On Embedded Criticism (or When Five Become Three)

Embedded criticism is both new and not new. Since process has become increasingly prominent for theatremakers in recent years, a number of critics followed their lead to ask how that can be the subject of criticism. Frustrated with the limitations of popping in at the last minute, seeing a show and responding, these embedded critics spend time in rehearsals or workshops and document or respond to the ongoing creative process, as well as the final piece.

Of course, (British) critics have been into rehearsal rooms before now. Several have tried their hand at directing, not in order to fulfil latent ambitions of making it in theatre proper – to join the party rather than clean up the mess – but simply to better understand the artform. Likewise, the Critics’ Circle has hosted workshops on lighting design – amongst other things – to give its members the tools to better identity and evaluate an element that often gets overlooked on account of ignorance. Critics have spent time in working theatres – in both creative and administrative process – that they might take account of the practicalities involved in making theatre and review work accordingly; not solely idealistically, but with a modicum of pragmatic realism.

What marks these, however, is that they are about personal development; about better critics and better criticism, not about theatre. Any benefit to theatre is at one remove – if we can assume that better critics help make theatre better. These activities might spark some form of criticism, but generally they don’t. The time spent looking at theatre from within(ish) is designed to educate and thus improve the mode of looking at theatre from without(ish). Its value is instrumental, not intrinsic.

That’s not always the case, though. When writing a preview feature or interview, critics and arts journalists will often pop into rehearsals briefly to put themselves in a position to provide a glimpse of a forthcoming production or a sense of the artist’s working methods. What does their rehearsal room look, sound or feel like? What are they thinking about? What are they debating? It adds colour and flavour to a Q&A. It helps to give a rounded picture.

This is not quite what we mean by embedded criticism, but it is separated from it only by degree. Where the typical arts journalist might spend a few hours in the rehearsal room, then conduct an interview, embedded critics will attach themselves to or immerse themselves in the creative process to a far greater extent. Two such pieces, extensions of the usual 1,000-word newspaper feature or profile, became my model from the start of this process.

The two articles appear in Kenneth Tynan’s Profiles and John Lahr’s Light Fantastic. In both, the critic spends a long period of time with an artist and, by charting a series of events, achieves an exhaustively detailed profile of that artist. In 1970, Tynan accompanied the actor Nicol Williamson to America, as he was due to perform for the then President, Richard Nixon. Lahr’s book includes a lengthy piece on Barry Humphries and his creation Dame Edna Everidge. Lahr details preparations for and performances in a long run at the London Palladium in 1989. His article is 55 pages long; Tynan’s is 36. Both mix biography, interview, critique and reportage to give an extensive – no, a near definitive - 360° portrait of the artist in question. The resultant articles – both, incidentally, written for the New Yorker – cover the artist’s lives, their characters, their work, the history of that work and their working methods. Read them. They’re extraordinary pieces of work.

However, having never written anything along such lines, nor having been into a rehearsal room for an extended period of time as a critic, Ovalhouse’s artistic directors Rachel and Rebecca and I agreed that this would be an experiment. We may, in fact, have put it stronger than that: this has to be an experiment, perhaps, or this can only be an experiment.
The fact is that we didn’t know exactly how this might work; nor what it might produce; nor, even, whether it would be useful or interesting – and, if so, to whom. We would discover all that as we went along. The plan was for me to attend rehearsals for the five shows that would make up the Counterculture 50 season. To this, based on the Lahr/Tynan model, I added a series of interviews with the practitioners at the start of the process and at the end of the week’s run.

Looking back, it seems really obvious, but all this is underpinned by one massive assumption: namely, that embedded criticism can be a part of any creative process.
Actually, it’s not a ridiculous assumption to make. One of the first things I’d say to the artists involved is that my job here wasn’t about judgement. The word critic, with its connotations of star-ratings and marketable quotations, implies an element of judgement, but I was very clear that the embedded critic has a different role. The artist’s process, I reasoned, is the artist’s process. Whatever works for them works. The embedded critic’s job, then, is one of documentation; it should go beyond a recounting of events – they did this, then this, then this – in search of general principles. Not just individual moments, but modes of practice and techniques for creating and refining work.

I stand by that, but what has become apparent is that even this inevitably involves a layer of judgement. One cannot simply detach how a process pans out and functions from a consideration of what it’s not doing, of what’s missing. Implicit in that question, however, is an ‘ought’ – admittedly a subjective ‘in my opinion’ ought, but an ought nonetheless. So even if one allows an artist their process – as the embedded critic must – one is still looking at it from outside and assessing it.

This is not at all problematic when the embedded critic is, as it were, onside with the artist. Allowing a process – and I don’t mean that word to imply the embedded critic as gatekeeper on high – is absolutely possible when one believes in it. However, it becomes difficult to reconcile with a lack of faith in the artist. If the critic is writing honestly – and the critic must be honest above all else – he or she cannot both raise objections to a process and accept it as is. Unprodded underneath that initial unquestioned assumption, then, is this: What happens if the embedded critic and the artist are at odds with one another?

