Irish Theatre Magazine: How Many Reviews Does it Publish?

Just a short post. Yesterday, I asked what would happen to Irish theatre criticism now that Irish Theatre Magazine has suspended publication. I’ve had a lot of interesting responses to that post. There is one I wanted to come back to, however. One of the comments following the blog post suggested that ITM is usually very active around the time of the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Fringe – but estimated that during the rest of the year the website published only “10 to 15” reviews last year.

That’s a view I’ve heard expressed by quite a number of people.

I responded by saying that the magazine had published “at least” 130 reviews last year and the year before.

Here are the actual figures.

The number of non-Fringe/DTF reviews  published every year since 2009:

2013: 166
2012: 159
2011: 142
2010: 171
2009: 131

When we add DTF/Fringe reviews, we get the following:

2013 47 Fringe Reviews and 10 DTF, which would bring the total to 223

2012 58 Fringe and 11 DTF which would bring total to 228

I don’t have figures for years before 2013, but they aren’t far off the totals above.

So this shows that ITM was covering more than 200 shows a year – which, with some gaps, probably meant that they covered every show produced in Ireland, north and south, as well as some Irish shows produced abroad. I think there is a separate issue about why some people were unaware of the breadth of coverage – and this goes back to my comments yesterday about the need for websites now to have full-time social media people who can drive traffic.

Again, facing towards the future, it’s worth bearing these figures in mind, since they show what would be required of any organisation that sought to review (or see) everything in Ireland.

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Irish Theatre Magazine is gone. So what happens now?

Like many people today, I have been saddened to read the press release that states that Irish Theatre Magazine is suspending publication, due to the withdrawal of Arts Council funding. I’ve been aware of this decision for some time, because I sit on the Board of ITM, but it was still very disheartening to see the news in black and white today.

I wanted to take a moment to consider what the consequences might be of the loss of ITM. I need to stress that I’m doing so in a completely private capacity: because I am on the Board, I also think it would be unwise for me to argue one way or the other about whether the cut was the right decision, though I know there are opinions about that already in circulation across social media. Rather, I just want to turn some attention to the future, to consider what can happen next, if anything. Here are some issues that immediately strike me as being urgent.

  1. What happens to theatre criticism outside Dublin?

Like any publication, ITM had its critics, but one achievement that can’t be quibbled with is that it gave coverage to companies that no-one else was writing about. While critics in the national press (people like Eithne Shorthall and Emer O’Kelly, among others) do make a concerted effort to see work outside Dublin, in general most small and emerging companies in Ireland struggle to get any kind of national coverage – unless they bring their work to Dublin. The loss of ITM thus has some negative consequences for those companies.

First it means that those companies are omitted from the written record. As an academic, I am constantly made aware that one of the ways that we can reconstruct the history of Irish theatre is by looking at newspaper advertisements and reviews. I think it’s sad that when historians look back a century from now, they may form the impression that there was little or no theatre in Ireland beyond the M-50. They’ll be aware of Druid, but mainly as a company that visited the Gaiety from time to time; and they’ll be aware of Coradorca, as a company that sometimes staged work in the summer (when Dubliners were visiting Cork). What will they know about Livin’ Dred or Blue Raincoat or all of the great theatre that’s been produced in Limerick during the last decade? What about all the young companies from Galway and elsewhere? What about theatre in Kilkenny? Absence of evidence will undoubtedly be seen as evidence of absence.

Second, there is the fact that reviews help emerging companies. Those reviews often form part of funding applications, and also are used to persuade venue managers to take shows that are touring. The loss of those public endorsements will have a disproportionately negative impact on companies outside the capital.

A third problem is how new work is promoted. In Dublin, the theatre community is big enough that word of mouth, especially via Twitter and other social media, can help to sell shows. But beyond the capital, companies are still very dependent on reviews – which are then recycled on posters, radio ads, and so on. I have a strong memory myself of being approached by a theatre producer when I was reviewing a show in Galway about ten years ago: “I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like the show,” he growled; “you’re entitled to your opinion. But for God’s sake would you just give me a line I can use on the posters?” Those words were delivered half in jest (and thus, in typical Irish fashion, were absolutely serious), but I don’t think things have changed much since then. In general I think there’s a very poor understanding of how different kinds of marketing are necessary in different parts of the country.

