The relationship between artists, academics and the press is a long-standing one, with critical analysis understood as vital both in cultivating audiences, and in constructively feeding back to creators. The advent of the internet has opened up countless ways to join discussions around art and culture, yet perhaps surprisingly, the number of subjects discussed is not matched by the sheer volume of the conversations themselves. While critical material on more “conventional” artforms may have reached critical mass, there’s a wealth of diverse, experimental work spilling out onto Britain’s streets that both journalists and academics by and large continue to ignore.
Seeking to address this imbalance, Paschale Straiton (The Seance, That’s The Way To Do It!, Funny Peculiar), Sian Thomas and Kim Tilbrook, along with other members of the National Association of Street Artists, established Reframe the Streets, a new, democratic reviews blog with a focus on street theatre and outdoor performance.
“It’s been a long-standing complaint in the outdoor arts community that theatre critics rarely take an interest in outdoor performance,” said Straiton. “Critical debate can help to focus ideas and sharpen skills and the lack of a platform for this kind of conversation in our sector has been a problem.”
Not only does critical analysis provide artists and companies with feedback on individual productions, it’s also a means of recording the history of the form, drawing comparisons and emphasising the fact that contemporary work does not exist in a vacuum.
In an introduction to Reframe the Streets at Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, writer and performer Nick Cassenbaum (The Schvitz, One Green Bottle, Bubble Schmeisis) spoke about his student days, when research led him to discover that his university library stocked just one book on street performance. This lack of a formal critical tradition not only limits opportunities for street artists to learn from and build upon the work of earlier creators, but also contributes to contemporary critics’ reluctance to engage with the form.
With this in mind, two very different critics – Cassenbaum and Xavier Leret (The Fantastical Adventures of Leonardo Da Vinci, Renaissance, Isle of Dogs) – were selected by NASA UK to start the debate. By approaching the shows with contrasting perspectives, the organisation hoped that the writers would challenge “the idea of the critic as an unassailable figure”.
“Most performance critics have a limited understanding of outdoor work – the challenges and advantages of working in an outdoor context,” Straiton explained. “One of our writers, Nick Cassenbaum, is a performer, dramaturg and writer who has made outdoor work for some time. Xavier Leret is currently a novelist and was the artistic director of award winning Kaos Theatre, but has very little knowledge of outdoor work.”
The responses from the two writers are only intended as the beginning of the project, acting as a catalyst for wider debate by encouraging more people to step outside their comfort zones. Audience members are invited to reply directly to the reviews with their own thoughts, creating a democratic model which Straiton believes is more suited to the open, accessible and public nature of the form itself. This could also help artists feel able to join the conversation themselves, responding to feedback and criticism from viewers and offering insights into their own creative decisions.
So far, the writers have attended Winchester Hat Fair as well as Greenwich + Docklands International, with this phase of the project set to culminate at Great Yarmouth’s Out There Festival in September. Within the current model, the two writers are required to turn around short reviews very quickly, with optional opportunities for further reflection and response later. This may change in future, however: NASA UK hopes to use these experiences to launch a “more ambitious” model in 2016, which will grow and develop the project over the next three years.
“We have limited funds and are paying our writers for two days work at each festival, to see and review shows. Furthermore, we have been trying to capitalise on getting feedback from artists and audience members during an event. With further funding we may opt for more reflection and writing time. And it may be that artists and audience members will prefer to respond in their own time.”
Engaging additional writers may also be an option further down the line: at present though, the team are simply looking for more viewer responses to add to those they have already received.
“Some have challenged the reviewers and others have added detail which clarify the reviewers’ ideas,” said Straiton. It would, however, “definitely benefit from some more opinions”.