Words: Ben Brooker
To explore the role of the theatre critic in the age of mass opinion, The Mill’s Writer in Residence, Ben Brooker, embedded with Theatre Republic to witness and reflect on the coming together of the group’s debut production, Lines.
Back in 2012 at an Open Space forum in London, a group of young British theatre critics, led by Maddy Costa, held a conversation on this question: What new dialogue can we set up between people who write about theatre and people who make it?
The provocation was a timely one. With the seeming dumbing down, if not disappearance altogether, of theatre reviews in the mainstream press and a new generation of critics rising up through the blogosphere, many were beginning to think about what a different, more nuanced way of writing about performance might look like.
Ben Brooker is the 2018 Writer in Residence at The Mill. This work was contributed through The Mill’s Writer in Residence program.
See www.themilladelaide.com for more details.
One idea was proposed by blogger Andrew Haydon: ‘embedded criticism’, in which the critic would not, as per custom, attend opening night and thereafter declare a show worthy or unworthy but would instead produce a piece or series of pieces of writing exploring the artists’ process. Perhaps the critic would spend time in the rehearsal room, getting to know the work from the inside out or, as Haydon did, go on the road with a touring theatre company, eating and travelling with the cast and creatives for a week.
On her blog Deliq, Costa wrote of “…the pervasive but spurious notion that it’s a final product – let’s call it the show unveiled on press night – that counts, not the journey to get there (let alone the journey a show might continue to take long after it’s been reviewed).”
Even as a playwright and theatre-maker, it’s sometimes easy to forget that a finished performance represents much more than itself. Every piece of theatre, unless it has been made in bad faith, is likely the culmination of weeks or months of thinking, planning, and struggle. And this is to say nothing of the contingencies that have to be overcome, again and again, if a performance is ever to make it to the stage: financial stress, time constraints, personal and professional difficulties.
It’s a wonder as much work makes it beyond the rehearsal or development room as does happen, which is not to say that critics should engage in special pleading for the theatre they see. There is simply too much of it that is boring or offensive or ill-conceived, and critics, above all, have a duty to shoot straight with their readers. But it is to argue for a criticism that acknowledges, however peripherally, the humanity that lies behind every work of art (except those that are obviously bigoted, fascist etc. but that’s another essay).
From 24 September to 18 October I spent around 20 hours in the rehearsal room of Lines, the debut production by Adelaide-based independent theatre company Theatre Republic. For four weeks the cast and creatives were based in the Breakout Space at the Mill – where I am writer in residence until February 2019 – giving life and shape to British playwright Pamela Carter’s lean but forceful 2015 play about four young army recruits undergoing basic training.
Corey McMahon, the production’s director and also artistic director of the company, has been receptive to the idea of my presence in the room (we were at university together so go back a few years) even though I’m upfront about not really knowing what I’m doing.
I explain that the sort of thing I think I’m going to write has not much been attempted in Australia – Jane Howard’s series of blog posts about her stint with children’s theatre company Slingsby is one of the few examples I can think of – and that I don’t even like the term ‘embedded criticism’. (I’m not even sure if it is criticism, even less that a term coined during the invasion of Iraq for the dubious practice of journalists attaching themselves to military units involved in armed conflict should be uncritically imported into the arts. But then again, there is something a little delicious about the fact this enterprise will see me, an arts journalist, attach myself to a military unit, albeit a fictitious one, involved in an armed conflict.) Still, Corey’s as intellectually curious as any director I know, and seems game.
The first reading of a script is always a nervy occasion, a bit like a party at which everyone is sizing all the others up, trying to fit into something that barely has a shape yet. At one point Corey calls it a ‘soup’, acknowledging its hybrid nature – part read-through, part production meeting. Accordingly, the morning’s conversation shifts between the concrete – what the set will look like, how quickly the actors can change costume – and the theoretical – the role of class in the play, its form and style, and how it relates to the audience.
The air is charged with a nervous excitement that is both general to first readings, and particular to independent theatre where everything feels more precarious than in its subsidised counterpart, undergirded more by love of the sector’s camaraderie and creative autonomy than anything else.