  1. What kind of theatre criticism do we want?

When Karen Fricker was editor of ITM we held an event with the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2003, asking what kind of theatre criticism Ireland needed. It was a great conference, happening in Liberty Hall and featuring contributions from people like Richard Eyre and Garry Hynes, as well as several national and international academics and critics. And it was attended by about 100 people. There was a great buzz about the whole event, and it reverberated for months afterwards.

It’s difficult to imagine such an event being greeted with that kind of excitement now – for many reasons.

So I think we are now much further away from understanding what we want of theatre criticism in Ireland than we were 10 years ago. Many of the producers that I speak to in Dublin are dismissive of theatre reviews, though some still suggest that a positive review can help to sell a show (but only when accompanied by good word of mouth). Nevertheless, it still seems to be the case that most theatre people  want their shows to be reviewed. For many theatre audiences, the purpose of a review is to act as a kind of consumer guide, to answer a question that we may not be able to answer for ourselves: should I go and see this show? And for academics, the function of a review is to act as a record. Practitioners too have a range of opinions about what reviews do for and to their careers.

But my overall point here is that the different parts of the Irish theatre community – practitioners, producers/venue managers, audiences, academics, etc – all want and expect different things of reviews, and not all of those things are possible or compatible with each other.

My own view is that criticism should meet some of the objectives above, but should do much more than them. In our society, when something important happens, we write about it. When the Irish team wins the Six Nations, it is written about. When an Irish writer wins a literary prize, the newspapers write about it. When a Garda Commissioner resigns, we write about it. I’d like to think that our arts are sufficiently important that we should write about them in much the same way.

In short, we should write about theatre because theatre matters. And if we don’t write about it, we are creating the impression that it does not matter – that it is not ‘newsworthy’, that it is not worth recording for future generations.

I think that theatre criticism is not an ‘art’ in the sense that theatre is. But I do think it’s an important form of writing, and important example of the craft of prose writing and literary analysis. It can be taught; it can be done well, and it is an important part of our cultural conversation, and indeed of our cultural well-being. I believe strongly that the strength of a society is evident in its willingness to discuss ideas – and I’d include in that the willingness of critics to discuss the ideas that go into making theatre.

Let’s leave aside here that many people complain about Irish critics, and/or the state of criticism in Ireland. We can aspire to having a vigorous and rigorous critical tradition in this country. That aspiration is now several steps further away from being realised.

  1. Blogging is not the Answer

I’ve heard quite a few people say that theatre criticism of the kind we find in newspapers has been rendered redundant by the arrival of the blog. As someone who has been blogging about Irish theatre for about 10 months, I don’t think we should see blogging as any kind of substitute for professional criticism.

Blogging is certainly a useful way to discuss theatre, but it is by its nature often partial and unreliable. A professional theatre critic will see everything; as a blogger, I see only what I want to see. A professional theatre critic has an  obligation to be negative if he/she feels it’s appropriate to do so; a blogger can (and usually does) write only about things that he/she likes.

There is a place for blogging in our theatre conversation, but it can’t take the place of well informed, rigorous, disciplined, and regular criticism by a professional theatre critic. This leads to the next problem –

  1. Sustainability of Online Resources 

A question that many of us who work in the digital humanities are asking is how we can ensure that our online work lives on. This question is clearly urgent with blog posts. A newspaper will be archived by our national cultural institutions and can be accessed a century from now. It’s highly unlikely that this blog will exist in its present form in even five years.

This is also pertinent to the online status of Irish Theatre Magazine and other Irish cultural journals. Ten years ago, there was a great rush to have material published online, with the view being widely promulgated that online publication is cheaper, more accessible, and more efficient than print. That is true, of course, but only in the short term. As many people are now discovering, online publication has an ongoing cost: you have to pay for storage indefinitely, and as software develops, it is also necessary to upgrade content so that it can be searched and displayed more accurately.

The web is only 20 years’ old but we all already know of countless digital graveyards: websites that were set up and run for some time – and which are now obsolete because the owner ran out of money or enthusiasm or support.

I think it’s a point worth noting here that ITM’s print catalogue can and has been securely archived, in libraries all around the country and abroad. But the question of what happens to its online content is far more complex. Isn’t it ironic that the printed version of the magazine will live on long after the website disappears?

