In August, I attended a brief showcase by Japanese Noh master Kanji Shimizu and Singaporean musician and flautist Andy Chia at the small studio space that the theatre company Emergency Stairs occupied on the sixth floor of the Soon Wing Industrial Building in Macpherson – phase one of their One Table Two Chairs project, a key component of their year-end Southernmost festival. It was quiet and haunting and raw and incomplete, with Shimizu-san and Andy riffing off of and responding to each other, the husky lilt of the flute intertwining with the deep rasp of the story of a ghost.
As the small pool of invited audience members mingled around us, conversing in a mix of English, Mandarin and Japanese, I decided on impulse to make a breathless, disorganised pitch to Liu Xiaoyi, artistic director of the company, which went something like this:
CORRIE: Xiaoyi, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersections between ethnography and performance criticism and I was wondering if you might be interested to have me come on board as a sort of ‘resident critic’ or ’embedded critic’ for the Southernmost festival this year, where I would sit in on your rehearsals, documenting and analysing the process, and conduct interviews and also respond to performances –
XIAOYI: Let’s do it.
This website is the result of that meeting. Xiaoyi and I met for coffee two weeks later to discuss the scope of my participation and our collaboration:
Ideally, this process would have started with the series of open rehearsals and showcases that Emergency Stairs had presented in August featuring Shimizu-san as well as classical Javanese dancer and choreographer Didik Nini Thowok:
But I hadn’t come on board at that point. Still, something to file away for (possible?) future collaborations.
Our conversation wandered into a discussion of the role of the critic. Xiaoyi has often translated English-language reviews of Emergency Stairs’ work into Chinese as part of the company’s performance practice, and I’ve often imagined him reading all the reviews of his divisive work (the positive, the exceedingly negative, and the largely confused) with great amusement. He told me: “I see your reviews as your own creation. It takes its starting point from our work, but it’s still your own creation.” By siting the review as a creation, a piece with its own artistic merit located adjacent to his company’s work, there’s less of an impulse to see the review as a validation of their work or as an attack on their work. The “review” (or piece of critical writing) simply exists in the continuum of their production process as might their “research” or “rehearsal” phases. I liked the idea of this very much.
Theron Schmidt (2018: 42) argues that
critical writing is not just ‘writing’, not just what we do with pen to paper or with fingers to keypad. It includes lengthy, meandering conversations and brief exchanges; resonances with associated memories, and things forgotten; and thoughts we have in the dark of the theatre, when we are looking at a performance but not thinking about the performance. To be a writer is to be a listener, not just someone with something to say. To observe and to be curious, to notate and annotate. To hold a space where words matter, and silence matters, too, in the gap between seeing and thinking, hearing and replying, watching and writing.
How we talk about the work is the work.
I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about what the critic is and where she stands in relation to performance. As a theatre critic I’ve walked that strange border between insider and outsider, between someone who’s committed her life to engaging with performance and who, I suppose, is familiar with and to many practitioners – but also someone who occupies a conventionally hierarchical position that can invite suspicion and resistance. I’ve concluded that it’s a shapeshifting role that is evolving as much as its former iterations are quickly turning obsolete. I’m not here to put the seal of approval on a work. What you like is probably very different from what I like because of the various social, cultural and educational capitals we’ve acquired over the course of our lives.
So I identify with this shift towards the critic as a kind of dramaturg. Xiaoyi founded Emergency Stairs in 2017, but I have followed his artistic practice since 2012. One could argue that I am, and have been, “side-by-side” with Emergency Stairs; yet in my writing I have also fiercely disagreed with it, been baffled by it, excited by it, frustrated by it, interrogated it, rejected it, forgiven it… and come back to it. I hope you, the reader, have fun following the journey that both Emergency Stairs and I will be taking in documenting and critically reflecting on their processes and performances. Walk side by side with us. Ask us difficult questions.
(1) Schmidt, Theron. (2018). “How We Talk About The Work Is The Work”, Performance Research, 23:2, 37-43, DOI: 10.1080/13528165.2018.1464751