In the morning I glance around the table, feeling even more the proverbial spectre at the feast than is usual for a critic. Taking in the four male actors – trim, handsome twenty-somethings, some perhaps more tense than others on account of a dearth of recent stage experience – I’m reminded of one of the first things Corey said to me about the production: how unfashionable it was to be doing a play with an all-male cast in the age of #MeToo.
The actors, too, are aware that the play is a risky proposition, the conversation as the morning wears on turning to ‘toxic masculinity’ and the role of film and TV in shaping our attitudes to gender and war (there is a stack of war DVDs on the table, among them Lone Survivor, the Mark Wahlberg-starring action film with which the four young recruits of Lines are obsessed). Later, one of the actors will tell me that “if we are to do this, with four blokes, then it must play a part in the broader discussion around this stuff and how toxic masculinity fits in, particularly in Australia.” He worries about what his friends will think, and imagines what they might say: ‘We have done that. We have seen these plays and we have heard these stories. Enough, enough, enough.’
But for all this discussion, on hearing the actors read Lines for the first time it strikes me that Carter’s play is far from didactic, and certainly not reducible to cant about ‘toxic masculinity’ (a phrase I dislike for its overuse and fuzziness, often lazily substituting for what people really mean – sexism, misogyny – but would rather euphemise away). Instead, I think, it’s a play that uses text not, or at least not only, in a denotative way, but rhythmically, somatically – in Carter’s words, as a “soundscape of the body.”
A movement choreographer, Roz Hervey, will provide what Corey calls a ‘choreographic menu’ for the rehearsal process, and the actors will spend time with a personal trainer (“I don’t want army guys to come here and think we don’t know what we’re doing,” says one of the actors).
Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the play locates the audience in a sort of relentless present, eschewing backstory and foregrounding the body in trauma. “You guys have got to live the story you’re telling,” Corey tells the actors. It’s the difference, as he sees it, between a script rendered in performance as reportage and something more experiential and immersive, visceral even.
“The wall between audience and actor doesn’t exist in this play,” he says, and at the end of the day I’m left feeling excited by the prospect of a production designed to disrupt the conventional relations of theatre spectatorship.
I email Corey that night. I’ve been thinking about the idea, as practiced in some UK models, that the embedded critic can play a dramaturgical as well as observational role, and decide to test the waters. I suggest Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War might be interesting to look at in terms of its depiction of soldier’s-eye views of war, and write that I’ve been thinking about time and how it works in the theatre (or, more accurately, how theatre works as a medium of time), the army (24-hour), and Carter’s play (both compressed, as though no time passes at all between the scenes although it does, and expanded, as in the moments when it seems to suspend as characters verbalise their thoughts).
Corey writes back appreciatively but has something else on his mind:
I am wary of the article being a critique – in anyway – of my directing process or things you feel were missed, could have been done better etc. I think the rehearsal room is a sacred place, a place where a unique relationship between director, actor and text is developed and nurtured. This process is something that should be protected. It is great for readers to get an understanding of what goes in the rehearsal, why a play takes four weeks to rehearse, the stages of building a play and your response to where we are at/how the play has developed or grown with each visit. But I am not prepared to put myself, or my team, in a position where we are exposed to the kind of criticism found in a standard theatre review.
Perhaps I hadn’t explained myself clearly enough. I think back to the round of introductions we had done before the read-through and what I had said. Something about being a critic. Something about embedded criticism, about wanting to write about process. I email Corey back, hoping I haven’t fallen at the first hurdle:
I completely understand your concerns about criticism in this context but want to be clear that the embedded form is categorically not about the kind of evaluative criticism found in a standard theatre review. This from Ovalhouse Theatre in the UK is a good summary I think:
One of the first things I’d say to the artists involved is that my job here wasn’t about judgement. The word critic, with its connotations of star-ratings and marketable quotations, implies an element of judgement, but I was very clear that the embedded critic has a different role. The artist’s process, I reasoned, is the artist’s process. Whatever works for them works. The embedded critic’s job, then, is one of documentation; it should go beyond a recounting of events – they did this, then this, then this – in search of general principles. Not just individual moments, but modes of practice and techniques for creating and refining work.
