Imagine if instead of reviews being written about theatre shows, theatre shows were written about reviews? Imagine if instead of critics analysing artists, artists turned around and analysed their critics?
An Australian, a New Yorker and a Brit set out to give it a go. Zoë Coombs Marr, Adrienne Truscott and Ursula Martinez were the right women for the job. They all have a complex relationship with critics, inasmuch as their work is ‘different’ from what critics are used to. They each blend genres and push form and break taboos in their work: Coombs Marr, most recently, with her character comedy creation ‘Dave’; Truscott, most famously, with her show comedy hybrid Asking for It, in which she discusses rape culture while naked from the waist down; and Martinez, most famously, with her anti-striptease bit ‘The Hanky’ (which was subsequently the subject of a follow-up based on emails she got from strangers about that routine). They have all made shows that are informed by the way in which their work and bodies are consumed, by critics and audiences.
Their show, Wild Bore, remixes snippets from reviews (of their shows as individual artists, and of other shows across time and continents) with interstitial text that is their own; bums talk, a last supper of food and clichés takes place on a supersized trestle table, a performer literally squeezes themselves into a male form, dancing happens, nudity happens, Shakespeare happens. I sometimes found myself wondering whether I was watching their re-enactment of a review (with clichés rendered hilariously literal) or watching a bit they’d scripted from scratch.
Coombs Marr describes it as “a kind wormhole vortex which is the critique of the critique of the show, as it’s happening, and being critiqued by the critique of the critique.”
So if you get a little lost during it, do not panic.
And if you get a little lost in it, do not assume that Coombs Marr, Truscott and Martinez are lost too. Because, as they go to pains to explain but also demonstrate in Wild Bore, it’s a mistake to underestimate performance makers with a decade or more of professional experience. At the very least, they deserve the benefit of the doubt that what you are seeing on stage is part of a greater plan and intent.
We sat down with them at the Malthouse to dig into the ideas and experiences behind the show.
Zoe, Adrienne and Ursula: how did this show start?
Adrienne Truscott: There were casual conversations we have while hanging out at festivals, about the politics of festivals and so on, and imagining the kinds of things we’d do if we made work together. I had this title Wild Bore in my head, and I realised it might work for us. Because we are all spoken about as making ‘wild’ works, whether that’s being naked, using someone’s emails, doing something in drag, or talking about rape. There’s the juxtaposition as female artists of making these savvy, wild choices in order to get our ‘boring’ topics across. In my case, ‘How can I convince people – not just feminists – to come to a show and listen to me rant about rape culture?’ By disguising it as comedy and not wearing pants, and then marketing it as pussy and weird rape comedy. And then the flipside of that: is it a bolder choice to just be boring on stage? And what does wildly boring look like?
Zoë Coombs Marr: We also talk a lot amongst ourselves about the way that we’re perceived, and criticised as being ‘Just so crazy you can’t make sense of it’ or ‘Just so boring and dry and political that you can’t be bothered making sense of it.’ We talk a lot about the disengagement of critics, and being reviewed through a lens that fundamentally cannot or will not understand what you’re trying to do. Particularly queer work, feminist work and work by people of colour – because of the institutional hierarchy of theatre and where it comes from, that work is fundamentally trying to push form and challenge what theatre is. Because it has to, in order to exist within it. If you see a non-narrative work, and then say ‘Where’s the plot?’ it’s like ordering a salad and then saying ‘This is a terrible soup.’”
What are some of the words critics use to describe you?
ZCM: Girls, schoolgirls, girlish, silly, whimsical, wacky, kooky, zany, messy, quirky.
AT: Phrases like ‘It’s as if’ and ‘what if she was’, and ‘she’s doing this – or is she?’
AT: When we started comparing our reviews, we found that there was a certain language that was used to describe work by us and artists like us – ways of describing women, and ways of misunderstanding them. If we hadn’t seen a trend beyond ourselves, I’m not sure that we would have pursued this idea.
ZCM: Someone wrote about a Post show, “What if this was dramaturgical design?” Well of course it was.
AT: I got “What if this is meticulous design? Maybe there’s method to her madness’”
Ursula Martinez: Someone wrote of my show Free Admission that I did a certain thing “For no apparent reason.”
ZCM: Another common one is “It seems to be intentional. Or is it?”
What, to you, is good criticism?
ZCM: A lot of what we’re talking about in this work is the intention – [giving] the benefit of the doubt that whatever you’re seeing on stage is intentional.
UM: The reviewer has to understand the intention of the art or the artist – then they can like it or not like it, or not think it was worth doing.
AT: Or they can say ‘I think they were intending this, and their use of the craft of theatre didn’t succeed.’
ZCM: The other side of all that serious critical discourse is the ‘bad review’. There’s nothing like a really amazing bad review that just eviscerates something; it’s so enjoyable to read.
UM: It’s fun, and we’re celebrating that as well.
AT: Sometimes a show is so infuriating that the marriage of language and outrage produces a whole new splendid thing. The famous example of that in New York is The Moose Murders – it opened and closed in one night. The New York Times review of it is a combination of actually describing what happened, and then these amazing metaphors and images – you’re kind of thinking, did that actually happen on stage? We were like, ‘This sounds like one of the best things I could ever see!’
So you’re celebrating criticism?
ZCM: We’re celebrating it and criticising it at the same time. … We’re kind of celebrating the scathing review of the absolute shipwreck of a show. Essentially what we’re trying to make is a terrible, terrible review, unfolding live on stage in all its glory.
AT: Reviews can be bad but correct; they can be only correct if you’re all looking at the work from the vantage point of a certain institution or class; it can be incorrect about the show, and totally misogynist; or correct about the show, and but also totally misogynist. We’re looking at it every way. And then we’re granting that the language itself is interesting, whether you’re critiquing the language or celebrating it.
Do you read your reviews?
UM: I read all my reviews, I’m very thick skinned and happy to read the good ones and the bad ones. And I’m happy to be a total hypocrite and soak in all the good ones, and ignore the bad ones.
ZCM: I don’t read reviews while I’m doing a show, because I find it messes with what I’m meant to be doing; I’m not meant to be looking at the reception of my work other than in the way that I intended, and being true to that with the audience that is in front of me on the night. It’s never really the job of the artist to respond to the critic. And that’s why Wild Bore is interesting, because it’s about us saying ‘OK, we want you to engage with our work, so we’re going to try to engage with your work – we’re turning that lens around, in a way. And that creates a sort of infinity mirror of the show.
Wild Bore runs until June 4 at Malthouse Theatre. If you enjoy infinity mirrors, you can read our 4-star review of it here.