been calling it body criticism, because I respond to the work personally and very subjectively. I’ve also been thinking of whether or not my reviews are for the maker or for the audience, and what the role of criticism is, because logically and traditionally it should be for the audience.

Doing it just for an audience ties criticism to weird stuff about selling a show, which I’m sort of uncomfortable with. But if critics are reviewing just for the maker, then is it really inaccessible to an audience who are maybe not so involved in theatre?

Maddy Costa: I started reviewing theatre in 1997, and my relationship with the transactional aspect of criticism has shifted a lot in that time, especially as I’ve thought about how many layers there are to criticism. Theatre happens in a really specific time and place, and the number of people who can be in that specific time and place is quite small. So when you say the audience, do you mean the people who might also be in that room? Or do you mean people who might be interested in that work, but not have a hope in hell of seeing it? And if you mean that, that creates a whole other relationship with audience and with writing.

I ran a workshop recently for students and A-level drama teachers—all the kids now have to write criticism as part of their schooling. We read loads of reviews, one of which was Ava’s True West review (which caused contention within the UK theatre community because a male actor was referred to as good-looking). Another was Hannah Greenstreet’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other review. Hannah’s was a heavyweight intellectual essay, whereas Ava’s was totally audience facing and embodied.

One of the teachers asked at the end, “Why is Hannah’s review even being written?” And there was something about the way she phrased her question that made me go, Oh hang on a minute. There is quite a simple divide between whether you’re writing a review for people to read before they go see a show, to decide whether or not to see it, or for people to read after. I am totally in the “after” category. Thinking about it that way means it is not an antagonistic divide. There is a necessity for both. As a “before” writer, you might want to avoid spoilers and giving away anything about the experience. As an “after” writer, you get into all of it.

a group of actors onstage

Sarah Malin, Morahan, Kate O’Flynn, Gershwyn Eustache Jr, Adelle Leonce and Vicki Szent-Kirallyi in Anatomy of a Suicide. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian. 

Maddy: There’s a whole spectrum of potential readership for the “after” review. There’s the person who walks out of the show and is like, “What the fuck did I just watch in there?” There’s the person who walked out of the show who’s like, “I’ve just had the best time of my life and I want to hold on to that for as long as possible, and now I’m going to read everything.” And the person who won’t be able to attend—the person who, in ten years, is really interested in the early work of Alice Birch, and might not be able to see productions of them.

But that still doesn’t account for where your question started, which was, “Are you writing for the maker or for the audience?”

Ava: Sometimes it’s really clear who you’re writing the review for. When I write for the Stage, I know I’m writing for an audience. I’m trying to give something to the maker as well, but when you have a star rating, that is for an audience. If I’m writing for Exeunt or I’m writing a blog, it’s a bit more confusing.

Alice Birch: When you say “write for the maker” or “write for the audience,” is the audience the big potential audience that lasts for hundreds of years, or the immediate audience? And the maker or makers—is that the building or the producer?

Ava: In terms of embedded criticism—where the critic is in the room, observing rehearsals, as well as seeing the actual show itself—it’s critically writing about the process as well as the product at the end. And that seems like a much more holistic way of understanding a show. At the same time, that kind of criticism is not very relevant to the immediate audience, the audience who is reading your piece because they are thinking about going to see the show. So maybe it’s more relevant to the longer-term audience, in that case.

There is quite a simple divide between whether you’re writing a review for people to read before they go see a show, to decide whether or not to see it, or for people to read after.

Alice: There are lots of makers who respond to criticism. Obviously they have a completely different relationship to criticism in its broadest forms. Some people retweet all reviews from every single media, regardless of what the politics of those people might be. And they engage with all of it, and have conversations with the person who wrote the reviews. I can sort of get my head around that because it feels like a conversation. But for some people, lots of playwrights particularly, they just don’t look at any of it.

Ava: It also depends on the size of the show. If I’m reviewing at Fringe, I know the makers of the shows are probably all going to read it, because that’s just what happens if you’ve never had press coverage of your work before. So I tend to try to be a bit more kind—I think that’s the right word. Whereas if I’m writing a True West review or I’m writing one for All About Eve, or about a West End show, then I feel able to be a bit more assertive, because I’m assuming they won’t read it. They’re probably not gonna care that Ava from Exeunt thought it was a bit shit. Whereas with Fringe shows, you just want to hold them a little bit and be helpful.

