Tag Archives: Communication

Disheartened & Dejected: Reflections on a Reflection Meeting

Deep in the labyrinth that is Creative Scotland’s website lay the announcement of an open meeting to discuss the recent Theatre Sector Review. I only heard about it through social media and then found the details with a bit of creative googling. Maybe this explains why the turnout wasn’t higher. It wasn’t bad, but for something that matters to so many theatremakers, it should have been higher.

The production values weren’t bad, I’ll give them that – the meeting took place in a huge, fancy-looking room, all plate glass and white walls. The tea came in proper crockery. The couches in the waiting area are colour co-ordinated with the Visitors’ badges. It looks slick.

Yet for all its professional appearance, the meeting got off to a late and somewhat rambling start. Indeed, it was never clearly stated what the purpose of the meeting was. To ‘reflect’ on the Report, yes – and yet that’s the one thing we were never actually permitted to do.

Without being given an opportunity to discuss it as a complete group, we were messily divided into three sub-groups. Despite the presence of at least four Creative Scotland staff, only two of the three groups had anyone facilitating, which suggests either a failure to organise properly or a certain indecision as to how things should be run. I’m all for discussion with no facilitator – you know, ‘open’ discussion – and it would have been simple enough for the CS staff to have watched and listened and taken note of what was being said.

In fact, this might have been a much better way to do things. In the first place, it would have resolved the issue of taking minutes, since the CS staff could have done that. Instead, volunteers were required from each group to take responsibility for minuting the discussion, typing it up and sending it in. As anyone who has ever taken minutes will tell you, there’s a knack to minuting effectively without being left out of the discussion, and it seemed to me rather unfair to ask people who had come to join the discussion to take on this task, especially as it means typing it up in their own time.

In the second, if Creative Scotland had simply been facilitating a discussion between theatremakers it would have felt less… guarded? Contrived? Slippery? There was something problematic about the way questions about the report itself were dismissed and any attempt at wider discussion shut down. We were there to agree with the report in broad terms, supply a few nifty soundbites and allow the box marked “Public Consultation” to be ticked. Linking Creative Scotland directly with the report was strictly forbidden – it’s a report commissioned by Creative Scotland, it’s not their report. Why the need to make that distinction? Why distance themselves from the report unless they don’t trust it, and if they don’t trust it why steer us away from any in-depth discussion?

It was all the more conspicuous when we were refused clarification of other terms. The Report makes mention of a desired “20% growth”. When I asked what this meant I was told it referred to a 20% growth in “resources”. Is it just me, or is that basically the corporate synonym for “stuff”? Likewise, when I asked why “new work” was taken as being one of the “great things about Scottish theatre” without any explanation on interrogation of the term, I was told “We’d rather not go back over the report”. Right. So anything new is good, the fact that Scotland makes new work somehow makes us different to pretty much everywhere else and we’re supposed to accept all this without question or comment.

For added irony, the conversation moved on to a discussion of quality and how we measure and feedback on it. If this meeting was anything to go by, it would seem Creative Scotland plans to measure it by taking a unilateral decision on whether something is a good thing or not, then sticking by it without further evaluation. I really hope that’s not the case, but an organisation that has been so roundly criticised for its lack of clarity and failure to engage in any meaningful way with the artistic community might want to take a little more care over the way it presents itself. However sincere and well-meaning CS may be, they can’t afford to pay no attention to anything that makes them appear otherwise.

It’s infuriating to find yourself in a room with so many creative, intelligent people who all have plenty to say (and I’m not just talking about airing our funding grievances), then to be unable to have a proper conversation with them because you’re trapped in a discussion which is so tightly controlled that it feels almost scripted. It made me long for another Devoted & Disgruntled session, where conversations are free and self-governing. We’re not little children who are incapable of sticking to the point unless we’re properly marshalled. The conversations at D&D were remarkably non-chaotic. They achieved a lot. It felt like we were making progress. Perhaps that was because we weren’t spending our time on corporate jargon and keeping everything ‘on message’.

By the end of the session I felt upset and vaguely angry. I found myself wondering how I can ever make any headway in this industry if it means penetrating the Byzantine workings of organisations such as Creative Scotland. And yet I’m not the only person who feels this way. There are plenty of practitioners out there who find CS confusing and stressful. Some of them speak up. Some of them don’t, because you mustn’t upset the people who write the cheques. Personally, I’d rather trust the individuals at Creative Scotland to be mature, sensible people who can take criticism and learn from it, adjusting how they engage with artists if necessary.

I strongly believe that we need more communication with Creative Scotland – more discussion, less corporate jargon, more trust on both sides. Perhaps the first thing we need to do, before we spend more time going round in circles having unproductive, box-ticking discussions, is learn to talk to each other.


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.


Buzz buzz

My mum had a fantastic way of describing me – “her head’s full of bees and they’re all buzzing”.

