Throughout NSDF 21 so far, there is one conversation topic that has stuck with me the most, which is the relationship between criticism and care.
During the Noises Off writing team’s daily meeting, we usually share ideas, sort through admin, and ask questions. On Wednesday, however, it became an energised discussion about our responsibilities as critics. Naomi, one of Noff’s editors, used a phrase that has stuck with me: extending generosity. This warrants no succinct response, and instead has raised some big questions: how do we extend generosity differently for professional and student theatre? How much does a production need to extend generosity to its audience and its critics? When, and to what extent, is it okay not to extend generosity when we feel as though it is not deserved? This, for instance, could be justified if a play is offensive in a totally unwarranted manner.
As a writer with no experience of acting under the critical eye, I asked Tamsin Greig and Simon Godwin during their masterclass about their relationships with criticism as an actor and director respectively. The question Greig asked herself was: how do you protect yourself from critics writing more about themselves than the piece? Greig’s concern here lies with reviews which prioritise a critic’s preconceptions over the play. They observed the simultaneous potential of critics’ voices to both topple creativity and to be resourceful and nourishing. Brilliant performances, Greig tells us, can be ruined by both bad reviews and good reviews. As an actor or director, a review feels personal. And while a member of the production team may feel disappointed by a bad review, for example, it is those that stand on stage, or whose names are on the poster, who take the brunt of it.
What I’ve learned from discussions with the Noff team, with Greig and Godwin, and in my approach to writing this week, is that as critics we have a duty of care. When we respond to a play, it’s important to extend generosity to the people on stage, the creative team, and the crew, as much as it is important to pay attention to how we feel, based on our personal experiences, beliefs and principals, as well as the cultural context in which the show sits. Our duty lies in placing our personal reactions to a performance in dialogue with wider contexts and with empathy in mind.
Of course, this may seem obvious when we review student productions. And perhaps there is a line critics can draw between professional and student theatre, as one is both funded and compiled of experienced industry members while the other is not. One should expect honest feedback, the other needs encouragement. Having said that, as an actor gains more professional experience they do not become any less human; words can sting even if aimed at a well-funded institution like the National Theatre. The extent of our generosity ultimately lies with the individual critic, but Greig has taught me that empathy is important to all actors. So, I think this is a skill we can also keep hold of when we sit down in the professional theatre, pen and notepad in hand, ready to make up our minds.