Behind the scenes at Shaw

It’s finally happened: I’ve gone inside.

For the past year or so I’ve been thinking, talking, and teaching a lot about the concept of “embedded” theatre reporting – that is, a scholar, critic, or student writing about a theatrical production from a privileged vantage point close to the creative process. London-based theatre critic Andrew Haydon first re-appropriated the term “embedded” from war reporting to theatre writing in early 2012; New York blogger and arts advocate Andy Horwitz expanded considerably on the concept in October 2012. Theatre writers such as Maddy Costa and Matt Trueman have experimented with its possibilities; students in the Theatre Criticism course I taught at Brock University embedded in seven different productions during the 2013-14 academic year; and we discussed the practice at some length at a theatre criticism colloquium I convened at Brock in February.

jackie 2

Jackie Maxwell. Photo by David Cooper

Now, I’m trying it on for myself: I’m following the making of the Shaw Festival’s production of Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey, which opens in July and will run through the end of the Shaw’s season in October. Of all the temptations in the Shaw’s ten-show season, Juno made the most sense for my embedding because it’s being directed by the Shaw’s artistic director Jackie Maxwell, who, intrigued by the concept of embedding, participated in our colloquium discussions and was open to me following Juno as a sort of pilot project (to be clear on the terms: I am not being paid for this work, and it’s by mutual agreement that this writing is appearing on my own blog, not on the Shaw Festival’s website). Having worked as a theatre critic in Dublin for ten years, Juno is a play I know well, and I’m particularly curious to see how it’s approached and received in a Canadian context.

More broadly, it is exciting for me, who is used to responding to theatre once it’s “fully cooked” (to use a culinary metaphor favoured by the Québec director Robert Lepage) to have a few peeks into the kitchen. Like others who are drawn to embedding, I want to better understand how productions come together, how choices are made, and what interactions between director and actors (and designers, and stage managers, and technicians…) look like. These blog posts are an opportunity for me to reflect on what I observe, and for others to get a vantage, via my writing, behind the scenes of a large-scale theatre production. It’s also my hope and expectation that being embedded will give me a greater comprehension and appreciation of the work of theatre artists in the future. That’s the wager anyway….

My first encounter with Juno was its first read-through, on April 22, 2014. When I arrived in the Shaw’s Rehearsal Room C, the first surprise was how full the room was: not just with furniture and other set pieces that the company will use as they rehearse, but also with people. It’s a big-cast show – 17 in the ensemble – and thus one that few theatre companies in Canada outside the major reps could take on. Beyond the 25 or so performers, directors, designers, and stage managers sitting around a big square of trestle tables, there was an outer ring of people observing. I recognized the Shaw’s executive director and various heads of departments (education, literary, publicity) and their staffs; Shaw ensemble members who are understudying the show were also present. There were also a number of older people there, reading along in playscripts; I later learn they are volunteer docents who lead tours of the theatre, who get the privilege of attending read-throughs as part of this work (see above re: the allure of the kitchen).


Jim Mezon, who plays Captain Boyle


Benedict Campbell, who plays Joxer Daly









First read-throughs have their certain protocols: introductions; the director’s spiel about her overall approach to the play; the read itself; the presentation of the set model and other key design features; and the going-through of Actors’ Equity rules and regs. For theatre professionals, I expect these rituals add to a sense of comfort and recognition – certainly, there is a strong feeling of familiar, joking bonhomie as the members of the Shaw ensemble greeted each other and took their seats. Maxwell underlined in her introductory remarks the centrality of O’Casey’s work to Irish theatre: Juno was first performed at the Abbey (Ireland’s national theatre) in 1924, and O’Casey has since become the theatre’s most-performed playwright. Though they do not share characters, Juno, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) are known as O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy. All are set in the Dublin tenements during the 1910s and ‘20s, and cast an unsentimental eye on the effects on the country’s poor of Ireland’s revolution against British rule. Though not written last, Juno falls chronologically latest in the series: it takes place during the 1920s civil war, as the Die-hards, who oppose the treaty that would keep the six counties of Ulster part of the United Kingdom, battle the Free Staters, who support the treaty.

It took Maxwell less than five minutes to outline this context, and she and I discussed later how relatively straightforward this political backdrop is, as compared to that of The Plough, which the Shaw staged in 2003. That play is set in 1915-16 during the Easter Rising, and for those who don’t know the history, it can be challenging to figure out who’s on whose side and why that matters. Juno focuses closely on the domestic: it’s set in the tenement home of the Boyle family, whose patriarch, “Captain” Jack Boyle, is a drunken wastrel who spends most of his time avoiding employment and domestic responsibilities in the company of his even more wastrelly sidekick Joxer Daly. His long-suffering wife Juno is the only one working in the family: son Johnny lost his arm in the War of Independence, and daughter Mary is on strike. Part of the intrigue is exactly how the political context is connected to this domestic situation: it slowly becomes clear that it’s not just because of his injury that Johnny doesn’t want to go outdoors… but I don’t want to say much more here. Writing that, I realize that it may seem a bit ridiculous not to want to “spoil” the plot of a 90-year-old play; but it is also the case that this is will be an unfamiliar story to the vast majority of Shaw viewers, and part of viewers’ pleasure (and the company’s challenge) will be discovering how the larger political context plays out in the story.


