A theater critic for UK’s The Times, author and professor, Kate was recently invited to be a panel during Kuala Lumpur’s annual multi-disciplinary celebration of culture and ideas at The Cooler Lumpur Festival and we managed to chat with her!
What makes a good critic?
KB: Articulacy, insightfulness and incisiveness; judiciousness combined with courageous frankness and sometimes humour; an aesthetic appreciation of the aesthetics of whatever medium/work of art you are appraising; powers of vivid description combined with sharp analysis of the work and its wider socio-political or ethical implications; caring passionately and praising the talented, yet not being sentimental or indulgent regarding poor work.
Why is it important to be able to critic, especially when it comes to art and literature?
KB: I don’t think everyone should be – or would want to be – constantly critiquing the art and literature they encounter. We can, for example, be overwhelmingly moved by music and feel enriched by that as human beings without necessarily ‘analysing’ the music. Indeed, perhaps some oscillation is involved between being emotionally moved and intellectually analytical. However, pinpointing how and why a work of art is achieving its effect (or, indeed, failing) is fascinating and illuminating; it adds extra layers of appreciation to one’s experience; and it can also be instructive for other artists – thus forwarding the evolution of culture. Beyond this, I would argue that a society that observantly analyses language and life as its portrayed in the arts will, empoweringly, better understand the world around them and their daily lives.
As a theatre critic, what are the first things you look out for when giving a critique?
KB: If I’m writing a critique, I don’t arrive at the theatre with any kind of pre-prepared ‘check list’. A critic needs to respond as open-mindedly as possible to whatever he or she is presented with – and that artwork might be brilliantly breaking established rules. That said, obviously certain ingredients are often important, though varying hugely in style and significance from production to production: the playwright’s ear for how people really speak or their flair for more ‘poetic’, crafted language; whether the subject matter or story is interesting and of social import; the individual actors’ power to enthral, amuse, convince, move you or make you think; the production’s design (not just sets and costumes, but also lighting and sound which all too often pass unnoticed); whether the director has responded intelligently to the script or subject in hand.
As a writer yourself, what are the biggest challenges you face?
KB: Writing well isn’t easy! We all readily chatter away in our daily lives but it is surprising how, on the page, language has to be far more precisely crafted to pass muster. Today, many journalists are also struggling financially because this is an industry where – due to the digital revolution – writers are increasingly undervalued and poorly paid, and most authors of books can’t survive without having other time-consuming jobs, of course.
How would you encourage independent minds to keep being curious or active?
KB: Read and attend high calibre arts events; explore new fields to broaden your knowledge; talk to and correspond with each other and, indeed, interact with people from other cultural backgrounds; debate and keep questioning your own as well as others’ ideas.
On to the English language, what is your comment on how it’s used today (with new slangs, words, amalgamation, etc)?
KB: I love new words. They often delight and amuse me, though I find some business jargon and ‘buzzwords’ ugly, manipulative and tiresome. Language is always changing and it’s vibrant for that reason. I cherish quirky archaic words too – I read the dictionary in bed! – and I am opposed to the modern media’s tendency to ‘dumb down’ (meaning the excising of words that are condescendingly deemed ‘too hard’ for the average reader). I also become very petulant about needlessly wrong punctuation on advertising billboards, such as the dropping of apostrophes!
There are a multitude of women who are using social media as platforms to analyse and comment on literary art, what’s your take on this?
KB: In terms of social media platforms, both men and women are clearly doing this in the UK, and that is obviously democratic in that it gives citizens a ‘voice’ – a forum where they can be heard and which was not previously available. In countries where the traditional media employ significantly less women than men, the space that social media platforms give to women is also, clearly, welcome. Personally, I think a potential problem with social media platforms is that there are so many voices out there that it’s hard to find the time to find – or to know which – opinions you can trust. But the best do, hopefully, accrue bigger followings, given time.
How can we get more people, especially the younger generation today to be more interested and more involved in theatre – acting, writing, etc.?
KB: Fight for the arts are decently funded and try to ensure that there are always some low price tickets available – and advertise that. Make theatre trips to see productions and, also, workshop sessions with theatre companies part of the education system. Also ensure drama is part of the curriculum, including reading plays, acting and playwriting. Encourage schools to put on regular productions starring their pupils. Broadcast theatre productions on TV or in cinemas (following the model of the UK’s NTLive) or at least get them mentioned more on TV, via arts-related programmes and the news. Foster arts reviews in the media.