It's always now until it's later
28 March 2018
Harsh words stick, says Richard Tzanov - it's why Noises Off is so important
It’s the harshest words that stick and sear. I’ll never forget the feedback I got from an editor who read an early draft of a story I wrote years ago. She might have said some nice things too, but I’ve forgotten what they were. No doubt they’re buried somewhere, laying the foundations of my internal idea of who I am as a creative being, but it’s the negative words and responses that form the flashing neon signs that blare out from every external surface.
I’ve had conversations with people involved in and close to the shows that have been reviewed in Noises Off. I’ve sat and watched as people I’ve got to know during the festival have picked up the magazine and opened it to a page on which I know are written words that will hurt. Not words that are designed to hurt, but ones that will undoubtedly wound nonetheless. The fact that they’re often couched in compliments, or part of a well-intentioned, honest attempt to formulate a person’s individual response to what they’ve seen, mean nothing. There’s just that horrible feeling in the gut that every nagging internal doubt has been seen and exposed by another.
There’s so much dialogue around the festival about taking care of each other, supporting one another, creating a safe space where students can grow together. It’s the sort of atmosphere that was entirely absent – or at least I was entirely ignorant of – when I first came to the festival as a student in 2006. And thinking back, I cringe at the mistakes I made in writing about shows in a way that was more about my own ignorance and attempts to be funny or provocative than any honest or constructive attempt at opening up a conversation.
Our writers this year aren’t like that. I guarantee that these are people who are as aware of issues surrounding support, care and safe spaces as anyone. It’s always at the forefront of their minds, and they take the responsibility seriously.
But still. How can Noises Off exist in a festival in which such a priority is placed on helping people to feel comfortable and grow?
The intention of Noff has never been to create an us-and-them divide. Our writers are students, they’re artists, they’re deeply involved in theatre, and they are flexing their creative muscles. They are interrogating, discussing and expressing in words how a show provoked them, what it evoked in them and how it fits into a wider political narrative.
And often – especially this year – they’re responding to shows that are by their nature incredibly challenging on all those levels. And to shows that are also incredible. They take for granted that these shows have already reached a level of exceptionalism simply by being selected to appear at the festival. They respect that, and also accept that a show worthy of such an accolade is equally deserving of proper critical attention – which is not the same as unfiltered praise.
No show has ever reached NSDF without the cast and crew interrogating and challenging themselves, asking difficult questions and making painful decisions. That is essential, and it creates a fierce sense of ownership. Like family: no one can criticise my brother – apart from me. (And let’s be honest – this article is me, in a way, saying no one can criticise our writers apart from me, but still…)
But then comes the point where that show is selected to appear at a festival (a festival with prizes – sorry, “celebrations” – at the end), and that show has to be offered up for the outside world to absorb. It’s a horrible, dread-filled moment. I don’t think there’s a harder thing an artist can do than offer up their work. It’s when they’re at their most vulnerable, and no matter how brave the artist is, they’d do anything to have everyone love it.
And that never happens. And that hurts. Someone might tell you that an opinion is not a consensus, that this is all character-building, reflective of the professional world, part of developing as an artist, but in the white-heat of that moment, when you feel like the most important thing in your life is being torn apart in front of your eyes, those comments are nothing but hollow excuses to justify others being mean.
And if you’re at that point, then I’m asking you to the trust me on this: the things our writers say in Noff come from the most sincere of places. They respect you. They admire you. They want you to succeed in every aspect of your work – in the future, even if they don’t think you entirely managed it this time. They want artists – they want themselves – to be the best possible versions of what they can be, fully realised and with all their imperfections acknowledged and turned to strength. And the only way we do that, the only way we support each other and grow and make work we can be proud of, is by challenging each other honestly, openly and with respect.
And remember that the writers are learning and developing in the exact same way as you and can benefit just as much from open and honest criticism and discussion of their work. On a personal note, yesterday, two festgoers pointed out that having a spread populated with negative headlines and standfirsts is not a good editorial decision – and they were right, and we’ve learnt not to make that mistake again. So feel free to tell us how you feel. No doubt we’ll remember it.
Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca