Tag Archives: Audiences

A long response to a short post about spoilers

Apparently I’m in the mood to respond to other people’s thoughts these days. It’s a bit of a post-Fringe thing – I spend August completely wrapped up in the Fringe, unable to conceive of a world outside of Edinburgh, then it ends and  I realise that there’s a month of non-Fringe content out there on the interwebs. September starts with a massive catch-up on what else has been happening out there.

Mark at Only the Sangfroid has written a really interesting post on spoilers. Can’t be bothered clicking links? Here’s my recap: People moan about reading/seeing spoilers for their favourite films and TV shows because apparently the plot twists are the things that keep them interested. Mark suggests that if the plot twists are all that’s keeping you engaged, there’s a problem – it should be possible to be gripped by a well-known story as long as the storytelling is sufficiently skilful. If we’re so caught up in plot twists and the etiquette of not spoiling them, discussion of the themes, issues and execution is curtailed.

The short response: I agree. I’ve never really understood people who believe that spoilers ruin everything. If you are someone who feels that way I’d be very happy to hear from you, because I’m always up for reading someone else’s insights – but be warned, there may be spoilers further on in this post. I don’t know what for, because I haven’t written the rest yet – check the tags if you’re bothered. What I do know is that they won’t be behind a cut.

Personally, I love spoilers. They let me know what I’ve got to look forward to. I’m perfectly happy to know what the plot twists will be, because what I don’t know is how they will be realised.

For example, I love watching Dexter. I watched the first three seasons, then while I was waiting for season 4 to come out on DVD I read a few spoilers so I knew that Rita gets killed by Trinity. (I did say there would be spoilers. If your life is now ruined, my sympathy is limited.) Later on I introduced my husband to the show. When we were halfway through season 4, season 5 came out on DVD… with the announcement of Rita’s death right there in the blurb on the back. So it’s a good thing that neither of us is that concerned about knowing the facts in advance.

However, as much as I love Dexter, it’s one of those programmes that I love for what it could be more than for what it is. When it’s good it’s bloody awesome. And when is it good? For my money, it’s good when it’s exploring the boundaries between right and wrong, testing the limits of the characters’ personal codes, challenging the viewer to think about how far they identify with different characters’ behaviour and what that says about them.

When it’s bad? Well, it’s not so much that it’s horrid. The production values are still high. It’s ok. But it deserves to be so much better than ok, because the potential is there. Dexter being ‘ok’ is like your highly intelligent child getting a C. Yet it frequently happens, because plot twists are prized higher than character development. Seriously, are LaGuerta and Angel married or not this week? Is anything actually going to happen with the trophy-collecting intern girl or are we done with that? Was it actually a storyline that I just don’t remember because I was too busy not giving a damn about peripheral characters that haven’t been developed in any way? Which personality will Deb be wearing today, now that the writers no longer seem to be concerned with her original character?

Venerating all things plot-driven also leads to failure to appreciate character studies. What’s wrong with exploring a character in depth, learning what drives them, letting ourselves be affected and maybe unsettled by our commonalities with and differences from them? Really good writing creates layered, fascinating characters. There’s no reason why this can’t be coupled with excellent production values to create something compelling.

To me, this is one of the major differences between the flash-bang-wallop of entertainment and the complexity of art. I like to be entertained. I like art. I like things that do both. I don’t think I’m unique or even slightly unusual in this. Perhaps I’m just insanely optimistic, but I actually believe that audiences are capable of appreciating intelligent entertainment. Excellent ideas, insight and writing coupled with excellent performances – the ingredients for good art – combined with enough plot to make good entertainment.

It’s an obvious point to make, but it’s true – this is why we’re still doing Shakespeare all these centuries later. Macbeth? Plot-tastic. There’s plenty going on – chance (or maybe not) meetings with witches, more murders than you can shake a stick at, sticks being shaken at Dunsinane, climactic battles. It is the stuff of blockbusters.

It’s also a gorgeous study of the desire for power and its effects, of the destruction of a couple by a terrible secret, of a man who was one of the good guys and ends up a tyrant. It’s packed with subtle, psychologically layered characters, and they make it interesting. Without them, or at least without their depth and development, the story is just a sequence of events, many of which happen off stage.

Perhaps character development was originally necessary because locations shoots and CGI were beyond the budget of the King’s Men, but we shouldn’t consider them any less important now that we’re able to set Macbeth’s final battle against a backdrop of Dunsinane in flames and collapsing into a volcano while the earth gets sucked into a black hole. Isn’t there some room for car chases between soliloquies, or vice versa?

