Last December, after eight years of regular posting, I closed my theatre review blog, Theatre Notes. It was the first theatre blog in Australia, and one of the longest running anywhere. I expected a measure of dolour and dismay when I announced my decision; I didn’t expect what actually happened. I was swamped by hundreds of tributes, private and public, that left me stunned and, quite genuinely, humbled. It was like being at my own funeral, without the inconvenience of having to die first. And it told me things about the blog that I never knew while I was writing it.
The reasons why I closed it are complex. Writing long posts, often several times a week, was taking its toll, especially in tandem with my fiction writing and other reviewing. I was tired. Over the years I attempted to change the nature and volume of the blog, but I never could: it was as if the form came with its own demands. No matter how often I vowed to write less, I never could; in fact, it became a standing joke. But it was more than exhaustion that made me push the button. Since 2010, it had been clear to me that a cycle of energy in the theatre culture, one that had deeply engaged and driven the blog, had run its course. It was time for something else to happen, for something new to step forward.
TN’s closure sparked a lot of discussion on the place of criticism, especially for an ephemeral art form like performance, and how it can be financially sustained in the new, bleak media landscape. That’s an important debate, especially for the younger generation of critics now emerging online; but it has nothing to do with why I started the blog, or why I decided to close it. TN wasn’t funded and was never dependent on institutional support, which was a conscious decision on my part. What I valued above all in that writerly space was my autonomy, and I was very willing to pay for my freedom.
What that freedom allowed me to do was to take theatre seriously. I could discuss productions at length: I could make connections to literature, to cultural and social criticism, to the history and traditions of performance. Although that critical work goes on in academies, there was very little of it in regular newspaper reviews, which mainly limited themselves to consumer guides. Constraints of space, style and expectation shape what can be said, and how it can be said. If I wanted to write a poem in response to a work, I could. And sometimes I did.
Back in 2004, I couldn’t help but be aware that TN was a small part of a massive revolution, the rise of digital culture and the breaking of print’s monopoly on the world of public ideas. But it was a blog that took a rather old-fashioned view of criticism, and exploited the new freedoms of the internet in order to explore it.
It all began on an impulse: I was at home, manacled to the desk writing a novel, and I was broke and bored with myself. And the thought lit up in my head: why not start a blog for theatre reviews? So I did.
I wasn’t a newcomer to theatre criticism. For three tumultuous years in my late 20s I was the Melbourne theatre reviewer for the weekly national magazine, The Bulletin. My time there included a high-profile banning by the Playbox Theatre – I even made it onto 60 Minutes as an archetypal bitch critic – for my ‘vitriolic’ reviews. I had discovered what turns out to be an unquenchable passion for the performing arts, but I didn’t much enjoy my notoriety. I resigned, disillusioned, in 1992, and for the next decade worked as a full-time writer, mostly concentrating on poetry. As I wrote for a lecture at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1997, thinking back to my time at The Bulletin: ‘Nothing is as deadening as apathy. Nothing is as savage as pettiness called to question. Nothing is as unanswerable as wilful ignorance.’
When I began TN, I had little idea what had happened in Australian theatre in the 12 years since I’d given up criticism. There weren’t many ways of finding out either (which highlights the archival importance of performance criticism). Aside from mostly unilluminating print reviews, the only really useful source was Real Time, a pioneering print and online journal that has covered innovative performance for 12 years.
My personal knowledge was mainly confined to my involvement in founding the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, a Poor Theatre collaboration between director Ariette Taylor and my husband, playwright Daniel Keene. It opened in 1997 with unfunded productions in the Brotherhood of St Lawrence warehouse in Fitzroy, and with people queuing down Brunswick Street to see actors like Patricia Kennedy, a very young Dan Spielman, Greg Stone, Malcolm Robertson, Helen Morse and Paul English in some now legendary performances. The KTTP was playing the Sydney Opera House within two years, and within five years had reached the end of its lifespan, winning the Kenneth Myer Medallion for the Performing Arts along the way.
I have no doubt that the KTTP was one of the unconscious models behind TN. It was a concrete demonstration that you could begin with nothing but a burning faith in the possibilities of art, and it could drive through to anywhere you liked. You don’t have to ask permission; sometimes asking permission is the last thing you should do. As the I Ching says, the revolution is believed in only after it has been accomplished. Still, I had no expectations; I didn’t know whether anyone would read my blog, or even be interested.
