I would be put in a very difficult place as someone who writes and talks about theater if I didn’t have any underlying principles that guide how I understand and rate work. To be honest, I’m not sure if critics and theater workers have conversations about this—it’s too much of a risky endeavor on the part of the critic.
To be perfectly frank about it, if one were to criticize theater in the Philippines, it follows that one should not aspire to work in it; the nature of the industry is such that ruffled feathers stay ruffled, and woe betide the theater worker who speaks ill of a peer’s show publicly! Or in Filipino: Walang basagan ng trip. Especially if the act of ruining someone else’s fun has economic consequences, such as the reduced tickets sales that arise from a bad review.
This has, in my opinion, led to a dearth of critics who are familiar with the practice and art of theater. It’s a shame, really; by virtue of their professional affiliations, the most qualified to write about theater are effectively silenced because they want to continue working in the theater. As with any void, there are those who have stepped in to fill the gap. I appreciate their efforts, I truly do, because they’re doing the work that no one else wanted to do. However, it also does mean that there are those critics who don’t know what they’re talking about. (I would link pages, but I don’t want to start a flame war so early into this blog’s life.)
I hope for the time that a proper ethnographic study could be made specifically on theater criticism in the Philippines; I think such research would yield interesting data. It also says a lot about the state of the industry, because it means there are very few safe spaces where one could have a professional disagreement.
But I digress. This is meant to be a manifesto, a statement if you will, of what I value in theater. Later on, I hope to be more explicit on how I review shows (always with the caveat that this being theater, many of the people involved are my friends). This will probably evolve. For now, here are my goals and my principles:
If I say something that criticizes a production, my intention is to improve the production and any future efforts of the artists.
This one is probably the most controversial statement I could make, because it presumes I have the qualifications to say if a work is good or bad. It also goes on to argue that I can make the work better. It’s a statement that will raise a number of hackles in the Philippine setting—one that is quite hierarchical and all about earning one’s dues, regardless of the industry.
So let’s get into this one directly: Yes. I am younger in terms of experience. What I also am, however, is that I’m trained to substantiate my opinion with facts, research, and evidence. I’m a teacher and a dramaturge—it’s what we do.
Directors, producers, etc., can feel free to disagree with whatever I have to say. This is their prerogative. What I will make it hard for them do is to dismiss what I’m saying outright. Sometimes, the idea simply isn’t working, so it needs to be refined or edited a bit more—better that I point that out than be criticized by the ignoramus who thinks The Last 5 Years is a concert. (Such a review exists. I know.)
Besides, who else will give that feedback but for the someone who is willing to give it? And if, hopefully, a director, writer, or producer has people she can trust to criticize her, maybe what I have to say echoes that, and reinforces the cycle of feedback that any artist needs to improve. The absence of good criticism and feedback prevents artists from realizing what went wrong and what they could do better. If an artist believes he doesn’t need feedback, he isn’t much of an artist. Or, at the very best, that artist is a stale one. My job is to support the environment that gives quality feedback to artists because this is a necessity for artistic development.
So theater friends, I’m not out to hurt you. I want us all to succeed! But it seems to me that we are getting in the way of our own success if we don’t have (or encourage) an environment of proper criticism in our industry.
Sometimes, consumers—ticket and show buyers—need an insider look too.
I’ve always been on the fringe of theater and occupy that weird intersection where non-theater people think I am one of them, and theater people sometimes wonder what a dramaturge does. Most of my conversations about my work in theater often start with a couple of questions that are related: a) “Was what I just saw good?” and b) “How did they do that?”
People tend to mistrust their own judgement when it comes to theater. I think this comes from the fact that it’s hard to develop a theater vocabulary. They don’t know if something is original or not because they don’t have a sense of what theater has done or said. Theater often leaves audiences drowning in feelings; it doesn’t help people express those feelings later on. An audience with a strong theater vocabulary is able to understand what theater artists do onstage—and because they know how it was done, are able to speak back more appreciatively.
I’m lucky to be in a position to answer questions from people who ask about a show we’ve just seen together. But there are too few critics out there who do the same thing (see above: no theater training, or worse, no theater exposure.) Audiences are now in the tricky position of having to educate themselves—not quite an easy thing to do. It then falls on us to help our audiences develop even as we ourselves grow artistically. The more about the work of theater that audiences can appreciate, the better it is for all involved in the long run. Informed audiences are able to see the value of theater, and will be enthusiastic about sharing it to others: this is the act that evolves into that most important of requirements for survival and success in our industry: good word of mouth. Meanwhile, audiences will feel the benefits of having experienced beauty and art.
I hope this covers it. This will change as I write more; hoping that the experience will be a good one.