No one’s a critic: Cornwall, criticism and complacency

Every piece of Cornish theatre I caught in 2014, I knew at least one member of the cast or crew. I didn’t love every production, and then comes the inevitable, dreaded question, “What did you think?” So, how honest is too honest? It’s so difficult to give constructive criticism of show where you know people, and where they have invested a great deal of time and energy into creating a piece of work. Sometimes this closeness means we’re not always honest enough.

Cornwall is small, there’s no denying it, and for one area there are a huge number of theatre companies. Other counties envy us, promoters elsewhere England are astonished how much good work is being created. The scene is lively and buzzing, and companies and practitioners, in these straitened times, will often share resources.  It’s great, it’s supportive, and someone will invariably know where you can get that last prop you just can’t track down, but, there’s a downside. Six degrees of separation? In Cornish theatre it’s barely two.

Everyone seemingly knows everyone; it’s a little incestuous. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but when it comes to offering constructive criticism, it can be tricky. There’s sometimes a lack of opinions from within Cornish theatre, from peers and colleagues. It’s difficult: you don’t want to upset people, and, as is so often the peril of being a self-employed theatre practitioner, you don’t want to offend someone that you might hope to work with. Still, there’s a reluctance to say (and I am as guilty of this as anyone), “I think this could have been done better.” As a result, things that could have been done better often aren’t. So if honest is too honest, how can we offer useful feedback?

This problem doesn’t just come from knowing people in the companies, it’s also a result of the closeness between venues and performers which has been fostered so brilliantly by organisations like Carn to Cove. Promoters become close friends, and there are superb venues across the county that look after visiting companies wonderfully. Therefore, if a company returns to a venue year after year, bringing in an audience, why would a promoter want to criticise the work?

It can feel like audiences simply praise the fact that a performance is taking place at all (which is obviously a good thing), rather than praising the work for being good, a Forsythian ‘Didn’t they do well?’ Yes, they did, but did they do it really well? Occasionally there seems to be a hint of Cornish pride in liking the work, a desire to enjoy something regardless of whether it is good or not, purely because it is from a Cornish company. Perhaps this is one of the trickiest elements, shouldn’t the work produced in Cornwall be judged against all theatre, rather than being given special dispensation because it’s Cornish?

In part, some of this comes from the local press. I don’t know what to make of reviews in local newspapers, it sometimes seems that they are loath to criticise the companies that supply them with press releases and offer interviews, and, likewise, the companies need the publicity. A show I caught this year, which I thought wasn’t great, received a glowing review in a local paper. If that’s the case, then what does a good review stand for? Does it mean anything? There’s no harm in telling the truth, and I know I could certainly have benefitted from some more honesty at times. Last November my theatre company received a fairly scathing review for a work-in-progress performance we did (you can see it here: http://www.cornishman.co.uk/miss-hit/story-20111236-detail/story.html). I didn’t agree with everything that was said, but it has seen us make real improvements to how we work, and it was refreshing to see in a press review of a local production.

Perhaps it’s not a great idea to write this, I work every day with brilliant people in Cornish theatre, and while lambasting the lack of critics, I’m not one myself (but I hope to be, which is one of the reasons why I started this blog with Amy). I think it’s important though, because it would be great to see a change in how we talk about each other’s work, and being more open and honest. I’m going to write about everything I see from here, and I hope my thoughts are interesting, and that people reading will offer their feedback, views and comments on the blog.

Feedback is crucial, and I worry that the direct result of this current lack of criticism is complacency among companies and practitioners. If our peers, audiences and local press won’t be honest, who will? We should all be striving to create brilliant work, brilliant work on a national scale, feedback from our peers in the industry is key to this.

Honesty isn’t a bad thing. Knowing where to improve, frankly discussing our work, working closely with our peers in this unique and brilliant community we have, and really recognising brilliance, can only be a good thing. Criticism isn’t something to be feared, it’s something to embrace, sees us all improve, and helps us celebrate the really excellent work coming out of Cornwall.


3 thoughts on “No one’s a critic: Cornwall, criticism and complacency

  1. Spot on Ciaran. I worked for the Western Morning News for 21 years, until being made redundant in December, and enthusiasm for supporting the arts often felt like a personal crusade, not a publisher’s responsibility. It was frequently down to individuals with a passion to take on writing about the arts and theatre and, more specifically, reviewing. Reviewers do it mainly for love (although it’s nice to have free tickets and a glass of wine in the interval). If there is money attached, you’re lucky if it’s enough to cover your petrol and parking. I like to think reviewers make a healthy contribution and, if you’re lucky, contribute to the artistic debate. But always at the back of my mind at any show is: If I paid for my ticket, have I had value for money? The answer is often surprising… All power to your artistic elbow.

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