As 2013 draws to close it seems appropriate that Civilian Theatre takes the time to reflect on another year of blogging. Having made it out to see 47 plays this year – and with over 40 of them given review space – then a conservative estimate of words published makes it up to 30,000.
That is an incredible number – far more than we would have thought possible when we started – but has there been any point to all that activity. Have we learned anything and is the blog getting any better as a result?
The freedom of the internet has allowed a great many people to write a great many blogs. The quality is variable and we hold our hands up and admit that, despite our best intentions, Civilian Theatre’s articles are not always free from the whiff of pretension.
However we have always deliberately tried to provide something that is a little different from what is already out there – carving out our own little niche in what is already a rather niche field for bloggers. The challenge has always been the immediate nature of theatre, which presents a number of problems not necessarily faced by those writing music or film blogs.
If you haven’t seen a play then what can you take from its review? Once a production has ended then it is as if it never existed to those who didn’t see it. Music can exist in a digital world – through Spotify or iTunes. Even gigs often have a permanent record stored on YouTube through shaky camera phone footage and officially-sanctioned tour DVDs. Film has always existed in a repeatable medium.
As a result the critical process for film and music is far more alive and engaging for the reader. They can share that experience with the critic, and later critics can revisit and challenge earlier opinions. Whilst more plays are being committed to film – one of the most positive and yet most unsung changes of 2013 is the continued roll-out of the preservation of performances, and thanks to Digital Theatre and NT Live for this – it is still a tiny proportion of the whole.
Where does theatrical criticism fit into this world? How does a review capture something that retains relevance outside of a production’s lifespan, or to a person who is interested in theatre but cannot afford to go?
This is of course what makes theatre such a live medium and what makes it so fascinating for audiences. A production of a play will always be unique; the Chicago of Ute Lemper cannot be said to be same as the Chicago that provided employment for numerous ex-soap stars for over a decade despite the production remaining exactly the same.
Civilian Theatre decided early on that there was little point trying to ape the theatre critics on the national papers. A lifetime’s worth of theatre is not going to be caught up on overnight. What value is there in knowing whether an unknown blog thinks a play is worth three rather than four stars?
We thought, and still do, that the best articles leave the reader knowing whether or not to see something by the time they reached its end – and it is these that we have tried to replicate. We have always tried to write articles that are a halfway house between an essay and a review.
Reviving the essay may be a Sisyphean task in a world where learning seems to be viewed with suspicion but the best productions are not necessarily those that are the best produced but are those that act as a jumping off point for the imagination. This is what Civilian Theatre has tried to capture in its writing.
Where we hope to add illumination is in our love of narratives and what they mean for society. We have always been most interested in why people tell stories in the manner that they tell them, and why people continue to go back to stories written centuries previously to find new meaning and purpose? This may explain why many of our articles tend to focus on the playwright and the director rather than the actors.
We do not pretend to be scholars and we are not professional theatre folk. In our own small corner of the world we look to draw on the thoughts of those with the time and intelligence to examine these issues in much greater depth and turn them into articles that can be understood by everybody. They are written for interested amateurs by well-intentioned and reasonably well-informed amateurs.
And with that Civilian Theatre signs-off for the year with thanks to all of those who visited in 2013, and hopes that at least some of you return for more musings in 2014.
Civilian Theatre x
As usual, if you have any questions for Civilian Theatre or are interested in contributing to the blog then please do email us on firstname.lastname@example.org