Reviewing the Reviewers

By Ira Seidenstein

June 20, 2013

Prior to becoming a resident then citizen of Australia I worked in an avant-garde world of theatre where, at the time, reviews were largely irrelevant. That was then and now is now. On the few occasions that my shows were reviewed in Helsinki once and Auckland a few times and once I think in San Francisco – in those I survived in good reports.

I was encouraged by four particular people to ‘set up shop’ in Sydney. They encouraged me to move from New Zealand and to set up my teaching, directing, and performing in Sydney. One of the four was the long time stage manager, assistant, director of Barry Humphries. That was Ian Tasker (R.I.P). The other practical encourager was an ‘original’ of Circus Oz – Stephen Champion – who had decided (like most of the originals) to leave a somewhat dysfunctional ‘family’. In the end only one of the originals who remained, and remained, and remained. The other two who encouraged me to stay in Sydney were Indigenous ‘elders’ – one was Ted “Gaboo” Thomas who mentored me in certain ways, and the other ‘elder’ was Norm (?) who had been a tap dancer vaudeville style and was the counsellor at NAISDA.

Reviewers in Sydney became interesting for me as I read two papers each day – The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. So on the days that there were theatre or dance reviews I read all of them.

The first show I was in, in Sydney that was reviewed was An Imaginary Life at Belvoir St Theatre. Now to get to my point(s). Perhaps I read various reviewers 50 or 100 times? I read other reviews too from other papers such as The Daily Telegraph, or The Bulletin magazine, or sometimes in other cities. So one could start to see patterns in their thinking. Back in the day – mid to late 1980s there was a big transition away from the ‘olde man’ Harry Kippax who had a lot of reviewing clout. Bob Evans came in and cleared the air. James Waites. Pamela Payne. and several others ALL did a good job!!! All were truly theatre lovers. Bob and James became more outspoken and were genuinely trying to usher in a new movement in local and national theatre. They were very important. There were some vociferous conflicts between them and some theatres or some theatre practitioners. But the theatre really needed a shakeup even though many aspects of the theatre culture were shifting. David Malouf I think reviewed for The Australian for about one-year. I believe my solo show received his last review.

However, for my show “The Battler” that went thru a few short phases with several colleagues/friends sitting in for one session each… the show developed a bit organically. It had its first full incarnation sponsored by Belvoir St – specifically be Chris who was manager circa 1986+ who was there when I was in “An Imaginary Life” and who was a ‘fan’ of many of us back in the day. So she invited folks to a one-off Monday night performance of “The Battler” in Upstairs Belvoir with a full house of about 300 or 350 whatever it held. My friend Fred helped with my set change between act 1 and act 2. There were 3 acts. Our friend Theo ran the lights. And both Fred and Theo helped me with talking through my plan of action. We were doing that in my room at the share house in Clovelly on Walker Avenue – seafront. Suddenly a set of dialogue/text in various languages came through me and suddenly act 2 had text!!! That was in the show that night. Some day I will write a description of “The Battler”.

I didn’t tell anyone, but, although I had a creative impulse to do a trilogy I really held to that form as a test. I had been in Australia long enough to have some insight, a bit, as immigrants need to simply as an act of survival. At any rate, although I had an ever growing (and still is growing) list of Australian theatre practitioners who I admired… I also noted that frequently there could be these extreme opinions one in opposition to the other but each voiced as if the speaker was really the only person in the room who really understood totally. Maybe that is just human nature. But nature had landed me here and here was my concern.

So I knew or suspected with reasonable odds that various theatre practitioners were going to tell me which of the three acts was ‘the best’ and why, while others would say a different act and would have just as valid a rationalization.

In fact, all three acts were totally unique in clown theatre. Each had a specific quality and aesthetic. So I had a tee-hee-hee experience of seeing exactly how much hubris was dominating the frontal lobes of our theatre practitioners. I argued with no one (those were the days) and just listened to each persons opinion. My teacher Carlo Mazzone-Clementi warned his students not to be sucked in to professionals opinions voiced as expertise.

There is more I will write about reviewers, but, this is a prelude to writing about my most recent collaborative project Antony & Cleopatra.

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Ira Seidenstein