What this shows, I think, is that anyone who’s running a website that is funded by an arts or educational agency should contemplate what will happen to the content if/when the funding disappears. That’s quite a worrying prospect, when you consider how important many online resources are for Irish theatre.

  1. What kind of theatre magazine do we want (if any), and how do we want to pay for it?

Since it began, ITM effectively has had two models, both of which had  drawbacks.

The first was the print magazine, which ran for about 10 years. I used to love getting the magazine through the letter-box every quarter, but I know that it had its critics too. Some readers and theatre people thought it unfortunate that so many reviews appeared long after shows had finished. And there was also a view that magazines were too dependent on subscribers’ willingness to continue paying. There was a strong sense when the magazine stopped being published that printed criticism was no longer sustainable.

The second was the online version of the magazine, which overlapped with the printed version for some time before it went entirely online. Online publication has much to recommend it – you can publish reviews quickly and can allow for audience interaction. The problem, however, is that online publication requires much more frequent editorial input: audiences expect that reviews will appear within 24 hours of a show’s opening, and they expect that if they want to comment, those comments will be quickly moderated. Websites  now only are visited if traffic is driven there by social media – requiring a dedicated (full-time) social media person. That kind of model can only work if you have a full-time editor – not to mention critics who can turn around work within 24 hours (and editors who can copy-edit during the same period). But even our national newspapers are struggling to make this kind of model work. Expectations of what an online resource can and should do have evolved very rapidly since ITM first went online

What now?

If ITM is to have a successor – and I hope it does – I think it might be necessary to consider models that are different from the two above – or which perhaps might combine the two above in some way.  Along the way, we’d have to answer the following questions.

  • If people want theatre criticism, how much will they pay for it?
  • If people want reviews, how long are they willing to wait for them?
  • Does Irish theatre need a written record of its productions?
  • Does that written record need to be preserved?
  • Are there enough skilled and knowledgeable critics in Ireland to cover the 200+ professional productions staged in Ireland each year (hint: no, there aren’t)? If not, where can they come from? Are those critics willing to write for free or for as close to it as possible?
  • Are there people out there who are willing to edit 200+ reviews, plus features, for no money or very little money, for several years?
  • If this doesn’t happen, what will the consequences be?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, though I do have opinions about some of them. But I think it would be useful if we could start discussing these issues in more detail.

 

Sex in Irish Drama: Running to Stand Still

During the last month, I’ve seen two productions that come from very different eras, and which seem to suggest that Irish drama has changed enormously. The first was Rough Magic’s comedy Jezebel by Mark Cantan, and the second is the current Abbey Theatre revival of John B. Keane’s Sive, directed by Conall Morrison.

Jezebel is a light-hearted comedy about a male/female couple who decide that their sex life needs to be spiced up. They work their way through various handbooks, and they play out multiple scenarios – before  deciding that having a threesome might make things (more?) interesting for them. The production has now finished its Irish tour (though it is going to Scotland soon) so I’m probably not going to ruin anyone’s enjoyment by saying that the twist is that, after the threesome takes place, the two women involved both become pregnant. A series of complications and deceptions arise, and it all concludes with the two women giving birth simultaneously.

Jezebel-Map

The play could just as easily have been called Bedroom Farce, and indeed it feels a lot like an Alan Ayckbourn play at times: it’s well crafted, it features some clever jokes (about statistics, of all things), and it has some fun with theatrical form. In common with a lot of Rough Magic plays, there’s some clever use of direct address of the audience – most of which is delivered in a style of easy familiarity, as if we all understand each other very well, and all share exactly the same set of values.

Also notable is the affluence of the characters . For example, when the couple discover that Jezebel is pregnant, both immediately state that they’ll pay her medical bills (a very casual attitude to a bill of at least €3,000).  So these are the kinds of people whom we don’t often see on the Irish stage: characters who are not very different from the audience.

And, again in common with a lot of Rough Magic plays, Jezebel feels both contemporary and cosmopolitan. The three actors (Peter Daly, Margaret McAuliffe and Valerie O’Connor) all deliver lines in their own Irish accents, but the play could easily  be re-located to any other English-speaking country; I am open to correction on this, but I don’t recall any moments in the script that specifically identified the characters or location as Irish.

