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Review: A Manifesto for the Arts: The Next 50 Years, Ovalhouse

Posted on 23 December 2013 by Hannah Elsy

It’s that time of year again when we block out the noise of the everyday routine and reflect on our successes and failures, and remind ourselves of what is really important. With this in mind the Ovalhouse, celebrating its fiftieth birthday, hosted A Manifesto for the Arts: The Next 50 Years, a collection of performances and debates speculating about what might become a prevailing trend over the next fifty years. The Ovalhouse is well-known on the London fringe scene for producing reactionary work: I most recently saw Daniel York’s Fu Manchu Complex in its studio space, a darkly comic exploration of the continuing racism of conservative British culture against the Chinese, following the aggravating trend of Chimerica and The World of Extreme Happiness.

I was therefore disappointed with the lack of anything genuinely reactionary or agitating in this ‘Manifesto’ (presented as a set of short acts in several different media by young Londoners) to suggest that, over the next fifty years, ‘art’ would bring political change or creative revolution. The prevailing idea amongst those performing was that the most beneficial form of art is that which is therapeutic and provides the artist with a safe platform for self-expression: debatably pointless in a world where everyone can articulate his or her views online.

The performances were varied. There was a poetry reading from a young writer and a dramatic short by a new theatre company, but none of them but one seemed to address the question “what will the next fifty years bring”: a speech by Reuben Messiah on the prevalence of the immersive theatre phenomenon. He highlighted that shows which are a ‘360 degree’ interactive experience – such as Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable and The Shed’s Protest Song – are becoming increasingly mainstream, or even addictive, as one can surround oneself in an alternative universe in a vein similar to that of a computer game.

The panel included freelance critic and blogger Matt Trueman, editor of the Guardian Culture Professionals Network Nancy Grove, and associate artist at the Bush Theatre, Sabrina Mahofuz: all had divided opinions. Some agreed, believing that art and theatre will strive to become more and more immersive, and to be invasive of the human sensory apparatus. On the other hand some disagreed, subscribing to the idea that a theatrical experience can violate the audience’s senses before the majority react against this and decide that all they want to do with their evening is sit comfortably and watch The Glass Menagerie again. It is this which I believe is the crux of the question, “what will happen over the next 50 years?” It is a shame that it was mainly addressed in the debate afterwards, and not in the majority of the performances based on the issue.

In the discussion, I was constantly reminded that all ‘young people’ (a term bandied around far too much in the evening) are ‘artists’. This erroneously equates art to self-expression and makes little distinction between using creativity as an enjoyable cathartic experience and genuinely aggravating art as a catalyst for change. In lieu of the question “what will happen over the next 50 years?”, I hope that the ‘art as therapy’ mentality will be recognised as unsustainable: if so, no distinction is created between the reams of ‘artistic’ material that can be found through Google Search and the ‘art’ created by people who genuinely have ‘artistic’ sensibilities (however one can pinpoint these!), thus leading us back to the age-old question of defining art itself. Leaving this Manifesto encouraged me to hope for the certainty that the next fifty years will bring change and revolution, rather than paralysis.

A Manifesto for the Arts: The Next 50 Years played at the Ovalhouse Theatre. For more information, see the Ovalhouse website.

Hannah Elsy

Hannah Elsy

Alongside reading English at King's College London, Hannah runs around the capital watching and performing in as much theatre as physically possible. She enjoys creating new work, and is currently workshopping new ideas with the National Theatre's Young Studio. Hannah has worked as an arts journalist for the Fierce Festival of live art and Bristol's In Between Time Festival.

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Theatre thought: Where is the UK’s theatre blogging community?

Posted on 15 February 2012 by Jake Orr

Hello World

In Matt Trueman’s Noises Off this week on the Guardian Blogs he highlighted the spat caused by the recently launched online publication The Globe Mail in Australia over its first arts feature ‘Now Everyone Is A Critic‘. The article centres around the now not-so anonymous theatre blogger Jane Simmons, whose blog Shit On Your Play is all about telling directors, creatives and Australian producers of theatre just what she thinks, in a direct and uncensored manner. As Truman notes, it’s like “The West End Whingers, just without the camp charm”. The feature singles out Simmons as the rallying voice of reason across Australian theatre blogs, with little to no representation of other, perhaps more notable, theatre bloggers. Naturally this, along with the general damning nature of Simmons’s harsh blog posts, has put the cat amongst the pigeons. I won’t go into detail, as Trueman gives a general overview in Noises Off, but the ripples of responses have been impressive.