He doesn’t reply but we chat the next time I am at rehearsal. He seems more at ease, and asks that I try to come in more than the one day a week I have suggested. “There is a dialogue and rehearsal room culture that is fast developing which I think would be good for you to have exposure to more than once a week,” he says, “and also I think it is going to help with how the actors react to you being in the room.”
The latter, as I discover a few days later, is no idle consideration. One of the actors is uncomfortable with my presence on account of a review I wrote of a show he was in. I’ve been expecting this, and resolve to spend more time in the room and to better articulate to the actors the nature of the piece I intend to write, to reciprocate the generousness with which they have allowed me into their physical space by opening up my mental one.
By the start of the second week of rehearsals the space, too, has undergone some changes. True to the scale model designer Olivia Zanchetta presented to the creative and production teams on day one, there are now beds and lockers. A series of naked light bulbs hangs down, and one wall of the space has been plastered with text and images: visual references for Australian Army uniform; articles from the Guardian on the targeting of working class and vulnerable young people by British army recruitment ads; and quotes on the role of the Royal Australian Infantry (in language that apes that of the play, ‘to seek out and close with the enemy, to kill or capture him, to seize and hold ground’), and the way both military and terrorist cultures rely on the supplanting of family ties by those to an ‘imagined kin’.
Meanwhile, the actors – now costumed prototypically in camouflage pants, t-shirts, and heavy boots – are noticeably more comfortable in the presence of each other’s bodies, and more invested in the world-building that, even at this level, often resembles a childhood game: ‘let’s pretend…’; ‘so you be this, and I’ll be that…’
Much of the week, Corey tells me, has been set aside not for ‘deep acting work’ but rather ‘army discipline’, the actors learning and practising how to make a bed, to carry a bergen, to plank and commando crawl with authenticity. Most days begin with an army drill led by one of the actors, Stuart Fong, who is in the Australian Army Band Corps. There are conversations about how guns (sorry, ‘simulated weapons’) work – do bullets face forwards or backwards in a magazine? – and how boots should be placed into lockers (answer: toes out). But for every Googleable query, there are many more that can only be worked out on the floor, in the messy give and take of collaboration.
Corey, too, throws out ideas that may or may not come to fruition – would a sound design element used to underscore a line of dialogue be ‘overegging it’ he wonders at one point – but he does not do thought bubbles. Everything he says sounds carefully considered, to the point, sometimes, of fussiness. He’s self-effacing and likes a folksy axiom (“I don’t want to tell you how to suck eggs”) but his style is coolly analytical rather than warm, commanding in a way that feels hard-won as opposed to heavy-handed. He is deeply engaged with the actors, vocally wary of giving them ‘line readings’ – telling them the tone and volume they should use, where to place stress on certain words, the emotion they should be trying to convey and so on – but he does not direct from the back of the room either, frequently entering the playing space to gently coax or question.
Over the course of the rehearsal process, the actors take to calling him ‘sir’ with militaristic zeal, a convention that is part in-joke, part earnest sign of respect. During the final week of rehearsals Corey asks one of the actors who seems to be having a little too much fun if something is funny and I can’t tell if he’s playing along, acting the part of the brusque drill sergeant, or not. It’s a moment typical of the way the lines (if you’ll pardon the pun) between the worlds of the play and that of the theatre blur as the rehearsal process advances.
In the wake of the allegations made by Eryn Jean Norvill against Geoffrey Rush, there has been much discussion online and elsewhere about rehearsal room culture and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within a space marked by experimentation and vulnerability.
(Invariably male) directors and theatre-makers have talked about the ‘sexual energy’ of such spaces, the “creative vortex [that] opens up between reality and the emotional life of the play.” As I write these words, Ita O’Brien, an ‘intimacy coordinator’, is touring Australia to much media interest, instructing producers, directors, and actors on best practice for scenes involving sexual content and nudity. But, as Alison Croggon has lamented, “as a rule, the arts only make it to the headlines when there is some kind of scandal.”
