One of the unspoken laws within the theatre industry is that one should not challenge or engage critically with a bad review of one’s work. The motivation for such self-censorship is understandable. Challenging a reviewer could alienate that person, leading to further negative reviews in future (reviewers, like theatre-makers, are only human after all, and can bear grudges).
Some reviewers also serve as judges of theatre awards, so it would not be in a theatre practitioner’s interests to alienate reviewers, and since they can be a relatively tight bunch (working for the same newspaper or serving on the same board of judges or hanging out together at opening nights), alienating one reviewer could alienate a few of his or her colleagues too.
The reviewer is also perceived to have some influence on livelihoods in that s/he has a newspaper, radio or cyberspace audience upon whom the practitioner is dependent for box office income; alienating the reviewer may alienate potential audience members.
In any case, having a bad review or two is regarded as par for the course; this is to be expected – not everyone likes the same play (some will review the work favorably, others not), or one’s work all the time (some may like some work, but not other work of the same practitioner). Challenging a review is often seen as sour grapes, or arrogance, as a reflection of unbridled ego. The dominant practice then is to suck up bad reviews, and to get on with it.
And so, unequal power relations between the reviewer and the practitioner prevail. In many instances though – especially in the cyber media and Cue (Fringe), the official daily newspaper at the National Arts Festival – the reviewer has little, if any, training or background in theatre, but is nevertheless thrust – or thrusts her or himself – into the position of reviewing, judging and mediating the work of professionals with years of training and experience in the industry.
On the other hand, it would seem that some reviewers genuflect to those with iconic status within the theatre industry, those who have earned their reputations locally or internationally who have consistently excelled over an extended period. Providing a critical review of a work by such an icon, would be a poor reflection on the reviewer (particularly the more insecure), or potentially alienate the reviewer from the theatre icon and limit opportunities for future engagement e.g. having access for interviews.
Like the making of theatre, reviewing theatre takes place in a range of contexts:
- on its own merits but in the context of the presumed or actual intentions of its creators (writer, director, actors, designers, etc)
- in the context of the creators’ previous works
- in the context of the audience for which it is intended/performed
- in the context of the reviewer’s primary audience
- in the context of the broader theatre industry and of other theatre work (contemporary and historical)
- in the context of global theatre practice
- in the context of varied South African material, political and social realities and
- in the context of global political realities and economic dynamics that may have some influence on the play
If this is true, then it is required of the theatre reviewer/judge to have a range of experience and kinds of knowledge: knowledge about the technical aspects of theatre, the South African theatre canon, about the creators’ previous works, an understanding of the political and social context in which theatre takes place, etc. Intelligence, an analytical ability and intellectual rigour should also be prerequisites, rather than “advantages”.
The reviewer – like the theatre maker – is also a product of her/his own class, education, cultural background, theatre tradition and social milieu and comes with particular values, worldviews, ideas, ideological assumptions and prejudices linked to these (whether these are recognized or not), and which are collectively brought to bear upon the work at hand.
As with creative products, embedded within reviews therefore, are the values, worldviews, ideas and knowledge (or lack thereof) of the reviewer.
I doubt that anyone who works in the theatre sector works primarily for good reviews or for awards; most produce work because they believe that they have something to say and/or to have some kind of impact on an audience. I also doubt that theatre-makers generally expect universally positive reviews. What we would hope for though is fair and critical engagement with the work that reflects knowledge of the discipline, of the canon, of the genre, not expecting the reviewer simply to be a publicist for the play, or to tell the play’s whole story, but rather to attempt to understand and critically reflect on the intention of the piece in the broader social context, and to evaluate whether the collaboration that is theatre – design, writing, directing, acting, etc – has served the intention or not. This is not only about mediating the work for an audience, but also to contribute to the growth of the theatre-makers – and thus to South African theatre – through constructive, informed and critical engagement.
Research that I have conducted in relation to different plays and at different theatre spaces in different cities as well as at the National Arts Festival, reveals that the two most important drivers of theatre ticket purchases are word-of-mouth and the reputation/s or “brands” of the key creators in a production – not expensive posters, banners or newspaper advertisements, with reviews playing a less influential role than we generally believe. While reviews have an impact at festivals that are concentrated periods of performance, pre-festival ticket purchases are based largely on the reputations of the key creators.
I have been the beneficiary of extremely favourable reviews of my work and I have been chastened, challenged and corrected by reviewers who have engaged with rigour and insight into my work. But then, there have also been those reviews at which one can but shake one’s head, sigh, and move on.
