Tag Archives: Critics

Critiquing basics for armchair critics

SINCE the dawn of blogging, a full spectrum of critics, from armchair experts to celebrities, has flocked to the free platforms allowing free-rein to quite publicly appraise, rate and critique popular culture.

But it’s a singular form of writing, the role of the critic, one in which angels should fear to dabble.

If anyone’s of a mind to heed a few tips on how to critique (and I am really not anticipating there are too many who will pause before hitting the publish button on their thoughts) here are my ideas on what makes good criticism.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

Mother said it best – be nice. The best way to give something zero stars is to give it no oxygen whatsoever, but so often snippy critics will revel in blasting something which has every right to take its place in cultural history. Unless life (via some bizarre cultural Interpol) forces you to review something you don’t like, just forget it and move on to something you are more keen on.

Artists who can, do, artists who can’t, critique

Whilst an audience is an essential part of any creative process (art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, right?), being a reader or viewer does not necessarily qualify anyone to be a critic. Like cleaners, who routinely get the blame for office thefts, so critics are blasted for being amateurs who never ‘made it’. The smart critics know this and critique accordingly – either as an extension of their own arts practice (think Clive James) or from decades of experience in the field they’re critiquing (think David Stratton).  The first time I was required to review a play, the knowledge of the passion, time and energy required to ‘raise the curtain’ every night made me look for positives. Anything else would be hypocritical (note the appearance of ‘critic’ in that word).

Watch for spoilers

Critics need to adhere to this maxim more than the average punter. You might have loved the third-act turning point in the latest movie, but if you tell everyone the outcome, they ain’t gonna get a surprise when they go, are they now? If you’re a critic and you’re not sure what a third-act turning point is, read my post about the storytelling basics.

It’s not about liking it

So you didn’t like the play, the movie, the book, the whatever, that doesn’t mean others won’t love it. It’s my assertion that if you put your cultural dislikes into print, you’re only going to end up looking snippy and unhappy. To critique something means to put it in context, to observe what came before it, to attempt to see what makes it unique, even if it doesn’t succeed as a piece of art in your estimation.

They’re not hanging on your opinion

It’s tempting to emulate the great critics – those who could ‘close the show’ on Broadway. But that world is long gone, subsumed by the international opening weekend for new movies, the lack of geographic boundaries on the internet, and the end of paid work in the mainstream media for all but the big-name critics. The social media is where word of mouth, the oldest form of criticism, is happening. It’s free, fast and beyond the control of artists. If you get any attention in that mass of distraction, don’t flatter yourself that your opinion means anything. Try to leave the medium better than you found it, even just a little.

Critics also get rated

WRITE REGARDLESSBritish actress Diana Rigg compiled a collection of the most famous reviews given to actors, as far back as Ancient Greece, in her book No Turn Unstoned, which she subsequently turned into a one-woman show. Critic beware – you’re not immune from getting slated yourself.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Drama School Dream Factory – Act 2

HIGH STAKES DRAMA Thalia Theatre Hamburg’s production of Woyzeck.

A Writer’s first lesson in high stakes.

WHILE reading the paper one morning in a cafe during the summer break, I took-in a story about how the city’s best and brightest theatre professionals were being cut down by AIDS. One of the names was John, my NIDA design classmate.

I knew John sometimes struggled to keep up with the physical work, but I’d seen him only weeks before his death made the news, looking well, to all intents and purposes.

Back at NIDA, nobody seemed willing to talk about his death.

The start of my second year saw me in the most receptive space I was ever in while a student. We had a few weeks with industry designers Tom Lingwood and Kym Carpenter, workshopping designs for inspiring plays like Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, and the Greek tragedy Oedipus.

I moved-in with other students, got myself a job at a local cafe (check out my day job in A Waiter’s Revenge Tragedy), and wasn’t such a slave to commuting as I’d been the previous year.

As a result of a little stability, my design skills began to flourish, and I found there was space to actually learn, from experts, how effective designs were executed. I felt stretched, challenged, and supported. Overcoming a few ‘mistakes’ was considered part of the learning process.

But design theory is one thing. Executing those designs on a living, breathing production is an entirely different process. The year’s idyllic start took a very different turn when the stakes started to get higher, and designers-in-training had to start proving our mettle.

As a direct result, a sense of competition began to creep its way into our classroom.

There were two schools of thought in our year. The first was heady, resisted limitations, aimed very, very high and was quite self-serving. The second was more rational, understood creative restrictions, was very grounded, but just a little puritanical.

I never saw myself as the champion of either of these energies, just a necessary participant in both. But battle lines had been set, and lasted until we all graduated, which actually we nearly didn’t, since every one of us was threatened with expulsion if we didn’t find a way to work together harmoniously.

Whether NIDA’s production schedule could have continued without an entire year of design students was dubious, but it was a timely real-world reminder to ‘keep the drama onstage’, as they say.