Rehearsal rooms, for all the problems they engender, are also charged with delight and discovery, alchemical places that bear out the ideal of theatre as an inherently cooperative and empathetic medium. Reflecting on his time as a director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Chris Goode wrote on his blog in 2011 that:
I wish more and more that audiences could see inside the rehearsal room. That’s where theatre is most like itself: a liquid thing, restless, full of spontaneities and unexpected shifts. The room I like being in is calm and careful but alive with attentiveness, with smart people trying to speak each other’s languages, tune in to each other’s invitations, respond to each other’s desires. Negotiating in a spirit of curious enquiry and the delight that comes from being kind together. At its best it’s a room where everybody falls a little bit in love, impelled by the knowledge that in a matter of weeks, days, hours, the time in which that love is immediately possible will end, its space will close down.
Towards the end of the rehearsal process I speak with Alira McKenzie-Williams, the production’s 20-year-old stage manager. “It’s going really well in the room,” she tells me, but it’s been a difficult few days for everybody.
A cast member has been dealing with a family issue and a day’s rehearsal has been lost as a result. Everything is behind schedule. The previous week I’d sat down with actors Matt Crook, James Smith, Stuart Fong, and Rashidi Edward, and the mood had been pensive.
“I’ve had so much exterior stuff going on,” I remember Matt telling me, before pointing to two of the other actors in turn: “So have you, so have you. Very different things but… I got married on the weekend. Normally I feel like I would have had my lines down a week ago. Little things like that are frustrating on a personal level for me.”
Corey, too, had been stressed, the room taking on an air of unease (“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” I remember him saying testily at one point, the actors having strayed off task, “let’s get on with it.”)
Nevertheless, Alira is upbeat. Rehearsals had been two to three days behind; now, she tells me, they’ve got it down to about one. “It would be nice to get another full run in before Monday’s bump-in [the process of transferring the production from the rehearsal room to the theatre, in this case the Bakehouse, literally just down the road] but it’s not going to happen.”
Lines is Alira’s first production as a full stage manager as well as, unusually, her first experience of independent theatre, having previously been engaged by the State Theatre Company of South Australia as a ‘production trainee’ (it is also Corey’s first independent theatre production in three years). She tells me:
“I’m very new at this. And I’ve also been finding my own voice as a stage manager, as someone who is both that and a different colour, and a woman in a room full of men. What I’ve found is that whereas for me I feel like I’m putting my foot down a lot – ‘come on, let’s go, we’ve got to be here, we’ve got to keep going, we’re going to go from this, we’re going to go from that’ – for everybody else it just feels normal.
“I had a conversation with Corey about halfway through week three and he said to me, ‘Alira, it’s OK to speak over me when we need to go on, to keep things in the room moving.’ That’s my job – to make sure the room is flowing nicely.”
I wonder if Alira has experienced any resistance to her role in the room or how she has been performing it. “Sometimes they don’t listen to me,” she says, “but I just have to repeat myself. And speak a little louder.” I begin to ask if part of the problem is the way in which we are conditioned to not listen to women and to only accept male voices as authoritative, and she finishes my sentence for me.
“I’ve noticed,” she tells me, “that if I use a particularly shrill voice I don’t get any response. They just don’t clock what I’m saying. But they’re pretty good. We haven’t actually had a conversation about this in the room. We just haven’t had any time really.”
For Alira, who has both Bundjalung and Anglo ancestry, it’s critical that Indigenous production crew members work across both Indigenous and non-Indigenous work, for the benefit of themselves as well as that of the industry more broadly. But, she stresses, “it’s really important to have more than one multicultural person in the room because then you can both be like, ‘oh I know what you mean – you mean this.’ And then people are like ‘oh, ok’ and actually listen to what you’re saying. When you’re in a room by yourself [as a person of colour] the majority of the time people will be like ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying’ and then move on with their conversation because in theatre it’s usually an all-white room. It’s really important to have at least one multicultural or, if you can have it at, at least one Aboriginal person in the room.”