Reflection on three reviews of recent works
I had the privilege of being the inaugural “Festival Playwright” at the 2013 National Arts Festival and in this capacity, and largely with the generous support of Artscape (where I serve as the Associate Playwright till the end of July 2014), the support of two private sponsors, my own resources and the marketing support of the Festival, I was able to present a body of four works
Three of the works were new to the National Arts Festival (Brothers in Blood had been performed on the Fringe the year before), and of these, one was a premiere, having its first public performances at the Festival.
I will reflect on the reviews of the three new works to illustrate and expand on some of the points above.
Panic was commissioned by Siv Ngesi, a popular stand-up comic, who – having done really well out of stand-up comedy – requested a piece that would be more challenging for him, deal with issues that could extend beyond South Africa, and showcase his talents as an actor rather than as a comedian. Accordingly, I wrote Panic as a reflection on climate change, about environmental degradation in the name of profiteering that benefits an elite (a theme that has universal relevance). In line with the brief from Siv, I structured the one-person script as an extended poem, a form that would challenge most actors, unless they had the requisite technical skills.
The play received two reviews in Cue. One was done by a senior student who was interested in climate change and the environment, and who conducted an interview with me about the play before she saw it. She then wrote about the piece and gave it a generally positive review, having knowledge of the intention of the work, and of the issues at hand.
The second – one of those 50-worders written by David Wa Maahlemela (with experience as a research at the Institute for the Study of English in Africa, so should know better) – says of Panic (after acknowledging Heinrich Reisenhofer as the director and myself as the writer) that “this production explores post-1994 ‘black’ life through a ‘typical white’ perspective.”
This short “review” reflects all that is poor about too many reviews. First, it gets the play’s primary themes fundamentally wrong, because the reviewer comes at it with his own prejudices and hang ups. Panic is not at all an exploration of post-apartheid “black” life; it is about a politically connected oil tycoon whose mining interests wreak devastation for many (black) people in the DRC and elsewhere. His sons rebel against this, choosing a different lifestyle to that of the global “1%” whose lifestyles are bought at great cost to the environment and to the lives of many, particularly in the global south. The reviewer’s lack of awareness of global issues, his inability or unwillingness to locate the piece within a global context, forces him to interpret the piece in the narrowest way possible.
Secondly, probably on the basis of my Afrikaans surname (this wouldn’t even be the fiftieth time), he assumes that the perspective in the play (or what he interprets as the perspective), is “typically white”, reflecting little knowledge of my history or of the theatre work that I have done in the past, as well as a clear lack of knowledge of the past work done by Heinrich Reisenhofer. The reviewer’s apparent or deliberate ignorance restricts his ability so that he interprets the play on the basis of the most basic – and false – clues.
The review had little effect and with Siv’s great brand at the Festival, he attracted houses averaging more than 90 each, no mean feat on the festival fringe for a challenging piece of theatre.
With Rainbow Scars, the situation was reversed. There was a positive short 50-word review, and then, towards the end of its run, it received a longer, generally negative review from one, Andrea Buchanan.
Throughout the Festival, in Cue’s credits, the specialist writers were listed as Jeff Brinkman (music), Theresa Edlmann (theatre) and Nigel Vermaas (theatre/jazz), with Buchanan listed as a sub-editor. But, for the purpose of this one-off review, she got to be elevated to the position of “Cue specialist writer”.
Buchanan starts her review thus:
When a play is billed as a “metaphor for South African society” because its protagonist is a “born-free” child born in 1994, the hope is that it will deal with a possibly clunky concept in a sensitive manner….Rainbow Scars however, delivers little beyond the expected clichés. I’d hazard a guess that if you typed ‘domestic worker’s daughter adopted by white family, add teenage angst’ into some kind of mythical script-writing machine, you’d get Rainbow Scars.”
Once one looks past the attempt at clever dismissiveness, the reviewer reveals her incredibly shallow – and quite wrong – interpretation of the play.
First, any reviewer worth half their salt would know that it is not the theme that matters as much as how the theme is dealt with. If one types “apartheid” into a mythical script-writing machine, one would come up with hundreds of plays; if one types “man-woman relationships”, the machine would spew out thousands of plays that have been done on this theme. What is of interest, is how these plays deal with a well-worn theme.
But, second, how many plays have actually been produced on the theme of white adoption of black children in post-1994 South Africa? I am struggling to think of one. Even if there were ten though, there are hundreds of these adoptions, all with their own unique stories, in the same way as millions of couples might share some similarities, but have unique stories to tell.
