One of the issues that will certainly arise at the upcoming Culturebot conversation at Under the Radar will be that of authority — specifically, where and how authority, power, and influence inhere in the arena of drama criticism. The rise of the “citizen critic,” as the title of the discussion has it, brings this issue to the forefront. Whether a piece of writing about drama and theatre is an evaluation (in the case of reviews) or personally-engaged, knowledgeable analysis (in the case of longer-form criticism), a reader assumes that the critic knows what he or she is talking about. But why? Michael Kaiser thinks he knows: “Most serious arts critics know a great deal about the field they cover and can evaluate a given work or production based on many years of serious study and experience. These critics have been vetted by their employers.” But not inevitably so, says Alison Croggon: “In the best circumstances, publications gain lustre from the quality of their critics,” she said a few years ago in an essay to which I will link tomorrow. “But in the worst … the situation has been the other way around: the critic has been important because of where she is published.” Online criticism may shift the field, whether it supplements, replaces, or — most dangerously, at least to those who continue to maintain the authority of MSM coverage — undermines the authority of that coverage.
Critics and reviewers also guide the cultural and social conversation about the aims, purposes, and interpretation of art. As we debate the wisdom of the rise of the “citizen critic,” I thought it might be useful to repost below my review of Venice Saved: A Seminar, a performance from David Levine and CiNE presented a few years ago at PS122. Levine’s wry, memorable piece called into question the extent to which directors and performers — and, by extension, critics — may lead the evaluation and discussion of any given play and the politics surrounding its production: the uneasy democratization of both the creative and the critical process, reflecting both its positive and its negative qualities.
Rather delightfully, this gives me the chance to recommend the opening next week of Levine’s Anger at the Movies, his sequel to the 2009 Venice Saved: A Seminar, as part of this year’s COIL 2012 festival at PS122, 150 First Avenue, which runs next Tuesday and Wednesday, 10-11 January. As it happens, Levine is also a panelist in the first Culturebot Conversation at Under the Radar, “Performance and Context: The Black Box and The White Cube,” on Sunday 8 January. As I said, both highly recommended. More information on this (and on “Everyone’s A Critic! Exploring the Changing Landscape of Arts Writing,” the Culturebot panel on which I’ll be sitting) available here.
Venice Saved: A Seminar by David Levine & CiNE. Conceived and directed by David Levine, incorporating an unfinished play by Simone Weil adapted by Gordon Dahlquist. With Jeff Biehl, James Hannaham, Jon Krupp, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Christianna Nelson, Colleen Werthmann and David Levine. Running time (at the performance I saw, though really it’s up to you): 3 hours and 15 minutes, one intermission. At Performance Space 122, 150 First Avenue at East 9th Street. Reviewed at the 21 March performance. Runs 21 March-5 April 2009.
In The Lesson, Eugene Ionesco subjects the teacher-pupil relationship to a caustic absurdist examination: a language tutorial which begins with benign intentions slowly reveals the sexual and political ideologies that underlie the educational experience to depict the most malignant autopsy of power relations. That’s not what David Levine and his CiNE co-conspirators at Venice Saved: A Seminar are after — no switchblades are produced, although at some performances a few metaphorical shivs are bound to make their appearance — but the entire evening plays with and examines the basis of “political theatre,” especially in the context of political education and discussion, raising questions of power and authority in the theatre and the classroom. And it’s a discussion which, properly, you take home with you.
In a way, I have to ask my fellow bloggers (who like nothing more than to hear themselves talking, or at any rate read themselves writing): where were you? Because here, in a piece of theatre determined to have a political edge in a post-Obama America, you’ve got a chance to say your piece in a theatre. And it’s dense, multilayered and delightfully comic theatre too. The audience gathers around a seminar table that encircles a playing area, and at the outset, the genial David Levine and his performers offer a primary text for examination: Simone Weil’s unfinished play Venice Saved, a dreadful piece of work about a Spanish conspiracy to destroy the Venetian Republic in the 17th century. Written in 1940 as Weil and her family were fleeing the Nazi occupation of Paris, the play is performed in bits and pieces as Levine and the other performers, also seated around the seminar table, demonstrate some common assumptions about political theatre, all the while providing biographical and aesthetic “context” in the form of contributions from dramaturgs and other performers.