So this production has a lot in common with those great moments when Rough Magic did work like Declan Hughes’s Digging for Fire or Shiver or Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain  plays where it’s obvious that young people in the audience are experiencing a thrill of recognition. And I did hear people say afterwards that they never knew it was possible to see plays like the one they’d just watched – which is a thought I’d had myself back in 1991 when I saw a Rough Magic play for the first time myself.

Rough Magic have probably done more than any other Irish company to find common ground between sex and Irishness. For example, their 2004 musical Improbable Frequency features a long musical number that involved Peter Hanley and Lisa Lambe narrating their characters’ first sexual encounter with each other. Similarly, they also produced Christian O’Reilly’s play about transvestism and fidelity, Is This About Sex?  

Rough Magic have always set out to bring Irish drama up to date, and if they’ve included sex in their plays, it’s probably because they were in rebellion against works like John B Keane’s Sive. The story of how an old farmer tries to buy a young bride for himself puts Keane’s play firmly in the tradition of Restoration comedies about the marriage market (for reasons  that I can’t articulate it reminds me slightly of Behn’s The Rover). But, as many have observed, the play uses ritual and repetition to create a sense of tragedy – albeit a tragedy intermixed with moments of melodrama. So it’s much closer to the Greeks than to London in the 1670s (or Ireland in the 2010s).

And, in contrast to Jezebel, the problem in Sive is that no-one is having sex. The old farmer who lusts after Sive is, as played by Daniel Reardon, dominated by a kind of malevolent vulpine appetite. Sive herself is in a passionate but apparently chaste relationship with a younger man called Liam Scuab. The matchmaker who causes so much trouble in the play does so because he has been embittered by his own failure to form a relationship. And most interestingly, the aunt and uncle who betray Sive are clearly in a relationship that lacks intimacy – they have no children of their own, and their wariness with each other hints at years of sexual disappointment and a kind of bruised vulnerability. As played by Barry Barnes and Derbhle Crotty, their relationship is  dominated by sex – but only in the sense that any mention of bed seems to throw both into a state of defensiveness and dejection.

Image-Seven-A-800x534

Simon O’Gorman (Thomasheen Seán Rua), Róisín O’Neill (Sive) and Daniel Reardon (Seán Dota) in Sive by John B. Keane. Directed by Conall Morrison. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

I thought Sive was a very good production with excellent acting from the entire cast.  As ever with Keane I thought it could have benefited from some cuts; I’m not sure that the level of repetition in the play is necessary or effective. That said, many people I know who have seen it have spoken of being deeply moved by the production, so it’s clearly working well.  Likewise Jezebel is also a very good production. One of my First Year students who saw the play spoke about the precision of the actors’ line delivery, especially in the case of Peter Daly; the student made the point that they’d never realised that actors’ diction has  to be so clear in order to carry a funny play for a long period. I thought that was an astute comment: the production will probably strike some viewers as frivolous or meaningless but the precision and discipline on display from the actors and director was very impressive.

I can imagine that someone going from Sive to Jezebel might form the impression that Ireland has been transformed during the last 50 years, at least insofar as sex is concerned. Sive gives us a world in which sex dominates because no-one can speak about it, or express their sexuality fully. Guilt abounds. In contrast, Jezebel gives us an Ireland in which sex is not just normal but normative: there’s an expectation that the people in this play must be sexually active in the way that sexual inhibition is expected in the world of Sive.

It’s often stated that the reason we like watching John B Keane (and Martin McDonagh) in contemporary Ireland is that doing so allows “us” to breathe a “cathartic roar of relief” (as Vic Merriman put it) because “we” are no longer like the “them” that we see on the stage. And I can imagine how someone watching Jezebel could see that play as suggesting that “we” have “moved on” and are much more sexually confident and adventurous.

But – at the risk of knocking down an argument that no-one has actually made yet – I don’t think such a view would be accurate. What struck me about these two plays is that, despite their differences, both present sex in Ireland as something utterly joyless. This is explicitly the case in Sive, but that joylessness is also present in Jezebel. The couple at the centre of the Rough Magic play feel the need to spice up their sex-life after only eight months together, and the various acts they imagine seem motivated by boredom rather than desire. They reminded me of people at a Starbucks counter who are so overwhelmed by the range of choices available that they end up paralysed: I found myself wondering why they couldn’t just have whatever the sexual equivalent of an ordinary cup of coffee might be.

