Waking the Zombie: Reviewing the Reviewer

31 October 2012

Recently, Farrago printed both an overwhelmingly positive review of a production I was a part of, FLW’s The History Boys, and an overwhelmingly negative review for another I wasn’t.

Whilst it might have been easier to take the congratulations for The History Boys and run, something didn’t sit right with me about the tenor of the review Zombie received. Upon talking with friends—including the reviewer himself, who I am close with—I realised how entrenched a certain understanding of the cultural figure of the Reviewer truly is. They are given unparalleled immunity from scrutiny, and their sardonic, throwaway voices have artists scrambling to produce work that is ever more palatable. This, I believe, is in dire need of rethinking.

We might argue that scathing reviews should be permitted because they prepare student artists for the ‘real world’ in which they will be pitted against such spiteful forces. But this presupposes several things. Firstly, that there is something ‘unreal’ about the artistic endeavours of students, and secondly, that the current climate of professional theatre is something to be emulated. Neither are true.

There are significant problems with the relentlessly staid and placative programmes at the Melbourne Theatre Company, and now even independent theatre is being poached by its desiccating grasp. There is far more challenging theatre happening on the fringes, including on campus, and it pisses me off that such deference should automatically be pointed in the direction of professional theatre, while such shame be cast upon the efforts of student work.

This speaks to a larger cultural exaltation of a shakily defined ‘expert’. Currently—and perhaps always—art is conceived in reference to experts: whether in their vein, or in reaction to their work. We cite schools of performance thought off-handedly, trash our predecessors and colleagues without thought because of how and with whom they align, or fail to. Such a mode of thinking scaffolds both our creation and consumption of art. But are there no other ways to conceive of artistic projects than just as approximations of some rigid absolute?

In this era of micro-reviewing and hyperconsumerism, everybody has declared themselves taste-makers. The issue of democratisation aside, we fail to realise that the review has taken on a life of its own, irrespective of art. The merits of a review and reviewer have become their ability to systematically quantify the ‘worth’ of art through a lifeless cataloguing of its technical virtuosities. More often than not, this takes the form of vitriolic decimation of the artist’s efforts, as if it was their sole responsibility to mollify a world of pathologically bored reviewers. But what of the responsibility of the reviewer?

The study of art’s technical achievements should not be gauged by a scorecard: this is incredibly arbitrary and places the work of art in competition with invisible, enshrined ‘experts’. Rather, they should be measured as they were intended: as instruments of personal expression. A lighting design, for instance, is not simply an act of spinning plates, or a concerted effort to dazzle the audience into thinking they are watching ‘professional theatre’. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Do I think growing performers should be coddled, or spoon-fed euphemistic and watered-down receptions of their work? Certainly not. But there is a particular way of approaching art that we are rapidly beginning to lose: one that demonstrates respect for the efforts of artists.

The investment of time and energy on the part of student performers is particularly immense. In the case of performers producing wholly original work, even more so. They take the hugely brave step of defying expectations, and should be commended, not reprimanded, for their decision to resist the blind deification of so-called ‘professional theatre’.

Recently, we celebrated 75 years of outstanding student theatre. By all accounts, what has made it so has been the unsolicited passion of students who devote countless unpaid hours outside of work and study to produce work. Sadly, past students attending the Gala maligned the lessened focus on original work on campus, and in the current climate, it’s not hard to see why this is so.

It’s childish to ask reviewers to deliver constructive criticism—the ‘compliment sandwich’ school of reviewing—but a reviewer’s decision to take the artwork as isolated, and not as a step in the artist’s continued development, is similarly irresponsible. Cutting down a piece of art solely for its technical insufficiencies, failing to place the work within the company’s developing oeuvre and damning it for what it’s not rather than encouraging what could be, dampens burgeoning companies’ enthusiasm to continue. When we place an amateur work in the vice of professional standards and pinch it until it learns to contort, we either de-legitimise the artist’s continued journey or cancel it outright.

Furthermore, to play the “if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen” card is a bully’s perspective, and demonstrates no understanding for the community project that art once was, and could be once more. Especially considering the reviewer’s absence from the spotlight means they’re free from said heat anyway.

Let’s readjust our vocabulary. A particular outing can be disappointing, but a company should not be made to lay on the cross as “the worst student theatre in 75 years”. This is arbitrary and unfounded, not to mention cruel and pointless. The reviewer must realise they participate in the great conversation that is art, they do not stand outside it. They should be a productive not destructive force, vouching for art’s growth and continuance into perpetuity.

On a more specific note, student theatre is a training ground, absolutely. I encourage both reviewers and artists to continue to challenge the place from which they create and digest work. It is expressive of the individual, ultimately, and not a competitor in some great race to be most palatable or ‘professional’. This is the aesthetic of the work I most enjoy, and I believe, the path to creating the most socially functional discourse. Next time you step into a theatre, watch what is before you, don’t watch for the cracks. Nuance exists in even the simplest of works if we recalibrate our expectations: the process should be valued over the “product”. The ‘product’ is a construct handed down to us from the so-called adult world that we should all stop being so damned keen on joining.

Once upon a time, student theatre was about the ways in which our little community is the starting point for a challenged, more receptive and more connected passage through this life. Let’s get back to that.

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