“Criticism today – On the Brink of Revival?”: Interview with Igor Tretinjak

02 09 2021

Igor Tretinjak, photo credits: private album

Author: Dorija Lilion

LEAD: At the very beginning of the two-year project the EU Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform created within Creative Europe as a collaboration between the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek, the project leaders from Lubljana, and the partners from Vilnius and Edinburgh, we decided to examine the state of theatre criticism in Croatia. Criticism is not often mentioned in everyday life and few people are engaged in it in a serious way. Even though their effort is highly appreciated, there is only a small number of critics who will, hopefully, change for better after this project. In the interview, we asked the mentor of the Osijek part of the project, Igor Tretinjak, what he thinks of theatre criticism he’s been engaged in for years, young people, mentorship, and the future of criticism. 

How did you become interested in criticism?

As a child I did not go to drama or puppet studios, nor did I dream of becoming an actor one day, so I turned unsuccessfully into the darkness of the auditorium and I fell in love with criticism when I was more or less a mature young man. I studied Croatian studies and in the third year was it out of joke or some hidden love I began to study Theatre Studies. In this study program, I fell in love with performing arts, not from the creator’s but from the spectator’s point of view. I also always had this need to write, but I didn’t know what to write about so I wrote pages and pages about… myself. In theatre, I finally found something much more interesting than observing myself – the observing of always new or at least different performance worlds on stage. Thereby, the only logical thing to do was to bring a pen and a piece of paper with me in the darkness of the auditorium.

How long have you been writing theatre critiques?

I have been writing those for some fifteen years now and during those years I have worked for many portals; my longest collaboration is with Vijenac, and six years ago I started my own portal Criticism has never been my prime source of income nor did I depend on financial crumbs found in the world of criticism. This made my hand lighter and made my relation to the performance and critique easier. I mean, I was never in a position to justify myself nor to be extremely cautious in order not to disturb the ghosts sitting on the money. I think this is a very important characteristic for a good critic. Of course, not everyone can have the luxury of turning criticism into their favorite hobby, but if they can…

What in your opinion is a well-written critique?

Well, I combine my two loves in criticism – the love for watching performances and for writing, a good critique is, in my opinion, first and foremost a well-written text. Because a critique is an artistic text created on the basis of a work of art. It needs to have its inner dramaturgy, to be built by the logic of its own text, and not to be just a pile of thrown-in attitudes. A good critique is much more than this – it is a critic’s dialogue with the performance, his/her authorial reading of the events on the stage… thereby, I think that a critic cannot make a mistake in valorizing a performance or some aspect of the performance if he/she explains his/her attitude well. Every attitude in a critique has to be explained. This is the initial step for the critic that is, unfortunately, often avoided even by experienced critics. A good critique must contain the analysis of all the aspects of the performance, from the idea to the text, directing, dramaturgy, and performance to visual and auditive aspects.

What are you especially focused on when you write?

The direction of the critique determines the first chapter that functions as the contextualization of the performance. This does not include only the political, life frame of the topic, but it spreads over a context that, for example, comes from some role, layer of the performance, or some special characteristic of the individual performance. When I write several of those introductory sentences, I have accomplished half of the work. They are then followed by other sentences in a logical order. In those sentences I cover, that is, I analyze all the aspects of the performance. When valorizing I try to avoid the black-and-white approach. Every performance is a living organism that is composed of good and worse sides. They then form a whole that is usually not monochromatic.

Do you think that criticism is important for today’s young people?

I think it is extremely important to develop young people’s critical thinking in all aspects of their lives. From self-criticism onwards. To start with, our society is sorely lacking self-criticism, and this extends to criticism in general. People are increasingly observing the world through very rigid frames, often imposed from the outside, that usually does not allow any expansion and improvements. Such a worldview is not a critical consciousness, but a lack of criticism. Criticism is not something negative. It is the establishing of a value system. If there is none, the person is left with a black-and-white approach to the world. Criticism enables us to observe the nuances, shades of grey, and then all the other colors too. And the world is much prettier and richer in colors.

How would you bring it closer to young people?

A critique, just like academic and scientific texts, must communicate with today’s readers who no longer approach it by default; it must find them. Therefore, forced expertise and metalinguistic constructions should be discarded. This does not mean banalization but simplification. And the same goes for a written text as Igor Tretinjak, photo credits: Teatar Mašine igrewell as video or audio media. Just like trailers, they should be accompanied by brief summaries that would be offered to the potential readers on social networks. When it comes to the young, I think this is the right approach we take within this project – to make young people familiar with theatre critiques. Not the one in the books and theory, but the critique put to practice. To watch a performance with a piece of paper and a pen and without them are two completely different things. It is enough to become aware not just of the need, but also of the richness and fulfillment when analyzing a work, and it does not matter if it is a theatre piece, a novel, an exhibition, a rock concert, or a football match. The world is full of content that craves criticism! But the young, so it seems to me, must reach that conclusion by themselves, because it is extremely hard to impose content today.

