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On Quality, Value and Criticism

Monday, June 29, 2009 Leave a Comment

We have returned from The National Summit For Ensemble Theatres, sponsored by NET for five days in San Francisco, and there is MUCH to unpack. Each day had enough material for several blog posts, and while I don't expect to have time to get it all down, I will try and focus on the bigger questions and idea that emerged for us from the conference.


One of the most exciting discussions that emerged from the conference was regarding quality. Often, the conversation seems to be that with better marketing, younger content, cheaper tickets or deeper funding everything will be fine and theatre will thrive. Left unspoken is the reality that a lot of theatre is boring or confusing, and even competent theatre-makers often wind up making mediocre art. It doesn't matter how hip, how young, how free and how supported bad theatre is - it is still bad theatre and no one wants to see it. But the question of how to make better theatre is often unexplored - why? And how do we use that question to make higher quality theatre?

This post will focus on five ideas that emerged from the conference and ensuing discussions:

1. The difference between quality and value
2. Understanding the rules of form
3. Critiquing from within
4. Sustaining the conversation
5. Clarity of intent

Hopefully, these five points will encourage you to post your own thoughts on quality, and even better, your practices for making your own work better.

1. The difference between quality and value
I think the primary reason we have trouble talking about quality is we so often confuse it with value. Artistic quality is excellence in an established cultural tradition. That tradition has a form with a set of rules and expectations, a unique physics of engagement, a shared language; and from that tradition, excellence is expressed.

You do not need to like or value that tradition to recognize when its expression has quality.
You only need to be familiar with the rules.

An example: I don't know much about the tradition of ballet. However, I know enough to recognize excellent ballet dancers from merely competent ones because I have had enough exposure to the form. Some cultural traditions have very simple rules: others are more complex. It may be that complex cultural traditions require more but give more in return because their complexity provides a greater range of expression. But whether that is true or not, if you have enough exposure to a tradition, you are able to discern, even without being able to articulate exactly why, variations in quality.

That doesn't mean you LIKE it. Thus far, I have not connected with theatre devised primarily from Viewpoints. I don't value it (though I'd like to, and perhaps would with more exposure to its tradition). However, when I saw SITI Company perform, I noticed a clear difference in quality from less experienced practitioners. I knew it was very high quality within that tradition.

Which brings us to value, which is a moral judgement, not an aesthetic one. Value judges what kind of work is important - theatre of social justice, devised work, Broadway, Indie theatre - and in doing so, also judges what kind of work is not important.

Quality is concerned with the use of a medium within an aesthetic tradition.
Value is concerned with the role of that tradition within a society.
Quality looks at how art works.
Value looks at why.

What happens when the two are confused? An audience that loves the tradition of experimental theatre begin with a set of values, and when experimental theatre validates those values, that audience is far more likely to believe the work is quality. An audience that believes theatre for social justice is more important than the classics immediately turns off when the curtain rises on a traditional production of Shakespeare. And so on.

When theatre does not conform to our values, it is very difficult for us to assess its quality. Why? I think in part because questions of value are so deeply connected with self-identity. Broadway theatre isn't just bad, it's everything wrong with theatre today! Theatres should only produce works by playwrights under 35! We should ban Shakespeare! Behind those firey calls for revolution is often, I think, a real fear that the work we're doing isn't valued, and so we must devalue work from other traditions.

And of course we should advocate for the kind of work we value, but in doing so, we should never confuse that advocacy with a clear-headed analysis of quality. The mediocre play with the beautiful process of international collaborators concerned with peace is just as deadly to experience as the millionth production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. So while I think it is worthwhile for us to talk about what kind of theatre we need to see, a cooler-headed look at how to make better work across all traditions is increasingly important. Because audiences across all traditions are looking at all these different kinds of work we're doing, and deciding not to come back.

2. Understanding the rules of form
So let's leave aside the question of value for now, and focus on the question of quality. I think the way we make our work better is by deepening our mastery of a tradition, and then innovating within and beyond it.

Part of it is simply practice: dancers and musicians practice their technique for hours every day as a path to mastery. Sometimes we theatre folk do, too.

But I believe that engaging in discussion about the work itself is also essential, and it's here that I feel like the blogosphere has some distance to go. Sometimes it feels like we talk about everything but how we make artistic decisions. Often I have reached an epiphany about artistic choices when forced to articulate my process. We like to veil that process in mystery, and often it is more important to simply try a million things and see what sticks; but after the sticking point, why not speculate why it worked? Why not share that speculation?

Excellence in theatre is often a matter of a beat longer, a foot farther, a minute faster, a line shorter, a turn away, a word that echoes, a gesture that lingers, a blackout that came a moment too late, a sound cue a hair too loud, a gel just pale enough, a set piece that finally makes a scene playable. We see each others work and we make judgements about these decisions, but we often don't talk about these choices, even within our own company, let alone outside of it.

And so we stumble somewhat blindly and a little alone into what niche masteries we carve out for ourselves; instead of moving the mystery inch by inch forward into the light, as scientists sometimes do.

How can we talk about the work we do, across judgements of value, to improve the quality of theatre?

