Sunday, August 21, 2016

Peter Feeney on theatre critics

The 93rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1996 issue and marks the departure of Peter Calder from the NZ Herald as film reviewer. He will be missed. As Brian McDonnell (he came second in Mastermind in 1991) writes in the Herald:

I met Peter for the first time a few weeks after this QUQ article about theatre critics appeared, at a function at the Auckland City Art Gallery. He upbraided me for leaving in all his swearing. I was a) unapologetic and b) amused. How wonderful, I thought, to have a journalist a theatre reviewer complain about being quoted accurately by an actor working as a journalist.  

The article was titled “Opening Night Nerves” and the intro read:
The relationship between those who make theatre and those who review the results seldom runs smooth. Publicists pray for good notices, while actors disdain reviewers, fear them, love them and hate them. PETER FEENEY talks to four leading reviewers about the power they wield.
Meet the reviewers
Donald Hope Evans, leading theatre reviewer for the Otago Daily Times, is himself an opera singer and actor with an extensive background in television and journalism, including 10 years’ reviewing for the New Zealand Herald. Theatre to him is a national treasure, “an integral part of the development of any society because it holds a mirror onto the society itself”. He sees the role of the critic as supporting theatre, and believes there should be more high-quality drama teaching in schools. “Quite apart from its educational and therapeutic value, that’s where tomorrow’s audience will come from.”
Peter Calder was until recently the Herald’s theatre reviewer. His opening salvo is to quote Bemard Levin: “The truth is that the theatre demands praise as its right, and genuinely believes that favourable reviews are only its due, while unfavourable ones are a kind of treachery.”
“Constructive criticism is not the critic’s business,” says Calder. “The critic does not exist to make life better for the theatre. Criticism is a branch of journalism, not the arts. People think critics should be supportive of the theatre. Well, I think they are, because they praise what is good and excoriate what is bad, which is equally supportive in my view.”
Linda Herrick has been a journalist with what is now the Sunday Star-Times (national readership: 220,000) for 11 years, reviewing for the last four. Her interest in drama was set alight when she studied drama under James Bertram at Victoria University.
“Reviewing theatre and writing feature stories on the arts are just aspects of a wide-ranging job for a journalist, where every hour is full — I do arts stories, theatre stories, news stories, general feature stories, focus stories — and that’s in a five-day week. I try to approach my review from an audience point of view and with a completely open mind. I try to take the ‘precious’ out of theatre — I often feel that reviewers write incomprehensibly.”
Imogen de la Bere, the chief theatre reviewer for the Christchurch Press, also aims to go along as if new to the experience, although she will have done some research before. She is a part-time reviewer, fulltime computer professional and mother of three.
“I regard myself as a member of the public who is slightly better informed than most, and someone who is passionate about theatre. I certainly don’t see myself as an expert or a professional.”
Denis Welch is senior writer and reviewer for the Listener in Wellington, widely acknowledged as New Zealand’s theatre capital. His devotion to theatre, on top of his regular full-time journalistic work and other commitments, is impressive. He sees one show a week, more than 270 in his six years of doing the job, though he doesn’t review everything he sees. Last year he finished writing a play, The Star Of The Sea, his first.

A thankless task
After many years reviewing theatre for Auckland’s Herald, Peter Calder has stopped. “I found it a thankless and stressful task in which you were saying things about people who you personally quite liked. Actors are usually very attractive individuals and I admire them enormously, and even if you didn’t particularly like them you knew that they believed wholeheartedly in what they’d done, devoting themselves to it, bleeding their guts out.
“And you had to say something about it which you knew would really hurt them and upset them and may in fact — to a much lesser extent than I think they pretend — damage the commercial viability of their show, which will have downstream effects on whether they can pay their mortgage or send their kids to school.”
For these reasons it is often a job, says Herrick, that journalists don’t want to do. When Donald Hope Evans got his break into reviewing theatre at the Herald in 1959 it was for “shows no one
else wanted to review”. For de la Bere, the most important qualification for a theatre critic is “passion for theatre as an ideal, and the ability to be objective about that”. But the passion can be blunted over time.
De la Bere’s editorial brief must be typical: “Report the show as an event — describe what is happening, try to imagine what it’s like to be an audience member, don’t be rude and controversial.”
Hope Evans explains the murky origins of the current editorial stance to theatre reviews: “In the 1960s at the Herald my brief was restricted to reporting any show as a news event and recording the audience’s response to it. I was not allowed to go into any depth. Then, as now, we never used the word ‘critic’. But I did have two columns and more flexible deadlines. I could do a lot more. For example, if I felt on further reflection that I hadn’t done justice to a performance or production I would write a second review.
“An informed or profound analysis is just not possible, given the deadline of completing the review that night, and the limitations of space. The logic of the deadline is that the play is a news event that will go stale if you sit on it. So of course it’s all coming off the top of your head. And the review has to be short because people read less these days, and their attention spans are shorter — eight minutes for children, I’m told; the space between commercials. I can give a general impression of the play up the top, and then do my best to convince people to go if I’ve enjoyed it — and by then they’ve turned to the sports page.”