Third, and most importantly, nowhere is the play billed as “a metaphor for South African society because its protagonist is a child born in 1994.” That would be plain silly. Rainbow Scars is about white-black adoption only at its most superficial level. The play uses the family as a metaphor for the rainbow nation with the suburban white mother and her black, model-C educated daughter representing the elite for whom the rainbow nation works. The estranged, township-dwelling cousin of the daughter who re-enters her life fourteen years after they last see each other, represents the large black underclass who live on the fringes of the Rainbow Nation. What happens to him at the end of the play is a reference to the Marikana massacre; ultimately, what the play is saying is that the rainbow nation only works for a non-racial elite and, in defense of this elite, those on the outside are expendable and may be killed just as we are seeing on too-regular a basis with protestors being murdered by the police.
This so-called “specialist writer” simply did not get the metaphor, hinted at in the title and clearly clued in the piece itself, as well as in the marketing bumph!
Buchanan then goes on to reference a review of my fourth piece, Writer’s Block, by her Cue colleague, Anna Christensen (billed as Cue’s coaching editor, so I suppose someone who mentors Cue’s wannabe critics?), who “commented on the ‘dense’ script, suggesting that Van Graan needs to ‘leave something offstage’. The same is mainly true of Rainbow Scars”.
Ironically then, Buchanan later complains about “a few untidy plot threads”. “What is the point of an ex-husband in jail, whom we never meet?” she plaintively asks. So, the writer should leave something offstage, but Buchanan would like to meet one of the characters whom he has left offstage. Go figure. (I hope – for her sake – that this specialist writer does not get to review Waiting for Godot; she’ll be sorely disappointed.)
The character is offstage, because, well, he’s in jail, and he’s not important to the play as an on-stage character. Interestingly, Buchanan picks up on this character (perhaps because he is closest to her life experience?) rather than the other characters who are also mentioned in the play but whom we do not meet, such as Sicelo’s uncles and his mother. Is this a case of the class and cultural position of the reviewer informing her review?
The “specialist writer” further bemoans the “more serious parts (that) seem oddly melodramatic, eliciting laughs in place of tears or gasps”. Should this reviewer have been in any piece of theatre with an audience spanning the range of cultural groups and classes in our society (and Rainbow Scars attracted the most diverse audience out of the plays produced at the Artscape venue on the Fringe), she would know that what some consider tear- or gasp-worthy, others laugh at. These are the consequences of different life experiences, different cultural ways of dealing with difficult challenges, different experiences of theatre; it’s hardly the fault or responsibility of the play!
This review came out on the day of the last performance of the play (sigh!) by which time Rainbow Scars had attracted the highest average audiences per show at the Artscape venue (120) testifying to the excellent word-of-mouth about the piece, and notwithstanding the fact that it was competing for this honour against Champ, the 2012 Fleur du Cap script winner, Brothers in Blood that had excellent branding from the previous year and Panic featuring the popular Siv Ngesi. It was one of the top twenty ticket-sellers on the Fringe, and has gone on to be selected for a season at the Market Theatre and for international festivals, hardly likely for plays that had such review “fails”. Rainbow Scars had also been nominated for a Standard Bank Ovation Award, and with the final awards being selected on the very day that this review appeared, it was highly unlikely that the judges would select a play for higher honours that had received such a negative review. And, by the way, although billed as a “Cue specialist writer”, this was the only review that she had written during the whole festival! (Conspiracy theories anyone?).
But Buchanan is not the only reviewer who just did not “get” one of my plays.
Writing for the website westcapenews.com, Steven Kretzman – hard-news-journalist-doubling-as-theatre-reviewer (anyone can write theatre reviews, right?) – wrote about my 2012 play, Just Business (the updated version of Hostile Takeover) that “this is a play about the business of murder”. He went on to complain that while I have “…been praised for using comedy in Green Man Flashing to highlight issues plaguing society…in Just Business, admittedly billed as a dark comedy, I (the reviewer) found the approach shallow.”
I must confess that this was the first time that Green Man Flashing had been referred to as a comedy. Did Kretzman not see the 2012 version of the play staged in the same venue as Just Business just a few months earlier? Did he not see it at the 2012 Fringe Festival in Grahamstown? This is a play that is now studied in many schools and universities, and here’s a supposed theatre critic writing about my work when he clearly has no idea about one of my seminal plays.
Green Man Flashing was a drama, a political thriller; Just Business was a satire – the two forms are fundamentally different!
Kretzman writes that Just Business “…speaks directly to (sic) debilitating social disease of corruption that has infected South African society…and it is staged as comedy.” Hired hitmen are a serious business, and as such, it needs to be treated seriously in theatre, is the implication. That’s the point about satire (as opposed to comedy); it takes serious issues and dresses them up in a way that makes you both laugh (often awkwardly) and think.