What becomes apparent from the reactions to the Globe Mail’s feature, is that there is an in-built theatre blogging community in Australia which is ready to lash out and defend, argue and debate in moments such as this. The Australian theatre blogging community seems prominent and ready to make its opinions heard should it need to. There seems to be a community which regularly finds its voice online, and, if the Globe Mail’s article is to believed, this community is not so much feared as respected.

It therefore seems a pity that I feel there is a lack of community here in the UK when it comes to theatre blogging. I’ve been writing on A Younger Theatre since 2009, and whilst my voice may now be part of a succession of other voices which make up what AYT has become, my own voice has stayed true throughout. I would be foolish to suggest that I’ve not felt some form of community over the past few years; this is to be expected when the online blogosphere is brought into the public space through seeing our love of theatre. Yet while friendships have formed there seems to be a demise in community online. Theatre bloggers in the UK are more prone to review theatre than add their commentary to the artistic visions, creations and funding elements that make up the arts as a whole.

It’s a subject that I’ve touched upon before, most notably in my blog The Stagnation of Theatre Blogging back in June last year, yet it seems the issue is still pertinent today. Where the Australian theatre blogging community has rallied together to offer opposing sides of the story, our UK-based bloggers are turning into mere reviewers. I long for the commentaries that seek to actively challenge the way in which our theatres are built and run. I even long for the cross-commentary that we could offer each other on subjects that become pertinent as the arts evolve across a year.

Sadly, all that the UK’s theatre blogging community has offered in recent months iare defences of the right of bloggers to review previews, and that is one topic that needs to be shut away and forgotten about. It seems almost that while other theatre blogging communities have the upper hand in their theatre communities, UK theatre bloggers are playing into the hands of producers and venues alike. It could easily be said that over the past year, the shift in allocation of ‘press tickets’ for online bloggers/reviewers has increased dramatically, and whilst this should be celebrated, have we lost our critical voice because we’re too concerned at losing those tickets? Possibly.

Regardless of the current prominent theatre bloggers churning out reviews that tend to shape the critical commentary across our theatres, there needs to be a stronger voice that rallies and challenges organisations and audiences alike. Trueman’s Noises Off is populated by overseas bloggers responding and engaging with each other together, forming communities that add a layer of critical discourse beyond just reviewing.

In the UK we have seen some excellent bloggers using their online platforms for discussions. Examples such as Daniel Bye on Opera North, Dan Rebeallato on Quentin Letts and Dan Baker’s view on the arts have given ample space for discussion [Web Ed's note: you don't have to be called Dan to have a theatre blog!], but there has not been a continuation of the responses that these generated. Even the formidable bloggers Chris Goode and Andrew Haydon have fallen quiet, and whilst there might still be the odd blogger laying out discussion, no one is picking it up and offering a dissection of the arts as a whole. The blogging community feels disjointed, and I’m not one to escape the blame either or even through A Younger Theatre I offer standalone blogs that don’t offer response to others. If the current bloggers (including myself) can’t rise to the challenge, then perhaps we need to make room for those who do and can respond, allowing the community to be joined up instead of the current disparate blogging.

Whilst I adore the Guardian Theatre Blog for fueling my need to consume commentary, I do wish that more of those being commissioned to write the pieces would take time to build the dialogue elsewhere too. My love of the Guardian Theatre Blog is clearly apparent, but we have to be careful that we don’t pander to a single establishment – that’s the beauty of the online world; new voices and critical commentaries can so readily be made… so where is the UK’s theatre blogging community ready to respond? Are you out there? Hello?

Image by Lee Barrows.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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Should Bloggers Review Previews? I say, No.

Posted on 11 February 2011 by Jake Orr

I have come close to writing these thoughts for some time now, spurred on by a niggling desire to send a certain message to those who I have come to know and appreciate within this critical mass called ‘the blogosphere’. Thankfully Matt Truman has taken a crow bar and forced open a flood of opinions, debates, and foul comments (from those that disapprove of him doing so) on his blog titled “Theatre bloggers must leave previews alone” on the Guardian website yesterday.

I agree with Matt’s suggestions that bloggers should leave previews alone.

I say this as a blogger, a theatre maker and as someone who works in a theatre. I write this from three very clear viewpoints.

Previews are not finished products. They are half baked cookies gently coming to firmness in the oven. There is ultimately still time for disaster to strike no matter how carefully you followed the recipe. Essentially that is what theatre creatives are; chefs at work on a masterpiece that has the potential, like a soufflé, to sink on presentation.

