Embedded criticism: an alt.ernative to reviewing?
A note from web editor Hayley Malouin:
The phenomenon of “embedded criticism” has been picking up steam across theatre criticism communities in recent years, particularly in the contexts of theatre blogging and online journalism. Simply put, embedded criticism constitutes writing about theatre from a behind-the-scenes vantage point, usually in a serialized format, and usually published online. While a theatre review evaluates a production, embedded criticism engages with its process of creation. Andrew Haydon proposed the term in his blog Postcards from the Gods – borrowing it, perhaps controversially, from war reporting – in 2012, musing that “the question of “embeddedness” is one that goes to the very heart of what we think a critic is *for*. Or what a critic’s job is/should be.” Andy Horwitz of Culturebot then expanded on the concept: “Embedded Criticism,” Horwitz claims, “further removes the writer from the traditional arts journalism model by encouraging the writer to engage with the artist’s process over time in the dual role of dramaturg and expositor.” Critics like UK-based Maddy Costa and Toronto-based Karen Fricker have been experimenting with the form in both short- and long-term contexts. Fricker – a professor in the theatre department at Brock University in addition to theatre critic at The Toronto Star – has also written about embedded criticism in a scholarly context, both alone and alongside alt.theatre editor-in-chief Michelle MacArthur. Even I experimented with it in university.
In essence, embedded criticism offers a possible solution or response to the border drawn between artists and critics, a barrier that positions the critic as the diviner of the artist’s intent through witnessing their finished product, and which focuses purely on the artistic merit (the “good” or “bad”) of a show.
By comparison, embedded criticism focuses on the gestation of a show, warts and all, with little interest in adjudicating this gestation as good, bad, worthy, unworthy, art, not art. It highlights and prioritizes the process artists undergo when creating work, using process – not product – as the jumping off point for critical engagement. Rather than the focus being on reviewing the work, the “critic” (what a contentious term, especially from inside the rehearsal room!) documents the process, maintaining a critical eye but setting their intentions elsewhere than a binary of good/bad.
Having taught theatre criticism to university students, including embedded criticism, I personally find that its most exciting contribution to the larger theatrical field is its potential to foreground work that is created by, for, and about communities marginalized by racism, patriarchy, colonialism, and other systems of oppression. By putting the critic and artist(s) in dialogue, embedded criticism enables an exploration of theatre’s social, political, and artistic impact, and destabilizes hierarchies of value that can be propped up by mainstream news media.
This is why I am delighted to announce alt.theatre’s first foray into embedded criticism. As a theatre magazine dedicated to questions of diversity, representation, and social justice/change, embedded criticism offers us the chance to explore the relationship between theatre and justice – not just from the audience, but from backstage, from the rehearsal room, from the stage door.
There is no one singular way to “do” embedded criticism, and – depending on its scope – no clear-cut end to the critical engagement. Maddy Costa, for example, has been writing from a quasi-embedded vantage point about Chris Goode and Company for several years. In my experience, though, three sessions – or visits – is a good starting point: the “critic” usually sits in conversation with members of the creative team; they observe one or more rehearsals and document their observations; and they attend opening night, reflecting on how their insider knowledge allows them to unearth greater thematic resonances.
So, to the particulars. The production? Jani Lauzon’s new play I Call Myself Princess, a Cahoots Theatre/Paper Canoe Projects/Native Earth Performing Arts co-production, directed by Cahoots artistic director Marjorie Chan. The brave soul embedded? Robyn Grant-Moran, alum of the inaugural Generator Performance Criticism Training Program. I leave the divulging of other exciting details to Robyn, whose first dispatch from the ICMP rehearsal room is imminent. To this mix of names I’d like to add another: Carrie Sager of Flip Publicity, whose mediation and enthusiasm for this experiment have been invaluable.
Alternative theatre requires, I think, alternative criticism. I offer up alt.theatre’s embedding as an addendum to Andrew Haydon’s hypothesis – that embedded criticism invites us to rethink what criticism is for – suggesting that, at its heart, theatre criticism is always about doing justice: doing justice to the art witnessed; doing justice to the potential of the written word to convey the complexity of human emotion; doing justice to the world and the people in it.
I hope you will join us on this (fingers crossed) first of many embedded experiences. As editor, I hope I do it justice. Over to you, Robyn.
Hayley Malouin is a theatre critic and scholar from Toronto. She holds an MA in Studies in Comparative Literature and Arts and a BA in Dramatic Arts Performance, both from Brock University, where she is also a teaching assistant in courses on theatre criticism. Her research is focused on public performance, political protest, and circus.