Maddy: The hope may be that the person who’s made it—written it, directed it, created it—reads the review and can take something from it.

Alice: I try to not read reviews, particularly of my own plays, because it’s been incredibly painful and I have felt like it stopped me writing. So I shouldn’t really do it. When you create a show, you are putting something very personal out. People come and stand and they point out all the things that you got wrong and they have themselves a bit of fun and they sometimes offer you stars to put on your poster, and it seems to be that they want to make you feel small or judge you or tell you off.

Maddy: That’s fair. I think that’s why I’ve really been moving away from writing about theatre at all. There’s something very interesting about being on social media—a friend of mine once described it as “Everyone in the pub talking about you as though you are not in the pub.” Criticism has that as well. As for the kindness thing, that’s something I’m interested in but I know writers who are really not.

Ava: But why?

Maddy: Because they don’t think it helps people be rigorous.

Ava: That’s such shit. You can be both.

Maddy: I can completely see why they say that, they think it doesn’t help the development of the form, of the art. But there is another strand to this, which is to write personally or in a way that could be described as a creative response. I never know who the audience is for that. One way I describe it is that it’s a parallel performance that happens alongside the actual performance, made out of the same ideas the makers are working on.

For a lot of makers, criticism feels parasitic. The parasite doesn’t give a shit about the host, it’s just getting what it needs out them and if it leaves damage from a big blister, that’s basically irrelevant. I’m trying not to do that and to be careful around that. I’m interested in the hierarchies of criticism and trying to step away from that, to think, How is this a dialogue that is responding to something?

I know that after like fifteen years of writing for the Guardian, I could write one of those reviews in an hour if I needed to. Because you know what the structure is that you’re using and you pull the play into that structure.

Alice: It’s the same with some forms of making theatre as well. There are some things that come out really quickly. Katie Mitchell always says that you shouldn’t not trust it if it comes quicker. You don’t have to agonize about it. The reason it happens quicker sometimes is because you are better at using your tools.

Maddy: It just means you’re more efficient.

For a lot of makers, criticism feels parasitic. The parasite doesn’t give a shit about the host, it’s just getting what it needs out them and if it leaves damage from a big blister.

Alice: Talking about work and time—people are obsessed with it. There’s a quote that follows me around where I said that I wrote a play in three days. Of course I didn’t write it in three days! I wrote it all down in three days, but I thought about it for far longer than that, obviously.

Ava: It didn’t just appear.

Maddy: This is sort of an aside but it’s also totally relevant. I’ve got a friend who writes—she had a kid two years ago and she’s been trying to figure out how to write, how to still have that concentrated time she had before the kid. She asked me how I did it, and I never know when I’m put on the spot with that question. Then she talked about another friend of hers who had said she uses all her other time as her thinking time. And I was like, “Oh my god that’s a really good idea.” About a week after that conversation I realized, I do that anyway. I do that instinctively.

It’s the invisible bit of making, in the back of your brain, that’s constantly writing. A few years ago I realized there was a front-of-brain bypass that happens between the back of the brain and the fingers—I’m watching stuff appear on the computer screen slightly faster than I’m consciously thinking it. That’s because it’s there and it’s been there when I’ve been in the shower, when I’ve been brushing my teeth, and when I’ve been filling the dishwasher.

I was once asked about the extent to which I self-censor in my criticism. My instinctive response was, “I don’t do that!” But that question has stayed with me ever since. Where do I? How do I? What is it that prompts that? Is it self-censorship or is it self-protection? I bring myself into it, but I also know what I’m holding back. I’m really interested in the moment when my writing gets described as honest and brave. Because I know I’ve given all of that, but you don’t know that I’m holding back all of this. Does that make it dishonest?

Ava: There’s always a point where I’m like, am I therapizing now? Genuinely, should I be talking about this to a therapist? When I’m writing, I’m working something out on the page, which is a similar thing to being in therapy and working it out verbally. Maybe I’m being too self-indulgent. People have said that before.

Maddy: That easily tips into gendered stuff. People saying that your work is like a teenage girl’s diary.

Ava: Oh yeah.

Maddy: I like that. I still feel like I’m writing a teenage girl’s diary and I’m going to be forty-four this year.

