Recently, there’s been a buzz of international discussion on anonymity and criticism: in the US (Theatre Ideas Jumps the Pond and What Do You Think About Anonymous Reviews?), Canada (Mike Daisy on Theatrical Discourse), and England (Noises Off: Unnamed and Unashamed). The focus of these posts were on anonymous reviews, but in the midst of the discussion Ian Mackenzie (Theatre is Territory) came through with a thought that stopped me in my tracks:
“Our community has been living under the tyranny of the mainstream media review system for so long, we have forgotten how to criticize each other. It’s criticism by proxy: “I can’t risk standing up and calling bullshit on a peer because it’ll hurt my career. So I’ll just wait until the newspapers cut them down.” Is this our model? How is our industry supposed to prosper under conditions that forbid peer review? It’s insane! It doesn’t mean we should be “reviewing” each other’s work. That’s probably a bad idea. Many critics already do a fine job of that. But surely there’s a way to talk openly and critically about each other’s work without it being the career suicide Mike has suggested it is.”
A few comments later, he went on:
“Criticism does not equal standing on a soapbox slagging people’s work. Critical participation can be simply asking questions. Or participating in discussion. Or putting forward a point of view. These are all things that our community is already doing to some degree.”
The question is: to what degree? How many of us really risk providing a respectful but honest discussion of what we saw and thought? Or are we like this anonymous commenter on Matt Freeman’s blog during a similar discussion in October 2006:
“. . . partially I think we are all trying to do something and pointing out where (I think) someone is failing is rarely helpful and also is completely subjective. So even artists whose work I hate are people trying to do something and usually have good intentions . . .”
These two topics – anonymity and shared criticism – came together for me over the days from Saturday April 26th through Monday, April 28th. On the first date, Don Hall of Angry White Guy in Chicago, posted Why Nylachi(dc)?.
In this post, Don explained his reasons for living in Chicago, and why he doesn’t live in a smaller town. I responded to his post with my own entitled Lot Full, in which I drew an analogy between full parking lots and the major metropolitan area theatre scenes. In the comments for that post, Don wrote something that led me to comment Monday in a full post entitled On Small Town Audiences (A Reply to Don Hall), which took issue with his generalizations about small town tastes.
As I noted in my opening paragraph:
“My initial reaction was to do what Jess did [in my comments] and write a post that said, in essence, ‘That is the kind of provincial bullshit that makes my blood boil.’ But because it was Don, whose thoughts I often admire, I decided to step away from the keyboard and think about what was behind his comments.”
In response, my comments section exploded in a fierce debate between Don Hall, Bob Fisher (Don’s Chicago friend, aka devilvet), and me. The debate got pretty heated:
“I see we’ve crossed the line from argument to being an asshole,” I wrote.
Bob wrote, “It is always the other guy who is selfish, auteuristic and subsumed in a selfish vision . . . never oneself . . . what’s that I smell? Self-deception sir . . . self-deception. That is provincial. It borders on xenophobic. – Asshole signing off!!!”
And so on for 29 comments. My hit count soared t0 423 as people logged on to follow the “dust-up.” And for most of the readers, I suspect this sounded like three Tyrannosaurus Rex’s tearing each other apart.
Here is what was happening in emails behind the scenes.
Me: “By the way, in mid-May my wife and I will be taking the train into Chicago and then flying out the next day. Maybe we and dv and whomever can get together finally…”
Don: “When in May? I’m outta town (going to Wichita) May 8-11, but will clear a
day of scheduling to have some “sit down and chow down” time.”
Don: “May 24th - on my calendar!”
Meanwhile, Bob, in an email entitled Who Is Siskel and Which One is Ebert, sent me a link to a hilarious YouTube video of the two movie critics reaming each other while trying to film a promo for their show.
Me: “LOL – Brutal, huh? By the way, I just told Don that my wife and I will be in Chicago sometime in the evening of May 24th just overnight, and then we will be flying out to Raleigh. But maybe we can get together, huh? You dick!”
Bob: “We can get together but only if you are willing to sit through a command performance of my one-man show entitled I’m OK, You . . . Not So Much! Let me know, Are you guys flying into O’Hare or Midway? Are you staying downtown or closer to the airport?”
And in another email, Don wrote: “I come from the school of thought that says that vigorous discourse is the road to enlightenment and take on every idea as an opportunity to smack it around a bit to knock the glitter off and see it for what it really is. None of my questioning is meant to be a personal attack or is it to dismiss the ideas you put out there.”
And Don has just devoted another blogpost to doing just that, entitled More Nylachi(dc), which I will no doubt have to respond to.
The point is that Don, Bob, and I all take each other seriously enough to commit considerable personal time smacking an idea around a bit so we can “see it for what it really is.” This process strengthens and sharpens the ideas. For me, I can see just which portions of my ideas cause confusion or rejection, and I can weigh whether there is a way to express them more clearly, or change them to address the attacks. For Don or Bob, perhaps putting into words their objections to my ideas, and looking at their own practices in the process, might lead to more personal understanding as well.
Would I have been so open to reflection if the same identical comments were anonymous? I doubt it. I suspect I would have engaged once or twice, and then tuned out.
Instead, we are, in Ian’s words, learning “how to criticize each other.” We are “simply asking questions. Or participating in discussion. Or putting forward a point of view.” And we are growing as a result. Or at least I am (Don and Bob can speak for themselves – and I have no doubt they will).
For over two years now, I have participated in any number of debates on the theatrical blogosphere, and I know that as a result my ideas are clearer and more defined. I am in the midst of writing a book based on the ideas I have developed, and I know that the book is clearer, deeper, and more effective because of the exchanges I have engaged in.
The art form is best served by being populated with thoughtful artists who have thought deeply and critically about their own work. What passes for “being supportive” – focusing on the vague and general positive and not speaking criticism – doesn’t allow artists to grow and deepen. Artistic creativity benefits from being burnished, polished to a luster through friction. Without it, the result is rust.
To those who fear about their careers, who are afraid that speaking a critical word might lead to diminished job opportunities, I can only respond from my own perspective: if I lived in Chicago and was starting a company, Bob and Don are two guys I would call first, because I would know that the honesty and rigor that is required for the creation of an ongoing artistic relationship has already been established. So when Bob said, “Let’s do a Richard Foreman show!” I could say, “Are you crazy? That stuff is the worst!” And then we’d have a great, great time.
Scott Walters is a theatre blogger and University of North Carlonia drama professor.