Tag Archives: Judgement

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.


Openness

A friend who reads this blog recently asked me whether I’m concerned about the possible repercussions of writing as candidly as I do. (That might make my friend sound a bit judgemental – that’s not the case, I believe she was asking out of curiosity, not judgement, and she knows me well enough to know I’d take it that way.) The answer is ‘not really’.

Perhaps I should be, since this is a public blog on my personal site and I don’t make the slightest effort to conceal my identity. But to be honest, you won’t read anything here that I wouldn’t tell you in person, and if you asked about it I’d tell you on pretty short acquaintance. If I’m open about it in person, why not online?

There was a time when I worried about what people would think of me if they knew I had mental health problems. I would never actively conceal it, but I wasn’t as relaxed about it as I am now. For a while I stumbled through conversations making vague references to ‘illness’ and ‘being unwell’, trusting that people wouldn’t enquire further. They didn’t, but I found I wasn’t comfortable with keeping the waters muddy on purpose.

It’s difficult not to talk about it when you have these problems. I don’t mean that I spill the whole story to every passing stranger, but I’ve been dealing with it for over a decade and I’ve lost large chunks of time to the Crazy. There are gaps in my CV, my educational history and my life story due to non-functioning headspace, and if I’m getting to know someone it means that sooner or later they’ll start to notice that the chronology of my life doesn’t make much sense without context. My options are 1) redirect the conversation if it goes anywhere near the subject, 2) gloss over it by making the aforementioned vague references, or 3) tell the truth, with or without all the gory details.

I prefer the truth. I spent long enough being uncomfortable with all of this and fearing other people’s judgement. Keeping things vague only keeps people at arm’s length, and feeling that no-one knows or understands me feeds into the low moods during depressive episodes. Yes, it’s a leap of faith every time. No, I’m not always happy with the results. But on balance, it’s worth it. I can deal with the occasional bit of judgement in exchange for having other people open up in response to me.

As for whether this blog will ever hinder me professionally, I don’t know. Once again I find that I don’t really worry about it. I’m a self-employed artist and I choose to work with people who are likely to have experienced these things themselves or seen them at close quarters. The levels of judgement are reasonably low. Perhaps that wouldn’t be the case elsewhere in the industry, on the commercial side where the focus is more on business than art, but the choices I’ve made mean that I’m unlikely to find out first-hand.

More importantly, some of us have to take the chance. Talking openly about something that’s stigmatised will always put you at risk of being subject to that stigma. It’s not for everyone, but these days I’m feeling secure and supported enough to do it. I know how lucky I am to have that – there have been times in my life when I haven’t had that support and I know how much harder it makes things to be dealing with it alone. Every judgement, every bad day seems a hundred times worse. I haven’t forgotten that, and that’s why I feel the need to reach out from where I am now in the hope that it does some good. It helps me more to focus on that than to let myself go down the route of giving too much thought to what people I’ve never met or barely know think of me. If writing this costs me a job, I doubt it’s a job that would have lasted.


The Jump to Hyperfocus

I’ve been really pleased at the number of people who got in touch after my last post! This is what I mean about not feeling alone – there are plenty of us out there, and it’s a hell of a lot less lonely if we talk to each other. This isn’t specifically a mental health blog, but before we move on to other things I’d like to look at one aspect of the craziness in greater detail, since it plays an important part in my creative life and always has, even though I didn’t have a name for it until quite recently.

Adult ADD is one of my newer diagnoses, and I got it courtesy of a psychiatrist who worked with me last year before I moved back to Scotland. I went to her to address some self-destructive behaviours. During those sessions I had reason to show her a couple of my notebooks, and what she saw there prompted her to ask if I had any of my old school reports. I had. She read through them and asked me to do some tests. Based on my writing and my ridiculously high test scores, she concluded that I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

Let’s get two things straight before we move on. First, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding psychiatrists and I can understand why, but this particular shrink had nothing to gain from this diagnosis. She already knew I’d be leaving her practice shortly to go home, and there was no-one for her to hand me on to because believe me, for treatment of Adult ADD there is no-one. (Well, almost – there’s one specialist in the country and he’s busy enough not to need my custom.)

Second, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding ADD itself, mostly because it has a very unhelpful name. Just to be perfectly clear, I don’t care whether you think ADD is real, made up, overdiagnosed or anything else. If you think it’s fake, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to consider whether you have it, or indeed to read further. Are we all happy with that? Good. 😉

Inevitably, you say Attention Deficit and the image that comes to mind is of schoolchildren running riot in classrooms, off their little faces on blue Smarties until they’re rounded up and Ritalin’d into doped obedience. I’m not like that and never have been. Even as a child I only ran around like a maniac very occasionally. I was much more likely to be the one sitting under a table with my nose in a book, which is not what people associate with ADD.

This is where misunderstandings about ADD kick in. It’s not that we can’t concentrate on anything. We can. It’s just that we struggle more than we should to concentrate on things that don’t grab our attention. Think of it as a sort of river of concentration – it flows, and when it encounters an obstacle (in the form of something tedious or too challenging) it changes course. Yes, obstacles can be worn away or the river can be dammed and rerouted to work round it, but those things require time/effort. When it’s not obstructed it can be pretty powerful and fast flowing.