Mary Haney, the Shaw’s Juno

Another surprise, when the read-through actually started: the actors already had quite credible Dublin accents. Not just Irish – Dublin, which involves some distinct vowel sounds (an extended, nasal “aah” in “father”, for example; and an dipthong-y “eeugh” sound for the “u” in Nugent). Mary Haney, who plays Juno, has so embraced the accent that her facial appearance significantly changes when she speaks her lines: this made me wonder if there is such thing as a characteristic Dublin face (which Hogan may also have access to genetically, if her name is an indication of her roots). O’Casey wrote somewhat in dialect and phonetically, as in: “Father Farrell is just afther stoppin’ to tell me to run up and get him to the new job that’s goin’ on in Rathmines…” Andrew Bunker, playing Jerry, nails the rhythm of that line and the particular Dublin pronunciation of “Rat-MOYNES.” How far along he and the rest of the company are with the language is really impressive. Maxwell tells me later that the Shaw makes dialect training available for ensemble members even before rehearsals start. Oh, proper funding for theatre! How rare and wonderful you are.

Another key element of the play is its interspersing of farcical comedy with elements of melodrama and tragedy. O’Casey’s theatre is rooted in popular traditions of burlesque and variety, and nowhere in Juno is this more evident than in the Captain/Joxer double act, for which O’Casey took direct inspiration from music hall. Maxwell cast these roles out of the Shaw’s top drawer of senior actors, and Jim Mezon’s hunger to get stuck into the Captain became apparent when he literally twirled the tips of his handlebar mustache as his first entrance approached. He and Benedict Campbell, who plays Joxer, didn’t sit next to each other – the actress, Jennifer Phipps, who plays Mrs. Tancred, sat between them – and they didn’t much look at each other during the reading. But the comic interplay and rhythmic feeding off of each other was already well in evidence, and Joxer’s repetitions (“that’s a darlin’ song, a daaarlin’ song!”) and the Captain’s equivocation noise (“e-e-e-eh”) already feel like natural speech patterns. There was evident pleasure coming from Mezon and Campbell – and shared by the whole room – in the thrust and parry of their interplay.

Another thing I found surprising (and familiar, in a theatre-scholarly sort of way) was Maxwell and her assistant director Alistair Newton’s close attention to textual detail. After the read-through they went through the script again, pointing out moments where there is discrepancy between different published versions of O’Casey’s text. Most of the changes have to do with the material realities of staging (different references to furniture as it is brought into and out of the Boyles’ apartment, for example); Maxwell highlighted these points as moments where this company might want to experiment with different possibilities. Textual instability seems to be viewed as an opportunity for local interpretation.

When designer Peter Hartwell presented his set model, he and Maxwell talked about how there are elements in the one room where the action takes place that pretty much need to be included in order for the script to make sense – several doorways, including one looking out on a shared stairwell; a window. Maxwell called them the play’s “stations of the cross.” One thing that jumped out at me was the choice to place one of those stations – the family’s stove – against the (imagined) wall facing the audience. Several key passages of action happen with the characters facing the stove, and I recall that both times before I’ve seen this play in production, I’ve been frustrated that the acting energy in these scenes headed sideways rather than out towards the spectators. This placement addresses this challenge, but presents another – if the stove is a literal object (as it appears it will be), how to work sightlines so that it doesn’t block the view of spectators, particularly ones close to the stage? Something I’ll keep an eye on.

Towards the end of the session, music director Paul Sportelli set the agenda for that evening’s rehearsal with a bit of a surprise: the whole company – not just the actors called on to sing them — were going to learn the several songs that are sung and/or referred to in the play. As Sportelli points out, the songs were standards that everyone at that time would have known, and learning them together would help build a sense of community amongst the ensemble. This idea went down well with the group. The dialect coach was also work with the company that evening, though as she pointed out (and I’ve already made clear I agree) “you all already sound fantastic for a first run.” Then Equity business meant it was time for the likes of me to exit the room.

Travel plans meant I wouldn’t get a next look into a Juno rehearsal for three weeks – and by the time of my next visit, the show will be nearly all blocked. I can’t wait to see what it looks and sounds like on its feet.