What turns them on?
I asked each reviewer: What do you look for in a play? What do you like? What turns you on? And what kills it for you?
Herrick: “If a production can touch me emotionally I think it has succeeded. Such shows are a great achievement, and are of course, rare.”
Welch agrees: “In 270 or so performances I’ve seen there have been 60 or 70 very powerful and impressive plays, but of these about nine or 10 have totally electrified me. It’s worth it all for those shows; these are the ones I live for. And it could happen just as much with a cheap, thinly resourced production in a minor theatre as it could at a major theatre with a glamorous cast.”
Herrick cautions that Auckland does not have a stable professional theatre. We need that; a school where learning actors come through a certain process that only a professional theatre can offer. In Auckland we seem to have lost the plot. Where is the nurturing of upcoming acting, crew, and directing talent? Shortland Street is not a great training ground for actors.” She’d like to see more time devoted to rehearsals. “Theatrical tricks and pushing all the right populist buttons are not a substitute for getting the basics right.”
Calder is more positive: “Auckland theatre’s getting more sexy and more upmarket, and trying to sell itself, and become more accessible to a wider audience — I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s great. The old model of a kind of a teaching theatre was sustainable in the level of support people gave to theatre in the 1960s, but Auckland has become a much more cosmopolitan city, and also kind of American in its outlook to entertainment, with a much wider range of things to do, with theatre being just one item on the menu. Title for title, though, we’ve probably seen better theatre, since the Mercury died, from the Auckland Theatre Company and the Watershed.”
Hope Evans: “A friend new to theatre said to me recently, ‘I hate it when I go to the theatre and they try to make me think.’ And yet this is just what a seasoned theatregoer demands.
“Given that actors are highly intelligent — they’ve got to be, just to survive — and that the public are often not very discerning, a remove can develop between them and theatre practitioners. If this gap widens too far, theatre becomes inaccessible. People only come to be entertained, but theatre must strive to move and challenge people, so theatre practitioners try to push the envelope a little, intrude on peoples’ comfort zones. The Fortune has been successful because its playbill has tread the middle road between these contradictory demands.”
Like Hope, de la Bere works in a largely one-company town Christchurch is dominated theatrically by the Court Theatre, widely regarded as New Zealand’s leading theatre, certainly of the traditional model. “We get touring shows, but altemative theatre companies die within a few productions. The Court sets itself apart from this, protects itself, by catering assiduously for its own clientele. So it’s difficult to be a critic here — hard to keep your perspective when just one company is offering up one style of theatre.”
She believes there is a hunger in Christchurch for more innovative and alternative theatre. “We’ve seen the narrowing of the theatregoing audience to a distinct social sub-group, that part of the middle class that are regular Court supporters. Since the Court holds the theatrical monopoly here, I’d like to see them sponsor or in some way support altemative theatrical events.”
She views our most successful professional theatre as being too elitist: “Wide social popularity in theatre is in the end the best guarantee of its overall quality. Fortunately Shakespeare existed, or we wouldn’t know that. But to be truly popular you have to take risks. When theatres just focus on surviving, they stop taking risks — and that is the riskiest policy of all.”
Welch: “My real excitement and enthusiasm is for New Zealand work. We need to have faith in our own material. The least we owe to our country is to develop and take pride in our own culture. Why not pour some money into your own arts, your own culture? The thing will become self-perpetuating after a while and develop its own momentum: it just needs a kick start. One’s reminded of the tremendous boost given the arts by the brief Kirk administration.
“I’m seeing a drop in some basic crafts — diction and projection notably in younger actors. It’s tempting to attribute this to different habits of speech picked up doing TV. I love theatre, and I think anyone reviewing theatre should be able to say those words and mean them. I would like to see theatre up on a par with TV, but many actors are lost to TV or film. TV has its place, but the chances of being galvanised by something in theatre are so much greater.”

