Hannah Silva and Thomas John Bacon share their views on theatre criticism in the region.
Foreword by Pamela Peter-Agbia.
Originally published in Nom de Strip, Issue 2 / Right here, Right Now.
Last month we thought we’d flex our social media muscles and invite the internet to respond to this question. We were expecting, at best, a couple of re-tweets from our semi-interested friends, or unhelpful one-word replies like ‘dunno’. The thoughtful considered responses we received from theatre maker Hannah Silva and performance artist Thomas John Bacon were kind of unexpected, but they reveal a genuine concern about the perceived lack of serious theatre criticism in the region. So, why aren’t people writing about theatre in the South West? This question refers to both the lack of reviews of work produced locally and the lack of theatre critics based in the region. Our original thoughts were that theatre, for some reason, neither good nor bad, seems distant to the rest of the arts. We feel less likely to stumble upon a review of a theatre production or live performance than we are an art exhibition or music gig. Theatre criticism is out there, but it’s written for and by those who are already firmly part of that world, it flies over the heads of those who don’t speak the language. And with the region being so damn big and disparate the few people writing about theatre in the region are often required to be in two to four places at the same time. But, of course they can’t be, and so good work often misses out on good criticism. Thanks to Hannah and Thomas for the following contributions, which offer more insight into the issue than we ever could.
Writer & Theatre Maker, Plymouth
There are a few South West reviewers and writers – Belinda Dillon has reviewed for Devon Life for a while, and she now reviews for the brilliant Exeunt magazine. I check out these blogs now and then: Angela Street, Annette Chown and Wide Awake Devon, who are good at provoking debates, and Theatre Writing South West, which has just started a blog. Action Hero asks good questions, and I think in Bristol in general there’s loads going on. But sometimes Bristol doesn’t feel like the ‘South West’.
Lyn Gardner regularly gets down to the Drum Theatre in Plymouth for The Guardian. Elizabeth Mahoney has been reviewing lots of stuff for The Guardian in the northern part of the region (and Wales) … and gives a very high proportion of four and five-star reviews!
When I tell people I live in Plymouth they often suggest that I enjoy the whole ‘big fish in a small pond’ phenomenon. Actually I feel like a tadpole without a pond at all.
I invited everyone I could think of in the region and outside of it to the premiere of Opposition at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth last year. It was sold out, but only those outside of Plymouth who already knew my work came, and there were no reviews. When it was at the Bike Shed Theatre, for the Exeter Fringe Festival, Belinda Dillon came and wrote a lovely review for Devon Life. That was the first proper review of my work in the region.
So because I couldn’t get any national critics to come to see Opposition in the region, or any producers or representatives from other theatres either, going to the Edinburgh Fringe (with the Barbican Theatre) seemed like it’d provide that opportunity. I got great reviews in Edinburgh. Those reviews really helped me to book other tours. However, the nationals didn’t make it. It was a little frustrating to see The Guardian reviewing work that had already been on in London or was going to be in London in the following weeks, but not managing to come to mine – when the future of my show kind of depended on getting those reviews.
The Edinburgh Fringe is a nightmare and way too big to stand out if you’re not known and don’t have a known producer/theatre behind you. One of the people who did manage to come was Phil Hindson from the Arts Council (funny that I had to go all the way to Edinburgh to get my local relationship manager to see my work; but it turned out well). Following Edinburgh I managed to get a second small Grants for the Arts fund to redevelop the show.
It’s possible that if I’d had a review from one of those nationals, I’d have managed to book Opposition for a run at a London theatre by now. Someone recently said, if you’d had a load of four-star reviews from Edinburgh it would have been programmed in London – which made me go ‘Arrrggh but I did!!’ – just not from The Guardian. So I’ve now put all the stars in a more prominent position on my blog.
At the recent ‘Getting it out there’ symposium, Lyn Gardner said that theatre makers should stop worrying about the mainstream press and instead pursue a dialogue with bloggers, etc. I like the point, and I think in London where there is plenty of opportunity to connect with great bloggers and online websites and other theatre makers it is total sense. But we can’t expect them to travel this far without funding, and in the South West we don’t have that kind of a community. We need to start building one.
I’m not a critic, or reviewer, or anything. I realised a while ago that it wasn’t sensible for me to attempt to review work – because I’m an artist too, and we’re colleagues in a way. I can be mega-blunt and I rarely like stuff. So I made a little rule – I’ll only write about companies that are established, so what I write has no impact on them, or, I’ll just write about the work that I think needs shouting about.
So I saw Blok/Eko by Howard Barker at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. I didn’t go intending to write about it, not at all. But when I got home and looked it up there were no reviews. So I wrote my kind of a response and a lot of people have read it. Actually the comments are more interesting than my post, and I’m happy that my blog provided a space for people to discuss the work. I don’t know why there were no ‘proper’ reviews of Blok/Eko.
