Changing my mind (again)
18 April 2019
Emma Rogerson on theatre criticism
if you were to ask me what i am, depending if i was feeling existential or passionate or drunk enough to be completely honest, i’d say ‘writer’. i’d need those conditions, because it’s quite a wanky answer to throw into a normal conversation (i accept that). but it’s the truth, because it’s the only label i feel 100% comfortable giving myself. my class, my sexual orientation, my gender all feel secondary to that, because that’s who i am, not what i’ve chosen and what i choose is to make, to write, and that is so representative of who i am, and that’s easy, that’s simple, tick, i get that. until a few months ago, what i wrote created my life experiences, not the other way around. some of the best memories and friends i’ve made are completely attributable for writing plays, and that forms the backbone of my social and day to day life. writing academically allowed me to go to university – one that wasn’t for me that i soon dropped out of, and another, bristol, where i’m currently studying, which allowed me to live in new cities and gave me time and resources to explore and engage in new ideas.
and that’s all fine.
but the idea of writing ‘criticism’ and ‘being a critic’ sits really uneasily with me.
before i applied for noises off, ‘criticism’ was a word that was representative of everything i hated about the arts. i wanted to stay as far away from it as possible, because i saw it solely as a measure of privilege. my experience of reviewers so far had been them watching my own plays (that explore feminism, north western narratives, queer love stories...etc) broken down and analysed by white men who had seen a lot of theatre. i used to think that reviewing necessitates a level of a cultural capital that i just couldn’t access. now this really isn’t meant to slag off white men or their opinions at all. in fact, i think we stray into really dangerous territory when we, as creators and consumers, prioritise one person's perspective or life experiences over another's. starting from a point of ‘everyone is equally valid’ seems like a much better foundation, with programmers, producers and editors having responsibility to monitor the writers who are engaged to criticise and ensure diversity among journalists and representation for all of society. but, from my experience, people didn’t care enough. it wasn’t happening.
i started in amdram, applied theatre, theatre in village halls, theatre after school, local theatre, theatre that makes your life better. i never saw that represented by criticism. criticism was value judgement only, but when what i value most in theatre was never acknowledged, what can i contribute? what can i offer?
the emergence of ‘embedded criticism’, which felt like a shift from product to process, felt like a step in the right direction and something i could access. after that, i wanted in.
i got to write for noises off, and so have had the chance to practise criticism in the context of what i prioritise – i've been lucky enough to both articulate and practise a feeling that i've had for a long time, that i just fundamentally don't think theatre reviews should rely on being referential to other pieces of theatre. in magic hour, watching the fun improv bouncing between actor and audience made me remember my collective group of home friends absolutely rinsing me one new years eve for my (admittedly quite pretentious at the time) instagram. in how to save a rock, i thought back to a really interesting conversation in a mate’s kitchen about the environmental ethics of having kids. in things we do not know, the sensitivity with with the stories were handled reminded me of countless instances of kindness and generosity friends, family and strangers have shown me.
theatre is just so inseparable from life experience, and i’m reluctant to even call myself a critic as it implies some weird hierarchy or objectivity – both of which i’m incapable of – when i’m really just another audience maker trying to make something, out of those little moments on stage, last for the rest of my life. sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does. sometimes i feel nothing, sometimes i feel too much, sometimes i’m too tired or hungover to appreciate it, sometimes i’m desperate for it, i rely on it, and it’s everything i need.
criticism, for me, has just come to mean starting conversations.
redefining what criticism is and what it can do starts the conversations, allows everyone to participate equally, and has the potential to make reviews art, not analysis.
it’s worth redefining. it’s worth changing.
Photo credit: Beatrice Debney