2018年4月號 2017年本地演藝節目與事件回顧    文章類別
Reminiscence: IATC Young Theatre Critics Seminar at Wuzhen Theatre Festival 2017
文:Clement Lee

A short one-week experience with young fellow critics from around the world in Wuzhen, China, back in October 2017 has become one of the highlights of the year.


I do have to admit that I did not expect much of the IATC Young Critics Seminar before I set foot on the soil of the water village, except the renowned Wuzhen Theatre Festival itself. It is already the 5th year this area, a tourist spot in South China, has hosted an international theatre festival that is branded as one of the most important theatre festivals in the whole world.


For the program, what I knew was that within one week, I had to see selected performances from the renowned Wuzhen Theatre Festival, and discuss them every day with a group of seven young critics (including me) from Poland, Romania, Brazil, South Africa and Taiwan. However, it was the prospect of experiencing an international theatre festival that excited me. I did not hold high hopes about the seminar.


Little did I know that after I came back to Hong Kong, what I had experienced during the seminar would actually grow more and more inside me. And most importantly, it has become meaningful because of the people I was with during that one-week trip.



It all started with our first discussion after viewing Eugene Onegin, a Russian production by the Vakhtangov Theatre, written and directed by Rimas Tuminas. This is a touring production, which had already been staged internationally.


Chairman of the seminar, Mr Octavian Saiu, stated right in the beginning that to discuss and review the productions scheduled for the coming week, we needed to take into account several ideas: critical thinking (on the production itself), value judgment (of the production’s relevance to the contemporary world), and context (of the production released in a certain place and time).


That was quite a refreshing start, as if I were reminded why we are theatre critics instead of mere audiences who comment on a production based on favoritism. I had always tried to carefully review a production based on the first two ideas, but for the ‘context’ part, I had not thought about it as strongly as the other two. However, I can say that with what I experienced at the festival, now I have started to think about it more and more.


So at the seminar, we started to discuss Eugene Onegin the production. Never did I know that the novella by Alexander Pushkin, which the theatre work is based on, is a sacred text in mainland China. Nearly everyone in the literature sphere is familiar with Pushkin’s works. It is something interesting to know, as it somehow indicates why Wuzhen Theatre Festival invited this production to come.


I, as someone from Hong Kong, am fortunate to have seen several productions of the Tchaikovsky opera based on the same material, as well as the first few chapters of the novella, and so I am familiar with the story. To me, Tuminas’ production is a prominent adaptation that engages the audience with a contemporary touch, using two actors to play the younger and the older selves of each main character; it also boldly redefines the role of Tatyana as the main protagonist instead of Onegin.


The reinterpretation, however, does not lose touch with the period of the story – that is, 19th-century imperial Russia. Thus we can still see glamorous period costumes, Russian folk songs, as well as motifs of classical art, both in design and music.


Eugene Onegin is a well-crafted production, and that is why I was totally engaged from start to finish.


However, what I have written above can be totally disagreed by a person with no knowledge of Eugene Onegin, who may equate the production to a clichéd soap opera. One of my fellow young critics who did not know anything about the source material said that he could not relate to the production at all, because he just could not enter the world it depicts.


We were also informed that the Russian critics actually hated the bear referenced in the ending of the work, as they saw it as a clichéd way to symbolize Russia, while most of us had no problem with it.


If so, then how much of what I wrote about Eugene Onegin actually has value, or how much is this Eugene Onegin production worth? How can we as critics judge a production’s value apart from its production value?


Mr Saiu quoted Robert Hughes’ discourse on cultural value in an attempt to solve the problem. The question presented here is: What makes a good piece of art? Mr Saiu said two words: coherence and intensity. It all goes back to the execution of a piece. In other words, Mr Saiu suggests that critics study the process of theatrical creation and understand rehearsals by following them.


This falls back to the ‘context’ problem, of why critics might be more credible if they know the context of a production, the favorable conditions and difficulties behind it, before examining its cultural value.


Yet, that does not mean finding excuses for a badly-executed piece of art. To understand the rehearsal process also means to give critics the chance to pinpoint the problems and errors of a production in technical terms.


This is an interesting point for our next discussion after seeing the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre rendition of Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class, which all the seven of us consider the best of all the works we have seen at the Festival.


Directed by Yana Ross, Our Class is a four-hour epic that reimagines the relationships and horror of a group of friends in Poland, who were classmates before the country falls under the rule of the Nazi-Germans. We see how these people, who are supposed to be close friends, torture and kill each other because of their different ideologies. Similar to Tuminas’ Onegin, Ross also uses two actors to play the younger and older selves of each character. He also defines the performing space as an open space, in order to give a Brechtian treatment to the text, so that the audience may understand better the characters’ relationship and witness the flow of time.


Despite the fact that I did not know anything about the source material apart from my limited knowledge of the Holocaust, I was still engaged by the familiarity of the situation of these people. As a Chinese, I do not think the Holocaust is too different from what happened in my country during World War II as well as the years after. To be frank, Hong Kong’s political situation in recent years also related me to the characters in Our Class. I asked myself what I would do if I were one of the characters, and more importantly, I empathized with them and grieved for the whole situation. Our Class is an excellent example of what Epic Theatre is meant to be.


Interestingly, even though all the seven of us came from different backgrounds and cultures, we share the same thoughts as to how Ross’ production impacts us, not to mention the excellent performances of the cast, as well as the dramatic devices that keep us engaged.


And that implied what Mr Saiu was to say at the beginning of our second discussion. He started the day by questioning the genuine nature of criticism on social media. The Internet is a powerful tool to influence people. Even Michael Billington from the Guardian, the most influential theatre critic today, uses social media to spread his views. It is easy for anyone to make comments or even reviews on a show through social media. Most of these comments are only to express the writer’s personal likes or dislikes. If these online comments become the major voices that define the cultural value of theatrical productions, then where is the genuine judgment on the art piece itself? How can these ‘criticisms’ actually benefit future works?


Mr Saiu maintains that good critics will only invest in things that are relevant. They should be willing to talk to artists who are relevant artistically, and they should have the eye to identify what is relevant or not. He believes that as critics, we should rise above the obsession with objectivity, talk to artists, act as dramaturges in productions, or curate or organize festivals so that a constant dialogue between artists and critics is in place to nourish future works.


These are some possible roles Mr Saiu envisions for critics to pick up in order to protect professional criticisms under the current circumstances.


Personally, I have reservations about Mr Saiu’s assertion that good critics should invest in things that are relevant. I think the word ‘relevance’ alone is debatable enough. However, I do think the critic’s role can be more than writing reviews or articles to see whether a work is relevant or not. In the past two years, I have been actively involved in workshops, seminars, as well as productions to build a personal relationship with artists. I did not take on the role of theatre critic until last year, but with my hands-on experience in theatre, I hope my judgment on relevance is credible.


And I think Our Class is a clear example of what artistic relevance means; at least to the seven of us from different backgrounds, it conveys something contemporary and speaks a language that we can relate to.


The idea that a critic is a bridge between artists and audiences is what I am trying to achieve. However, I think conversations among fellow critics are equally important, as it is a way for us to examine from different angles whether a production is good or not.


Mr Saiu actually thinks that critics can write to defend a theatrical work as long as their argument stands. That requires a bit of affection for the work on the part of the critic, or even some personal connection they feel, which would dictate their judgment of the work. I do agree with that, and I also think this kind of critical writing is a good means to extend dialogues between critics to examine the ever-changing theatre.



The next production we saw was Fantômas: Revenge of the Image, produced by CalArts Center for New Performance and directed by Travis Preston. Using silent film as a motif, it offers the audience an hour of physical performance within a moving black box that resembles a cinema, while actors perform outside the box. Once the box moves, the audience feel as if they were watching a one-shot movie rather than a theatre performance on a regular stage.


We have divided views on the production. Some think there is nothing inspiring or deep about it, and it is just trying to be innovative for its own sake. I would call it a flawed work, but it does ring a connection to me on the consumerism of images.


What I want to talk about is not that we have divided views on the production, but that during the discussion, I had a feeling that some of the critics were quite passionate about the production and critiqued it based on their vast knowledge of a subject – but only that one subject.