Just Business was not simply “about the business of murder” except at its most superficial level; it was actually a satire about the commodification of everything in our society, including death! It is no coincidence that the person whom the hitman is about to take out is the owner of a strip-club who takes great moral offence at the hitman being paid to commit murder, but is unable to see the moral issues related to his club’s commodification of women and sex.
It is a piece that seeks to comment on and decry the commodification of education, health, electricity, water, etc in a society where most people cannot afford these, while the rich can pay for sex and hire hitmen to facilitate a corporate “hostile takeover”.
“I walked lightheartedly out of a play that had the potential to reveal the depths of an incredibly disturbing situation, that could have plunged me into the motives and rationalisations that exist in the minds of men who commit despicable acts yet it was ‘ha, ha, ha, what clever references. Like a glass of wine?”
Kretzman clearly came to see a play that was in his own head, not the one that was on stage.
Just Business also satirizes forms of black economic empowerment that required white-owned businesses to include black ownership; this is not mentioned in the review at all, so obsessed is the reviewer with a particular “hard news” interpretation of the play that has to do with the prevalence of hitmen in South African society.
It makes it very difficult to take seriously any future review written by this writer, but he will be out there, reviewing the work of others, perhaps even serving as a theatre awards judge.
It is ironic that one is often confronted by critics demanding work that is “not so in your face”, that is multi-layered, that challenges audiences to make their own connections and to think for themselves, and when they are presented with such work, all they can see is the superficial and the most obvious.
What many reviewers do not seem to appreciate is that South African audiences are varied; they include highly sophisticated, educated theatre-goers who have been attending theatre since school, while on the other hand, there are new entrants into theatre, still learning the language of theatre. As a creator dealing with the contemporary social-political-economic themes that I do, I try to take cognizance of the range of people not only who will see the play, but whom I would like to see the play. Reviewers, on the other hand, tend to see plays from their particular – narrow – perspectives, and/or from the perspective of the audience for which they are writing.
Writer’s Block – a one-person play – features a character who left the country just before the TRC to avoid having to testify and meet the security policemen who were responsible for the torture and eventual suicide of her lover in detention. She spends a number of years in the USA as a teacher of creative writing, although her own creative work has all but dried up because she no longer inhabits her muse, South Africa, and she does not – even after many years – feel part of the USA. When she receives an invitation to say a few words at the opening of the new building housing the Department of Labour and that includes a library named after her former unionist partner, she has to face down a number of her past and present demons.
The piece was performed by Jenny Steyn under the direction of her partner, Nicky Rebelo.
Given the financial constraints of organizing the 2013 Festival, this piece which we self-funded, was given “Main Programme” status and it premiered at the Festival. (As many who have premiered work at the Festival will tell you, festival conditions are not always the best conditions to premiere new work, but then this is what one takes in exchange for the work having some kind of profile as part of its development).
One thing about having a play on the Main Programme is that Cue does an extensive review of the piece and by an experienced reviewer, rather than by an engineering student who has not been to the theatre before, as may be unleashed on Fringe professionals.
I was fortunate then to have one of Cue’s experienced reviewers – their coaching editor, and also a “specialist writer”, Anne Christensen, commenting on the play. Not unexpectedly then, unlike earlier reviewers mentioned, she “got” the play (perhaps because it operated less at a metaphorical level, the key themes were more accessible).
And then she has this assessment:
The Artscape production is everything we expect from Van Graan and more, and that’s the problem. It’s just too much. Too many political references, too many apartheid horror stories, too many quotes from great men, too many words. The script was so dense that even Steyn, an accomplished, award-winning film and stage actress, began to stumble over her lines towards the end. Van Graan needs to allow Steyn to take a breather, to stop telling us everything, to leave something off-stage.
I’m not sure, but this must be the first time that the writer is given the blame for the actress stumbling over her lines! Once Steyn was comfortable in the part and it was not the first performance, she handled the “dense” script rather well. Christensen commends the skilful direction of Nicky Rebelo; of course the writer is not, and should not be given credit for that. This is the nature of theatre, it’s a collaborative exercise in which designers, actors, directors and writers work together in creating and presenting a production. Reviewers, one would think, should know that.
Writer’s Block operated less at the level of metaphor than did the other pieces I’ve referenced here but the fact that some reviewers got those pieces so wrong, emphasizes my ambivalence about not telling the audience (and reviewers) everything. Besides, as mentioned earlier, contemporary South African audiences include a range of people, from the veteran theatre-goers, to newbies, from the politically informed to the ignorant. This is one of my ongoing challenges: how to write for a varied audience in contemporary South Africa?