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22 Responses to Behind the scenes at Shaw

  1. Really interesting Karen. Please add a “like” button so I can add my affirmation more efficiently. Looking forward to more on this…

  2. David Mackay says:

    Great read. Fascinating take of embedded criticism. That would be interesting to see that on the Westcoast!

  3. pollmel says:

    Hi Karen,
    What a great way to provide insight into the process! I’m absolutely green with envy over the accent work. Also, I’m curious to know how long the rehearsal period is, particularly given that they’re working in rep. I’d bet it’s a healthy chunk of time despite the general trend to increasingly brief rehearsal periods. (These days, two-and-a-half to three weeks prior to previews is standard.)
    Looking forward to future posts!

  4. a DARTcritic says:

    Wonderful – Juno is indeed the perfect jumping off point for embedded criticism at Shaw… the notion of the familial and the communal; the community atmosphere in the rehearsal hall; and now the wider community of creation and response, all in one room! Kudos to Shaw for getting on board, and to you, Karen, for being at the front of the lines (to push the military connotations forward). Intriguing stuff, keen for more!

    -Hayley Rose Malouin

  5. Adam Alston says:

    Posts like this will prove invaluable for theatre making students – thank you! And as for the criticism side, while appreciative of ‘well-cooked’ consumables, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the more rare and meaty, so to have insight of theatre in the frying pan is a delight.

  6. This is an exciting and necessary contribution to the medium. Thrilled to see active, process-based collaboration between critic and artists. More please!

  7. Mark Fisher says:

    To give people a view “behind the scenes of a large-scale theatre production” is no bad aim, but it strikes me as the least interesting aspect of embedded criticism. If embedded criticism was the norm (and I’m not convinced it should be), we would expect more of the critics than to point out that the rehearsal room was very full for the read-through. I mean, the critic and the reader could find that surprising once, but they couldn’t keep finding it surprising – any more than a regular critic would keep being surprised by being given the best seat in the house on a press night. You take it on board and move on.

    So if the embedded critic is to go further than Karen’s stated aim “to better understand how productions come together” (which is definitely good for the critic but not necessarily good for anybody else), what should the role involve?

    The answer, I think, is in Karen’s observation about the positioning of the stove. This strikes me as a great example of what an embedded critic can contribute: a combination of their knowledge of previous productions, a critical awareness of how previous design choices haven’t always worked and an insight into the decisions being made in this particular rehearsal process. It still leaves open the possibility that the choice may not work in the final production, but it adds to the audience’s understanding of the creative thought processes. Crucially, it gives the embedded critic an active role – they are contributing their own background knowledge and not just passively observing someone else’s work.

    I do feel at this formative stage of the embedded criticism idea that there’s a big difference between the critic being educated and the reader being educated. The observation that the rehearsal room was very full for the read-through is an example of the critic being educated. I believe critics should be educated, but I’m happy for their education to take place in private. The observation about the positioning of the stove is an example of the reader being educated: it requires the critic’s special insight, it is unique to this creative process and there’d be lots of mileage in finding the equivalent decisions every time a critic was embedded.

    Good luck!

    • Hi Mark

      Thanks for your comment – it’s much appreciated, and it’s prompted me to reflect on what aspects of our existing skill-set as critics we use when doing the kind of embedded work I’m engaging with in Juno. As we know (and as you so usefully pointed out to my students earlier this academic year!) we can break down criticism into three basic elements: description (what did I see?), analysis (what were they trying to do?), and judgment (how well did they do it?). With embedding, the third element is off the table. Of course, elements of the individual critic’s sensibility will always be reflected in what they choose to write about and how they phrase it, and judgment may therefore be implicit, but overall we are working with description and analysis in embedding posts.

      It seems clear from your comments that, as someone very familiar with theatre and criticism, you’re more interested in analysis than description. This leads me to expect that you’ll gravitate in my subsequent posts more towards my discussion of Joxer’s motivation and how this connects to themes of poverty in the play, than to my lengthy disquisition on tech team responsibilities and hierarchies. It’s equally possible that another reader will be really enriched by the more reporterly/descriptive elements of the blogs and less drawn to the analysis. I expect, because my interests and experience are similar to yours, that if I embed again I’ll favour rehearsal situations in which the substance of the play is being worked through actively and decisions being made about motivation, characterization, and relationship, as that provides maximum opportunity for analysis.

      This brings us to the question of who the blogs are for and who’s being educated. I’m writing for a broad imagined audience, dominated by theatre aficionados such as yourself, definitely including some of the artists and technicians I’m writing about, and also including members of the broader public who might chance upon the blog or be steered there by social media prompts. Just as much, I’m undertaking this project as a project of personal education undertaken in a public forum, and I’m aware this sends broader messages about criticism. It exposes that critics don’t know everything about theatre, and that an individual critic might find noteworthy what someone with different expertise in theatre production might find banal. It exposes that critics are not a unified block of authority, but individuals who approach theatre from their specific, located points of view.