What are the secrets of critical thinking? Is it for everyone?

A critic is an expert spectator. What separates him from an average spectator is a bit more knowledge about the subject matter and the experience, than the number of performances he/she has seen. So, anyone can be a critic. You just need to be in the theatre and observe. And sit there from evening to evening. And then read some books on theatre during the day. We don’t have that formal education for critics, so that approach is not available. The problem with critics can be their attachment to the theatre world they write about. Personally, I rarely go to premiers, I don’t hang out with theatre practitioners, and this makes me more relaxed when writing a critique. I don’t also write with some hidden agenda or in a calculated way. This partiality is, in my opinion, the main problem in our small theatre environments.

How did you decide to be a mentor in this project?

In the last fifteen years, I have written hundreds and hundreds of critiques, but while building this small hill of critiques, I didn’t give much thought to the very process. And to me, as an academic, the process is very interesting. The critique workshops, in this case, the mentorship, not only give me but also push me a bit to become aware of the system I choose when approaching both the performance and the dramatic text. It is a kind of self-criticism of criticism, and as I said, self-criticism is necessary.

Did you have a clear idea of how to approach young critics when you started the project or did it happen spontaneously?

I didn’t have it then, nor do I have it now, at least not completely. I worked as a drama pedagogue for some time and I was shocked by the fact that we don’t have (at least we didn’t back then) some pedagogical system. This time I found myself in a similar space without a system but I feel safer here and I create the system together with you. So, this makes you in way guinea pigs. I hope you don’t lose your whiskers by the end of the process.

What is the goal you set for yourself in this project and mentorship?

I have several goals. The first one is to introduce you to the importance of critical thinking. In more developed environments every art academy has courses on criticism that don’t function as a sanctuary for future unsuccessful artists, the term is often used to describe critics, they are in the function of developing critical thinking. The second goal is to introduce the participants to the richness and numerous layers of contemporary puppetry. Thinking (critically) about theatre for some twenty years, I found the expression that captivates my senses more than anything else and that seems to me to be an aspiration of performing arts – that is a total theatrical expression. If we read this expression in the words of puppetry, it is about contemporary puppetry. A total puppetry expression in which we find the intertwining of the animation of inanimate (and living) bodies, their encounter with their own demiurges who become their co-players on stage, but also with every other element of performance, in this world of dramaturgically liberated, independent and scenically revived performance elements. This intertwining of the puppet, object, material, performer, a piece of furniture, video projection, light, color, sound, music… is a world of endless possibilities into which our artists have, unfortunately, stepped only a little. I hope that after this project you will be more courageous, determined, and relaxed in encountering this expression.

What would you like to see from your colleagues, the present and future critics?

I’d like to see some of you among them, he-he. Theatre criticism in Croatia has lost one entire generation. There is a gap between the critics and exactly in the generations that should be in their top form now. Even though theatres will disagree with me, they are one of the major culprits for this situation because they consented to the game of media that started to extinguish the space for criticism. In this game, the theatres fell too easily for the seductiveness of PR articles that replaced criticism, but whose influence diminished as soon as their shallowness was exposed. We need young critics who will observe performance in their own way, closer to their own generations, but we also need critics of all ages and profiles. A theatre performance lives on the stage, merely survives in a video form (this year we were able to see the non-communicativeness of video-recorded performances that cannot match movies and series and can be observed solely phenomenologically) and is inscribed in infinity through critiques. A performance that is not accompanied by a good critique is just a memory that fades with each new day.

Do you have high hopes for the future generation of critics under your mentorship?

After the first texts you sent, I have no doubt about your competencies. It is to your advantage to be in a position to approach puppetry from two positions – from the position of the creator and observer, which will make your competencies as critics complete.  The problem is how to keep you in this world. As I said at the beginning, writing critiques does not ensure existence. It is a hobby to which some dedicate their whole life, but it still remains at the level of almost voluntary love. Maybe young people find ways how to earn money from their critiques and that would most certainly ensure their stay in that world, but until then the key stumbling block will be the motivation to stay. Having said that, if one or two people from this group stay in this world it would be a great gain for puppet theatre criticism and puppetry in general.