Theatre criticism has been in crisis ever since theatre criticism came into existence, so in a sense Covid is nothing new. Still, it’s different. Before, it was always its subject that was under fire: the critic who saw his/her authority undermined by online evolutions, his/her expertise degraded by commercial media thinking, his/her income shrinking through flexibilisation, his/her space in the newspaper reduced by an explosion of other art and media production. Now, with Covid-19, it’s criticism’s object that’s under threat: the theatre itself. And as critics are also eating from the trough of creativity, we have not been eating much either these last few months.
I enjoyed the silence, I must admit. It liberated more space to reflect, to think about what you want to do yourself instead of being milled by the production machinery of 250 premieres every year. How can we avoid ending up as the stressed packer of the cultural industry’s commodification, decorating every cultural product with a critical bow? Even if we take our independent business seriously, the context is not always doing so. Even if the luxury of our job is to go somewhere different every night, from vivid community arts to big bourgeois opera, it’s easy to get into the same routine as some theatre directors with too many seats to fill. That’s what corona did: cut off the routine.
How can we keep this routine away when theatre comes back? To me, the answer is two-sided. First there’s the form. In a way, it’s strange that theatre turned into a multidisciplinary medium decades ago, while our criticism is still published as black letters on white paper or white screens. It’s corona-proof, but I’m afraid this textual conservatism will push us out of the public debate one day, as reading habits are changing quickly.
Of course there’s probably a good reason why the medium of criticism has remained unaffected already for decades, while all the rest is shifting. Text-based criticism is cheaper, quicker, richer in details and nuances. Still, I wonder why we don’t undertake more experiments in visual alternatives, interactive dialogue, gamification, graphic movements. The internet offers us so many new possibilities, yet we still think in paper clips, even online.
My first reason to dive into that kind of formal adventure wouldn’t be to reach out to a younger public. The risk of ending up as what Brecht called a ‘culinary critic’ is obvious. My main ambition would be to create a wider variety of technical tools myself, to become more skilled in finding the appropriate form for different critical messages. Shouldn’t we become more unpredictable, as critics?
It will require a lot of practice, lots of discussions, lots of workshops. I think an international performance festival would be the perfect context for such a collective search among critics. The few experiments I’ve done, like this one, have made me feel young and eager again. They opened a new path to creativity, somewhere between a second-hand and a first-hand creation, without my becoming too artistic myself. As critics, we must know our place. We’re not taking over the function of artists. But still, criticism could be a lot more creative than it is now, as a continuous black-and-white textual practice neglecting so many other options of describing, interpreting and evaluating art and theatre. The most famous critic of 2030 is probably already on YouTube now. But even if most of us are not millennials, and would look hilarious trying to compete, shouldn't we invest in some of that critic’s skills too? I would like to.
A second way of breaking the routine has more to do with the content and the focus of our writings. Sometimes our reviews feel so limited, so loyal to the lines the director has drawn, without any wondering about the drawing itself. What is the larger context of this picture, the ideology of the policy and the structures behind it, the financial conditions, the relation between discourse and practice in theatre companies? As the performance on stage is always an effect of that larger reality off stage, we should peek behind the curtains more often.
Corona unmasked some of these conditions almost naturally: how (and how unfairly) collaborators are paid, the lack of social protection, the imbalance between individual artists and funded structures, the exploitation of the human workforce… Why wouldn’t that be the critic’s business too? Have we become so submissive to art’s autonomy that we’ve blindfolded ourselves to the dubious constructions it is sometimes built upon? The division between art criticism and cultural criticism is artificial. Diversity, inequality, cultural policy, economics: it should all be in our toolkit too. Art criticism doesn’t stop at the borders of the stage. It’s an ideological business anyway.
Some say that creativity is born from routine. I can imagine it is. The problem is that boredom is also born from routine. We critics should think twice.
If you could choose any production or artist from the initial Holland Festival 2020 programming to write about, or meet the artist, who/what would that be and why?
What a pity INFINI 1-16 cannot be shown in its original set-up. It’s a performance that proves that even after 25 centuries of theatre it’s still possible to create something that has not been seen before. However, more than many other contemporary creations, Jozef Wouters’ work relates to the long history of theatre in a very material way. Its concept starts from that one design tool that used to open up the walls of the bourgeois theatre to the outer world or to other dreamed realities: the ‘infini’, the digital background projection of the predigital era. With one simple machinery move, this painted backdrop could switch the onstage ‘here’ to any other ‘somewhere else’. INFINI 1-16 shows this trick 16 times very differently to present 16 very different realities. It does so without actors.
As a critic, when I saw it, it felt like it would need a whole magazine to take all the layers of this work into account. What’s so interesting about it is not only its inspiration from theatre and other architecture, but also its ideological interpretation of this architecture. Not only its almost philosophical reflection on ‘in’ and ‘out’, but also its material and sensible realisation of these thoughts. INFINI 1-16 triggers an almost infinite series of questions about the medium of theatre itself. As a critic, you can’t get any greater gift. I regret I never found the time to fill those magazine pages.
We should give more set designers the chance to make performances. There’s a whole new dramaturgy out there. But what is most novel about INFINI 1-16, to me, is that the more subservient attitude of set design has also materialised into a very inspiring alternative for “that one director genius that determines centuries of theatre tradition”. Literally, Jozef Wouters ‘just’ gives space to 16 other artists, to create one collective work in complete autonomy. I see this as the dawn of a new generation in theatre.
Wouter Hillaert (Belgium, b.1978) is a freelance cultural journalist. For 15 years he has been working as a freelance theatre critic for the Flemish daily newspapers De Morgen and De Standaard. In 2003 he co-founded the free cultural magazine rekto:verso on arts and society (rektoverso) of which he was the editor until 2019. His main topics are theatre, cultural policy and community arts. In 2014 he initiated the Flemish anti-austerity movement ‘Hart boven Hard’ and he is also co-president of Folio, a platform of 35 Flemish cultural and literary magazines.