Writing for Noises Off
21 November 2018
Ava Davies writes about her experiences writing for Noises Off 2018.
I’ve never really considered myself a “reviewer” - the word feels too narrow, too shallow to fit in all the stuff I want to communicate when I write about a piece of theatre. “Critic” is a little better - maybe because (on an extremely basic analytic level) it sounds a little more like “creative”. That’s the rub, I think. I want to explore theatre critically but also creatively, not just in a 500 word piece with a star rating tacked onto the top. I want space to luxuriate in the inconsistencies, the flaws of a piece, to examine a show as empathetically as I can. That doesn’t mean being nice all the time - far from it - but the best theatre criticism, for me, is written by people like Maddy Costa, Alice Saville, Kate Wyver, Eve Allin, Harry McDonald, James Varney - writers who grapple with the fundamental unevenness of stuff that’s been made, wrought and shaped by actual people. They’re writers who engage with work on the same level that it’s been created.
"I came away bone-tired, obviously, but also a better writer."
This enormous tangent on the function of criticism brings me onto Noises Off. 2018 was my first time at NSDF and it was probably the first time that I had to write consistently, day after day, about several shows that I didn’t necessarily have a strong opinion on. I’d written on and off about theatre previously, but mainly on a personal blog where I could opine as much as I liked on things I felt like writing about. At NOFF, I had less of a choice. We were seeing up to five shows a day as a team of ten writers, and everyone ended up writing about pretty much every show at the festival. It’s truly amazing how difficult it is to write about a show you consider to be average, much more difficult than writing a broadly negative review. But it forces you to become a more critical thinker, and by proxy, a better writer. You can’t just write based off your gut emotions, as I often do - you have to sit with yourself and slowly, delicately unpick that feeling of indifference. It’s a challenge, particularly when you’re under a tight deadline. That’s the thing - NOFF is work. Being a part of NSDF in any sense, apart from being a fest-goer, is work in some way, but there’s a level of emotional and intellectual intensity required to write two to three reviews and features a day for a week. I came away bone-tired, obviously, but also a better writer.
There’s a level of creativity in NOFF which means that writing multiple articles a day doesn’t become stale - you are encouraged to challenge conceptions of form and style. Look to Daniella Harrison’s review of The Events and Lily James’ review of Speed Death for beautiful, witty examples of writers stretching their capabilities in both negative and positive reviews. You’re pushed too to pitch features outside of reviews at the editorial meeting every morning - myself and Naomi Obeng, as two women of colour on the NOFF team this year decided to hold an open forum for people of colour at the festival to come and share their experiences with us. NOFF isn’t limited to writing - it’s about creating and responding the the festival in the broadest sense. Honestly, it’s credit to our brilliant Editor and Deputy Editors, Kate Wyver, Lily James and Florence Bell that we are afforded the freedom to write so expansively and are edited with such delicacy and kindness (though I may be biased).
"What's essential to know too is that NOFF isn't limited to the writers - anyone can write for NOFF, and many do."
What’s essential to know too is that NOFF isn’t limited to the writers - anyone can write for NOFF, and many do. Criticism isn’t a fixed object - it’s dialogic and needs to be responded to and critiqued itself. The NOFF writers are learning as much as the creators of the selected shows are, and, as horrifically cheesy as it sounds, we can learn from each other. Many NOFF writers, including myself, count themselves as theatremakers as well as critics - there doesn’t have to be this arbitrary binary between the two roles. We covered a show this year where most of the NOFF critics praised the performance of the principal actor and critiqued the direction. In response, the next day, a producer of one of another NSDF show wrote a piece in defence and praise of directors and the work they do with their actors. It stuck with me because, thanks to this response, I instantly recognised the flaw in my own writing and resolved to writer better and more precisely in the future.
"You're given the space to think and talk and think more about why we work in this industry, why we keep creating and responding to things. That's rare. You won't get that in many other places."
NSDF is a tough week. There are a lot of emotions and a lot of discourse running all over the place and it can be overwhelming if it’s your first time. The Noffice, for me at least, provided a level of respite and safety, despite the long hours and tiring work. You’re given this space to think and talk and think more about why we work in this industry, why we keep creating and responding to things. That’s rare. You won’t get that in many other places.
Ava Davies | Writer for Noises Off 2018