A flash in the pan
Orson Welles once wrote: “Every actor believes every bad thing that has ever been written about him.”
“It pains me the hurt I can cause,” affirms Welch, “although I have talked to actors who, while they didn’t like the review, admitted that I was right. Fortunately for me — and not the Wellington dailies, who have to review everything if something is awful I can choose not to review it. The corollary to this is that sometimes when a really good play comes out my review is published too late to pull people to it.”
But doesn’t the critic have a duty to “hound out incompetence”, as Peter Brook puts it? “Of course, and my recent review of Moonlight was one of those cases where I felt it was important to
state the emperor had no clothes.”
Herrick’s 1995 review of Othello at the Watershed was essentially disapproving in tone. “It was not an -easy review to write,” she says. “You are aware of the comeback to the director, crew and those associated with the production. But you have to reach into your heart and gut feeling and say quite truthfully what you feel about it. In this case I felt that the neglect of some basics in this production, in particular its neglect of voice and the language were, for a Shakespearean play, irresponsible.”
Hope Evans winces when I mention negative reviews: “Fortunately for me the standard here has been consistently high in presentation and standard of craft.” But he. grimaces as he recalls his most spectacular pan, of Kiss Me Kate at the Regent. The show went bust and a great deal of money was lost; but the next show was about 200 percent better and did good business.
“I’m very reluctant to give a poor notice, as often you are unable to put a satisfactory explanation in a short review. I’m mindful also that there is only one daily paper in Dunedin while there were two when I was writing in Auckland. And it is too easy to get into a critical vein. Yet,” he sighs, “it is a responsibility of the critic and in the long-term interests of the actors that they are reminded of standards.”
“It’s very rare that I’ll be openly critical of a particular performance,” says de la Bere. “This is dangerous territory: it’s too ‘easy to criticise, to go for the cheap laughs. And you have to be very sure of your ground to criticise. If you step out of line, actors will call and tell you so.” What about directors? “It’s beneath Elrich [Hooper, the Court’s artistic director] to call me.” (Herrick, on the other hand, gets calls only from directors.)
“I was probably ruder when I was the Listener critic here, but I had a longer time lag and so more of a chance to think. Theatre is an experience and it is what sticks to you emotionally for weeks or months afterwards which is important, so I preferred that space, which I don’t have now, to have time to consider. I have only 300 words, and in that short space I want to have some kind of dialogue about the play. I’ll praise good work, but why waste space on the poor performances? They get the best actors they can. I focus on describing the event.
“I will make an exception if the actor is from overseas, expensive and dreadful, because I find that promotion of an imported ‘name’ objectionable if we might have done it better with a local talent.”
Says Calder: “So much of the theatre I saw in Auckland was second-rate. Not from lack of skill or craft — some of the best things I have seen here will stay with me forever. It’s because actors here operate under huge pressures of time and budget, usually rehearsal schedules that are three weeks long or ‘a maximum of four, which is f—ing outrageous. The stuff’s inadequately workshopped and not really hammered out as well as it could be, there’s not the market here to run four or five cut-price previews to iron out bugs.
 “So there were a lot of plays I’ve written about where I really felt there was a good idea just starting to get up and run, but that hadn’t really hit its stride — it really needed another week.
“But I also take issue with the whole question of to what extent a critic influences a play’s fortunes, anyway. I just don’t accept that critics can deal a death blow to a play. What they can do is give a little nudge to something that might otherwise not have legs and get it going. I could go through the Mercury playbill and show you plays that I shat all over yet went like nobody’s business, and other plays that I praised hugely and passionately and ridiculously Stuart Hoar’s Squatter springs to mind — which died horrible deaths.”
As Hope Evans says: “A pan can have the curious effect of making people want to go more — they want to judge the show for themselves.”
Adds Calder: “People aren’t stupid — they will generally follow a reviewer only if he’s right more than he’s wrong. I often say to actors, I don’t know why you read the reviews ~ they’re nothing to do with you. They’re like a private communication between me and the theatregoers. It’s like someone overhearing something about themselves in a private conversation. The one group the review is not being written for is the people involved in the play. But they think it is.”
Actor David Baldwin has a policy of never reading any of his reviews until after the season when “they no longer have any power over me”.
“I admire that view,” was Calder’s response, “because it shows he has some faith, some sense of himself, that this is the way I’m playing this part come hell or high water, and I’11 certainly take feedback from my colleagues and my director, these are people that I’ve worked with, that I trust, but fundamentally this is what I’m trying to do here, whatever some scribbler in a musty old newspaper office, who’s probably half-cut on scotch, has got to say.”
Nevertheless, most actors lack Baldwin’s iron nerves and read what’s written about them. Sighs Calder: “They can’t resist opening it up and seeing what the prick wrote about me this time.”