That, then, knocks into responsibilities. The critic working in the usual mode of press nights and reviews has a responsibility to the reader, to tell it as he or she sees it, to be interesting and to entertain. (I have heard some argue that the critic’s foremost responsibility is actually to their editor.) The only responsibilities this critic has to the artist are courtesy and respect.
Things are not so clear-cut for the embedded critic. Again the responsibility to the reader is first – honesty is all. However, I would argue that the responsibilities towards the artist increase. After all, one is a guest in their rehearsal room; traditionally a private space. In this instance, additionally, the invitation was made on their behalf, without consultation. The embedded critic – me – has been imposed on them by the theatre. Could they have opted out? Presumably, but that choice was never explicitly made clear. So, at the end of the process, a piece judging their work and their working methods – albeit somewhat surreptitiously – exists without their having sought it out.

Now in some cases, that will be a good thing for the artist. It will, perhaps, raise interesting questions and provide a new perspective on their working methods. In others however, that perspective will come with a different set of values to the artist, leading to a document that judges their working methods from a position that’s at odds with those working methods.
So this begs the question as to whether there is such a thing as a good process. If some judgement is inevitable, is it imposed on something that ought to exist outside of judgement. In that, to be honest, I’m torn. On the one hand, one can see that a rigourous, questing, inspired process leads to fuller work, while a lazy, unquestioning one that’s content to assume will lead to work with gaps. How much you feel those gaps – ie how serviceable a piece of theatre is, depending on how much we need to know for it to work – will depend on the work in question. In other words, a simple piece that asks just enough to complete is different to a complex piece that nonetheless doesn’t ask enough or, perhaps, asks too much (and includes all of its conclusions willy-nilly). Fullness, rigour is not necessarily a standard of judgement.

Then there are processes that might feel torturous – even be torturous – that nonetheless produce brilliant work. Are those good processes on the basis of their end results alone? What about a process that zings along perfectly, reaching a work that is based on false assumptions and fails utterly? Is that a good process? Even if a process is ‘good,’ the artist has no duty to make it interesting to the observer. That’s problematic right? A good process as experienced from within is different to a good process experienced from without.

Now, a second layer. The two processes/pieces that I don’t get on so well with are by quite young, emerging artists. I’ve distinguished there between the processes/pieces and the artists themselves, but can you do that? The relationship is more complex than that; What if I just don’t dig those artists? But then, an artist one dislikes can still produce a work one likes, right, and vice versa? I digress: the important thing is that these artists are emerging and, in this day and age, where online content sticks to Google, anything I write will hang around and have an effect. What I’m saying is that I’m uncomfortable with writing negatively about the processes of emerging artists. Slam that back into the continued primary responsibility of honesty and one reaches an impasse. Either I’m dishonest or I’m negative. (In standard criticism, honesty prevails, but one can circumvent this dilemma in part by skirting around the things that don’t need saying.)

What follows is a concern that if I can’t bring myself to write negative embedded criticism, what right have I to write positive embedded criticism? If embedded criticism can only express one attitude – approval or yay – does it become subsumed into the PR machinery that it hoped to break out of in the first place? (It’s also worth point out that, during Counterculture 50, I’m on the Ovalhouse payroll. There’s a tension here. Can the theatre sanction – no, more than that, commission – a piece trashing artists that they’ve commissioned. Yes, in the right context, but I suspect that context isn’t embedded criticism.)

As an additional aside – I will return to that thought in a moment – its worth considering the mechanism of embedded criticism and, in particular, what this project has involved. How much time does an embedded critic need to spend with the company? There are two sides to that question. First, how long and how regularly does the critic need to be in the rehearsal room? Second, when ought they to join the process? From the very inception? During production meetings? In the rehearsal room? During Counterculture 50, I took in five processes in seven weeks. For the most part, there were three processes going on simultaneously. I also joined very late – in some cases designs had been constructed, shows were almost complete. This is all problematic. There comes a point when one hasn’t really got enough. Though you can extrapolate to certain working methods and governing principles, the whole collapses. Too many gaps and one can’t join the dots.

So back to the responsibilities involved. You may, by now, have guessed that this is a mea culpa. This series that was meant to have five will stop at three. It has been fascinating, but I think it has also been flawed; those initial assumptions eventually raised unexpected problems and without having a framework in place to responsibly circumnavigate them, it feels right to stop and reflect.
Embedded criticism is both new and not new. If we’re going to make the model that we want we need to think quite carefully about the practice. Theatres have a duty of care. Embedded critics have a duty of care. Artists have a duty of care. There needs to be a careful thought-process in placing embedded critics alongside artists. Both need to know – and accept – one another to the extent where, amongst other things, the artist can comfortably ask the embedded critic to leave and the critic can honestly debate (some of) the artist’s working principles or decisions in the room without undermining or disrespecting the whole. In other words, there needs to be a proper contract from the start or else embedded criticism entirely fails.