Words Of Advice to Young People

theater_critics

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak (via Skype) to the Theatre Criticism class at Royal Holloway, University of London. It was a lot of fun, they were great kids and asked fantastic questions. A day or two later I got an email with two additional questions from the students:

1. Why do YOU write? Why should we write, or be enthusiastic about wanting to write in today’s critical world? And do you have any tips for the new critic?

2. You argue that objectivity is a veneer for the inescapably subjective art of reviewing and/or writing on theatre. Should the critic then abandon all attempts at being objective? Even though he/she will never achieve 100% objectivity, isn’t it the critic’s (or writer-on-theatre) job to at least aspire to an objective view?

And here’s how I responded, off the cuff, via email:

1. This sounds hokey but its true. I write because I have to. Some people paint, some people sing, some people cook. I write. It is the form that I always come back to, it is how I organize my thoughts, it is how I best convey my inner life, my ideas, beliefs, experiences and passions. I think we all create in different ways, we engage in various attempts to bridge the existential gap of isolation, of being trapped alone in our interior life and, as E.M. Forster writes:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect…

That’s why I write. My advice for the new critic, the early career critic, is to be passionate, to care deeply about being IN your life, not watching it from outside or from the perspective of what it might become; it is iterative, is is process, it accretes and becomes who you are. Write about the things that animate, engage and excite you, don’t be afraid to battle the things you fear, speak truth to power, poke holes in lies and call people – and art – out on their bullshit. But mostly, do it because you have to, because it is your creative practice, because you believe that critical conversation is a form of participation and can create change in yourself and the world around you.

2. No. I fundamentally reject the entire notion of Objectivity. In the simplest definition objectivity implies judging without bias or external influence. That is impossible. We are human and we have histories and we exist in relation to our conditions: past, present and anticipated. We perceive through our bodies, flawed machines that they are, our consciousness fluctuates, our present experience is always mediated by prior experience, it is, in fact, a constant construction of the mind. Objectivity, in my reading, is a myth created to allow one group of people to posit an absolute truth predicated on their experience and use that as a means to objectify (dehumanize) other people, and frequently delegitimize, oppress and kill them. Even in science it is hard to substantiate Objectivity. Consider the idea of the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics where it is not possible to observe a system without changing the system, so the observer must be considered part of the system being observed. So too must we realize we are part of the system being observed. The critic should – as should all people – strive to be circumspect, thoughtful and fair in his/her judgements; strive to be knowledgable, rigorous and just. The critic should be insightful, engage in thoughtful exposition, identify or create context and not shy away from contrary opinions and sometimes painfully honest critique, but striving for Objectivity is futile in the best case and malign in the worst case.

But don’t listen to me, take it from William S. Burroughs:

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