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In The Spirit Of Experimentation

May 27, 2008

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry about being asked by local theatre company, Killing My Lobster, to participate in a fundraiser. The company's plan, which sounded bizarre albeit intriguing to me, was to auction off "en evening at the theatre with Chloe Veltman."

I didn't think anyone would plunk down their hard-earned cash for the item, but much to my surprise and bafflement it started a bit of a bidding war.

As a result of the auction, I ended up spending a delightful evening with a few local theatre buffs who wanted to catch a show and thereafter, over cocktails, discuss its contents as well as what goes on in the mind of a theatre critic. All good clean fun. Or was it?

In the weeks that elapsed between blogging about being asked to undertake this task for KML and going out on the theatre date with the winners, I encountered some contentious responses to my involvement with the auction. Basically, people who got in touch with me in response to my blog post -- mostly arts journalists -- thought it strange and even unprincipled for a critic to participate in a fundraiser for a theatre company. I'm glad that those people raised their concerns as it forced me to think about why I believe going ahead with the auction was a good idea.

Here is my rationale for allowing myself to be auctioned off by KML:

1. Objectivity is a facade behind which media organizations hide. Maintaining an artificial distance from artists e.g. by refusing to have conversations with them, doesn't necessarily make a critic's view of their work less open to bias. In my experience, it is possible to be on speaking terms with an artist and still express an honest opinion about his or her work. This may sound hopelessly idealistic or self-deluded but I've been in this game for long enough now to have an inkling that it's possible to operate in the real world and be true with one's writing without paying lipservice to this untenable notion of "objectvity." In my experience, artists value honesty and the critic's task is to write first and foremost from a place deep in the gut -- and only afterwards employ the services of the heart and head. Plus I don't mind getting into a good fight over what I write. In general, I have found that worthwhile relationships with people I know in the arts world have remained cordial even when my responses to the work haven't always been positive. And it's important to bare in mind that even soured relationships don't generally stay sour forever.

2. What are the arts for if they're not about engendering discussion and exchanging ideas? If an individual or organization offers me a forum to get people talking about art, I cannot help but embrace it.

3. The critical process process shouldn't be shrouded in mystery. We should take every opportunity we can to be open and talk about what we do. Critics' livelihoods depend upon it -- and, by extension, the health of the cultural conversation.

4. The Bay Area theatre community is a tight-knit entity. It's ludicrous for a critic to think that he or she can maintain total distance from artists. We're all in this together, I think. But, by the same token, this doesn't by any stretch of the imagination mean that I see myself as a cheerleader. It's my job to get ideas spinning in response to a work of art. Offering my opinion, positive, negative or mixed, is just part of a broader mandate. Like G B Shaw, I'm a gadfly; a necessary scourge.

5. Life's too short not to try new concepts and see if they work. I went into this in the spirit of experimentation. So far so good, I think. We'll see how things transpire in the future. As for my relationship with KML? Nothing changes. Why should it?


  • Hurray for you Queenie,

    I think Peter Brook, The Empty Space, put it best:

    "The critic is part of the whole...
    It is for this reason that the more the critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our
    lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, interviewing.

    Certainly, there is a tiny social problem - how does a critic talk to someone whom she has just damed in print?

    Momentary awkwardnesses may arise - but it is ludicrous to think that it is largely this that deprives some critics of a vital contact with the work of which they are a part.

    The embarrassment on the critics side and ours can be easily lived down and certainly a closer relation with the work will in no way put the critic into the position of connivance with the people she has got to know."

    There you go and more power to you,

    Mr. Stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At May 27, 2008 at 12:35 PM  

  • aw shucks
    thanks mr stick

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 27, 2008 at 1:46 PM  

  • I'd also like to point out that we as artists or production companies invite critics to our shows. Ostensibly, this means we want your opinion on our work. Or, perhaps it's just because we feel obligated to obtain the PR that comes with having our show mentioned in print. But if that's the only reason, then shame on us. I prefer the former explanation. In which case, why shouldn't it be a conversation rather than just an opinion floating in a vacuum? Personally, I tend to gravitate toward pieces that I would like to consider more deeply, discuss with others. If an artist isn't comfortable with his/her work being up for discussion, why make it public in the first place? Personally, I love the idea of the fundraiser, and commend you for getting people engaged in an evening at the theatre!

    By Blogger anonymous, At May 29, 2008 at 11:46 AM  

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