Theatres offer discounts on previews because the show is not a finished product – because if you returned night after night, you would see changes that have taken place to make the show better. I can not stress this enough: acting in front of an audience is nothing like acting in front of a director and an empty theatre. An audience brings real blood-pumping life into the auditorium. I say this because I have been on the stage and felt the shift in dynamics. What works in an empty theatre may not work in front of an audience. Whole scenes may get rewritten, reblocked, reworked to find out what is missing during the previews. Putting theatre in front of an audience actually exposes every fault that it has – because audiences aren’t stupid, they see the glaring mistakes because they are there to enjoy the experience, and they know when they are not.

This is why previews exists. As Matt so brilliantly puts it:

Only by putting work in front of an audience can theatre-makers understand what has been made and how it functions. Without gauging audience response, they have only worked in theory. They’re reliant on the assumption that others will see the work as they do in the rehearsal room, in other words, that everything will be received as imagined.

Previews exist because a performance evolves during those first few nights. I also say this because I have sat in an auditorium watching a show during every single performance from previews to press night, as someone who works in a theatre. I have seen a show develop, come together, and realise its potential in previews. On the first preview of a show in a theatre I work in, I was devastated to witness a technical breakdown. Lights were flicking on and off, sound cues were all over the place, and the actors were battling to keep the show going. Three days later, and I could hardly believe the transformation.

If I had reviewed the show on that opening preview, I would have slated it. If I had reviewed it on press night I would declared it an outstanding piece of theatre. The previews worked the performance into a sell out run.

This is why I implore to my fellow bloggers to not review preview nights. You have to understand that there is a creative process involved, and previews are not a finished product that should be reviewed.

A review is something which is (and here I quote my dictionary) a “formal assessment or examination of something with the possibility of instituting change if necessary”. Bloggers offer their reviews not as casual thoughts but as critical assessments, which can be easily accessed through the internet. The fact that my fellow bloggers often perceive the theatre they see during previews as a finished product and review it as such is not fair.

Why is it not fair? What responsibilities do blogger have?

The answer is quite simple, and it relates to the internet and search engines. We live in a world that is more hyper-connected to the internet than ever before, where even the verb “to google” has entered the English dictionary. Bloggers’ platforms are on the internet. Blogs are naturally geared towards search engine optimisation (SEO), meaning that by entering keywords into the titles, adding tags to posts, and the ability to share content easily,  makes it delious cookies (yes again) for the cookie monsters of this world (ie, Google). You write a review of a show during a preview. You put it on your blog. You include a title which makes it SEO friendly, and wait until people begin to search for those keywords. This is where the problem lies.

I’m now your average audience member who does a search for: “Review Frankenstein National Theatre” and the above image is the result. Sans Taste, a well known blogger has written a review, and it comes up at the top of the search results. Now on this occasion this review both praises the show and mentions the press performance (making it obvious that this review is of a preview), however this blogger is according to Google, the most relevant website in the world relating to reviews for Frankenstein. As an average audience member, I have no idea that the press night for the National Theatre isn’t actually until the 22nd February. All that I know is that I want to find out if the show is good or not, and here is a review at the top of the search engine list telling me blah blah blah..

This is the problem. For the next 12 days Sans Taste will have dominance over this search, and will undoubtedly receive hundreds (maybe thousands?) of click-throughs – from all sorts of potential audience members/readers. If Sans Taste had torn Frankenstein to pieces, and has called this a ‘review’ it has a power. It won’t bring down The National Theatre and make it flop but look at the affect of the West End Whingers with their ‘Paint Never Dries’ title for Love Never Dies and the impact that had.

Bloggers have to understand that what they are classing as reviews can be picked up easily and be placed at the top of search engines and this does have negative (and positive) impacts.

Why should theatre bloggers not review previews: (To wrap up)
- The internet has changed, allowing blogs to have a much wider audience than ever before.
- Previews are not finished products, they are still being developed.
- Bloggers go because they love theatre. Their outlet is writing about it. We have to be more aware of how popular our blogs are becoming.
- Why do some bloggers purposely attend the first preview, instead of waiting a few days? Is it just about cost?
- Think of the creative teams involved! Give them some slack, that’s why a preview is a preview in the first place.

Other responses to Matt’s blog:

- Distant Aggravation by Corinne
- Ought To Be Clowns by Ian
- Burnt Arts by Dan Baker

Edit Fri, 11:23am: By request I have made it clearer that Sans Taste review of Frankenstein is actually positive and includes a note about the press night. I have used his review as an example of the power of a review on the internet from a blogger, in relation to search engines.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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