As a longstanding advocate of a more engaged dialogue between makers of and writers about theatre, there's an obvious hypocrisy in my writing a blog post under the above title. But here it is: I went through the entire Edinburgh Fringe this year without reading the reviews of my show. (I should point out before I go on that I've read them now.)
When making a show, I gradually reveal the contents of the inside of my head to an ever-widening circle of people. Lots of these people will tell me what they think about the direction the work is heading. All of these people matter. But I just can't listen to them all.
There's a large group of people, the audience, whom en masse I trust more than anyone. Moment to moment, it's abundantly clear whether what I'm doing is working for them. But if I ask ten of them about any given moment that didn't quite work today, I'll get ten different answers. They don't know where I want to go with the work; they just know what they saw.
There's a very small group of people I really trust and I listen to them very carefully. These people constitute the team working on the show and maybe three or four others who know me and my work well enough to say what they think in a way that's sympathetic to my direction of travel. Their diagnoses about what's not quite working and how to make it work are the ones I weigh very carefully.
The critics are disguised as members of the former group and sound like members of the latter. But they're not regular audience members; nor do they often behave as such. And they have no responsibility to you or your show. This doesn't mean they're wrong, or right; it just means that there's a point early in the development of a show where they won't be helpful. Nor should they be; that's not their job.
When I'm getting the hang of a new show, I don't want too many voices in my head telling me what it is and how it works, much less what it should be and how it could work. Not before I know myself. (By getting the hang of a show, I mean knowing it well enough not only to get right the words and the moves and the rhythms and so on, but also knowing, at any given moment, the function of this in the whole: how it contributes to the overall journey, movement, or argument.)
It takes a monumental amount of time for me to get the hang of a show in this sense; perhaps I never do. In the case of How to Occupy an Oil Rig I'd say I could have happily read the reviews by the last week of the festival; that's after about a dozen performances. With The Price of Everything it was probably more like fifteen, but I'd already done most of those by the time I turned up in Edinburgh. It takes this long because in doing the show enough times to gain a superficial level of control over it, it becomes clear that certain small or not-so-small moments don't quite contribute to the overall journey, movement, or argument. It becomes clear, that is, that there's something in the dramaturgy which doesn't quite click.
So the last thing I want is someone from outside of that relationship between me and the audience, someone with no responsibility to that relationship, putting pressure on elements of that dramaturgy when it may not sustain it. This can result from a rave as much as from a bashing: high praise for wringing out a particular emotional response at a particular moment can go to one's head, and it may be that that's in fact the precise moment where some wider problem means that I need to stop trying to wring out that response.
This is why I never quite get the hang of any given show. Its dramaturgy can be attended to on increasingly infinitessimally small levels, such that there's always a new problem to fix. The work on How to Occupy an Oil Rig is still at levels far from the infinitessimal This, fortunately, is also why I'm yet to get bored of any of my shows.
Of course, there are plenty of reviews, and plenty of reviewers, whose writing will help, not hinder this process. And there are plenty of makers who are perfectly able to filter out what's useful from what's not. For me, though, an ability to distinguish the signal from the noise doesn't begin to prevent the noise from being distracting. Also, I can do without the preoccupation about whether other people think the show's any good when I'm still figuring out, good or bad, how it works.
But there comes a time when the show, and my intentions in it, are secure enough to read the reviews and engage in that critical dialogue. Then you get very pleasant surprises like this one, a review that not only describes exactly what I was trying to do, inside a pretty tight word count, but is absolutely lovely with it.
Honestly, though, it's not the reviews I was talking about when advocating greater dialogue between writers and makers. It's the whole discourse around the art form. And I can't engage meaningfully with that unless I've engaged meaningfully with my own process first. Otherwise I'll bring nothing to that dialogue other than a series of half-digested remnants of things other people said about my show. And nobody wants that.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will