      I’m curious why it is that you feel that critics’ education should take place in private. What would be lost or risked, for you, by learning in public?

  8. Mark Fisher says:

    Thanks, Karen. You may be right that I gravitate more to analysis than description (I hadn’t thought about it, but you probably know me better than I know myself), however the point I’d make about your “lengthy disquisition on tech team responsibilities and hierarchies” is not that it isn’t interesting to read the first time, but that it’d be repetitive to read every time a critic was embedded. Perhaps it’s your intention only ever to be embedded once, in which case there’s no issue, but if embedded criticism has a future, I imagine it would involve critics sitting through several productions in a lifetime. If that was the case, there would be no point in them repeating all the more routine aspects of the production process (if you want that, I presume there are books on the market of the “how to put on a play” variety), so what interests me is what kind of thing would catch the critic’s attention, the second, third and fourth times. So, yes, I think you’re right that you would gravitate to “situations in which the substance of the play is being worked through” – not merely out of inclination, but out of necessity. The process would be worthy of comment only if it differed from the norm.

    Behind my remark about education taking place in private (and obviously it’s not an absolute thing) is this same idea about two things happening in your embedded blogs – 1) you are giving your readers an insight into the rehearsal process and 2) the rehearsal process is giving you an insight into theatre. So, yes, it’s of some interest that critics don’t know everything and it’s great you’ve been willing to put your hand up and admit as much (and I guess I’ve been learning in public for 25 years, so no reason I should be against it now). But what I’d be even more interested to know is how your new insights affect your regular (i.e. non-embedded) reviewing. In other words, I’m less interested in the education than what the education can achieve. It’s a process versus product thing, I guess.

    • Hi again Mark – thanks for this. Yes, absolutely, there are things I’m encountering in this process that I now own as knowledge, as it were. I doubt I’d write as much or the same way about production elements as I did this first time out; but I expect I would always at least mention production elements in order to offer context for the reader. For example, at Shaw, productions in the 856-seat Festival Theatre are at a totally different scale than those in the 328-seat Royal George – and I’d expect that this would render some aspects of the rehearsal process different (cue shameless promotional tease for upcoming blog post: I am delighted that the stage manager for Juno, Allan Teichman, has invited me to watch him call a performance of Cabaret, for which he is also SM; this invitation grew out of a conversation about the differences in scale and complexity between a production of a naturalistic play in the George and a highly conceptual production of an already conceptually complex musical in the Festival Theatre – I’ll be writing about that in early July) …. But the larger point – and I think we’re agreeing with each other here – is that each embedding will be different, and with each one I’ll be building on the knowledge and experience of the previous. Among the knowledge and experience I now own is that the rehearsals focusing on interpretation and delivery of the material itself are of particular interest to me….
      As to how this experience will affect my future reviewing – that’s a great question, and one that feels juicy enough for me to muse on and bring up in a proper blog post soon. So thanks!! And keep reading 🙂

  9. pollmel says:

    Hi Karen and Mark,

    Thanks for this fascinating discussion. Though I agree that the embedded critic is somewhat limited when it comes to routine discoveries about the rehearsal process, some of the norms characterizing contemporary production practice could be usefully synthesized and problematized by an informed outside source. Following along while the critic learns, questions and analyzes these processes promises to provoke discussion on issues that have otherwise been overlooked. For instance, the 2.5 – 3 week rehearsal period that is the norm in Vancouver (and elsewhere) has always struck me as problematic. And what about the 10 out of 12 hour tech days? Actors working in the industry are not going to put their careers at risk by blogging about the difficulties and repercussions of these norms. Having an informed third party discuss how these conditions affect the final production would be extremely valuable.

    Embedded criticism also gives us an opportunity to dig deeper and look at the internal treatment of issues that we might have otherwise noted but not discussed at length in a traditional review. There’s been a lot of press over the Met’s cancellation of The Death of Klinghoffer simulcast due to what many see as the opera’s anti-Semitism. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear from an embedded critic about how the director and performers approached/negotiated this issue in the rehearsal room?

    I realize that some of these topics are touchy for theatre companies but couldn’t a smart critic carefully navigate them, prompting a broader conversation? Alternately, could the written result of an embedded process appear after the show opened (though I know that wouldn’t serve the theatre’s marketing purposes)?

    Finally, Karen, I wasn’t clear about the following statement in your response to Mark:

    “… if I embed again I’ll favour rehearsal situations in which the substance of the play is being worked through actively and decisions being made about motivation, characterization, and relationship, as that provides maximum opportunity for analysis.”

