Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture
Scream: March 2003
Bitchiness to give bitches a bad name
Approximately two years ago I went to the Canberra Theatre Playhouse on an invitation to see The Bell Shakespeare's production of Troilus and Cressida . I have been a great admirer of John Bell since the mid 1970s. His productions have been inspirational, imaginative and represent most of what I have always loved about theatre and theatrical presentation. As Billy Brown began his opening monologue and the stunning set was revealed, I felt I was in for something special. So the anger I felt at the end of the night was not in any way the result of some pre-conceived idea of what the company would present. But at the end of the production, I was moved to email Helen Musa, the Arts Editor and an old friend, at The Canberra Times.
A couple of years earlier, I had been excited and thrilled by Barrie Koskie's fantasia on King Lear presented by Bell Shakespeare. While it really had little to do with Shakespeare's text and John Bell (playing Lear) was left at times as a side-lined character in the title role, the production provoked strong interest in young audiences for its simple yet stunning visual and sound imagery. It opened doors of theatricality that signalled more of the possibilities for theatre in our contemporary world. Some aspects of Troilus and Cressida showed similar potential.
But unlike the naive theatricality of Koskie's production, the production of Troilus and Cressida, directed by some English Director who's name I have forgotten, displayed pretensions of doing more. It tried to link into contemporary media and popular consciousness while drawing out the essence of the play (something Koskie didn't attempt to do). While admirable, it fell down in basic theatrical areas. In spite of brilliant cast members, including Peter Carroll who is one of the best actors in the country, there were whole sections of the play that were almost inaudible. The younger male actors displayed that horrible "woof woof" vocal style that seems to be encouraged in acting schools where actors bark their delivery from their diaphragms without any due attention to nuances of meaning and emotion. Yes! You could hear them in a large theatre. But I would challenge anyone to say what they understood from the stage as it became like a camp kennel of pantomime sincerity and self-conscious nudity and sexual expression rather than a platform for a work of meaningful art or expression.
So I wrote a negative response that Helen Musa published in The Canberra Times. My intention in writing was to counter the general adulation that our parochial and colonial cringe writers were eager to provide while they, on other occasions, damned and ridiculed local theatre artists for daring to try something different without the hundreds of thousands of dollars that went into the likes of Bell Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
How often do local producers and artists have to withstand public ridicule in the press from would-be writers and ex-artists who feel they need to prove their own credibility through condescension, nit-picking and sheer bitchiness while not having the courage or the ability to see the emperor's clothes for what they are when it comes to the more prestigious offerings!
The week after the article appeared, Peter Wilkins (a regular Theatre Reviewer) wrote an apologist style article in The Canberra Times defending the production. Funnily enough, I was placed in the position of being the wowser for attacking the "sex sells" aspect of the production. Hmm!
Ironic though, that The Canberra Times reviewer of Troilus and Cressida later requested "less sex" in my SexandViolets.com and more "privacy"! The play, after all, is called SEXandViolets. She was the same reviewer who twenty one years ago decried the use of sex in my play Brother Ape ( to be re-produced as APE in 2004) while comparing it to Ionesco's work and suggesting it should have been about female fantasy and not male fantasy.
OK! So our local press writers feel they have to give lectures to me: a poor misguided local artistic cockroach. I have noted over the years how the tone becomes that of a prefect straight out of a 1960s/70s girls's school or that of a year 7 English teacher decrying the untidiness of some naughty boy's work book while lauding the lovely red-underlining in the writing pad of some more placating good girl in the row next to him. And should we be surprised when most of the reviewers in Canberra are school teachers.
You might notice how on this web site, there are NO quotes from theatre reviews of any works. Not even the GOOD ones! Reviewers perceive themselves as the chroniclers of artist presentation. And mostly, the arts and artists are accepting of this position. Should reviewers then take it on themselves to ensure that certain artists and works NEVER get UP, NEVER make it out of the local crab pot, they can cleverly position works of such artists in ways that make it very difficult for movement.