It’s true. The inside of my head is a noisy place. Now it has a name and I know a bit more about Attention Deficit, distractability and hyperfocus, but having lived with it so long and never having experienced anything else… it’s just my brain. That’s just what it’s like.

On the one hand, as I’ve mentioned here before, the hyperfocus element can be remarkably useful. It has led to some fantastic writing binges. It can also lead to some horrible bouts of writer’s block. I’m not sure how other people experience writer’s block, never having been in anyone else’s head, but for me it’s not a lack of ideas. If there’s one thing I have never been, it’s lacking in ideas.

No, for me writer’s block is the sensation of being trapped beneath an avalanche of ideas, trying to claw my way out. I feel like I’m trapped in that moment of inception, it just happens again and again and again. I end up with snippets scribbled on bits of paper, random pages of notebooks, Word documents – I’ve got a whole folder where most of the documents don’t contain more than a sentence or two, because I can’t get past that stage.

When that happens I have a couple of options. If I don’t have a deadline to meet and there’s no strong contender forcing me to work on it, I can give in to the randomness for a while. I read, go on long Wiki walks, watch films, listen to music, watch my cat, hang around in busy places. I keep my notebook to hand (or at least in my handbag) and scribble things down in the hope that at some point one of them will demand my attention. The important thing is to keep going, because when I stop, when I try to ignore the ideas and not work on anything I get stressed and upset. My idea of hell is a long train journey with no pen, netbook or phone to make notes on. When I’m really in the depths I feel better if I have my fingers on a keyboard for as much of the day as possible. It’s just comforting to know it’s there. It used to be a notebook and pen that gave me that comfort, but times change…

The other option is to try and force a writing frenzy. I can pick one of the existing ideas from the Folder of Single Sentences and try to find the right place in my head for it. I need its soundtrack or a particular physical location that I can work in, or I need the right voices in the background.

(Voices in the background are why I watch TV while I write. My television has never been tuned in and probably never will be because the voices can’t just be random, I need particular ones and I need them until I’m done. When I was younger I would achieve this effect by watching the same film over and over again. When I got a bit older I discovered American television with its massive long seasons, so now I’ll happily put a box set and settle down to 20+ episodes of the right voices. The voices keep the bits of my brain that aren’t working on writing occupied, which means they don’t whine and tug at the sleeve of the bits that are. I have no idea if this makes sense to other people, but trust me – I struggle to work in silence, as my every school report can attest.)

If I can find the right sounds and feelings, I can trigger a writing binge that will either last long enough to flesh out an idea, taking it to a place where I can continue to work on it bit by bit, or I’ll finish the first draft in one go. The latter makes my life much easier, since it means I have a sense of actually having finished something. If I don’t finish the draft all at once, it means there’s a strong chance of my becoming distracted by the sound of the other bees and moving on without ever getting it finished.

The partial first drafts annoy me much more than the single sentence ideas. This is because every time I try to trigger a writing frenzy on the same subject, it becomes a bit harder. I struggle to recapture that initial fervour. Those bees don’t buzz as loudly as the new, shiny, unlistened-to bees.

The best feeling comes from the organic, unforced frenzy, when I simply get caught up and can’t stop. But those are comparatively rare, and we all know that the work can’t be dependent on perfect conditions or nothing ever gets done.

For the past couple of months I’ve been struggling with the buzzing. Perfect conditions certainly aren’t happening, and forcing the frenzy hasn’t really been an option as it’s my busiest time of year and I can’t just drop everything because the characters are chattering. So mostly I’ve been writing reviews. Reviews have deadlines, structure, discipline. These are not usually things that I like.

Yet something is working. Despite August being busier than any other month, despite assuming that my creative writing would have to take a back seat to reviewing and performing, I find I’ve done more work on existing ideas in August than I did in the previous three months combined. I have some material for the as-yet-unnamed children’s novel. I have a much clearer idea of where the current play is going and a new completed 15 minute piece. Randomly, I have a plot and the beginnings of a script for a webcomic.

Constraints bring clarity. I should know this, it’s one of the things I say all the time in Affectable. Sometimes having that discipline in one area of your life frees you up to be creative in another. I wouldn’t say I’ve found exactly the right balance yet, and considering that there’s a lot of emotional stuff going on at the moment (dead parents, as ever) I don’t expect that I will in the immediate future. But I feel closer to it than I have done previously, and I’m enjoying the constraints of having to marshal my thoughts and present them in a way that makes sense to other people. That goes beyond just reviewing, that goes for blogging too. As we approach October I’ll be interested to monitor what effect the ninth anniversary of my Mum’s death has on my creativity and my ability to blog here. I might set myself a couple of challenges in this regard.

We’ll see. I’m certainly not committing myself to anything publicly at nearly 2am and under the influence of the Fringe. I have a tendency to convince myself that I’m invincible at this time of year. There’s been sunlight and theatre and nothing can possibly ever go wrong. Best to wait until my feet touch the ground again before I say more.