    There’s the implication here that Juno rehearsals didn’t include this work, which strikes me as surprisingly, particularly at the Shaw Festival.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

  10. Mark Fisher says:

    Another question that occurs to me is whether some productions are more suited to embedded criticism than others. At the moment, pretty much everything that gets staged is likely to be reviewed in the conventional way, if only by a solitary blogger or a small-town newspaper. Such blanket coverage would be impractical for embedded critics, if only because of time constraints, but even it were possible, would it be desirable? Pollmel gives the example of The Death of Klinghoffer as a show that would have been interesting to see from the inside and we could probably all come up with a list of directors who we’d love to see at work in the rehearsal room – Robert Lepage, Peter Brook, Katie Mitchell, Lev Dodin, Ariane Mnouchkine, Ivo Van Hove, etc – but are such names the exceptions? Does the world need embedded criticism of every routine show in a rep theatre repertoire? If not, what should be the criteria?

  11. andrewhaydon says:


    Just to pick up on one or two of Mark’s questions: there seems to be a general theme running through your what you say (and sorry if I’m reading it wrong) that suggests that you want things to be one way or a different way, and that because “embedded criticism” (henceforth EC) can’t be practically carried out in the same way as — for want of a better word — conventional criticism it’s somehow problematic.

    Having spent *a lot* of time in the early rehearsals of the Secret Theatre project last year in Hammersmith, it strikes me that I actually got to reflect a lot on the pros and cons of EC, and never got around to writing any of that down. The big, main, major problem is how time-consuming it is. During that period I tried to stick to going to see shows in the evenings and writing about them the next day. Which was obviously tricky. That said, the Secret Theatre rehearsals were longer than most (first day as a company 7th May, first show beginning of Sept), and they were as much about R&D/experimentation in the early days as they were about “rehearsing”. Indeed, they were much more a process of building from scratch than having anything even to “re”hear.

    Another thing I came to realise is/was that, not every rehearsal is inherently interesting. Sometimes actors just need to run through the same thing over and over again. It’a interesting if you’re the actor, or the director trying to fix a dynamic that isn’t working. It can get a bit wearing if you’re just the guy in the corner watching.

    On the other hand, when I first wrote about “being ’embedded’.” I was writing about both the experience of touring Iraqi Kurdistan with a company of British actors (hence, “embedded”), and was writing that piece while spending every night for a fortnight at the first Forest Fringe at the Gate venture, where my repeated proximity to the people I was writing about at the very least *felt* like it had a different dynamic than the usual “critical distance”.

    I guess my original blogs on the idea came from those two experiences far more (at that stage) than any desire to spend time in a rehearsal room. (blog here: The next thing I did was spend a good couple of weeks (at least) in the comparatively luxuriously lengthy RSC/Wooster Group Troilus and Cressida rehearsal rooms. Apart from being an education for me, it eventually led to probably the most informed review of my career to date — albeit one in which I probably withheld more information than in any other I’ve ever written. Because — obviously — I could have gone n for ages about what had been changed, what initial ideas had been thrown out, what bits of research had surfaced and informed what choices. Etc. Reading the sniffier end of the MSM reviews, it also gave me an insight into why theatre companies must get pretty irritable when critics bandy words like “meaningless” about. On the other hand, you do also get to see people make what look like alarmingly snap judgements (who can say if they are or not, really), and then watch critics analyse them to death and find the “core of the poodle” within them, when they seem to have been just a quick fix to an annoying niggle.

    I haven’t, yet, been in a rehearsal room where I’ve thought anyone was wrong, an absolute idiot, or even just “not to my taste”.

    And, equally, I still haven’t sat in on a Katie Mitchell rehearsal because I’m not sure I am ready to see how all that shimmering brilliance looks behind the scenes. It feels like there’s some magic I still want to keep mysterious for a bit longer.

    Anyway, random thoughts off the top of my head. Hope interesting, and at least slightly helpful.

    Fascinating discussion.

  12. Hey guys,

    Thanks for this great discussion and thanks Andrew for weighing in just now. I will respond for real tomorrow – I need to spend some time now doing what this bloody (beloved) blog has kept me from doing much of the day, that being working on my Lepage book. In the meantime, I do want to respond to Melissa’s query and make clear that I did not intend to communicate that discussions about characterization, relationship, etc were not going on in the Juno rehearsal process – they definitely were, and were very interesting. What I was trying to communicate was that I found these were, for me, the meatiest and most engaging elements of the embedding thus far for me, doubtless because of my training and interests. This goes to Andrew’s point that there are some rehearsals that are more interesting for those outside the process than others. When I embed again, I will do my best to observe as many rehearsals as I can where that kind of substantive work on the material goes on.

    We found this also in the embeddings my students undertook last academic year at Brock: what they, as drama students, most wanted to see were directors actually directing content; while watching techs and dresses added to their knowledge and experience base, what they most benefited from was watching decisions being made. Knowing this is going to inform how we approach and schedule the next batch of embeddings in the coming academic year….

