Maddy Costa has written about music and theatre for over twenty years. She has worked for both Time Out and The Guardian, and is an irregular contributor to Exeunt. Mostly she self-publishes on blogs/websites that she co-hosts, including Something Other, the Department of Feminist Conversations and her original Deliq. Her Criticism and Love series of essays is an email-based project undertaken with Andy Field. At the time of interview, Maddy had been critical writer, or critic-in-residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company for seven years. Through all this work, and the work with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre.
PC: What is theatre?
MC: I didn’t see much theatre until in my early twenties, when I started reviewing theatre for Time Out, which led to me reviewing theatre and music for the Guardian. When I started I knew so little, so working for Time Out was this amazing education: one week I’d be sent to the RSC and the next to a fringe theatre in Hackney. Mostly what I was seeing was texts staged by directors and actors in black boxes or proscenium arch buildings, and the more I saw, the more I started to feel like I wanted something more true, like some kind of emotional truth was missing. I started getting very frustrated – I’d be reading reviews about the amazing new thing at the Donmar or the amazing new thing at the National or the Almeida and I’d go see it and I’d go, “No, I’m bored…” I became so disillusioned that I stopped seeing very much at all for a few years.
And then I had a kid, and the summer after my first child was born – by which point I’d not seen much theatre for about four years – I was in Edinburgh and took a taxi with Lyn Gardner and she said to me: “It didn’t show at first because you’d banked up so much knowledge from all of the theatre that you’d seen but now it’s really starting to show that you’re not really on top of what’s going on and who’s out there.” I was so piqued by this, I was like, “Right! I’m going to start seeing theatre again, god damn it!”
The whole time I’d been working for the Guardian, Lyn had been writing about live art. I’d not been going because I found the idea really scary but when I came back I started going to much smaller scale work. That’s where my taste sits in music as well, my preference would always be for seeing live music in a smaller room and it’s the same with theatre – it’s something about proximity. So I started to see more live art / performance art and small scale work. I started to see work that had something of autobiography in it. I’m really interested in where that is slippery. I get in trouble for calling performance art and live art ‘theatre’ but, for me, the boundaries between them are fluid and I’m really interested in that fluidity.
So, for me, theatre is about that proximity. It’s about sitting with someone or with something and thinking together – thinking together about being alive. I can still get that proximity in the Olivier – I definitely had it watching Follies at the National in December, that was incredible – but I’m much more likely to feel it in other scenarios. The theatre that I’m really interested in has a proximity which allows for a nuanced and subtle political thinking.
PC: What kind of difference do you want to make?
MC: Theatre is just in that moment and then it disappears. So the difference that I can make is to share the thinking together that happens in those small theatre spaces with someone who wasn’t in that room because they live in Newcastle and the room was in London, or because they were twelve at the time, or because they were away or sick, whatever. Theatre helps me see differently, gives me different perspectives on life, and I want to encourage other people to have the relationship that I have with it where they can see or feel differently as well.
I want to change the dialogue around theatre so that it’s not seen as exclusive. I get quite angry with this idea that theatre criticism requires a kind of expertise that you accrue through long years of watching theatre – I have no truck with default anti-intellectualism either, although I can be quite anti-intellectualist myself, but there’s something important about expressing intellectual thought in everyday language. Harry Josephine Giles, who’s someone I admire immensely, once wrote something about gender or politics or both and they used only the one thousand most common words in the language. Wallace Shawn has said, “I don’t use the words privileged and non-privileged, I use the words lucky and not lucky – those are words that people can understand and connect with.” I want to smash this idea that theatre is for an elite and requires some kind of expertise to engage with it or even that you have to understand it. That is what Theatre Club is about. The conversation about theatre should be an open one and the only expertise that you need to bring to theatre to be able to understand it is expertise in being a human being, in being alive, that’s it. It’s not actually about what you understand, it’s about what you feel when you watch. That’s actually a really hard thing to communicate because most of the time you’re only communicating that with people who already have a connection with theatre anyway.
But also, a conversation I have with myself often is that I don’t know what the ripple effects of all this are going to be. I don’t know who might be reached by me having a conversation with one person. So it’s about hoping I can make a difference, more than expecting I will.
PC: You have said: “Rather than a single code I prefer to think that for each show there’s a different set of keys and each one opens a different way in.” What’s the context of that single code reference?
MC: I was doing a workshop at Cambridge Junction with people interested in writing about theatre and Matt Trueman had run a workshop the previous week. Matt had said to them that within each performance there’s a code and if you can unlock that your review will emerge almost entirely intact. And sometimes the makers won’t even know the code, it’ll be the thing that they don’t know that they’ve made. I really disagreed with that because (this is where that thing about being an expert in being human comes from) no one comes into the theatre and leaves their life experience behind them at the door. For example, if the person at the heart of what you’re watching is a recovering alcoholic, you have a different relationship to that if you’re also someone who’s experienced alcoholism. Each individual has a different way of interacting with a piece of work. How can there be a single code that explains that?
