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The expanding conversations of new vs old media

A Guardian blog last week asked: “How could technology change theatre criticism for good?” The web, of course, has already allowed a lot more voices to take part in the critical conversation, whether via blogs, bulletin boards or Twitter, but the Guardian blog suggested that this new expanded template has resulted in “recurring, sometimes ugly debates between mainstream critics and the blogging community.”

I found myself in the eye of this particular storm myself earlier this week after my own blog drew attention to the different responses to the production Three Kingdoms between the traditional, dead-tree media and its online-only counterparts.

Jake Orr, who set up and runs the Younger Theatre website which bills itself as “theatre through the eyes of the younger generations”, wrote a good response on my entry, pointing out that the outlets need not be in opposition to each other but complementary.

But I never said they were: in fact I was citing Maddy Costa, who like me straddles both camps, who pointed out in a Guardian blog that critical reactions reaction to Three Kingdoms was polarised “between newspaper critics who - you guessed it - are resistant to the work, and online writers who embrace it fervently.” But, she went on to say, “Such is the prevailing hierarchy of criticism, however, online writing is still essentially classed as word-of-mouth, while only the reviews published in mainstream media carry real weight.”

Those were Maddy’s words, not mine; and like it or not, that hierarchy exists. But I have always said that I welcome the debate, and the opportunities the web presents to allow other voices to be heard is great, too. I have also always said that conventional reviews are the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it; the old model has already been changed by the arrival of newer methods of delivery, both shorter (I tweet my own necessarily abbreviated reviews immediately after I see a show) and much longer, of the sort that bloggers can indulge in, unlimited as they are by word count and space restrictions.

I’m a beneficiary myself of this freedom here on this blog; though I’m also always keenly aware that long entries may be an indulgence, especially in the age of smart phones where many people access the web on tiny screens nowadays, which are hardly conducive to long reads. Of course it’s very seductive to be able to hold forth at great, uninterrupted length; and I notice that Maddy was not alone in her extended musings on this particular play. Her 4,115 words were nearly matched by Andrew Haydon, who admitted in a standfirst to his blog posting that ” this piece is more of very long failure to do justice to something I loved than a review”, and proceeded to do so for nearly 3,000 words.

Of course that allows for potentially much deeper analysis and personal comment than a review does; but it is also written in very different circumstances. Print reviews are often published overnight (written and submitted within an hour or so of the curtain coming down), so they could hardly run to the same kind of detail. It’s a striking fact that in New York, where critics never overnight but are always invited in to see a series of prior previews, the New York Times review typically runs to around 1,200 words, not the usual 400-500 we get here.

Another commentator Jon Bradfield made the good point in a posting to my blog, too, that notices that I didn’t see the play. “So what he wants professionally and personally is some quick overviews. That’s common sense. The long stuff - at least the way it has been written on this show - is for those who have seen it. It is exclusive. And that’s fine.”

Most theatrical journalism will be read by people who don’t see the work we’re writing about: I’ve sometimes heard it said that reviewing is about seeing the shows so you don’t have to. It’s a canary-down-the-mine exercise: if they come back alive, it’s safe to proceed. And Jon goes on to say, “Only a modest handful of people will read many long, woolly pieces like Maddy’s and certainly won’t for most shows. Most individual productions don’t merit it (not to devalue them). That said, occasionally a show like this will come along that long-form criticism is made for: not definitive but questioning, almost chairing a discussion for its reader. This was one of them. I think one of the joys of the net is that I’ve been able to read all sorts of views on the play, even though I went last minute on my own and have spoken directly to just one person who also saw it.”

So it’s about different horses for different courses; and that kind of critical vitality is to be welcomed. I’m sorry if my blog earlier this week sounded as if I was dismissing it out of hand. But there’s still a long way to go in using the web in all its possibilities. According to that Guardian blog I quoted at the front of this entry, perhaps we need to go beyond the conflict that the web is all too adept at promoting. As Catherine Love points out, “While words alone can create a rich tapestry of critical response, imagine how much richer this might be with the addition of images, video, audio, geotagging, experimental forms such as Pinterest.”

And yet, despite those infinite possibilities, “the majority of those writing theatre criticism for the web remain trapped in the conventional print review format: a block of text that often tries to avoid spoilers.” In effect, the bloggers at the moment are therefore just doing more of the same that the dinosaurs of print are doing - only at greater (and sometimes verbose) length. Size, as they say, isn’t everything; it’s what you do with it. And that applies to theatre criticism wherever and in whatever format it appears in.