3. Critiquing from within
Conrad Bishop from The Independent Eye brought up an excellent point at the conference: the best criticism functions from within. If you imagine yourself as a collaborative artist in the company you're critiquing, your criticism becomes the question "What can I bring to this process?" rather than "How can I analyze this product?" It forces you to work within that artist or company's cultural tradition as best you can, and helps remove the blinders of value.

But how do we imagine ourselves within another company when it is so difficult to critique work within our own? Flux has annual and post-play post-mortems, but they focus entirely on the process of producing, not on the quality of artistic decisions. And this is, of course, because feelings get hurt. And yet we must improve the quality of work, and we can do that best by talking about it.

So how do you talk about it within your company? Do you use the Liz Lerman Critical Reponse Process? Do you just say the ugly truth and wound each other terribly and then recover over beers to do the whole thing over again, like Valhalla? How do you do it?

And how do we bring that process beyond our company's walls? How do we help make each other better? It starts, I think, from stepping back from value, understanding the tradition, and critiquing from within.

4. Sustaining the conversation
Another good idea that emerged from the Summit was the idea that any critical process should not be a drive-by snooting but a sustained engagement. This happens, of course, in the ad hoc way we form trusted alliances with artists whose opinions we respect. How can we make that alliance a daily practice rather than an occasional interaction? How can it happen across companies?

5. Clarity of intent
There is perhaps nothing more important to this process than clarity of intent. At the beginning of the process, understanding why you are doing this play now, and how you think it might work, is essential. That doesn't mean you know everything, nor does it mean you don't ceaselessly revise everything throughout the process. But it is impossible in the heat of a rehearsal process to assess your work if you don't begin from a place of clarity and relative consensus. It makes it extremely difficult to talk about the play at production meetings, in rehearsals, and over beers after rehearsals if everyone has a different idea of what this play is, why we're doing it, and how it works. That does not mean conformity of opinion, but it absolutely means a destination with a map and compass and some wind in the sails.
That goes for companies, too. Flux is reaching the point where we need to start talking in language as clear as water about where we're going aesthetically and how to get there.
Where is your company going aesthetically?
How are you going to get there?

That was a longer post then expected. But there's a lot to talk about here. We'll be bringing these questions to our Annual Retreat, and we'd sure love for you to post your ideas here.


  • Laurie McCants said:  

    Excellent, cogent ponderings, Gus! Mind if I refer your blog to Sabrina Hamilton, who arranged for the performance response sessions at the Summit? She's wanting to carry on and refine the conversation.

  • Sean said:  

    This was riveting.

    I've been writing on my own blog, not criticism, necessarily, because I don't think I have the training or the language, but more just my response to the theater that I've seen over the last six months, and as I've been writing, I'm noticing more and more similarities on an artistic level.

    Is it not strange that Pretty Theft takes a long hard look at levels of dishonesty (along with several other things)... and then these themes pop up again and again in so many other pieces? Why are there so many plays *right now* that have, as a plot point, a misunderstood road to redemption, a *physical* journey with an unwanted conclusion?

    See, I want to ask these questions, but we're all alone in our rooms with our computers, and it's hard to know who's asking and who's answering. There are different companies, different playwrights, artistic communities with very little (if any) crossover, and we're becoming obsessed with the same thematic expressions - yet, we don't seem to have a way to bounce the ideas off one another.

    Unless, the simple act of seeing each other's plays, and then going home with them, is the ultimate goal. Again, I don't feel like I have the language or the education to make an argument in any direction, and I'm not even sure what I'm asking here, but your post resonated with me and has given me a lot to mull over.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Laurie, please do! I really want to move forward from talking about it to defining clear things we can do to improve quality, not only within our individual companies but the field, as well.
    (Our conversation over lunch was one of the most valuable part of the conference for me, by the way. So thank you again.)

    Sean, first let me say I'm psyched that you appear to be in John Hurley's play at Us-ification. Looking forward to it.
    Then, let me say I checked out your recent posts and see what you mean in terms of common themes.
    Also, in terms of raising the level of work we're all doing, the section where you talk about D.I.L.'s work is very useful:

    "There is something, it seems, about this character that marries with David perfectly. He never knows himself, he inhabits every single moment without a bit of knowledge or a wink or an apology...this leads you to the gut-dropping realization that he's playing a version of himself. This character is simply everything we've all done, but *one click worse*, and David creates him by making those terrible things one click *smaller*."

    What is great about this (heavily excerpted) section is it describes in an outline why a particular performance was effective (with the added bonus of contextualizing it with his other work). An artist reading this section can take that insight into their own work. I'd love for you to elaborate and talk about moments where a specific choice accomplished the above (you know, when you're not busy producing a show and raising a family).

    Talking about each other's work in specifically constructive ways is one path to improving the field as a whole, I think - shared best aesthetic practices (so often defined in strictly managerial terms) can move beyond the class room and become a part of how we work. How exactly to do that, and invite the audience into that process in a meaningful way, is part of some future blog posts, I hope.

    Thanks all for stopping by.

  • Bitter Lemons said:  

    Fascinating. I'm going to link to this on my site Bitter Lemons. www.bitter-lemons.com. Also going to add you to our blog roll if you don't mind. Please stop by and take a look at what we're doing and if you like - love for you to return the favor and add us to your roll call. Keep up the excellent work! Relentlessly yours, Colin Mitchell