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The Critic’s ‘but’ (or Wading through Bullshit)

February 10, 2013

I’ve been making theatre for around 25 years. If you stay around long enough, you cover a lot of ground, and I’ve covered a lot of ground… Opera, pantomime, dance, story-telling, improvisation, new writing, old writing, visual theatre, …. solo, ensemble , ….  conventional, experimental, staged, site-specific, … performing, directing, writing, teaching, …. youth theatre, schools, hospitals, universities, conservatories, small theatres, big theatres, underground clubs, street corners.

I once conducted a concert in Huddersfield Town Hall which was broadcast on Radio 3. That was strange.

I had a script of mine broadcast on Radio National in Australia, but I was at a rehearsal so did not hear it.

I directed an opera.

Occasionally people tell me that something I did twenty years ago changed something for them. That’s another thing that happens if you stay around long enough.

Always I have been driven by a fascination with the body, with the processes of communication, with creative exploration and with experiments in form. My fascination with form is because – though I respect many theatre artists – I find much ‘theatre’ deeply dull for it is based in conceptual rather than visceral languages of communication. I don’t want audiences to understand what I am ‘trying to say’, I want them to live, to experience, to inhabit the performance alongside me – and from that process of living, to make their own performance which is a combination of what I made and what they experienced.


By some measures my ‘career’ (which is a word entirely without meaning in this (and almost every other) context) has been very successful. By other measures, it has not amounted to much. It depends who is judging and what they are paying attention to.

I’ll rephrase that last bit. It depends on how I am judging myself and what I choose to pay attention to. For we  – those of us who create and place our work in the public domain  to earn money and to be judged – live in the perpetual shadow of the ‘critic’s but…’

‘the opening was effective but….’

‘powerfully evoked and movingly communicated……. but…….’

‘unbelievably fucking good!!!!! (but……)’

When I teach, I tell people what I see and like in their work. They appreciate that but they are waiting for the but, often eagerly, because they think the but will contain the magic key to achieving more, to improvement, to success….

And you know what? It is, in the end, very easy to ignore the but  of the critic, except for the fact that we live in the shadow of our own ‘but‘ and the cruellest, most destructive (or even worse, encouragingly condescending) comments have power only when they find agreement in the damaging, damning judgements we pass on ourselves.

I’m thinking about this because – as just occasionally happens – an insignificant moment of discomfort told me something very important. It went something like this:

In the last year or so (since giving up my job as an academic and becoming once again a freelance artists), I have become increasingly aware of how little time I spend as an artist, and how much I spend as an administrator of my artistic career (ahhh.. back to that word again).

This is ironic. One of the reasons I stopped being an academic (and walked away from a very good salary despite the fact I have no savings, or pension or hope of inheritance) was that I did not feel that, as an a academic, I spent much time really doing high-quality teaching. When I taught principles of creative practice, I would say (and believe) that staring out of the window, going for a walk, musing, following fascinating leads into scenic dead-ends WAS our job as thinkers and as artists, but I seldom followed my own advice. Rather I  delivered educational product. I administered education. I dealt with attendance and assessment, with quality assurance and key performance indicators…. Put simply, I waded through bullshit and that took up so much time that actually being in genuine educational spaces with engaged and interested students was an occasional luxury. I exaggerate, but not by much.

This felt to me like gradual self-slaughter. So I left and saw my income, social status, pension outlook, evaporate.

Then I resumed my freelance career and started administering myself as product. I still had no time to stare out of the window, or go for a walk, or wander round an art gallery. I had emails to respond to, invoices to write, leads to follow. Bullshit.

A little while ago I decided to stop this. Another thing about having been around for a long time is that you build up a repertory of skills that you can rely on and it becomes easy not to grow and instead to feed off things you started doing a decade before. I was becoming bored with my own thinking and knew I needed to refresh.

How? I spent half my life teaching people how! I know how! I train performers and I train people in creative process! Of course I know how!!!!!


I decided to learn to play an instrument (the accordion since you ask). I bought some drawing software for my ipad and started doodling and drawing instead of sitting late at night on my computer and catching up with emails. I started playing my piano again. Sometimes I stare out of the window for a while….

And you know what? I really enjoyed it. Not only do I enjoy drawing, I go back the next day and like what I drew. I enjoy playing the accordion – squeaks and all. The keyboard has some kind of life beneath my fingers.

Encouraged, I bought a camera and find I enjoyed capturing some things around me.



I am no good at these things. I do not have a developed musical technique. I cannot ‘draw’. I am not as good a photographer as Annie Liebowitz or Robert Doisneau…. 

I recognise this – I am wading through bullshit again, assessing, quality controlling, applying some key performance indicators to my ipad doodles.

I recognise this – rather than knowing that this is my job, I find reasons to say ‘but’, reasons to step back from actually doing my job as an artist (which is to engage in creative processes and to experiment and mull and reflect and slowly see if I can invent some pathway through the wilderness of possibilities that exists in all of our imaginations), rather than do that, I administrate, judge, dismiss. It is easier to rely on the accumulated wisdom (or fossilised habits) of my past, than risk mining the raw possibility of my present.

How did I know? Because I listened, deeply listened, to my body as I sat and drew a picture. And I realised I was afraid. A slight discomfort, listened to, spoke to me of fear. Fear of the self-critical  ‘but…’

I am glad of this fear, because it tells me I am still alive, still learning, still lost in the wilderness. And it tells me of the work still to be done – the work on the self which is the origin of all of our work. And I am glad for another reason. I have been around for a long time. I have done a lot of things. What might happen, what possibilities might emerge, if I turned round to the niggling voice of self doubt and told it to ‘butt out’. What if I told my critic:


“Get over it, it’s a doodle, it’s a piece of music, it’s a photograph, it’s a performance, it’s my work, it’s a creative process, it’s a personal vision, it’s a community I live in with those I share a soul with, it’s a life….. nothing more, nothing less. Your ‘but‘ adds nothing…...’

What if I really, deeply, bodily, achieved the fearlessness I encourage in those I train?

I often teach the need for fearlessness. I try to exhibit fearlessness to myself. But perhaps fearlessness is not the start of the journey, nor the path. Perhaps fearlessness is our destination. And each step on the path? A doodle. A few notes. The curve of an arm.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2013 12:18 pm

    John, this is so exciting! Thank you for writing this. I’m supposed to be administering but found myself daydreaming through the open window of my laptop. Then you hove into view. Can’t wait until the day we meet. Thank you for your encouraging presence.

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