What was less clear (although this incident tells me it should have been startlingly obvious), was that the trainers at NIDA had a sharp eye on second year students in all disciplines, analysing who had the potential (in their view) to make good in a challenging industry, and who didn’t. The knives were out.

In the middle of this, my mother was having tests for some health problems. She laughed off the constant ambiguous results, was booked in for exploratory surgery, and on the afternoon her three children arrived simultaneously for a visit, she told us all she’d had a huge amount of cancer removed, with part of her bowel, one kidney and both ovaries.

GEEK’S TRAGEDY (L-R) Susan Prior, Annie Burbrook & Emily Russell in Rachel Landers’ production of Antigone, NIDA 1990 (Photo by Marco Bok).

The reality of this situation had no place in the ‘dream factory’ of NIDA. I think mum knew that – she was a keen supporter of the place, donating her original 1970s clothing to the wardrobe department for an Alan Ayckbourn play, and assisting me in scenic painting during an open day. She eschewed chemotherapy, and, as her children’s lives progressed in new directions, to all intents and purposes, nobody was sick.

But my attention was permanently split, from exactly half way through my course. When some of my classmates whined about their difficult personal lives, I wanted to shout at them to just get on with things … at least nobody had cancer.

I completed that year at NIDA designing a student director’s production of Antigone, Sophocles’ tale of a daughter for whom life’s stakes got very high indeed.

Hanging out at student parties, trying to find some way to fit in, still deeply closeted in a gay-friendly environment, I became the kind of person who got very angry if  anyone started to ask me the ‘wrong’ kind of questions.

The bad news about my family, and the stark realities about making a career in the theatre, had settled into my consciousness, just slightly beneath the surface.

Life was getting very ‘high stakes’, but the final act was yet to be played …

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Waiting for Waiting for Godot

WAITED WORDS Mehdi Bajestani as Lucky (from a production of ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Naqshineh Theatre).

A Writer’s introduction to great theatre.

THE best piece of professional theatre I’ve experienced remains one of the first I ever saw.

It was my last year of school, and our English class travelled to the city to see Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

We arrived on time, were seated amongst an array of other school groups, and waited for the performance to begin.

Eventually, a lone figure – one of the actors – walked sheepishly onstage to deliver an apology.

One of the school groups (a busload of students from the Central West, apparently) was late, and the stage management had decided to wait for their imminent arrival. It seemed a little inappropriate that one of the actors was selected to give us the news.

Whether he was playing Vladimir or Estragon was not clear – he wore the Chaplin-like baggy pants and bowler hat of Beckett’s main characters, and he sat on a chair, like the rest of us, and waited.

And waited … and waited … and waited.

As teenagers, we all did what teenagers do while they’re waiting. We got impatient. We gossiped. We heckled one another. We heckled the actor. We did everything we’d predictably do. I recall going inside myself, my outer shell not showing impatience, but I was seething inside, thinking: “Typical country school, couldn’t leave home on time … now we won’t have any shopping time before we have to go home on the train.”

Eventually, it seemed even the actor had waited enough. He sat upright and addressed us, but not to make a further announcement. The lights went down suddenly, leaving only a spotlight on his face, and, using Beckett’s words, he berated us all for being so foolish as to believe his cunning little trick of making us understand, whether we liked it or not, what this classic piece of Absurdist Theatre is really about.

And that wasn’t all. There were no other actors to this production. Usually, Waiting for Godot has a cast of five. Very quickly it became apparent that we were going to be roped-into this production, quite literally.

And there was no such thing as personal space. The actor proceeded to push his way along certain rows, unravelling a rope as he went, thick rope that weighed into our laps. No amount of complaining got through to him, as he sectioned-off an entire block of the audience to evoke the roped-by-the-neck character Lucky, by whipping the rope with each hand. Many of the lines were delivered directly to people in the front row. “Poor them,” I thought, “lucky we weren’t seated down there.”

The effect got right under my teenager’s shell, cut through all my boundaries, and made me respond against my will.

ABSURD THEATRE Sydney Theatre Company, housed in a wharf on Sydney Harbour.

I don’t think the actor took a curtain call. We poured out into the foyer, and I quickly disappeared on foot. I couldn’t wait for the bus – I just walked.

I strode through the city, walking over two kilometres, trying to rid myself of the feelings. Muttering how ‘bad’ the show was. Questioning why they couldn’t have done ‘Godot’ traditionally, whatever that meant.

I eschewed the shops, too unsettled to think about more than these feelings, got on an early train by myself, and settled into my seat feeling like a bit of an idiot.

The rhythmical rocking of the train unravelled me bit by bit, until I could reflect, at a distance, on what a brilliant production I had experienced.

It lead to me following a career in the performing arts, hoping to be a part of an industry which could affect people that way.

In two decades, I have never been quite so literally ‘moved’ by a piece of theatre.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.