Basically I’m against the idea that there is a single thing to understand. There are a set of experiences that it’s possible to have in relation to a piece. That’s where the analogy of the set of keys comes from. The person with fifteen years of alcoholism behind them has a particular key and will go through a particular door into that work and along a particular line.
There are two things I argue against – that and something Andrew Haydon wrote about how it’s not really relevant if a critic is white or a person of colour, what is relevant is taste. I really disagree with that too! Your taste is absolutely an expression of who you are, and who you are is an expression of how you exist in the world, and how you exist in the world is affected by the colour of your skin and your gender and where you grew up and social class, all these things. That feels quite basic. This isn’t about creating a hierarchy, it’s about acknowledging that those things affect how you watch something: they affect the perspective that you have, and that will affect how you feel, and how you feel is how you understand. So the doors thing is kind of trying to create a kind of equivalence between emotional feeling and intellectual understanding. An attempt to absolutely smash that hierarchy because you know intellectual understanding is always placed hierarchically above emotional feeling. Which is bullshit.
PC: Is there something about not knowing that is important?
MC: Part of the problem with that really patrician style of writing which generates that idea that you need to ‘understand theatre’ is that there isn’t much room for not knowing. In that style of writing if you don’t know then it means that the work has failed. Let’s not know! I think there’s something really healthy in that.
PC: Do you have strategies for articulating that experience of not knowing?
MC: We’re talking as though I always write in the same way about everything, but I don’t at all. A really big shift for me, starting in 2012, is that the writing is changed by the work. The writing honours what the work is doing formally. I’m really interested in form. So another way of answering the question ‘what is theatre?’ is that theatre’s a way of having a dialogue – that’s the proximity thing – it’s just that the form of the dialogue takes different shapes each time. I’m really interested in the form that writing can take in response to the form that the dialogue of theatre takes. Another way of putting that might be that the performance speaks to me in a particular voice and I think about how to speak back to it in its own voice.
PC: How do you articulate feeling?
MC: I’m really interested in the way in which people’s writing, mine included, is described as honest. I’m really fascinated by the value of honesty, like it literally does feel like a currency sometimes. People mostly say something is honest when writers expose vulnerability and as a writer you know how you’re using that – both exposure and vulnerability. I’m interested in the truths that I don’t say or the proximity to a truth that I will allow in a writing that some people might see as very close to it, but I know how far away it is. Sometimes articulating that feeling is about admitting violence, admitting to an internal violence, a mental violence. Sometimes it’s about admitting to a sadness. The dialogue around vulnerability has changed so much in the past ten years that it’s still possible to be quite striking with it. That’s where the knowingness – bordering on manipulation – of writing comes in. It’s not that it’s not truthful, it’s just knowing that speaking some truth can have a really big effect.
PC: How do you ensure you maintain an individual perspective in your writing?
MC: When I was writing for Time Out and for the Guardian I absolutely had this idea of trying to write objectively – I would say things like “You watch this and you feel X.” I would not say that now! Who am I to say what you feel! I’ve got no idea! So partly it’s a matter of using “I”. I did a workshop with the Almeida Young Critics group and one of the things that I said to them is that you have to earn the “I” – so if what you’re saying is, “I expected this to be like this because I have this generalised idea about theatre”, no one’s going to find that interesting. To earn that “I” you have to say something individual and unique. It’s specific vs general.
Something that really changed in my late thirties was recognising that whiteness isn’t neutral and being middle class isn’t neutral. But also recognising that I am middle class because my mum made it so, because that was the education that she made sure that I had. I recognised that if I’m not going to repeat what I was doing in my twenties, of treating my whiteness and my class as neutral, then I have to state them in some way. Also, meeting more people who are transgender and learning more about the gender spectrum means I now also speak about being cis-gender.
PC: What do you want your writing to do for the reader?
MC: The thing about writing about theatre is that the number of people actually sitting in the room watching the work you’re writing about is minuscule. So I need to be doing something other than reviewing it because that doesn’t take you inside enough. I’m not trying to sell the show to anyone and I’m not trying to say here’s how to understand it. I think of it as an act of storytelling now – I’m telling a story about the work that I’ve seen but that sometimes involves talking about a bunch of other things that I’ve seen or read or experienced.
I don’t think at any point I’m trying to say, “Here’s how you could understand it.” I think it’s more trying to say, “I’ve opened this door and this is the landscape that I found there.” Let’s say that landscape is a forest: these are the trees I’m looking at in this forest. But maybe you would come into it through a different door – over a different stile – and see different trees. The difficulty is making clear that you’re aware that there are these other trees as well. Theatre Club is great for that: ideally you all find yourselves in the same bit of the forest, but you all travelled there in different ways and you can all look at the forest around you together. The worst theatre clubs are the ones where we all remain scattered in the forest just surrounded by trees and not being able to see each other.
But also, this is only really talking about the writing that is what gets considered as criticism – there’s another part which is that I want to write art. There’s this paradox at the heart of what I’m doing, this clash between the desire to make a difference and the inner child who wanted to be an artist. This is what working with Chris started being about: I’m telling a story about how the work was made, and because lots of people won’t see the work, that story can be like a parallel performance, I’m making something using the same materials everyone else is making with, different to the live work, but part of its world.