8 Comments

As a print journalist who liked Three Kingdoms and gave it a 4* review I have to say I've felt a teensy bit disgruntled at this whole enforced 'the print press didn't get it but the bloggers did' dichotomy - I'm hardly one of London's most prominent critics, but on some wildly egotistical level I feel a little bit like my voice has been airbrushed out of the conversation (and the numerous 3* print reviews have been represented as wholly negative) by portions of the blogging community determined to represent the difference between 'them' and 'us' as an attitudinal thing rather than a question of the possibilities of the medium.

But the conversation HAS become progressively more nuanced and much as there's been some appallingly florid guff been written about 3K, the sheer volume of the debate and the fact these conversations are still ongoing is interesting stuff and - so long as we don't all disappear up our own backsides - healthy, I'd say, especially if it proves in any way formative to old media and new media having a more mutually comprehending relationship.

Thank you for carrying on the discussion Mark, it's good to see more of the points laid out like this.

I would say in relation to Catherine's blog on The Guardian and through what you surmise here that whilst currently blogs conform to the same format as the mainstream (be it long form or otherwise) this is due to a number of factors. Mostly it is through a lack of knowing how else to present a reflection upon a show, with words becoming the easiest form to fall into. It is also in relation to the tools and technicalities of what websites can or can't do. We're of a time where it is easier for other formats to take centre stage on websites, such as video or audio, but in terms of what it easiest to digest and to publish at speed, words are still prominant. You must know this yourself from publishing your blog each morning on The Stage website - but ask you to respond in a different medium - still critically - and I'm sure you'd have some problems.

I believe that online outlets follow that of the mainstream purely because we don't know any different, however, we are trying new methods of exploration. Words they might be, but long form criticism or micro reviews in tweet format is a start. It is something that Maddy and myself are attempting to do in a project we're calling DIALOGUE (as quoted in Catherine's piece) where we are inviting/commissioning those who actively engage with theatre such as critics, audiences and artists themselves to respond to it in a different medium. Responding in as much as beyond the restrictions that are currently in place (400 worded reviews for print etc), in new ways. Whether it's creating drawing a picture to respond to theatre, filming a video response or engaging in email exchanges with other critics to discuss at length a production.

Most of these ideas are not new, but they don't currently have a place where they be upheld, this being because even the internet, in all it's glory, demands a certain technical knowledge to do this. If there is an audience for this work is yet to be seen, but at least we're trying to embrace what the mainstream can't.

Anyway, it's a long way off anything yet, but we're trying.

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Dancing about architecture? :-)

If you're offering Ian, then we'd gladly have your interpretive dancing responding to the brutalism of the Barbican's architecture!

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Dance about architecture. I like that. It introduces an understanding and appreciation of architecture to people attuned to and steeped in dance.

Dancing about architecture. I don't like that. It sounds like a feeble personal response and a bit wanky.

Having seen some contemporary dance about architecture, I can confirm that it is indeed rather good. Rather better than the quote to which Shuttleworth alludes, in fact.

I'm really pleased that this discussion continues to go on, as that's exactly what I was hoping for from my blog on the Guardian. However, I feel the need to point out that while I was speculating about how new technology might allow theatre criticism to embrace different formats, I still see long form criticism, as allowed in the absence of restrictive print word limits, as being a big part of that.

My main point, I suppose, is that digital criticism should be striving to do something different, whether that be long form reviews, video, audio, the sort of projects Jake and Maddy are working on over at DIALOGUE, etc. It seems a bit of a waste of the online critical space if it is used purely to ape its print sister. Fortunately, I think that there is a gradual shift taking place towards exploring all the possibilities that digital criticism allows.

Also, a brief apology to Andrzej and some of the other print critics whose responses were painted in a rather more black and white way than was the reality. In my own blogs about Three Kingdoms I did try to qualify my reference to mainstream critics by inserting "the majority of", but the whole "us and them" debate has perhaps been slightly exaggerated. As I wrote in my Guardian blog, I think it's time for digital criticism to move away from conflict and towards something more positive.

Catherine,

Yes to all the above.

And, yes, it was ridiculous the extent to which your Guardian blog didn't get comments (couple of thoughts: one - the timing was unlucky, given that seemingly everyone who ever has anything to say about theatre was busy blowing their word-wad on 3K, but there's also an observable truth that if you say something sensible and write it well on the Guardian blog, then basically no one comments and it's only months later when several people tell you that that was an article they really appreciated).

One minor disagree, though: I think "conflict" *can* be positive.

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