Writers’ Block was originally written for a South African actress based in New York and so the political references and history were necessary for an American audience (that’s by way of background, rather than as justification or defence).
However, Christensen’s throwing her hands up at the “too many political references, too many apartheid horror stories” (these were important for the through-line of forgiveness and the ultimate challenges and choices faced by the central character) reflects a broader “theatre establishment” problem that we prefer not to talk about. This “establishment” that generally sets the hegemonic aesthetics of our theatre industry (comprising theatre and festival managements and their selection of works for local and international showcasing, reviewers and their aesthetic and ethical values, acting schools and the canon and theatre values that they teach, theatre judging panels and what they select, funders of theatre, etc), derives from and is part of the broader social establishment, rather than the 70% of our population who live on the underside of contemporary South African history.
What they deem to be good theatre, what this particular elite demands of theatre, is quite different to what the majority of people in our country may demand, or wish for our theatre to include as stories or themes. “Too many political references” is the cry of the establishment (not the preserve of a particular racial category) when in reality, the vast majority of South Africans have their miserable existence directly impacted upon by politics.
The National Arts Festival itself is part of this establishment; not only the Main (for which the Festival is responsible), but also the Fringe (for which practitioners themselves are responsible) are both incredibly “safe”, even mute, politically. The Festival has often been described in the past as a barometer or reflection of where the country is, but at the last Festival, one would never have imagined that we had the Marikana massacre about a year before, or that Brett Murray’s The Spear, had caused such massive controversy two years before. The arts were happily ensconced in their ivory tower under the gaze of the Settlers’ Monument, and this appears to be what the establishment wants – and what we, theatre-makers, generally provide – safe, politically- muted entertainment because this, we believe, is what our primary audiences want, and because we do not want to alienate our funders and the current crop of politicians.
Ending the review, Christensen says
We forgive (Van Graan) though, because the play is a political tour de force that reduced at least one member of the audience to sobbing and left several others wiping tears from their eyes.
Ultimately, this is why I write, to provoke and stimulate an audience intellectually and to engage them emotionally, not to have good reviews or to win awards (if they happen, they are great for marketing, but are not the reasons for doing theatre). It has always been my belief borne out by experience that audiences are ahead of “the establishment”; they want and demand more than what reviewers and theatre-managements believe is good for them. I remember being told that Green Man Flashing simply wouldn’t work because it was too political and people were tired of politics; when we eventually staged it on the Festival fringe, it played to sold-out houses and did similarly well at the Baxter and the Market Theatre subsequently.
I was told by theatre colleagues that audiences would run a mile from a play dealing with HIV/AIDS; yet after seeing Iago’s Last Dance – my trilogy on this theme – more than 90% of attendees surveyed said they would recommend the play to others.
Reviewers don’t have to measure audience reactions; that’s not their job. For me, as a writer though, I’m keen to know the responses of my audiences, hence my making available Comments Books for audiences to record their responses after seeing the play, or making available database forms for similar responses and to engage with them through newsletters, or undertaking surveys from time to time.
It is this feedback and engagement that informs my ongoing practice as a writer, rather than reviews.
Practical suggestions for Cue
Based on my experience at the National Arts Festival and of Cue in particular, I would hope that Cue would at least consider the following practical suggestions:
- there are many plays that return to the Festival; rather than review them again (with other works not given space as a result), reprint the positive reviews of the past in one or two of the first editions of Cue and use excerpts from these for the “fringe shorts”
- use reviewers who have some experience; a number of theatre academics attend the Festival, and there are numerous arts journalists writing for their own newspapers – surely their reviews can be used in Cue? Many drama students take part in the Student Festival; get them to write reviews rather than the arbitrary students given tickets to review plays when they have no experience of theatre
- for theatre makers who have participated in the Festival for 10 years or more, as well as past Ovation winners, give them longer reviews done by real reviewers within the first two or three days of their shows opening
Embedded within creative products are ideas, worldviews, values, beliefs. As such, theatre, film, literature, visual arts, etc are part of the struggle for hegemony within society as a whole, and they can reinforce, challenge or amend dominant ideas and beliefs. But within each creative industry, there are struggles for hegemony too, between those whose ideas, values and aesthetic tastes and beliefs dominate at a particular time, and those struggling against, or to nuance these.
That will always be the case.
Not to challenge reviewers or to remain silent to protect one’s short-term interests, is to allow those who express their views to dominate and to reinforce hegemonic ideas and values.
Here’s to more active engagement between the different sectors of our industry.