So while I might have been a bookworm, I was an ADD bookworm. I loved reading, so I charged through books at an alarming rate and unintentionally taught myself speed reading. That’s hyperfocus. When I go on three day writing benders, I don’t do it as an act of will, I do it because I write a paragraph, hyperfocus kicks in and it’s just… done. Before I realise it. I go online to dig up a couple of parapsychological terms for a scene I’m writing and surface several hours later having read everything I can find on the Dyatlov Pass incident. I’m full of theories about the demise of a group of cross-country skiers and I’m already figuring out the budget for when I turn it into a piece of one on one theatre. I’m not a single word further forward with the play I was actually writing.

That’s the trouble with hyperfocus – it’s focus to the exclusion of all else. That’s the ‘deficit’ bit of Attention Deficit. It’s not that I can’t concentrate on anything, it’s just that when something grabs my attention I completely forget about everything else, and I mean everything. Up until a few years ago I would forget to eat. I’d get lost in whatever I was doing and not even realise I was hungry until I was on the point of fainting. I’m not quite that bad these days, but it’s taken me a while to get to this stage.

Hyperfocus can be extremely useful in creative terms, and I have to admit that when I’m in that state I absolutely fucking love it. Honestly, it’s a beautiful feeling. Even if I eventually discard or shelve the resulting work, the process is a blast. However, it always leaves me with a pile of undealt-with tasks – unopened mail, unanswered voice and emails, undone housework and missed appointments – and since I’ve just poured all my energy into hyperfocus, I lack the reserves to deal with all of this. That’s the dangerous bit, because the hyperfocus grows stronger and more frequent when I’m on the downward spiral into depression and the feelings of inability to cope with life that follow a period of hyperfocus can easily contribute to the low moods and catastrophic thinking symptomatic of depression.

I don’t know where I’d be without hyperfocus. Perhaps I would have developed the thing that other people call a work ethic, rather than requiring these episodes to be kickstarted by either inspiration or an imminent deadline. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’d be better at keeping on top of domestic and professional admin. I’m never likely to know, since the ADD is not going anywhere. Without access to specialist advice I’m unwilling to medicate for it, since I’d rather stick with the devil I know than mess around with my already untidy brain chemistry. (There is a theory that ADD can be the result of failing to absorb dopamine correctly, which would make sense since chemical absorption was never a strong point of mine. Still, no specialist, no dice.)

Before I embraced the Scenic Route I used to try to create routines and structures for myself. This meant calendar, diary, watch and To Do list. I’d force myself to stick to it for a while, and then hyperfocus would strike and I’d lose track of my careful schedule and end up feeling really miserable and useless. All those moments of being told that if I couldn’t perform tasks according to someone else’s schedule I’d never be anything other than a failure would replay in my head, triggering downward spirals and mental collapse. It wasn’t helpful.

Over the past year, since accepting the Scenic Route for what it is (by which I mean ‘a suitable path for me’, not necessarily ‘a path I’d recommend to anyone else’), I’ve loosened that schedule a lot. I don’t even check my diary on a daily basis now. My Google calendar is not synced to my phone. I don’t pack my days full any more, and I use my deadlines with care instead of setting them arbitrarily for everything. It’s a bit more relaxed, so my schedule can (up to a point) respond to my moods rather than my moods and mental state being ignored if they don’t happen to fit my schedule’s requirements. I’m not yet ready to pronounce this experiment a total success, because I’m still recovering from the era of heavy scheduling and there’s been so little sunlight that I’ve had many barely functional days recently, but I’m going to continue with it for now because I’m happy and because it’s my life to experiment with. I suspect that once the depressive fog lifts the new routine (or lack thereof) will let me be much happier and productive than hitherto. For now, who knows? I’ll post the results as I figure them out. In the meantime, it’s nearly 2am, marking the end of my usefulness for today. Bedtime, scheduled or not, and tomorrow I’ll see whether spilling all of this out into the void clears the way for writing any of the more creative stuff that’s currently cluttering the headspace. The next bout of hyperfocused non-stop writing is overdue.


Exploring the Headspace

In my last entry I began to talk about how I ended up on the scenic route. I focused mostly on my upbringing and dead parents, but there’s another major factor that helped to put me on the long and winding path. Time for another confessional post…

My name is Jen, I am an artist and I am crazy.

I don’t mean crazy in the sense of ‘I get a bit loud at parties’, although this also happens to be true if I’m in the right mood. I mean crazy as in ‘I have lifelong mental health problems that frequently impact on both my domestic and artistic lives’.

I know some people don’t think crazy is a suitable term to use for this stuff. I happen to like it. I love the sound of the word, I love its connotations of crackled glaze, and I love that it suggests the series of hyperfocused crazes that have possessed me throughout my life. So I’ll be sticking with crazy as my preferred term when discussing my own mental illness, and if you don’t like it, well… sorry.

