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Critic’s Day: A professional theatre critic explains why New Zealand theatre criticism sucks

Today The Spinoff assesses the state of the professional critic in New Zealand with four pieces – two new, two older – which reflect on the challenges the form faces. Here theatre critic Sam Brooks assesses the state of his art.

“To be a critic in New Zealand is to be a kind of weed. It’s easy to be one, but the space you occupy is contentious and you probably wouldn’t be missed.” – Rosabel Tan, ‘The Critic in New Zealand’, Hokoreka Reading.

The function of a critic is to serve as a conduit between a piece of work and its audience. The function of a review is to be the first word in the conversation, not the last one.

By that measure, theatre criticism in this country is fucked.

I say this as somebody who loves theatre reviews. I am as passionate about a healthy theatre criticism culture as I am about a healthy theatre culture, because I believe that they go hand in hand. I’m primarily a playwright, but I’ve been writing reviews for about five years now, for a variety of publications.

So why is it fucked?

Taking an audit of New Zealand’s theatre criticism landscape is short work. The juggernaut is Theatreview; if you’re talking about theatre reviewing in this country, for better or worse, you’re going to have to talk about Theatreview.

On paper, Theatreview is a valuable resource. It’s the only outlet that reviews throughout the entire country, covering both professional and amateur productions across a wide variety of venues and performance styles. It is a useful, if unwieldy, archive of what shows have been performed, and when. I’ve used this latter function many times myself.

The reality of Theatreview is a lot more troubling. Depending on the day, the site is either a joke in the community or an easy source of quotes for producers to put on their posters or in their funding applications.

It costs taxpayers $30,000 a year to maintain a website that is stuck squarely in the ‘90s, and is run by an editor, John Smythe, who regularly gets into arguments on his own site and a few years ago made up a female pseudonym to argue on his behalf (Moya Bannerman: ‘The More You Ban a Man’).

The quality of the reviews on Theatreview varies tremendously, to put it kindly. On one end of the scale, you’ve got ill-informed reviews written by people who are ill-suited to the task and on the other end, you’ve got three thousand word essays complete with footnotes that nobody has the time or passion to read. Reviews are poorly subbed or don’t appear to have gone through an editing process at all. There is an occasional diamond in the rough, but they’re far and few between, and there’s a large disparity between the quality of reviews on Theatreview in general and the quality of theatre criticism elsewhere.

The comment section is as informed and productive as any other comment section on the internet. That is to say, not informed or productive at all. The forum often serves as a place for the editor to hash out arguments, like whether a show can ask not to be reviewed or whether there is a conflict of interest about the site he edits reviewing a show he produced, not only once but twice. (The verdict? No conflict of interest, apparently.)

Theatreview might be the most egregiously problematic, but other theatre review platforms have issues of their own. Many outlets don’t have the manpower or the resources to cover shows beyond the major centres, and in some cases, even beyond Auckland. In general, however, this lack of breadth is mitigated by depth and consistency.

I know that I can visit the Metro website and never be disappointed with a review by Simon Wilson. He’s one of the best reviewers in the country, not only for his discernment but because his writing is a genuine pleasure to read. The same is true of Theatrescenes (James Wenley, Matt Baker) and the NZ Herald (Dionne Christian, Janet McAllister). Audiences get to know these writers’ tastes and return to them again and again, not only because they trust them but because they want to read their writing.

It would be brilliant to have an outlet that offered the breadth of Theatreview with the depth of all these other publications, but we don’t live in that world. Even a site with the resources of Theatreview – not hugely substantial in the scheme of things – can’t deliver both of these things. It’d be awesome to have a Simon Wilson in every centre in the country, writing diligent and thoughtful reviews ranging from professional touring shows to local semi-professional productions to amateur performances put on by the church.

But again, we don’t live in that world, and we definitely don’t live in that country. So what country do we live in?

We live in a country where most of the criticism is done for free.

I’m lucky enough to get paid to review theatre at The Pantograph Punch. This means that I can’t review everything I might like to, but we review across two cities and our pieces are thoroughly edited. As a result, our reviews don’t come out the next day, like they might for Theatreview or Theatrescenes. But what we lack in speed we make up for in quality. I’m proud to say that audiences trust us.

Other publications largely operate on a voluntary basis, and that’s a massive problem for theatre criticism. We barely train people to engage with theatre on a critical level and we definitely don’t train people to write about theatre critically, because why would anybody train in a craft with so little pay off? It’s worth putting in the hours for an artform or a vocation – to do it because you absolutely need to be a playwright or an actor – but who is going to train to be a critic? If you love theatre, you want to do theatre, you don’t want to talk about other people doing theatre.

So if we can’t train people to engage with theatre on this level, then we’re relying on artists stepping out of their zone to review. Often that’s a choice made for free tickets, rather than any particular passion for reviewing. The result: a critical culture muddied by hobbyists, people who aren’t truly passionate about engaging with or discussing the work – so they don’t. It’s like hiring the maitre’d to run the kitchen: they have an understanding of how everything works, but you wouldn’t trust them to make a gourmet meal.

And therein, of course, lies another problem. When you’ve got artists stepping outside their community to critique it, they’re opening themselves up to a barrage of other issues. Especially in a country as small as New Zealand.

I’ve been in the theatre industry for five years. I’ve been reviewing for about that long. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I saw a show where I didn’t know somebody involved somewhere in the process, excluding international shows. If I declined to review every show where someone involved was a friend, I wouldn’t review anything. Compounding the prolem, our post-colonial hangover means we have that gorgeous British politeness where nobody wants to make waves.

When I started out writing, for Craccum magazine in 2011, I was terrified to make a splash. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the heart to truly criticise a show, something that real humans made with their real money and their real hearts. I wrote kind reviews for shows that I didn’t think were that good. I didn’t want to lose friends, or lose potential friends or contacts.

Five years later, I don’t do that anymore. Writing a kind review of a show that I believe to be bad doesn’t help anybody. It’s a disservice to the person reading and it’s a disservice to myself. Even worse, it’s a disservice to the work. It doesn’t do the work, or its makers, any good to pretend that a show is flawless when it’s not. Even if people don’t agree with what I write, it’s vitally important that they trust that I’m giving my honest opinion.

I don’t envy somebody less steely making their foray into reviewing, knowing that at some point they will have to make a choice between criticising a friend or telling a fib. Because honestly, when most of us are confronted with that choice, we’re going to fib.

When a culture is choked by the twin leashes of oppressive niceness and under-investment – both in time and money – it’s impossible for it to thrive. And when the critical culture isn’t there, the artform in question can’t achieve to its true potential.

Griping about a critical culture largely made up of our own artists is easy – god knows I’ve done it myself – but a more productive approach is to embrace that fact and use it to start a conversation.

The theatre community as a whole needs to take ownership of theatre criticism and start talking about the things that need to change. We need to think of reviews less as a publicity tool or free dramaturgy, and more as the building blocks for a robust critical culture. A review is the first word in a conversation, not the last.

We need to demand more of our criticism. We need to speak up when it’s not good enough.

So while it is fucked, we can fix it. We can turn weeds into flowers.


Read more of The Spinoff’s Critic’s Day coverage here

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