Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Cut the Pompous Language

Devoted and Disgruntled

I keep an eye out for the new books of interest on theatre but do not go actively looking for articles. As previously I am beneficiary of the efforts of others who seek and highlight items throughout the year. The names are the same each year. They, you, know who you are. As in previous Decembers my thanks and appreciation.

Early in 2017, January 23rd, Lyn Gardner wrote an article “It's time theatre cut the pompous jargon”. “Why do creative people" she asked "who are highly skilled in communicating to an audience, suddenly become unintelligible when talking or writing about their own shows?”

The answer never emerged despite its obviousness. To make a performance is to organise collaborative effort for the enactment of aural and visual effect across an interval of space and time. It has nothing to do with description, which requires linguistic organisation and is usually carried out by a single individual.

Q&A's after shows are more often flat affairs than not. There are exceptions. The comments that illuminate usually come from directors. I have seen Maxine Evans and Michael McCarthy adding context and richness to “the Revlon Girl” and “the Trial” respectively. This autumn Simon Harris did the same at Chapter with “Little Wolf.” The corralling of actors for post-performance inquisition is a categorical error. They have done their art- a management and a public with heart would buy them a drink.

Lyn Gardner was present in Bristol for the annual meeting of the group Devoted and Disgruntled. “Maybe, when talking about their own shows” she wondered “people feel obliged to justify what they are doing by making it sound more complicated than it really is in order to give it weight.” Her first word up for banning is “the work”. “No member of an audience ever talks about “the work.” My own least favourite word is “project.” Projects are what engineers do. Theatre companies do productions.

But the language of obfuscation goes further. It is deeply implicated in non-criticism. A professor on visit to Wales was promoting a theatre company in which he had an involvement. “The work” he said “was a great attractor of metaphoricity.” Since this organisation was entirely dependent on subsidy there is a link on the margin between junk language and success in application. Online voices are more often second hand opinion than derived from primary experience. But this thread had an exception which spoke from real life.

“As one half of a small theatre company” it ran “we've been advised to use “arts council speak” on applications for funding to make the work seem more weighty, appealing etc. It feels stupid and disingenuous but appears to be the only way to successfully acquire that funding...NPO speak... Maybe if you are conditioned to talk in this way about your 'work' to generate funding and financial support it ends up spilling out elsewhere.”

The article prompted some sparks. “Clarity is courtesy in print. And jargon is simply bad manners”. “One of the surest signs...of intellectual mediocrity is reliance on the polysyllabic vocabulary of professional jargon.” But that is the point. Within a professional domain specialist language is the conduit of precise meaning. But that precision goes when turned to a wider audience outside the professional domain.

One comment breathed the snobbery that runs as a very small seam in the subsidised sector. “A piece of performance art and cultural nourishment can not be satisfactorily explained in common words” runs this voice “It's impossible to accurately convey the texture, aroma and anti-neoliberal inspiration behind each piece of reflective work. Such crude and simplistic descriptions are better suited to the right wing populist drivel beloved by the masses.” The loftiness of disdain is chilly.

The role of that writer in the arts was not disclosed but the following was. She holds a lectureship in a university in Australia. “Theatre, no longer needing to be a mirror to society and realistic, a job better done on a global scale by television, has now developed into an art form in which the theatre space becomes the exhibiting gallery, its audiences an informed few.” “La trahison des clercs” as Julien Benda put it a century back.

Last word to the voice that pins down the repetitive use, over and over, of a few words and phrases: “over-saturation often puffs things up unduly and over-eggs their merits...and if anything devalues verbal inventiveness and passion. If everything is bold, vital and suchlike, nothing is.”

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
08 December 2017


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