Thursday, 17 January 2008

Thoughts on Blogging and the Theatre


What is the use of the blog? What am I using the web for, and how have (and how will) our social interactions be changed by the net? These questions have been in my mind over the last few months, partially due to circumstances leaving me less time to write for my blog (or no time really), and partly because I am a longstanding social networking refusnik with a mixed attitude towards the merits or otherwise of universal self publishing.

Ronan McDonal, author of a new book called The Death of the Critic, gave an interesting interview to theatrevoice, explaining his views on the internet revolution amongst other things. And in the Guardian on Monday there was an interesting, if perhaps overplayed, piece by Tom Hodgkinson about the (concerning) political and philosophical thinking behind the internet giant. I also have the feeling more generally, and from only anecdotal evidence, that some people are getting tired of the tyranny of social networking and the mind numbingly banal blog, though of course millions of people every week are also rushing towards these mediums.

Everyone’s a Critic

So where do I stand (and what a typically self centred blog comment that is)? I believe in an open, even encouraging, public discourse (I am sure there are interesting, even original, voices out there waiting to be heard, and the opportunity is slim elsewhere), but I also believe in expertise, experience and excellence (we can all aspire, can’t we). Blogs uniquely give those not in the mainstream media the chance to air irreverent views, to upset the status quo or to simply impart their wisdom on the rest of us. But I don’t want to listen to Tony from Truro’s view on The Lion King and how much little Lucy enjoyed herself, so, as the internet you experience is entirely self controlled (no reading a review or comment piece because that is what the commissioning editor decided on that day/week), and you can ignore these inexpert views, or indeed use them as an interesting barometer. Therefore those ‘in the know’, simply become a somewhat self selecting group (and I don’t think there is a huge appetite for serious theatre blogs, although some have mainstream cultural or entertainment value wider than the core theatre types), but this can still be a forum for interesting, constructive and informative debate, and indeed polemics (as well as deliciously destructive and vindictive stirring). Thus such diverse attractions as the West End Whingers, View from the Gods and the Arcades Project all regularly catch my eye (and I wouldn’t have read many of the heated debates and forthright opinions on those sites in any newspaper). I also think the blogs of established critics and theatre commentators like Mark Shenton (and Lyn and Michael on the Guardian from time to time) can be immensely interesting and useful, often giving us an insight into the working lives (and minds) of our critical fraternity, and complementing their reviews, genuinely expanding the discussion, or even just airing some thoughts (usually a good thing).

So generally, I think all these people know what they are talking about (even if I greatly disagree with them on a multitude of subjects, or even object to the way they fundamentally look at thing on some occasions), and I look at their work regularly and know their provenance, as far as you ever can on the web (I think I’ve even seen the mysterious Whingers by chance at the theatre once…). The problem (and the possible joy) comes when you are looking outside of your own field of interest; does the world wide web actually open up new opportunities? Well, yes, clearly it connects people around the world, and lets a musicals fan in Borneo talk with a stage-door Johnnie turned message board poster in New York City to their hearts desire. Blogs can be rubbish, but then any printed material can also be dodgy and published for a variety of reasons, not always honest or artistic. Indeed the level of debate and coverage of the theatre in most of the national press is derisory, even in the broadsheets theatre reviews (never comment) are short, often giving the critic little time to discuss the play further than the plot and the cast/creative team names. So I think that anything which adds to this, quite shameful state, is a good thing. Sure newspapers do big splashes about celebrity casting and ticket stampedes, but little else (many highly intelligent and culturally literate people wouldn’t now the difference between a commercial theatre, a subsidised building or touring company; forget a national debate about the ACE grants or the importance of theatre. Although I’m sure a few people know that something is going on.). Indeed theatre seems to be more and more fashionable as the days go by, the British stage is hardly in a bad state in terms of numbers (especially in the West End), money and even quality (though the quantity of quality and where it is focused is another story), but we are not really engaging in a debate about what we want the theatre to be, what part the arts in general should play in our lives. Do we want commodities or great experiences? Is the theatre delivering what the audiences really want, and what the audiences can embrace (and indeed are we leading people in the right way to be able to enjoy theatre? Is there a right way, and should anyone be doing the leading? Do we want to encourage a culture of artistic excellence in the traditional sense, let the commercial sector take over, or indeed let new forms take over? More precisely what balance that should take).

The Direction of Theatre?