Just like the teacher in the class room, the reviewer can feel a role or right to grade the artists and give a pass out or keep-in the individual artist. And just like the naughty boy who plays up, the artist can then feel resentment and bitterness towards the paternalistic reviewer or critic.
But in many ways, the artists have only themselves to blame. They act like kids in a class room. They accept the pat on the head from the reviewer; displaying the nice words like sticky gold stars pasted by the infant school teacher on the child's struggling efforts to placate authority. And when the teacher is mad at them, they feel upset. When scorned they may even feel rebellious. Whatever the case, most kids don't realize that their teachers probably don't really matter in the long run. If they have a particularly good one, then it is a bonus. We know now that kids shouldn't allow themselves to be destroyed or influenced by the incompetent or malicious. But kids don't have hindsight to see this until they are beyond the control of their teachers. Artists, on the other hand, DO!
The incompetent or malicious arts reviewer can only have any power if given it by the artists. That power is given every time a quote from a review is placed on promotional material. We don't quote the bad ones. But how many times do we see artists (and arts promoters) quoting positive lines from essentially negative reviews just so that it might appear someone in authority sanctions a particular work. By doing this; by quoting the name of the reviewer (at the artists' expense) the reviewer is given free publicity and freely accumulates power. Such quoting in print or in the electronic medium actually increases the credibility of the reviewer and the publisher of the review far more than any boost that can be given to an artist's work.
The artists who have freely and even PAID to promote the power of a particular reviewer can hardly then turn around and cry foul when this sanctioned authority condemns or decries the artist's work. Howe absurd!
But also, how sad that artists are so self-conscious and afraid of their own power that they need to pander to sometimes mediocre writers and people who never outgrew their need or desire to be school prefects or petty power controllers in some 1950s style compliant class room where teachers were gods.
WAKE UP! The main reason for a web site like this one is to provide an alternative voice of the artist ... to expand on the "personal I" and not shy away from the focus of my work ... and mostly, to not be cowed by mediocre commentators with little interest beyond their own narcissism. I really don't want to comment on the work of my fellow local artists. Rather, I'd prefer to encourage them speak. I don't have to like them or their work. But I have to say to all: SPEAK out; SCREAM; don't be distracted or cowed by bitchiness in the press and petty witticism at your own expense.
This article will be read (or at least opened) by approximately 8,000 people in a year (approximated by the current statistics regarding people logging on to these SCREAM pages). How many actually read or take any notice of the reviews in the local news paper and supposedly local arts magazines where reviewers publish their works?
If your art is important to you and not simply a casual past time, then I suggest you write about it or self publish about it (from YOUR perspective) on the web or on paper in the street. Get people you respect to offer criticism or feedback; even audiences. Don't give any credence to the embittered reviewers and sanctimonious pedagogues espousing to the world what you should be or shouldn't be doing. Discover this for yourself. Commune with your audiences; have fun and IGNORE the sour grapes of pius resentment; resentment at what you stand for and what reviewers can only wish to stand for ...
Rejoice when they attack you or pander to you. But keep it to yourself. Don't promote names and agendas of those who dismiss you and belittle you to the public and then, in some cases, try to claim your friendship! SCREAM about your art and what is important to you. The audience will only take you seriously if YOU take yourself seriously and excite their collective imagination. Serious criticism will be offered to you personally and not as public slander to sell publications.
It may take time. You don't have to create in the image of someone else. Your own creations need to accumulate confidence and certainty over time. And I don't have to like you. I don't have to like your work. I just need to revel in, and celebrate, your existence.
As local artists we might identify with cockroaches, gods or bitches. But whatever the case, we mustn't allow the bitchiness of the so-called arts press to define our existence and name. As we all know and as Arts Editors tell us, the publishers of the media don't give a high priority to the arts. So if that is the case, then we ought to get out of the cloister of irrelevance and stop placating the lowest rung on the media's agenda. Take away the permission given to them to dismiss us and we claim back our own power and, ironically, the marketability and public worth of our work. Get creative. Be alternative. Live the art.
Joe Woodward (March 2003)