In other words, the journey from Sive to Jezebel is not one from sexual suppression to sexual freedom. instead, it’s a journey  from one set of unhealthy attitudes about sex to another set of hang-ups.

We’ve seen a lot of work on sexuality in Irish theatre over the last 20 years, especially since 2008. Plays like Mark O’Halloran’s Trade attempt to come to terms with the relationship between sex and intimacy, and also the relationship between sex and identity. And of course money is a major theme  there too.  I’d also think of Stuart Carolan’s Empress of India, which sought to stage adult sexuality with a courageous frankness that caused quite a bit of controversy at the time.

But aside from those and a handful of other examples (like O’Reilly’s Is This About Sex?), we haven’t had much drama in Ireland that is specifically about sex (as opposed to sexuality): not sex as a problem, or sex as the cause of a problem or a pathology, but sex as an important part of  life.

As we see sexually explicit films like Nymphomaniac and Blue is the Warmest Colour dominant in our cinemas, it’s interesting to speculate about why we don’t find this kind of frankness in our theatre. Nor do we produce plays from the British or American repertoire that deal with these themes.

Is there something we’re trying to avoid?

In the meantime, here’s an interesting video about Jezebel

This year’s Cuirt Festival of Literature: an amazing line-up

I’ve just come back from the House Hotel where I had the privilege of launching this year’s Cuirt Festival, which is being directed by Dani Gill. 

As I said tonight, it’s a sign of a great festival programme when your first thought is not “what am I going to see?” but “what am I going to have to miss?” That’s certainly my feeling this year: there’s so much to enjoy that it won’t be possible to get to everything. And there’s really a sense that Dani Gill is making her mark: Cuirt is now one of those Festivals where audiences will try things out because they trust the programmer. 

If you like Irish fiction, there are lots of readings to enjoy – Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton will be there, and so too will three major emerging writers: Eimear McBride, Donal Ryan and Colin Barrett. Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is, to use an appropriate cliche, an instant classic – he has an extraordinary ability to evoke an entire way of life through the creation of vivid narrative voices, and in the process has written one of the best representations of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland – though the book will be read long after the Celtic Tiger has been forgotten, I think. And it’s also clear that McBride is a major talent: truly original and courageous in her use of language and form. 

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Anakana Schofield & Dónal Ryan

There’s also a really interesting young Irish writer called Anakana Schofiel – whose work I haven’t read but who I’m really looking forward to hearing. 

I’m also looking forward to a great international line-up which includes  Patrick De Witt, whose literary Western the Sisters Brothers is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last few years.

For people who like poetry, there’s a double bill with Liz Lochhead and Fleur Adock. And Joanne Harris, author of Chocolatwill be there too. I suspect hers will be the first reading to sell out: I was in Eason’s yesterday and spotted two different people buying her new book about the Norse God Loki in the space of about five minutes… 

The event I’m most excited about is a double bill featuring Eleanor Catton and Rachel Kushner. Catton won the Booker last year for The Luminaries, a book that has received a lot of attention for its length, and perhaps insufficient attention for all of its other, more interesting, characteristics. It’s amazing to think that it’s only her second novel, and that she’s still in her 20s. I’m looking forward to seeing where she’ll be in ten or twenty years’ time. 

I’m currently reading Rachel Kushner’s the  Flamethrowers, which I am enjoying hugely. It’s about motorbikes and the New York arts scene in the 1970s, and lots of other things. And it’s amazingly vivid: the kind of writing that’s so good you can forget you’re reading. I keep having to pause just to take a moment to enjoy how good it is; it’s one of those books where I want to rush out and buy copies for everyone I know. 

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Catton and Kushner 

One other pattern that I mentioned at the launch is that roughly half of the readings this year are by women – which is certainly a greater proportion than we often find at literary festivals. That too is a very positive development, both in terms of giving visibility to emerging authors like McBride, and in terms of inspiring younger writers. As a teacher I’m always very aware of how important it is for students to be able to encounter great artists “in the flesh” – which is why we’re so lucky that we have people like Garry Hynes teaching our students in Drama here at NUI Galway, for example. I suspect that for any would-be writers, it will be massively inspiring to see successful young authors like Catton and Kushner in this city. 

The box office opens later this week, and I’d encourage people to get booking – think it’s going to be a great week for us here in Galway and that events will go quickly. 

Full programme is here: http://www.cuirt.ie/en