The Perils of Theatrespeak


Originally written for Exeunt.

Are we all just talking to ourselves? That was the question of the hour during the long-table discussion that opened Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s Theatre Dialogue: Talking, Making & Taking Part  festival. It was a question prompted by an act of intervention. Seated at a long table that spanned the Oval House’s main auditorium, the festival kicked off with a conversation chaired by the critic Andy Horwitz of CultureBot. The idea was that the festival attendees could sit themselves at the table and have their say at any time. In theory, there were no barriers and anyone – from industry bods, to artists, to audience members, to people in the local community – was given license to participate if they so wished. All in the spirit of inclusion.

Or so we thought. Things were progressing in predictably amicable fashion, until a lady seated in the auditorium pulled up a chair and proceeded to give us all a royal telling of. Her main gripe was that those taking part in the discussions were speaking in what was tantamount to a foreign language that many sitting in the stalls struggled to comprehend: the language of theatrespeak. For this person, we were all being downright boring sods.

She had a point. I forget specifically what it was we had been discussing up until then, but what I do recall is a vague collection of innumerable phrases. Phrases like, “psychological realism”, “intertextuality”, “postmodernism” (of course), and “dramaturgical intervention”. As Megan Vaughan might say, the chat was very much verging on ArtWanker territory. It wasn’t until someone from the audience stood up, plonked themselves down at the table and gave us all a piece of their mind, that the closed nature of the conversation became apparent to the rest of us.

Naturally, there were some frayed nerves and a few bruised egos. Nobody likes feeling daft or being told that what he or she is saying is as dull as dishwater. Nevertheless, the bravery, boldness and frankness of the interruption did something interesting to the atmosphere in the room. For one thing, it made all the participants – myself included – feel incredibly self-conscious of their privilege. Secondly, it forced us all to confront the ever-present issue of inclusivity from the point of view of language itself. This disruption, far from derailing the conversation or souring the atmosphere, provided a much-needed lighting shock to the system. It was a curt but valuable reminder that sometimes the biggest obstacle to those who feel ostracised from the conversation has as much to do with the words we use and the way we use them than anything else.

The perennial question confronting those of us writing about theatre is whether or not what we say has any legitimacy or reach beyond our respective circles. It’s all too easy to take for granted the way in which the language we employ to discuss theatre can set-up barriers between those ‘in the know’ and those ‘outside the fray’. It doesn’t have anything to do with dialect or accent; it’s a case of being familiar with the terms of the conversation. The shared vocabulary that many of us use when discussing theatre can make the resulting chit-chat feel like a very closed discussion indeed. Thankfully, in terms of theatre criticism, we seem to be moving away from notions of expertise and towards a more intuitive, discursive and creative model. When it comes to the blogosphere (still hate that phrase), critics and commentators are free to write what they want, when they want and how they want. The result is more diversity of voices, more self-discovery and less top-down judgments.

The truth is that in order to build an inclusive language, it can’t just be a case of swapping some words for other words. It comes down to a question of value. What does the language we’re using to discuss theatre tell us about the way that said work is being valued? The thing I love about Theatre Dialogue is that it shirks the notion of top-down expertise in which the critic is some kind of mediator between ‘the work’ and ‘the audience’. There are no gatekeepers. Instead, people are simply free to talk, to chat, to muddle their way through the conversation and pick apart ideas in an open and democratic space. Thought of that way, the intervention shouldn’t be seen as symptomatic of the failures of theatrespeak to open itself up to a wider discussion, but the result of what happens when someone outside the established boundaries of theatreland is permitted to speak and share their thoughts and responses in an open and candid manner.

If we really want to expand participation, we need to think about the kind of language we’re using in such conversations. It’s not a case of deciding that some words are fine and some words aren’t. It’s about interrogating the terms of the conversation itself. When it comes to the subject of inclusion, we feel a lot more safe addressing issues like funding, programming and venues. Concrete things. Language is more slippery. Perhaps this is why it often gets overlooked. Nevertheless, it strikes me as an increasingly important issue in the ongoing mission to expand the perimeters of theatre practice in order to encompass people from all walks of life – and not just those with a degree in it.

NB: In what is purely coincidental, Catherine Love has also written a think-piece entitled Talking Theatre over at her blog, that touches on many of these same issues. It’s a brilliant piece. I strongly recommend reading. 



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