REVIEW: ‘Gramming Prince Hamlet
After seeing Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet at Canadian Stage for a course on theatre criticism, students at York University posted Instagram reviews under the hashtag #alttheatrePH. Instructor and PhD student Signy Lynch introduces this critical experiment, and offers insight into its theoretical framework. To read the reviews, you can click on the image above, or search #alttheatrePH on Instagram.
Instagram reviews of Prince Hamlet by Alex Chan (@achan01yorktheatre4200), Daniel Coley (@coley4200), Katie Irvine (@katieirvine_4200), Rikki Katarina (@rkbw4200), Jayna Mees (@j.m_4200), Laura Nigro (@lauranigro4200), Jade Silman (@jadesilman4200), and Alvin Wong (@caraparcel4200).
Some bright York theatre students and I have in our seminars for the last several weeks been discussing twenty-first century theatrical trends. One of the thrulines of the course is the complexities of the many interdisciplinary and hybridized forms that dot the contemporary theatre scene, the sheer variety of what is now labelled “theatre,” and the difficulties this situation creates for scholars and artists.
This proliferation of varied theatrical practices poses a problem of expertise: when theatre is so diverse in its modes of expression, who can claim expertise, and on what basis can it be claimed? Furthermore, how do we account for such variety in our evaluation of theatre works? On which criteria should they be judged? And might certain criteria contradict each other?
Summerworks and The Theatre Centre found one way to address these questions in the programming of their Progress Festival in Toronto this February. They brought in guest curators with different areas of focus and expertise to select many of the festival shows. The input of these curators reveals several key points about contemporary theatre practice: first, that theatre work straddles various artistic disciplines—stretching into contemporary art and performance art, with shows curated by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Centre, and FADO Performance Art Centre; second, with shows curated by Native Earth Performing Arts and Uma Nota Culture, that culturally-specific knowledge can heavily inform understandings of artistic form and practice and the evaluation of theatre works.
I’ve written previously for Canadian Theatre Review on the potential of a mode of criticism that values audiences’ individual knowledge of and responses to theatre—the “ignorant critic,” as an alternative to the “critic as expert.” My thoughts on this are influenced by French philosopher Jacques Rancière, who in The Emancipated Spectator (2011) urges theatre makers to recognize the inherent capabilities of audiences they see as “passive” through the parable of the “ignorant schoolmaster.” In this parable, the schoolmaster’s ignorance, rather than being a significant detraction, actually makes them the ideal teacher. Instead of reproducing the “stultifying” model of direct transmission and teaching students just to regurgite received knowledge, the ignorant schoolmaster helps students to discover things for themselves, in a form of pedagogy that verifies the “equality of intelligence” and recognizes the importance of their contributions (Rancière 10, 14).
What this “ignorant critic” model and the Progress Festival’s curation strategy have in common is the value they place on distinct responses to art and the coexistence of multiple perspectives. With these factors in mind, I devised with my students a review assignment that decentres the authority of the individual critic and offers readers a multi-faceted perspective on a work.
I asked students to help me come up with the guidelines for the assignment, an Instagram review of the course’s one required performance viewing, Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet. The students were already familiar with Instagram, and all had accounts from doing weekly journal posts on course readings.
We started off with a set of prompts, questioning what the elements and purpose of a theatre review should be, and then translated our brainstorming into a specific outline.
One key element of our criteria was influenced by Instagram’s character limit. Given that the caption limit maxes out at around 300 words (we said the reviews should be 200-250 words), we agreed that each review would focus on one main area of the production, such as set or costume design, the staging of a particular scene, the performance of a particular actor, etc. Besides keeping the reviews at a manageable size for readers consuming several at a time, this focus would create a variable picture of the production, and reveal something through the reviews as a whole in highlighting which elements stood out most to the students.
On top of this, I asked the students to consider the intention or purpose of their review and who they were writing for. For their posts, I asked them to choose an image that related to or in some way resonated with their review, whether it was part of the show’s promotional material, or seemingly tangential to the work.
All students in the course had to write a review, but those that were interested in sharing their work opted-in to this post by using the hashtag #alttheatrePH. You’ll see the results of this experiment, a collection of short and sweet takes on Prince Hamlet that together offer a de-centred picture of the show. The delight of these reviews lies not only in the singular reviews themselves, but in their similarities and differences, the patterns that emerge across them.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2011.
Signy Lynch is a PhD Student in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University. Her research investigates how direct audience address in contemporary performance can help audience members and performers to negotiate the complexities of inhabiting a twenty-first century globalized Canada. She is a member of the Centre for Spectatorship at the University of Toronto and is a board member of Cahoots Theatre.