[Just a few comments on those questions mentioned above; Firstly I do believe that we should aspire to have the widest possible audience for theatre, but not just a commercial audience, but one that spans the Western cultural cannon and beyond. I’m not afraid to say that schoolchildren and adults alike should learn to love Shakespeare, that any person should not think of Chekhov as not for them, that theatre should be challenging, political, beautiful, sensory, small and austere (although generally not all at the sane time), as well as entertaining, frothy and big. I want kabuki theatre or a modern French company to tour the regions and not just visit a London fringe venue for a week. We should champion all that is best in world culture alongside, and not above or in exclusion from, more ‘popular’ culture. Crucially though, and I think this is often overlooked, the new should be encouraged, and failure allowed. I think we can be far to perfectionist and quick to blame in our society, and we are not half as open to genuinely new experiences as we think we are (and I’m not talking about blithely backpacking in South Africa or deciding to swing both ways, but thinking, empathising, looking around us. Which all sounds rather wet when I write it down, but so be it), and I am certainly guilty of it sometimes. Another big question is about the form of the theatre (words versus the senses is the provocative version). That is to big for me to discuss now, I don’t have the energy, but is does provoke bitter battles, perhaps I’m a bit too Billington in my thinking, but I too like Shaw and words, I even like modern words which is a shock to some on the ‘other’ side of the debate. But then again, I do like ‘experiences’, and beautiful, bold, sexy, repulsive, smelly, loud and quiet, so I don’t quite know what some people want to make such big divisions. I have had some of my most memorable experiences outside of a traditional theatre, I am a constant habituĂ© of the fringe, and the Edinburgh Festival is just about the most exciting thing in my year, but then again lots of words can be used in all of those places, so it proves nothing. But I do feel like a 100 year old reactionary when I tell people my views on the Mask of the Red Death or A Matter of Life and Death (both overrated if not awful). Now I really shouldn’t get started on theatre buildings, because I am actually quite fond of them and am not in favour of holding all performances in caves and the local high street, though I have enjoyed performances in a lift, a car, a toilet, a swimming pool (one actually in a filled pool, others in empty ones), a council chamber, numerous churches, a homeless shelter, numerous government buildings and palaces, etc etc. I eve enjoyed one in a theatre once.]

Back to Blog (the Critics)

Knowing the experience of critics and commentators online comes with time, just like when reading a newspaper critic (but there is supposedly a presumption of quality amongst those fortunate enough to be paid by our fine newspapers. Still, I get to know my critics and calibrate my response to their views in accordance with this). More formal blog sites like the Guardian’s Comment is Free are generally interesting and well argued, though occasionally fatuous and silly, and we must note that this is paid work and not quite the same as a self published venture. Blogs are like anything else, and some are brilliant, but the majority are not (I’m guessing). Banality is never far away in life, and the same is true in cyberland (and we’re not talking scintillating but everyday stories by Chekhov or Carver, or existentialist thought). Streams of consciousness (a bit like this one) can be interesting, but listing the minutiae of every moment is too much. I love the observation of ‘real life’, but I do have my limits.

Social Networking Hell

Social Networking sites are another world of hell. I am a young man, and nearly everybody I know within twenty years of my age either way, are avid social networkers. Form tweenies to fifty something professionals, Facebook, Beebo and My Space have taken over a part of these peoples lives. I am happy to do things on my own; in fact most of my theatregoing is of the solo variety. I am a very social animal too, but (in a rather 21st century selfish way I suppose) I also want to do what I want to do without having to conform to other people constantly. I don’t want to go on holiday and tortuously decide what to do, I don’t want to consult on which film to see, I want to do it, and frankly I generally want to do a hell of a lot more than most of the people I know (to such an extent that I get told off for it). As a bit of an aside, I invite people to come to the theatre with me, and I invariably have my own ticket well in advance, so I’ll either get them one or they’ll buy their own; some people I know have been so disturbed by the idea of sitting alone (in a play!), that I can no longer ask them as it induced far and panic, which I find totally astounding. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out with people, attending parties and, in particular having robust and boisterous conversations on theatre and politics with friends (and enemies!), but I don’t see the need in having my choices validated by a group mentality, I am prepared to strike out on my own. So seeing people staying in to communicate with their ‘friends’ online, hearing about endless messages of mind numbing tedium constantly updating those friends on your every move, actually gets me a little bit angry. These people are not your friends (really, are they?); you will surely genuinely see friends (and when you do, you’ll talk about what you did since the last time you saw them!). I’m not saying that the net isn’t useful for getting in touch with people, keeping up long distance friendships and starting friendships, but it should be a means to an end, and the level of discourse is often so reduced and pitiful that it is almost pointless (twittering, god save us). I do actually still email people, which is becoming increasingly rare (as opposed to writing on a wall or sending an instant message), but mostly to arrange other things, and the things I do mention will be above tying my shoelaces level, or that I’m feeling happy, or whoever minute rubbish is transmitted over increasingly ubiquitous websites. Neither would I use a blog to update friends on my thoughts or movements, if I did I’d never have time to see those friends, see the plays or have the thoughts (that’s another question, is social networking etc ushering in conformity, increased commercialisation and taking us away from our own time and thoughts, keeping us constantly occupied by not thinking more deeply than an instant urge…. Discuss.).