Thomas John Bacon,
Writer and Performance Artist, Bristol
Aren’t people writing about performance in the South West? I am a live artist, PhD researcher and critic for an online and print based periodical. I am a Londoner who has found himself in the South West for the past four years or so and in that time I’ve lived in two distinctly different cities and one town: Gloucester, Cheltenham and Bristol, where I currently live. The publication I write for covers theatre, performance, live art, experimental action and dance, anywhere and everywhere. For the past year since I have been with them I have had a remit to cover performances both in Bristol and Bath. They have an ethos to write with integrity and thoughtful insight and they are always open to hearing from new writers who may be able to report from under-represented areas of the country.
In each of these communities, performance, mainly in the form of theatre, can be found to be already written about. For the most part this will only ever be found in local newspapers; perhaps a review or possibly a mini-feature if it happens to involve a community event, school or charity. This is not however a syndrome peculiar to the South West but rather a dysfunction of the system as a whole. This sort of meagre coverage that does exist is of vital importance and shouldn’t be put down, but it could do more. Rarely will it truly engage with the work and more often than not it can be found to celebrate the poorest of pieces as it has a duty to support that local economy.
On the flip side to the argument, however, we must also look to the producers, venues and curators. Most are driven solely by economic constraints, and therefore, when one steps outside of a city, programmes become tedious and repetitive, dominated by touring ‘safe’ rep. Again one can understand the reasons, but this is not the sort of performance that will receive coverage at a higher/wider national level. These venues, that struggle to survive in ever more difficult climates, such as witnessed in the Somerset arts cuts, should however take a risk every now and again. The safe choice isn’t always the right choice, though it can be understood. The Parabola Arts Centre in Cheltenham that forms part of the exclusive Ladies College has dared to take unprecedented chances in their recent programme, far more than has ever been done in any of the local theatres of the same area. Though one could argue that they can afford to, let us then look to the Stroud annual Site Festival that has successfully brought rare and exciting live art to a rural setting. But when was the last time you read about the programme at The Everyman Cheltenham or Gloucester Guildhall in a national periodical?
In Bristol, the programmes are mixed and varied, and the main venues such as Tobacco Factory Theatre, Arnolfini and the Old Vic work hard as cultural hubs to propagate and propel excitingly varied programmes. But even here, in the thrust of ‘cultural-strategy’, festivals, pop-up venues, communities and smaller locations, you can still find it hard to discover the more extreme end of live art, and in my limited experience – having only lived here a year – I have encountered censorship from a Bristol venue (not named here) that forced me to choose to relocate a programme I had curated to London. The details of these events have already been eloquently covered by Artsadmin’s Manick Govinda in an article he wrote for Spiked, and I only mention this again now as, being the first venue that bravely stepped forward to rehost our work, it was not from the South West but instead ]performance s p a c e [ in London. And indeed I have found that due to its content my own solo work is more likely to be programmed in the major arts cities such as London, Glasgow and Leeds than sadly in the South West.
When work is shown we should write about it somewhere. Not every piece will always be covered but the act of writing is an important and vital document.
It helps to promote, push, celebrate, critique and archive.
When work is shown we should write about it somewhere. Not every piece will always be covered but the act of writing is an important and vital document. It helps to promote, push, celebrate, critique and archive. Any form of writing is important, from bloggers to academics, from hacks to informed critics, they all serve a purpose. The South West has an amazing mix of art that is home-grown, transient and international; producers, venues and curators must take risks alongside their normal remit, be that an artistic strategy or economic constraint, in order to forge forward. Sometimes success will be found and at other times failure, both are of equal importance but the hosts of new work will only ever be encouraged to take risks if writers support, contextualise or capture the event. There needs to be an evolving reciprocity between both sides of the sector, especially where current representation appears to be poorer.
There could always be more done to host or write but these questions are not unique to the South West. Not everything will be published, not everything will be promoted and not everything will be celebrated, and many things will be missed, but this is part of life in any big city and so the South West – rural and urban – will be no different. What can be done centres around risk. Risk is always important. And if the South West is seen to do more, in the same way that Parabola or Site have, then this will naturally capture wider national coverage from specialist arts publications and academics. In 2010 Plymouth Arts Centre hosted the successful and celebrated live art event Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow, but this was attached to the internationally established name of Marina Abramovic. We need to support and grow our own new ‘names’ now, not wait for them to come to the South West to create a context in which risk becomes safe. The ultimate question isn’t one of why is there a lack of writing, but what can we do to evolve the sector for the benefit of all?
Hannah Silva: hannahsilva.co.uk
Thomas John Bacon: thomasjohnbacon.com