My current collection of labels includes Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Adult ADD, Schizotypal Personality Disorder and mild OCD. Apparently there’s also a bit of PTSD in there following the double whammy bereavement and a couple of car accidents. I’m not entirely sure what I think of the labels, but they help to organise the mess a bit and in a way, they’re comforting. If a label exists for the set of feeling and behaviours I describe, that means it’s Not Just Me.

I like knowing I’m not the only one, and that’s why the arts play such an important role in my life. Contrary to popular belief, I have no desire to be a special snowflake. When I find another artist’s work that resonates with me, it reassures me that there are/have been plenty of other people who think and feel like me. It makes the strange things that go on in my head feel a bit more normal. However, because I still have to live with those strange things going on in my head, I’m still compelled to express the thoughts and feelings – so I create work of my own, and the cycle goes on.

While I feel that my craziness powers my attachment to the arts and provides fuel to sustain it, that’s only true at certain points in the cycle. When the craziness is under control I can work consistently and productively. When I’m on my way into or out of depression, I ricochet between obsessive, hyperfocused work and complete inability to do anything. Once the depression has taken hold I am too busy hiding under the table (sometimes figuratively, sometimes not), sleeping all day and trying to hold my life together and pretend everything’s fine to do much actual work. I might be teeming with ideas, but I lack the capacity/self-belief to do anything with them. I  have better things to do, like staring at blank documents and hyperventilating whenever the phone rings.

Over the decade since I was first diagnosed I’ve had to learn what triggers the crazy. Missing medication, homesickness, over-committing myself, parent-related anniversaries, being too sedentary, lack of light… I’m constantly keeping an eye on these things and finding ways to keep things under control. It can be a losing battle, and it definitely has been over the past year. On the one hand I’ve been happier and more in control of my life than ever before, but things have been stormy inside my head as I try to adjust to the idea of actually being happy and deal with the memories and survivor guilt. It seems strange to say that I’ve been least functional when I’ve been at my happiest, but it’s true – being happy and being stable, it turns out, are not the same thing. Having supportive people around me helps me to deal with the unstable times, but it doesn’t make them disappear.

Knowing that carving out a conventional directing career involves relentless work, massive over-commitment and long periods away from home, I’ve gradually come to terms with being on the scenic route. It’s the only place to be for someone like me, because the conventional path doesn’t really allow for fluctuating mental states. I need to multitask, because there are times when I need to write and write and write and there are times when I thrive on the focus of directing. These tend to be seasonal, and I know which times to avoid – feasible when you’re making your own work, but not so much when you’re doing something like the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme. If you know that the straight path is a fast road to self-destruction and it’s a journey you feel you have to make, the one remaining option is the scenic route.

So what changes have I made to accommodate the craziness? Well, I ended my stint in London and moved back to Edinburgh, for a start. I grew up here and although I sometimes feel the need to escape, I get ridiculously homesick when I’m not here. I chose to run the Affectable Acting sessions and create my own work rather than seeking out jobs with other companies and promising myself that I’d do things my own way once I was established enough. In committing myself to Affectable and Tightlaced, I created a structure for myself that’s loose enough to avoid making me feel penned in (which I always rebel against) but that provides a buffer against the highs and lows of a rejection-heavy industry. In building the network I found artists who understand and can share experiences. I make sure I have plenty of time for writing and plenty of time to spend with my husband and my cat, both of whom help me to stay balanced.

It’s a start. There’s still a lot for me to work on. 2012 has been really turbulent and I’ve spent much of this year in terror of my phone and email. Yes, I know that probably sounds weird, but seriously, this is the biggest disruption the mental health stuff causes in my life. I often write emails or enter phone numbers and then stare at the screen or the phone for ages, unable to hit send or call, paralysed by the utter conviction that something disastrous will happen if I do. If I miss a call, I do the same thing with voicemail. Once I’ve missed a call or failed to call/email someone when I think I should have done, it starts a cycle of avoidance that is really difficult to break. Every day that goes by makes it harder, because the damage feels worse and the repair feels less likely, so it seems that the sensible thing is just to let the communication go. Of course this is not the sensible thing. I know that. And I know that it should be very easy just to pick up the phone or hit send. But that’s why it’s called ‘mental illness’. It’s about doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when I’m in those moments. I’ve CBT’d this behaviour to death and haven’t cracked it yet, but the work goes on. Someday I’ll figure out how to get this one under control, and it’ll make my personal and professional lives much easier when I do. While I search for that solution, I’ll continue finding and implementing measures to lessen the impact of this behaviour on my life and my work.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write this post. I’ve never kept the craziness a secret, but nor am I usually quite this open about it. People often make judgements and some of them are quite unfair and inaccurate. But you know what? That’s fine. Make whatever judgements you like. If it stops you working with me, fine – but if mentally healthy colleagues are a priority and you’re working in theatre, good luck. I think sharing this kind of thing and remembering that it’s not the end of the world, just something that might require an adjustment of expectations and priorities, is a beneficial thing. I certainly hope it is. And if nothing else, it’s a little more background in the story of how I ended up on this particular path…