But I digress. The thing about Macbeth is that we all know how it ends (or at least we should). I don’t count it as a spoiler if I tell you that Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies or that Macduff eventually kills Macbeth himself. Does this make it any less compelling? It shouldn’t, if it’s being done well. If we trust the material to stand on its own two feet, trust the actors to do their job and explore the complexity of their character, trust the audience to follow lines that are more than three sentences long, it can still have you on the edge of your seat. You should still find yourself wanting to call out to Macbeth not to trust the witches or listen to his wife, just as much as you should want to yell at Ned Stark not to try the reasonable approach on Cersei Lannister. If the work has been done to get you to invest in the character, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of action going on to make you care about what happens to them.

The reason I use Macbeth as an example is because he’s the protagonist in a tragedy, which means audiences went in knowing that things weren’t going to end well for him. I’m going to steer clear of calling him a tragic hero because I know it’s debatable whether he actually has a tragic flaw or not, but he’s definitely the protagonist and it’s definitely a tragedy. Original audiences, seeing Macbeth’s hands covered in Duncan’s blood, would not have supposed that the play would end with him and his wife gazing contentedly at their first grandchild. Macbeth is fucked. They knew it, we know it. The only questions are how it happens and what we learn along the way.

Nowadays it’s difficult to use dramatic inevitability without being accused of being formulaic. I think that’s often a mistake. Formulaic plots can provide an excellent structure within which to explore and/or subvert our expectations of characters. They allow developing writers to build up an understanding of how plot twists and moments of epiphany can be earned rather than shoehorned in as Deus ex Machina. Recognisable structures give audiences a familiar base which can be a stepping-off point for exploring the unfamiliar, which is why we continue to tell fairy tales and reinvent them as we get older.

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them” is a cliche that everyone who has ever been a young artist will have hated at some point. It’s all the more annoying for being true. That’s why I’m particularly curious about creative people who hate spoilers and won’t discuss films, books and TV shows for fear of them. I find myself wondering whether that’s reflected in their own work – do they then understand the structures they’re working within or against? Do they want to understand them, or is a refusal to embrace the spoilers indicative of a wider unwillingness to learn the rules? Or at least to identify them – I’ve never been a fan of ‘learning the rules’ but when it comes to narrative structure and storytelling it didn’t feel like that, it just felt like learning the names for things I’ve always understood intuitively.

I honestly don’t know. But I do agree with Mark that there are certain dangers in allowing other people’s wish to remain unspoiled to dominate discussions of arts and entertainment, and I know that I’d like to hear other people’s views on this. Do spoilers ruin things for you? Do you tune out if the plot twists aren’t coming thick and fast? Do character studies leave you cold? And if you’re an artist yourself, how does your attitude towards these things tie in with the work you create?

 


Reviewing a review of reviews, both as reviewer and reviewed

First things first – I strongly recommend reading this post by the excellent Jenni Gould: http://rantingjen.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/arts-journalism-where-did-it-go-wrong/

Don’t want to click the link? Let me give you a precis: The Fringe is full of untrained reviewers churning out masses of reviews, and Ms Gould suggests that we should be holding ourselves to higher standards because “many of the companies involved have worked tirelessly for months and it’s true that maybe their shows are far from worthy of five stars. What they are worthy of is a proficient review whether good or bad”.

I agree. Completely. Whole-heartedly. I loved her article so much that it prompted me to write this long-promised post about my views on reviewing. So here goes…

We’ve already covered the fact that I’m an artist in other posts. Indeed, I never shut up about it. I write, direct, perform and do whatever else ignites my interest. I’ve been on the receiving end of my fair share of reviews, good and bad.

I also write reviews. Unlike Jenni, I’m not trained – we did the same degree but with different specialisms. However, while I’m not a trained journalist, I am a trained director and writer, and it’s that training that informs my reviews and makes me think that peer review should be a much more common part of artistic life.

Too often I hear people saying “oh, reviews are just an opinion”. This is often true, but it shouldn’t be. Reviews aren’t meant to be a simple knee-jerk reaction. If that’s all you’re capable of expressing, you have no business reviewing. Yes, we all have opinions on the things we see, but there’s a world of a difference between a show you dislike and a bad show. I’ve seen plenty of good, sound, well-constructed shows that I personally did not like. Perhaps I didn’t care for the subject matter or the writing wasn’t to my taste, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well acted, skilfully directed, cleverly lit. I’ve also seen shows that were frankly sloppy in their construction, but where the infectious energy of the cast overcame technical weakness to create an enjoyable experience.