This whole situation gets to a point whereby people are astounded that you are not on facebook, it actually makes them unsettled that you are not part of their ‘world’. Meeting people who say ‘I’ll add you on facebook’, which in itself can be a disingenuous statement, is quite amusing, just like telling people you don’t eat sushi or ski! I wish however, that I could wear this as a perverse badge of pride, but there is actually so few of us left that the facebook lure, that despite the increasing personal stories told to me describing annoyance and alienation because of the networking sites, very few seem to actually leave them. It really is a drug, almost a sinister cult (certainly part of our increasingly expressive/conformist society. Try wearing a suit on a Saturday, people will actually ask if you’re a lawyer and ask ‘why’ all the time), and the saddest thing is that many people really do give me hateful or more often expressionless stares when I tell them, gently, that I prefer to see my friends.

I Am What I Am

So ultimately I regard experience as the most important thing in life; I’ve not updated my blog, not because I’m lazy and can’t b bothered to write, but because doing what I love (i.e. attending the theatre, cinema and galleries, as well as reading books and newspapers and watching and a dose of TV on the side. Also know as living my life) is more important than regularly telling a tiny, or nonexistent, audience my views on the theatre (which is nice on the side, and I enjoy the writing part in itself). I’d love to be a critic and commentator, but, that is a full time job (the theatregoing bit, as I match most of the critics for number of shows seen, is actually almost a full time job too, certainly a totally consuming passion), and I wish I could get one!

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the many things I mentioned in this unexpectedly long post.


Sean said...

Thinking about this, and reading what I had written, made me what to make clarifications (as is so often the case, opinions are difficult to pin down, slippery and changeable).

I am enthusiastic about the internet, it has great opportunities, and I would never want to loose it (how would I book my theatre tickets? Multiple phone calls 9-7pm, rather than 1am net shopping), but, as you probably gather, I don’t think I want to live my life for or on the internet.

I also feel like my constant activity could also be construed as missing out on aspects of life, or being alienated from people. I don’t think this is the case, I’m a pretty talkative and friendly person I hope, but it is a very complex issue (my reality versus others’ reality), and I’m not discussing the relativism of life now.

Statler said...

Some interesting thoughts there. As for the 'everyone's a critic' movement, I genuinely believe that the more voices out there the better, regardless of experience, knowledge etc, but I do want them to be considered voices in that they have at least thought about how a production has affected them (or not).

But I hate when 'critics' frequently bring their 'experience' to a review. Having recently seen/written about a new production of "The Blue Room" I've been depressed by how many (precious) words in the reviews have been spent (wasted) on telling me how great Nicole Kidman was in the original production. I don't think I saw a single review that didn't mention 'theatrical viagra'. I have no interest in how good a show that was - I wan't to know about *this one*.
(rant part I over)

(rant part II begins)
I detest that 'blogs' are now frequently lumped in with social networking. There are many excellent blogs out there and many more of genuine interest, but my experience of MySpace, Bebe, Facebook having been dragged kicking and screaming onto them is that they are full of pointless schoolyard trash. There is almost nothing of merit there.

Sofi said...

youve written about so many interesting points, i cant recall most of what i wanted to write, right now! you shoulda split this entry up sir:p

anyway, hmm, very thought provoking entry. i personally believe blogs are liberating and empowering to an extent. however banal some have become, they are still a useful tool and very therapeutic for some. however, they also have a massive downside- and one which is completely apprent in today's society - we want instant gratification. everything has move to what we want and when we want it. hmmm. maybe i'm not just referring to blogs.

i also think the theatre scene is non existent in the average school kid living in the inner city(in the UK)and i for one would be the first to encourage theatre producers and the powers at be to create a link with the local communities and schools.

social networking is good if used in moderation..its another world that we are exploring at the moment, but only if one kee's in mind the hidden dangers.

and lastly: i hate conforming :P

this is just random, incoherent, rambling.