A bunch of amateurs
“The thing you have to realise about theatre critics in this country,” says Denis Welch, “is that while we have professional actors, professional directors and so on, still we don’t have professional critics. All of us have day jobs. This does make it hard to keep up with what‘s going on in theatre.
“Film has the great advantage of being at the same time local, national and global. The same film is being shown in Wellington and Invercargill as in LA. Theatre is by definition much more localised, but generally the great problem for theatre in New Zealand is that it is only regionalised.
“I’m not arguing for the creation of a national theatre — which may create new problems — but it frustrates me that we are all into our own little cultural laagers and we can’t” communicate one between the other. I would love, for instance, to be the country’s first national critic if,” he suggests wistfully, “the Listener had the budget to let me go around the whole country and see everything, bind theatre together with an overview.”
But Calder rejects the allegation of amateurism: “We are part-time. No one can make a living in criticism in this country. But I would vociferously reject the allegation, however, that I am not a professional. I am a professional writer.
“It’s all very well to have a week to write a review. But the most important qualification for being a theatre critic at the Herald is that you can get something coherent with a reasonable sort of attitude that is exactly 350 words long on the news editor’s desk by midnight of opening night. Now I reckon there’s probably only about 20 people in the country that can do it, so it’s a small group. That is not easy, and it’s hard to wake up in the morning and say ‘Oh, f—, I wish I’d said that.’”
A symptom of the part-time condition is reviewers’ outsider status. While Welch accepts that the outsider mindset has some strengths (“I do approach my reviews from that innocent perspective of an ordinary theatregoer”), on balance he’s distinctly uneasy about it. “It irks me that there are some people in theatre in Wellington who treat the critics as shit, actively snub them in the lobbies, look at them as a lower form of life.
“And most actors would consider critics a necessary evil rather than a positive force. I really have come to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with this antagonism between critic on the one hand and production on the other. Ultimately any work of art is a co-production between the creators of it and the audience, and the critics as well.”
He cites Bruce Mason as a man of the theatre who was a critic as well, a New Zealand Kenneth Tynan. In Mason’ s day, reviews and commentaries were much longer and there was a real intellectual dialogue around the theatre. Where is that dialogue today? -
“There should be more seminars, more analysis and criticism, more give and take,” says Welch. “I would love to be the kind of person who could give my life to theatre, to be involved in it in various ways. If I were full-time, I’d love to know more about the developing of a production. Would it be so terrible for a critic to sit in on a rehearsal, for instance?”
Is there a danger that you could sacrifice objectivity on the altar of deeper involvement? Calder thinks so. To get around the risk of theatrical corruption, the Herald has often used two reviewers and works it so that one writes a preview of a play and the issues it brings up while the other would review it. “That reviewer should — and I’ll go to the grave believing this — walk in off the street, open up the programme, browse through it, close it, lights go down, let’s have a look... The alternative is that you’ve gone along previously and chatted to the director and found out that his daughter has whooping cough and his house is mortgaged up for the play — and you have your feet laced together before you even start punching.”
“It is a very hard balancing act,” concedes Welch. “We have to get closer to theatre without being compromised by those who practise it. You must somehow be sympathetic. towards what is trying to be achieved, but at the end of the day have the courage to say that it hasn’t worked, if that’s the case.”
He finds it significant that Maori theatre practitioners in Wellington have found it hard to accept the idea of the critic, usually Pakeha, coming in as an outsider, passing a judgment and then leaving again.
For example, Hone Kouka, director of Wellington’s Taki Rua Theatre, says that any reviewer would do their job better if they had “a greater understanding of the text, was well versed in taha Maori and had conversed at length with the writer and or director”.
In 1992 Taki Rua held a hui about whether Pakehas should review work by Maoris, especially in view of the increasing Maori language component in Taki Rua’s plays. Welch felt that the hui was “a positive step, one we could all do with more of”. But he felt at the time that Maoris producing theatre were entering into a western tradition, making reviews by informed Pakehas admissible.
Kouka is articulating the view of a significant section of the theatre community when he calls for reviewers to “take more responsibility for what they write”.
Echoes Caroline Hutchinson, managing director of Auckland’s Watershed: “Reviewers should not go into a description of why something might not have worked. They should just review the product they see but they should do that from a basis of a really good understanding of the business, of the industry. We respect the reviewers who take that trouble.”
Calder disagrees: “There is a feeling among actors that somehow we should be initiated into the craft of the theatre. Actors basically believe that they are a misunderstood species, and that if critics don’t appreciate what they are doing it’s because we don’t know what we are talking about. But I believe that the critic must write from the point of view of the theatregoer, most of whom wouldn’t understand the Aristotelian unities if they f—-ing fell over them.
“Therefore, while I don’t consider myself hugely knowledgeable about theatre, I think I can pick what’s good, what works, what makes my hair stand on end, what seems inauthentic or shallow or pretentious.”
He smiles. “But now I am an ex-critic I know the luxury of leisurely finishing my interval drink and then deciding, do I see this through — or saunter out into the night air?”

Our theatre has matured and grown since the 1960s. New Zealand now possesses a substantial body of full-time theatre professionals with strong links to a thriving multi-million-dollar film and television industry. Our reviewers remain, as they have always been, part-time.
They are bound by the editorial constraints of a parish-pump newsletter. Not surprisingly, their reviews are all too often not long enough, deep enough or even informed enough.
So the theatre community misses out on the intelligent commentary which, given its achievements in recent decades, is surely its right.
Reviewers can be much more than punters. They can be critics. Some of them want to be. It’s time they were given the chance. 

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