But then, based upon the way the conversation is going, things begin to get seriously out-of-hand. A comment about the relevance of historical material to a contemporary political world gives rise to the performance of an “updated” scene from the play, set in a shipping container in 21st-century New York City populated by two revolutionaries and a whore. A comment upon the formal qualities of Weil’s rather pedestrian play is met with a staging of a scene from the play in the style of Black Watch. And weaving between these scenes is a conversation in which the audience is urged to take part: a democracy it seems, but always under the guiding eye of director Levine, the ultimate “authority” in this quasi-republic of the theatre, who can easily guide the discussion down predetermined channels as he sees fit.
Given the play itself and its author, several questions are bound to arise: Weil’s status as a possibly “anorexic” single Jewish woman with a pretense to Catholicism, not to mention her status as a writer and fighter in the Spanish Civil War; the French theatre during the war years, hung between Cocteau and Sartre’s 1944 No Exit; the role of the “public intellectual.” But ultimately, Venice Saved: A Seminar becomes less and less about Weil and her play and more and more about the political and aesthetic presumptions of the audience gathered around the table. The educational process is in some respects an attempt to seek answers to questions, but there’s no final answer to the questions that Levine and his collaborators seek to raise: What is political theatre? Is theatre itself a form that undermines any attempt at instrumental political action? So far as a director and his performers impose explicit or implicit political interpretations upon a drama in performance, does an individual audience member not do the same thing from their position in the auditorium? And how open are we to questioning those presumptions, especially when goaded to do so as passive recipients of a theatrical experience?
In Venice Saved: A Seminar, however, the recipients are not so passive: instead, they are encouraged to contribute to the explicit interpretation of the work. While this is audience participation with a vengeance, it’s also a skilfully crafted means of encouraging debate, even if director Levine, the leader of the seminar, directs this debate down predetermined avenues. And the “quality” (an ideologically determined word itself) of any given performance is based upon the quality of the audience and their willingness to participate, to engage — this too an aspect of “political theatre” open to question. At the performance I attended, I played a minor supporting role in the show, along with a playwright from Melbourne, New York director Ken Rus Schmoll, actor Matthew Maher, and most memorably PS122′s artistic director Vallejo Gantner himself (who saw his own institution subjected to comic political criticism in one of the scenes that parodied Weil’s play).
Of course, as Levine would say, all this is subject to cultural contextualization too: a bunch of fairly well-off middle-class Americans (racially mixed, but with a decided skew towards a Caucasian population; and to be fair, a few Australians as well) debating the relevance or irrelevance of political theatre in a small black box in New York’s East Village, trying to come to terms with both 17th-century Venice and 21st-century Israel and what they might mean to us. The political result of Venice Saved: A Seminar? Probably nothing. Unless, of course, you can measure results by the engagement of individual audience members in thinking about theatre and, by extension, the culture in which they find themselves. In that event, Venice Saved: A Seminar is a smashing success. If you need a dose of political theatre, I’m sorry to say that tickets to next week’s readings of Seven Jewish Children at the New York Theatre Workshop, a few short blocks from PS122, are very hard to get. But you might be better served by Venice Saved: A Seminar. In the “gift bag” given to each audience member, there’s a copy of Churchill’s play anyway. If you’re feeling really radical, you can always lead a reading of the play yourself at a performance of Venice Saved. Subversive, surely, especially if you don’t ask for a donation to Medical Aid for Palestinians at the end of it. Though in the context of Venice Saved, all’s fair. (And to whet your appetite, enjoy a few clips of a workshop production of Venice Saved at the CiNE Web site here.)