You might wonder “well, if you loved it/hated it, what do the reasons matter? Why are you overthinking everything?” Well, that’s because overthinking things is what I do and I love it. More importantly, simply accepting “I loved it” or “I hated it” is fine if you’re just seeing a show for your own enjoyment, but if you’re supposed to write something about it you’re going to need a bit more material than that, which brings us neatly to the question…

Who are you writing for? Personally, I try to write reviews that you can read as an audience member trying to decide where to spend your money, or as a company member looking for feedback that will help you to develop your practice. For the benefit of potential audience members I try to give a flavour of the show and some indication of what you can expect to see. I consider whether I would have been happy to pay my own money to see it and whether it resembles its advertising blurb and images. I give warnings where I can about poor sightlines or audibility, or whether you should stay out of the front row if you don’t like interaction.

I’ve had people question whether reviews should really be written with the performing companies in mind, but I am adamant that they should. It’s to everyone’s benefit for theatre companies to receive some technical assessment from an outside source. When you’ve created a show you’re far too close to it to have a clear view. The value of opinions from friends and family depends entirely on how truthful they’re willing to be, and there’s a strong chance that they’ll be people who lack the technical training to dissect your show in any detail. So who is left? Reviewers.

I really try hard to make sure my technical criticism is accurate and clear. No doubt there will have been people who read my reviews and feel that I’ve misunderstood their play entirely, at which point the best thing to do is read other reviews and see if you can detect other reviewers having similar misunderstandings or whether it’s just me. Perhaps there was a point you were trying to make with the thing I’ve criticised, but if everyone’s missing the point it needs to be clarified. If only one reviewer is, you probably don’t need to worry too much.

Of course, this level of detail is difficult to provide when you’re reviewing for some of the Fringe publications. I started out writing for ThreeWeeks, where you get 120 words. It’s a great exercise in precision and taught me how to write concisely. It can be very frustrating knowing that you can’t go into detail about your thoughts, but it’s a very useful discipline because you are forced to choose your points carefully.

Now I write for Edinburgh Spotlight, where I have 300 – 500 words to play with. More often than not, I come in closer to 300 because I’m in the habit of choosing what I believe to be the most important points and not overloading the review. It still feels luxuriously long, but I know that’s only because I learned to discipline my thoughts years ago so that I wouldn’t need 500 words to write a review that felt worthwhile to me.

I’ve been reading plenty of reviews this year, and I’m horrified by the lack of content in many of them. 120 words or more to say nothing of any value, just a kneejerk reaction followed by some waffling, usually designed to make the reviewer sound intelligent. (This never works, by the way – especially when you throw in a lot of fancy words that you don’t actually understand.) Yet we place such value on these reviews, even though they’re written in such a throwaway manner. So what can we do (apart from the obvious  Train Your Journos)?

Simple: Artists review each other. We’re supposed to be communicators, so let’s do it. One of the things I love about writing for Edinburgh Spotlight is that many of the reviewers are also artists in their own right. We know how tiny the theatre world is, so we all take pains to make sure our reviews are fair and balanced and constructive. If you want to give something a negative review you know it might (and probably will) come back to haunt you sooner or later, so you express views you can defend and explain rather than simply sticking the boot in. There’s a real temptation when reviewing to succumb to the lure of one’s own wit, to use a deliciously vicious phrase that might actually be a bit harsher than the piece deserves but you’re so taken with your own cleverness that it’s hard to resist. The more you have at stake – by which I mean, ‘the more likely you are to find yourself working with the subject of your barbed humour someday’ – the less likely you are to give in.

This is not to say that people who are not artists but solely critics are incapable of giving balanced views. There’s plenty of room for people reviewing solely from an audience point of view, although I would say that it’s doubly important for these people to have a certain amount of training in how to express their views, whether they’re writing for fringe review websites or the broadsheets.

It’s also an extremely useful discipline for artists to get used to thinking critically about each other’s work. We need to know how to give each other feedback and communicate with one another. I notice an alarming tendency to conflate ‘feedback’ and ‘criticism’ with ‘bashing’ – indeed, I quit a popular online theatre forum because I couldn’t stand to read one more post asserting that anything more critical than outright sycophancy is ‘bashing’ (yes, I appreciate the irony of leaving a discussion forum and then saying we should be able to communicate – let’s communicate elsewhere, all right?). Artists can’t work in a vacuum, and we can’t rely solely on print media where we’re being critiqued by professional critics rather than fellow artists who understand our discipline from the inside. Learning to trust is a good thing. Learning to speak truthfully yet not offensively is a good thing. Putting our art form before our egos is definitely a good thing.

Critical skills aren’t just for journalists – let’s ALL take Jenni Gould’s advice and up our game.