As it turned out, over the next eight years people were interested. Much of that comes down to pure chance: I was the right person in the right place at the right time. The first reason was the poverty of theatre coverage. As a battle-scarred veteran of Melbourne theatre commented to me, back in his day the most you could expect as a response to your work was a few indifferent paragraphs in the Age and, at best, a small but thoughtful notice in the Melbourne Times. Then it fell into a memory hole and was never heard of again. The high concentration of media ownership in Australia – the highest in the Western world – meant that there were very few outlets for critical response. There was a gap, a hunger for thoughtful, long-form, immediate response that reached beyond the standard consumer review, that was screaming to be filled. I was very conscious of that lack, and intended TN to address it.
The other reason is something that I couldn’t have predicted. In the end, a critic is only as good as the work she writes about; and I was fortunate enough to find the work. Although I didn’t know it, as I was having my private light bulb moment in my study, Melbourne theatre was about to change beyond recognition.
In 2004 the Playbox Theatre, the second largest theatre in Melbourne, was artistically moribund, playing to houses of around 30 per cent capacity. And in one of the most significant appointments for Australian theatre in the past decade, the board called in Michael Kantor, a freelance director-about-town, and Stephen Armstrong, a producer with a track record ranging from independent theatre to a tenure at the Sydney Theatre Company, to be artistic director and executive producer respectively. Digging into energies always present but long marginalised, they proceeded to redefine the mainstream Australian stage.
Looking back now, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of this change. Work that had always been the province of the ‘fringe’ – working, like the KTTP, in found spaces or tiny theatres, with perhaps a distant prospect of a moment in the spotlight before it vanished – was invited onto the main stage. Artists who had been dismissed by the overwhelmingly conservative main-stage culture – seen at best, when they did flicker into visibility, as anomalies – were centre stage, with the resources they needed to realise their possibilities. This resonated far beyond the newly named Malthouse Theatre itself: young independent companies had something to aim for (or to react against, an equally important dynamic). And audiences who thought the theatre on offer on the main stages was as outdated and dusty as a Remington typewriter woke up.
When the Malthouse launched its first show in 2005 – a double bill of Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral and an adaptation by Tom Wright of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year – I wrote with excitement and relief:
It is a breath of fresh air to see mainstream theatre with ambition and intellectual clout, and that takes itself seriously as an art. I have no doubt this shift in artistic direction will generate a lot of controversy; Helen Thomson’s bitterly hostile reviews in The Age this week are probably symptomatic. I also have no doubt that this new phase at Malthouse is the best thing that’s happened there in the past decade; and as a theatre goer, I am hoping that this is only the beginning of a more generous imagining of the Australian stage.
This hopefulness turned out to be no chimera: between 2004 and 2010, the assumptions that underpinned mainstream theatre were turned upside down, and independent theatre flowered into a remarkable renaissance. Of course, this kind of shift never happens without resistance. In Australia, the reluctance to embrace new work can be particularly vicious: the new might fight its way to the front, but staying there is quite another battle.
There are too many to cite, but a telling example is when Jim Sharman took over the State Theatre Company of South Australia, renaming it the Lighthouse Theatre. He employed an extraordinary ensemble cast that included Geoffrey Rush, Robert Menzies and Kerry Walker and premiered plays from Patrick White, Louis Nowra and Stephen Sewell, in seasons that are now the stuff of legend. The Lighthouse also lasted only from 1982–83. And although its legacy still resonates through the culture – for one thing, it kick-started the distinguished career of Neil Armfield, who later took over Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre – it’s impossible not to look back and to see it as an opportunity lost, a possibility that briefly flared and died.
I could see this repressive mechanism at work in the consistent press attacks on the Malthouse’s programming policies (and on other institutions that were bringing welcome vitality to the culture, such as Kristy Edmunds’s Melbourne Festival, or even some of the more outrageous young companies that were emerging in Melbourne). There was, as I saw at the time, no reason why the same fate as attended the Lighthouse might not happen to the Malthouse. But this time a radical reimagining didn’t fail in its promise, and the internet, by providing a public space for alternative views, was an important part of that. The monopoly of opinion was over.
When I closed TN in 2012, the context had changed out of sight. In its wake other blogs sprang up, written by a new generation of curious, intelligent people who were fascinated by theatre, and they began their own discussions. In Melbourne theatre, which I think is exceptional in its sense of community, artists and critics began to have lively and often mutually enriching discussions, instead of scowling across a bitter divide. A community of conversation replaced what had been a deafening silence.
All this is good, but it doesn’t mean that everything is rosy. While it opened the conversation, the internet has all but destroyed the few career paths that existed for Australian critics. Last year, in the bleakest indicator yet, hundreds of journalists lost their jobs as newspapers cast around for ways to survive the digital apocalypse, with proportionate effects on jobs for arts writers. Blogging can’t fill the void: by nature it’s volatile, and hard to sustain long term when you need to pay the rent. And in the performing arts, which exist in the present moment, criticism is crucial. It’s a primary means by which the history of the form is recorded. Without it, too much work simply vanishes from the cultural memory.