Ava: Part of the reason I lean more towards personal is that I have such an awareness that the makers have put so much in to their work, and it almost feels churlish to not give yourself back. It’s the only way I can fathom it.

Maddy: I wonder if that, for you, comes from being a playwright. A few years ago I started using the word honor. It does feel like there is something about honoring the work.

Alice: What we—critics and makers—do is really different. Because of certain critics, there is a real value placed on what I do as a maker. Literal value in a way there isn’t with critics.

I have such an awareness that the makers have put so much in to their work, and it almost feels churlish to not give yourself back.

Maddy: I think “maker” is a weird amorphous term. So much of criticism is responsive, and I always imagine makers as just pulling things out of the ground and obviously they don’t. Part of me consistently wonders if criticism is really indulgent.

Ava: I was embedded in the Sleepwalk Collective rehearsal room a few weeks ago for their show Kourtney Kardashian. I found writing about it very difficult, like, Shit, I have nothing to say. How am I gonna justify having been in this room for three days? They’re going to read it and be like, “You really had nothing to offer.” Eventually, because it’s kind of an opera, I started writing about what opera was to me and how I grew up with. And I was worried that they were just going to be like, “Did you just come into this room and have a revelation about yourself rather than a revelation about the show?”

Maddy: But I think that’s what that show is doing. Inviting you in.

Alice: I cannot imagine anything worse than someone being in a rehearsal or sitting next to me and then offering up commentary on what I’ve done. If someone sits there and they have a revelation about their own work or their own life or their own feelings, that sounds great. That sounds like much more then what I hope to offer because that means I’ve made something that is bigger. I write plays for myself. I don’t write for an audience. Anyone who is making anything should have that process as well, but there has to be recognition of a play’s further impact on an audience. There’s responsibility there as well.

Ava: Yeah. It would be awful if the company did one thing in rehearsal and I said that was indicative of their entire process. You have to be really careful with that.

a person in a gold dress against a dark rocky and wooden background

Kourtney Kardashian, the Opera. Photo by IsasiFoto.

Maddy: I love that theatre, in particular, is pretentious and self-indulgent. What you’ve described is essentially self-indulgence. How are you going to meet anyone unless you give something of yourself? What I hear when you say that is that you’re making an offer of yourself for someone to then come and meet you there.

Alice: It has to cost you. That doesn’t mean it has to be upsetting. It doesn’t have to be torturous. You can tell when work has cost you something, you just can.

Maddy: There is something to be said about responsibility. That’s a really burdensome word. The responsibility of the sometimes-difficult things makers put in the world and how much it costs them to put it in the world.

Alice: Do you mean the responsibility to an audience?

Maddy: Yeah. Anyone who is going to encounter it. I realize that may sound confrontational, which I don’t mean. But, for example, if I talk in a review about the difficulty of being a parent, where does another parent meet that?

Alice: That’s really hard. I don’t think you are necessarily asking me this, but—not to take no responsibility—I trust that the building the play is in has a lot to do with mediating between the maker and the audience. The experience of writing Anatomy of a Suicide was very personal, and I wasn’t talking to anyone about it. Then I handed it over to the Royal Court and the production team.

I didn’t look up, really, in the process. I didn’t go, How is everyone else doing? Of course when you’re suddenly in the room or you’re watching people cry or someone comes up to you in the end and says something… Of course that makes me, as a person who wants to be kind to other people and who values that, I feel like shit.

But if I’m writing I can’t really think of anyone else. I have to put those emotions away, otherwise I’m going to self-censor. It’s tricky. I could have done more looking up. There’s a responsibility there.

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Thoughts from the curator

We are living through a time where the late Toni Morrison's call for a writer's movement that is "assertive, militant, pugnacious'" and, above all, heroic feels more urgent than ever. The contributions to this series focus on how artists build community with the generations that came before them and after them by exchanging experiences and perspectives, and how this exchange can enrich the spiritual, political, and creative aspects of our work. It is my hope that they will inspire and galvanize in times where we feel low and lost. The conversations in this series connect people across identity, practice, political leaning, and time, but are largely rooted in the Live Art and Theatre sectors of the United Kingdom.

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I'm grateful that you three discussed the perspective of "criticism = parasite." It's an uphill battle communicating that criticism isn't outside the theatre community but rather a necessary part of it. Critics can be stewards of the theatre if we're allowed to be.