02 October 2010

Discussion: Artists & Criticism (2008)

Reading the current blogasphere hoo hah about critics (I'll think about saddling up my high horse about it once I've written about the shows I saw last night and watched the Grand Final sequel) reminded me of this discussion from 2008. It's a look at how an artist deals with reviews.

An Actor Prepares is Eagles Nest Theatre 2008 Melbourne Fringe production. This work was last performed at the 2008 Adelaide Fringe, where it received a scathing review from The Advertiser.  James Adler talks about his reaction to a half-star rating.

Fringe festivals encourage an abundance of people wanting to see unique and courageous productions - but there are almost too many shows for this limited audience to choose from, which leaves many using reviews as their selection guide.

AussieTheatre’s Christina Cass reviewed an earlier version of An Actor Prepares. Her review praised the performances as courageous and said, “The imagery and essence of this play are stunning:  simple and heartbreaking. They challenge the audience to trust their senses.” Chris Boyd from The Herald Sun said, "Word for word it is a mighty script: Poetic, slippery and dramatic.  Deceptively simple and devastatingly effective. "

However, in Adelaide, An Actor Prepares received half a star, out of six, from Samela Harris, one of South Australia’s most respected and experienced reviewers. She opened with: “One can't have a good Fringe without some bad shows. This is the little gem of them all. It is so bad it could almost become a cult. It is almost impossible to tell what it is about.” She concluded by expressing her relief that it is quite short.

I asked Adler how he felt about the review. “In some ways you feel offended and hurt, but your artist’s skin also has to be thinker than that…I have no issue with someone not liking our work - for god’s sake that’s what the arts is all about - but the job of a reviewer is to attempt to engage with a work as well as provide an opinion about it's quality.

“What was offensive... is that she never really made any attempt to review it at all. It seems to me that her desire was to judge the piece as good or bad and to make sure that she, as reviewer, came out looking slick.”

It may be lacking in tact, but what is clear from Harris’s review is that she didn’t understand the intent or even the premise of the piece.

Adler tells me that An Actor Prepares is about “believing and then loosing faith”. This is a universal and powerful theme. He started writing the piece in 2001, on the day “we (Australia) started bombing Afghanistan.”  

 “I wanted to explode. . . go to Canberra and yell and protest. . . (but) my opinon as an individual would be drowned out.” From his personal reaction, Adler developed the metaphor of a bomb and wrote a monologue that interweaves the thoughts and actions of a suicide bomber with the stories of others who find themselves in violent, impossible or voiceless situations.

Musician, composer and director Nela Trifkovic says she came to work because ” for the first time in long time there was a story that I wanted to be part of - even if it was an angry story.” Nela describes herself as a survivor from the war in Yugoslavia. Coming to Australia and going to primary school in Perth, her mixed-religion, mixed-cultural upbringing was met with confusing mix of good intentioned ignorance. She said “a teacher yelled at me for using the term Yugoslavia… an Australian social worker told me you couldn't speak Serbo-Croatian. I try to listen to everybody and that's precisely why it's painful always being told what to.”

Trifkovic’s music adds dimension, perspective and counterpoint to Adler’s monologue. “I decided to offer my music for it does not tell one what to do, but hopefully leaves one on a bitter-sweet chord of self decision.”

An Actor Prepares is a piece that actively forces the audience to make their own decisions about meaning.

Adler finishes by saying, “I am not sure what the value of review is if the reviewer doesn’t try to understand where the work is coming from - and so in the end her (Harris) critique doesn't really seem worthy to be taken into account.”

This is a healthy attitude to criticism, but I wonder if Adler should try to understand where Harris’s criticism came from.

If a show totally fails to connect with an audience member, perhaps there are elements of the work that could be re-thought. Cass understood and admired the work, but she also said the “very personal work needs an outside eye to help take the next step toward a mature piece of theatre.”

I’ve also seen An Actor Prepares. It isn’t a piece that is easy to immediately engage with, as it lacks a traditional narrative, and adopts a more fluid approach to time, space and character. This does make it difficult to understand, but Adler and Trifkovic’s passion for their work is striking and they express an authentic belief, opinion and experience.

Fringe festivals encourage artists to take risks and experiment, offering an opportunity for artists to create the work they really want to make. An Actor Prepares is an ongoing experiment with form that was created with the intent to question and provoke. If it had been created merely to please, the result would be far less interesting, far less passionate and would never have resulted in such extreme and mixed opinions.

This originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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