    More tomorrow!

  13. Mark Fisher says:

    Yes, Andrew, I think you’re right – when I feel I’m being most reactionary about EC is when I fear I’m not thinking about it in a lateral enough way and am still sticking to the old familiar models. However, because the idea is so new, it’s also hard to have a proper discussion about it because there isn’t a fixed definition of what it is. It could be you on tour in Iraq, you hanging out at Forest Fringe, Karen giving updates throughout the rehearsals, Maddy Costa observing Chris Goode but not writing about it until ages afterwards, Karen educating, Karen being educated, Andy Horwitz trying to communicate context, and so on and so on. And, yes, no harm in it being all these things, but it makes it slippery to talk about because everyone’s looking at it slightly differently.

    A few posts ago, Karen raised the question about who EC is for (and answered it very well). This was in response to an off-group email exchange we’d had in which I raised my concern about the danger of EC becoming an indulgence: it has the potential to indulge the critic who is invited into the inner circle of theatremakers and can feel like they’re running away with the circus, and it has the potential to indulge the theatremakers who are encouraged to believe their every move is fascinating.

    Because it does not depend on the old model of newspaper readership, it doesn’t have an editor or a circulation manager questioning why it exists at all. And because, as Karen says, EC stops short of judgement, I worry that it doesn’t have any of the checks that conventional criticism has. I’m not saying it can’t have different checks, but we have probably still to discover what those are.

    So the argument I was making to Karen a couple of months ago was that I can see why critics would like to be embedded (I think I would) and I can see why companies would like to have an embedded critic, but I have difficulty imagining the readership/audience who would want to be part of the conversation. As I said, Karen gives a good answer a few posts up, but my scepticism also relates to my comment about whether only a select group of productions are interesting enough to warrant the level of attention we’re talking about.

    Good luck with your Lepage writing, Karen.

  14. Melissa Poll says:

    Hi Mark, Karen and Andrew,

    Since the following piece looks at the time I spent academically embedded in Lepage’s Ring rehearsals and asks another fundamental question of embedded criticism, I thought it might be of interest: Who’s Really in Bed with the Embedded Critic?

  15. Mark Fisher says:

    Very interesting, Melissa, thanks for the link (and the Matt Trueman Ovalhouse link which I hadn’t seen before either). A thought that occurred to me is that there seems to be a particular interest in embedded criticism from academics. I wonder if that’s because it is closer to traditional academic ways of study than to newspaper reviewing. If that’s the case (and I’m just speculating) might it be better understood as a branch of the academy rather than as an offshoot of journalism? And if it was, would it solve some of the problems Matt ran into at the Ovalhouse? Karen? Melissa?

  16. andrewhaydon says:

    I think there’s definitely something in that (although the sometimes antagonistic r/ship between academic criticism and journalistic criticism is probably worth a PhD study all of its very own — it was fascinating at a series of criticism seminars in Romania recently, to virtually watch the froideur (sp?) between an “academic critic” and a “journalistic critic” who were more-or-less exact contemporaries, as each refused to recognise the validity of each other’s practice).

    I’m interested in Melissa’s piece too. I think it can (and should) be answered very simply that complete transparency about where the money’s coming from should be a given, but moreover that no “critic” worth their salt should ever agree to have their content limited.

    Now, obviously that’s a more complex statement than it sounds. After all, whenever I write something for the Guardian (theoretically rendering me “independent”), I am actually signing an agreement to limit my review to 500 words, to submit those words to an editing process over which I have no control, and agreeing to abide by their system of a star rating. Additionally, if I agree to review a West End show which also give me a plus-one, then that theatre is giving me more payment “in kind” (two free tickets, free programme, probably two free interval drinks) than the Guardian (or anyone else) is giving me in payment. Obviously we tend to think of the free tickets as a given, but quite clearly they’re actually an inducement to see the thing in the first place, and everything around them is geared up to making sure we have as nice a time as possible. Everyone normal has to buy their nice time, bit by bit.

    Watching The American Office recently (it just happens to be true), I was struck by how much of the “advocacy” side of our work as critics — those times you see something you really love and really want other people to see it and share that wonderment — is effectively salesmanship. Who we’re paid to do that by is largely moot. It’s interesting, for example, that most theatre PRs I know reckon their job isn’t so much to sell the show to the public as to get the critics in to see the show. It’s then the critics’ words that the theatre or company will use to sell the show. So we’re already a part of the PR machine. (The two best ways of avoiding that are using very long sentences, incredibly in-depth analysis, and avoiding any words which can be singled out as one word quotes. And I never quite manage it…)

    On the other hand, I *want* people to see great stuff. I don’t think enthusiasm should be seen as a dirty word (enthusiasm being the nice version of “sales”). I don’t mind my enthusiasm being used by a theatre to get other people along to see the thing I loved seeing.