ABC Arts, under the purview of Katrina Sedgwick, is picking up some of the slack, with plans to expand its online presence. As part of that program, they offered me a position as a roving critic soon after I closed TN. The Guardian’s move to Australia suggests other possibilities. But I believe the Australia Council will have to come to the party if there is to be any hope of nurturing a committed, informed and vital critical culture in this country.
As a young theatre critic, I had often been baffled by the apathy or outright hostility that usually greeted what for me was the most exciting work. I didn’t believe it was a conscious conspiracy by any means, but I had already noted how indifferent criticism could erase accomplishment, rebuke the new for challenging received wisdom, and assert authority in order to forbid discussion. TN, and the blogs that sprang up in the following years, began a conversation that invited difference, that spurred interest, that argued fiercely and (at its best) without rancour about ideas, aesthetics, politics. And gradually, instead of being the only public truth available, the authority that trumps all others by virtue of its mass exposure, the conservative mainstream pundit became what he actually is: only one voice among many.
From the beginning TN was militantly against the silencing of art and debate, the insistence on ‘business as usual’ which had characterised, with a number of notable exceptions, the generality of Australian arts criticism and sometimes arts institutions themselves. There have always been critics who saw their task to be critical advocates or purveyors of ideas (Katharine Brisbane, co-founder of Currency Press and one of the most passionate campaigners for new Australian theatre through the 1970s, is a case in point), but they were rare.
More common was the kind of critic who believed himself to be the final word on a show, holding himself above the audience and pronouncing judgment from on high. Such judgments were held to be unchallengeable: the critic was the ultimate authority, and the childlike artist was presumed to be unable to make critical judgments of his own. For such critics, the only thing that counts is the imprimatur of approval or rejection. Yet that imprimatur remains the most boring aspect of reviews. The distinguished American critic and theatre practitioner Robert Brustein – one of the major influences behind TN – described this well during a 2008 roundtable on theatre criticism at the Philoctetes Center in New York City:
The task I set for myself was to put theatre into a context and try to see how this or that play fit into our particular time, our particular society, our particular culture, our particular political life, and how it reflected on that… And more and more, I found myself subordinating the judgment that was so necessary to criticism, and that we’re all looking for: Does he like it? Does she hate it? When I read criticism, I find that to be the least interesting part. I began to call that ‘Himalayan criticism’ after Danny Kaye – when he was asked whether he liked the Himalayas, he said ‘Loved him, hated her.’ [Laughter.] It’s essentially what we’ve all been practicing – Himalayan criticism.
Especially when I began practicing as a director – as an artistic director, an actor, a playwright – I knew that that kind of criticism did me no good whatsoever. I was trying, really, to find what it was that was helpful and useful, without in any way deferring or cheating or cheapening or lying. I wanted to see what it was that could possibly help a theatre artist to advance. And so I thought my most important function as a critic was to try to find out what these artists, if they were artists, were trying to do, and then to see whether they did that successfully. But at least to try and find out what the intention was before I rejected it.
This was exactly what I attempted to practise: a criticism that employed my knowledge and experience as a writer and sometime practitioner in the theatre, in order to form a response that was ‘helpful and useful’. It carries an important rider: ‘helpful and useful’ doesn’t mean being ‘kind’ or ‘supportive’. Often it can mean the reverse: unwarranted praise has no place in rigorous criticism and is of no use to anyone, artist or audience. Flattery has always seemed to me, as much as gratuitously snide contempt, a mark of disrespect; it betrays that you are not taking the work seriously. Of course all artists desire to please their audience, but for most – myself included – what matters a great deal more than praise or blame is that someone perceives, with accuracy and insight, exactly what you did.
For me, the biggest lesson of TN was that, just as indifferent criticism can be disabling, good criticism can be enabling. It carves out cultural space, makes connections, suggests further possibilities, opens generosities of perception. Often I thought I was only stating the obvious, looking at what was in front of me. What I only partially realised (although I understand this from my own experience) is how important stating the obvious is: how much it matters for a work to be seen, for its virtues and problems to be considered in the terms the work itself presents. As the blog evolved, I began to understand that a responsible criticism is one that refines that simple act of recognition and carefully articulates it for readers. Whether the upshot is positive or negative, it is this dynamic perception that makes criticism an empowering and creative act. And it’s the only thing that makes criticism, which poet Eugenio Montale so gracefully names ‘the secondary art’, worth doing at all.