One fellow critic actually criticized the production by comparing it with another production in which symbols are used throughout its entirety, and pinpointed the fact that Fantômas does not directly translate to the ordinary audience. That sounded legitimate, but I did not treat it as a main reason to decide if Fantômas is good or bad.


In return, I defended the piece by saying that the performing space suggests the nature of the images we saw: the old-Hollywood figures in silent films, the horrible image that somewhat resembles those decapitation videos taken by radical terrorists. I then started to talk about what I thought of the role of the audience, and deduced a kind of meaning from the form of theatre we experienced, which Mr Saiu referred to as one of the forms under the umbrella-term of Immersive Theatre.


I thought I presented my arguments fairly well, but then another critic said she read Preston’s statement, which reveals that the intention behind putting the audience in a moving box is to redefine the space. There I reorganized myself and thought: If that was his intention, then what I just thought about the use of cinema and the theme of consuming images were nothing but my own fantasy.


I must say, that discussion was among the lively ones and probably the best of all, as we were really trying to debate and exchange our ideas. At the end, we might still stick to what we think, but I do feel that we did listen, and we did learn more about other opinions on the same production that I might passionately love or hate.


I do think this type of in-depth and open discussions among critics should continue, so that we can broaden our knowledge in different ways, and study a production based on its divided reception. With that, we may benefit future productions by assessing the pros and cons of some artistic decisions made.


It was also thanks to the dynamics of our discussions that our group of critics had quickly become friends. We talked day and night to know more about each other, and we also approached artists in the Festival as a dynamic group and shared our ideas, so we would be better-informed about a director or a company for possible collaborations in the future.




Our trip ended with a public forum about the Young Theatre Critics Seminar, for young participants like us and the public to share our views on the productions, as well as our recollections of being a critic after days of discussion. Prof. Hans-Thies Lehmann’s opening speech is a good conclusion of what I have gathered from the seminar.


Prof. Lehmann talked about four things. The first thing is courage: critics must have the courage to be the minority at some point, and because of that, they can continue to influence others.


The second thing is that critics have to think critically instead of superficially. They need to think of theatre as an art form in the contemporary world. Even though theatre has a history of thousands of years, it is still forever contemporary - that means critics have so much to do as they need to think critically based on the contemporary world’s spectrum. Before theatre critics criticize, they need to know a lot about other art forms in order to make a valid judgment that is different from the ordinary people’s. The ordinary people might be content secluding themselves in the theatre like an island. Critics must not be so.


The third thing is that a critic should study and analyze theatre instead of just treating it as an entertainment. Of course, the production itself should be reasonably entertaining, but for a critic, a good production should have its value for study and analysis. Do not treat the audience as ordinary. Had contemporary artists treated the audience as ordinary, all the great contemporary artworks wouldn’t have been produced. Thus Prof. Lehmann urged critics not to think from the audience’s perspective but from the creator’s perspective, and to study the creative process of an artwork. Critics are also encouraged to read more on philosophy as theatre is part of humanities, and humanities shape philosophy.


The fourth and final thing is: if you want to get famous, don’t be a critic. If you want to lead a trend, you will eventually be left behind. The reason is because as a critic, you should observe what is happening in the contemporary world. You might even need to predict what would happen before it happens and to examine its influence. It is not the critic’s responsibility to create a trend, but to study a possible trend.


What Prof. Lehmann said is a good reminder for us to contemplate why we are theatre critics, and more importantly, why we study theatre. Studying theatre is a rational task, but the reason we take up this task is that we love the art form. We have a passion for it.


As Mr Saiu said, to be a good critic is to strike a balance between passion and theory. If there is too much love, there will be not much thinking, and vice versa. With the inspirations we gathered from the seminar, I believe that in the days to come, my fellow critics and I will try our best to be good critics.


Biography of the author: Graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London in MA Theatre (Applied Theatre), and earned his BA English degree at University of Central Oklahoma, Lee is a playwright, screenwriter, theatre director, acting workshop convener, and performer in Hong Kong. Lee is a researcher in heritage and immersive theatre.


Photos are provided by the author