By way of example she tells me about a moment she shared a few days before with Rashidi who was born in Tanzania and relocated to Australia with his family when he was 17:
“There’s a line in the play where his character, Valentine, says ‘traitor’ and we had a discussion in the room about the meaning of that word. And I was like, ‘He’s fighting for a country that he wasn’t born in,’ and Rashidi and I understood what that meant in a particular way. As an Aboriginal person, I nearly applied to go into the army when I was young because I did cadets as a kid but realised it wasn’t for me. I don’t want to fight for a government that doesn’t really have constitutional rights for Aboriginals or that doesn’t listen to Aboriginal people.”
On the final day I am in the room – four days before bump-in, and nine before opening night – the earlier tension has largely dissipated. I don’t know if it’s the detailed character work that’s been going on in my absence, or just the actors’ fresh buzz cuts, but the work seems to have a new confidence. Even when things go wrong, for example the recorded voice of the Corporal (Renato Musolino) fails to work, a momentum born of a kind of collective self-assurance seems to carry any friction away.
It’s not that everything feels settled – on the contrary, I notice that lines of dialogue that a few days ago stood alone now overlap, and that there is still uncertainty around how far to push the work’s physical language – but rather that the cast and creatives seem almost physiologically habituated to one another. There’s a moment when the actors lock into an eerie synchronicity, and Corey yells delightedly “Oh my God, you’re becoming the play! You just had a hive-mind moment!”
As much as I feel like I’ve been trying to resist it, I think there is a certain analogousness between army discipline, and the way it depends on individuals pulling together in a hierarchical unity of thought and action, and what is required to bring a live performance (at least one made according to Western tradition) to the stage.
As I watch the actors ‘trace’ wounds on each other with their hands and fingers – one choreographic convention, drawn from Carter’s stage directions, that Corey seems intent on keeping in, an elegant illustration of the soldiers’ gestalt-like nature – I wonder, in my digressive, writerly way, how far this idea can be stretched. If the actors are infantry and the director a field marshal, the rest of the crew her generals, do I, the critic, represent the enemy? I hope the analogy doesn’t hold, if only because I feel this whole thing has, in part, been an experiment in destabilising the critic’s relationship with the work she sees, reframing it as one defined by description and connection-making rather than appraisal.
Actually, I think the real adversary is time. It’s been said before that, in its ephemeralness, the way it incandesces through the world and is gone, leaving only ghostly traces behind, live performance comes closest of all the arts to the dark majesty of our own mortality. That sounds grand, but the idea is also an anodyne one. It’s simply a fact that the show, by the admission of nearly everyone involved, could use an extra week of rehearsals. It’s simply a fact that, though I suspect the actors won’t hit their strides until the second half of the season, until the show finds a new, brief life for itself in front of an audience, I probably won’t have time to watch it again after opening night – the point at which the critic’s relationship to a work usually begins but, for me, will have already ended, its space closed down.
In the days following opening night I’m asked by friends and industry peers what I thought of the show, if it’s any good. I say yes – I think it’s a successful production of a good script. But I also explain that I didn’t review it and that I have a partial, almost avuncular relationship to it.
I hear from Corey that ticket sales have been slow; he wonders if people “don’t particularly want to see a play about men and masculinity.” But, at least for now, I feel more than anything like I want to refuse these ways of talking about theatre, as a commercial object poised between poles of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘success’ and ‘failure’.
Instead, I find myself thinking of that famous image of Empire State Building workers arranged along a girder hundreds of feet in the air and how irrelevant it would have seemed to them to ask if what they were creating would be beautiful, or useful, or important. After all, we don’t call a skyscraper a ‘built’ but a ‘building’, a word that draws attention to its doing, its bringing into being.
Unlike the photograph of those workers, the images that regularly appear in theatre programs of the actors in rehearsal are invariably undramatic. They flatten rather than expand our view of the rehearsal room. For that, as with the ‘finished’ performance itself, you have to be in the room. It’s an experience that, along with Chris Goode, I wish audiences could have more often for the glimpse it provides into what is, for the most part, a beautiful becoming.