    I mean, this is first principles stuff, really, but I reckon as long as one remains totally honest (as much as “total honesty” is even a thing, or possible), then every reader can be confident that, at worst, you and them just have really radically different tastes.

    Basically, as long as you never let anyone pay to say a particular thing, then it doesn’t *really* matter where the money comes from.


  17. Melissa Poll says:

    Thanks both for such interesting thoughts. Mark, I can definitely see how academia suits EC but am wondering if some (not all) of the same issues might come up. For certain artists, having an academic in the room seems to be equally if not more unsettling than facing a critic. I did find, however, that auditing rehearsals as a researcher allowed me to think through my work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

    I recently had the chance do to some freelance dramaturgy which reminds me in some ways of embedded criticism. The difference is I get to give direct feedback and (hopefully!) aid the process. I’m not saying the EC can’t do this but the trouble, I think, centres on embedded criticism’s function as it relates to the theatre company. As a dramaturg, It helps that everyone knows why I’m there, what I’m doing and (sadly) whose side I’m on. This gets blurry with the EC. Who are they writing for? Themselves? Their readership? The theatre company? The marketing department? Clearly articulating the EC’s role/function from the moment he or she arrives in the rehearsal room would be a big help in this regard. (Arguably, though, the critic might not yet know what the form or function of their response will be. Is this something that’s meant to be discovered along the way?) Andrew, how were you introduced in rehearsals?

    Now, like Karen, I’ve got to heed the call of Mr. Lepage… and finish my dissertation!

  18. Mark Fisher says:

    Yes, I raised that question just on a hunch. But I guess I’m thinking of the fact that it’s not unusual for an academic to write a 5000-word article about a production or a body of work without saying whether it was good or enjoyable. For the academic, it need only be interesting. I think it was at Karen’s colloquium that Maddy Costa said she felt she was able to keep her critical perspective when observing Chris Goode, but there’s quite a lot evidence that suggests it has been problematic in other situations.

  19. Morning everyone!

    To go back to your assertion, Mark, that EC might best be considered a branch of the academy than journalism because it’s of particular interest to academics, the evidence does not fully bear this out. Yes, I’m interested in it and so is Melissa, and we are both academics who come from and continue to work in traditional journalism, as well as blog. Maddy, Matt, Andrew, and Andy H. are not academics, but rather critics who are particularly identified with the blogosphere. I’d say if there’s a difference between who’s demonstrated an enthusiasm for the concept/practice and who hasn’t, it’s between bloggers and scholars on one side, and traditional critics on the other, with you representing the latter position in this discussion.

    In any event, I am not sure what problems would be solved by a classification of EC as scholarly practice. By such a classification do you mean that ECs would not be paid (as Matt was at Oval House, and as I am not at Shaw?) I’m not sure what difference that would make: I believe questions about partial/impartial/capacity to retain critical perspective would pertain whether one is being paid or not. Certainly this is a question circulating for me around my engagement with Shaw, an open one that I am actively working on as I experiment with this nascent practice, and with a delicate relationship that involves not only myself and Jackie Maxwell/the Juno company but also more broadly our two institutions, Brock University and the Shaw Festival.

    Other questions that you’ve raised about EC during this exchange, Mark, and that we’ve all engaged with include:
    — readership and possible self-indulgence (who is EC really for?)
    — relevance and desirability of the critic being educated in public
    — nomenclature: should this even be called criticism? (A very good question which I feel we need to continue to work on. In my experience if you remove the ‘c’ word, artists are more open to the practice; and my students too had problems calling their embedded experience criticism. I think it’s a related practice but not the same as traditional judgement-inclusive criticism; so we need a better word, but ‘reporting’ isn’t quite right either….)
    — difficulty of overall classification of EC given that its practice is widely varied at present (about which I would agree, and say that this is not a problem, rather an exciting reality)
    — whether some kinds of directing/productions are more suited to EC than others; to which my brief response would be, to underline something I said earlier in the exchange – this of course depends on what the individual critic is interested in! You’d groove on being in Lepage or van Hove’s rehearsal room, amongst others; Maddy’s colours are on the mast as regards her commitment to Chris Goode’s practice; Andrew says he’s almost afraid to be in Katie Mitchell’s rehearsal room b/c he so admires the work; I too would relish the chance to get a look at van Hove’s practice, like Melissa have had the privilege of observing Lepage’s, and am also quite interested in the question of how an institutional Canadian company tackles an Irish classic. Determining which of these practices of EC is most interesting or more worthy seems to be to be a blind alley because that’s an entirely subjective question. The practice is nascent and is being led by critics with particular interests; and the kinds of writing we produce are going to appeal to different readerships in different ways.

