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A Review on “The Art Of Review (by Library@Esplanade)”

March 1, 2015

TheArtOfReview1Event: The Art of Review (organised by Library@Esplanade)
Venue: Open Stage, Library@Esplanade
Date: 28th Feb 2015

The Gang’s All Here

I chanced upon the poster for this event a few weeks back through some shared Facebook post, and I was so glad I did.

The event featured, in my opinion, the who’s who of local theatre reviewing – Corrie Tan (ST Life! theatre reviewer), Helmi Yusof (Business Times theatre reviewer), Adeline Chia (former ST Life! theatre reviewer), and was moderated by Kenneth Kwok, co-editor of the venerable online arts journal The Flying Inkpot.

The only notable absence from the esteemed panel was Mayo Martin (theatre reviewer for Today online), who was out of town.

I have always enjoyed reading the theatre reviews by all the above names, although I’ve read the least reviews from Helmi as I hardly come into contact with the Business Times.

I’ve always been a fan of Adeline Chia’s sharp wit and ability to wring out maximum intent from just a few choice words, Corrie Tan for her depth of insight and her meticulousness in crafting her arguments, and Mayo Martin for his ability in bringing across ideas from angles which few other reviewers would think of.

It was thus a reviewer’s wet dream to see Helmi, Corrie and Adeline all in a row up on the Open Stage, flanked by Kenneth, who moderated the 2hr discussion expertly.

Corrie brought up the issue of the lack of a true stalwart of the local theatre reviewing scene, someone the likes of a Michael Billington, Lyn Gardner, or Frank Rich, who has been with the Straits Times long enough to have had accumulated a wealth of experience and insight over the decades, and who commands a reputation and an authority like the aforementioned names.

This is a sentiment that I recall was echoed in Chong Tze Chien’s “Rant and Rave” as well, whereby it seems like the ST theatre correspondents come through a revolving door system where they work their way up to chief arts correspondent only to move on to other pursuits a few years later.

There is thus that lack of continuity and an authoritative voice on all things pertaining to local theatre reviews.

Helmi and Corrie also shared about the limitations they face working for national newspapers – overnight deadlines which do not always afford them the luxury of being able to fully process their thoughts and think through their responses to a show, word limits which make it difficult to flesh out their arguments as lengthily as they would like, and the sheer ordeal of having theatre practitioners call them up and yell at them in protest to a review which they had just published.

Another limitation is also having your work go through an editor, who may or may not frown upon terms which are too technical, for fear of alienating a general readership.

There was the interesting point brought up by Helmi about how, due to the sheer lack of resources in our newspapers, both Corrie and himself often have to do industry pieces (i.e. preview pieces of the show by interviewing the cast and creative teams) as well as review pieces, and this thus raises the question of objectivity, and whether the reviewers can be considered truly independent when they attempt to write a review piece on the production, having sometimes seen a significant part of the rehearsal process as well.

In other larger newspapers overseas, they have the luxury of having writers do industry pieces alone while others focus on just reviewing alone.

Adeline talked about how, regardless of his/her views and persuasions, a reviewer must most importantly be a good writer, and must be one who people enjoy reading.

It is very obvious that everyone has a different opinion with regards to art, and even amongst the three of them they had differing views to various recent shows, but ultimately – and this point was agreed upon by everyone – a reviewer should have his own distinct voice and style, and he/she must make the reader want to read his/her work.

Someone from the floor asked the question of whether the panel of reviewers were mindful of which theatre company they were criticising (if they were to write a bad review), and whether there was a fear of a potential falling out if the theatre company in question happened to be a “big name”.

(Needless to say, as with any discourse pertaining to local theatre reviewing and criticism of theatre companies, the legendary tale of former Life! theatre critic Hong Xinyi and her infamous spat in 2006 with a certain local theatre artistic director would inevitably get its airing once again.)

All panel members mentioned that yes, inevitably it does matter to a certain extent who they are criticising, but Corrie emphasised repeatedly that ultimately, if you were to say negative things about a production, you all the more have to substantiate your argument and give solid reasons why you thought it was bad.

She doesn’t believe in “slamming” any production, knowing far too well how much effort a company puts into each production, and she also mentioned that she tends to be kinder to the smaller productions.

There were many other smaller points discussed during the 2hr dialogue session which I am unable to fully capture, but I truly want to thank Library@Esplanade for organising such an engaging session.

It was quite well-attended, and I saw a number of students diligently taking down notes, as well as other members of the public who clearly had a keen interest in hearing what the esteemed panel had to say.

For me, I was just glad to be able to have had listened to Helmi, Corrie, Adeline and Kenneth expound on many of the questions and thoughts which I’ve always had while running Buttons in the Bread for more than four years, and I am all the more inspired to keep on contributing to the local theatre scene in my own small way through this site.

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