    I and others in this strand have done our best to respond to your questions and objections, Mark. I have to agree with Andrew that it seems like you’re coming at EC from an oppositional position because it does not fit into your definition/understanding of criticism, and therefore EC is to you (as Andrew puts it) “problematic”; the word I’d use is threatening.

    To be clear, and to respond to a suggestion you made right at the top: **no one** is saying that EC is the new norm or even a potential new norm. It’s a strand of practical critical engagement that a number of us are experimenting with, in the broader context of an epochal shift in media and communications industries and practices. We know about each others’ adventures in it, and can share information, experience and writing about it, thanks to the connectivity and community the internet provides. This is, in my view, an exciting development, further evidence that 21st century theatre criticism has come to resemble a “networked conversation” as I argue here:

    So far, in my experience, theatre artists and organizations have been very open to the concept of EC. In the first year of experimenting with EC as pedagogy at Brock, three of the most influential artistic directors in Canada (Richard Rose, Matthew Jocelyn, and Jackie Maxwell) all got on board. Will/would they stay on board? Would they be as enthusiastic if the embedders were professional critics, not students? Was it worth it? That’s all in the process of playing out.

    So artists and organizations are open to it; bloggers and scholars are open to it. The resistance is coming from those with investments in the status quo of criticism, such as yourself and Michael Coveney (as quoted in the above link). But that status quo is no longer viable – as has been much written and angsted about, you and I, Mark, are members of the last generation of critics who could imagine making a career in the field via traditional journalistic modes. I don’t think criticism is dying; but I do think it’s in a state of radical transformation, in which experiments are being attempted and new paths being explored. I ask you, Mark, to cut us (and yourself) a break in this period of transition and exploration. I think this exchange alone is adequate proof that there is considerable self-reflection amongst those who engage in EC – we’re not out there blindly and messianically promoting a new way forward. We’re trying something out. We are not the enemy and we are not out to invalidate the work of yourself and other critics working in more established modes. It’s an ‘and’ nor an ‘or’.

  20. Mark Fisher says:

    Fantastic answer, Karen. Hope it wasn’t too much of a displacement activity from the Lepage book. I’m writing this watching Dolly Parton at Glastonbury on the telly.

    My speculation about academics was not about who was being embedded as much as who was paying attention to EC. The voices of academics have been fairly prominent on this blog, on Melissa’s, elsewhere online and in various academic papers. By contrast, I have the suspicion that most traditional critics haven’t even heard of EC. That’s why I’d say you are right in making an academic & blogger versus traditional critic distinction.

    I’m not sure if it would make any difference thinking of EC as an academic practice rather than a journalistic one – I was just throwing out the question rather than suggesting an answer. I certainly wasn’t making any point about payment, but I was wondering about the case of Matt Trueman finding he wasn’t in sympathy with the theatremakers at the Ovalhouse. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been as much of an issue for an academic (I stress “perhaps” – I’m not an academic so maybe it would have still been an issue).

    Re: nomenclature. Yes, we do have to keep reminding ourselves that the term EC started as a joke. I think Andy Horwitz’s “digital dramaturg” gets closer. As far as I can tell, a lot of the activity we’re talking about isn’t actually concerned with criticism.

    Re: “whether some kinds of directing/productions are more suited to EC than others”. I guess my thinking about this is influenced by Andy Horwitz’s philosophy. If we agree with him that we’re entering an era in which “the writer’s response is the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist” (, then shouldn’t that be true for all artists? Why should some artists be allowed to have this kind of dialogue and not others? And if we accept that not all artists will be involved (if only for practical reasons), I’d say that raises some quite interesting questions about the decisions that embedded critics make before they get anywhere near the rehearsal room. You could say the first act of criticism is deciding where you are going to be embedded. From an academic point of view, that’s surely not such a blind alley but something that’s revealing of values and tastes.

    Your perception that I find EC threatening is quite wrong (though I can see why you might reach that conclusion). If anything, it’s a potential opportunity for me because, as a freelance writer, I’m always on the lookout for new fields of theatre-related writing. If anyone’s got the budget, I’d be interested in giving it a go myself (if I have an “investment in the status quo of criticism”, it’s not a very big one). I’d like to think I was healthily sceptical, however. And I don’t mind saying that because pretty much all the questions I’ve been raising have been raised by the embedded critics themselves (including you). These questions may eventually be answered and resolved, but they are questions worth asking. I don’t regard EC as the enemy and nor do I think it’s trying to invalidate my work, but I do think it is quite interesting and quite unresolved, so I enjoy these discussions about it. But I’ll happily give us all a break if my cross-questioning has gone as far as it can go.

    Dolly Parton now playing the Benny Hill theme tune on a saxophone. (“I know that was corny but it was fun,” she says.)

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