At least I know what I don’t know, says PETER CRAWLEY
A few days ago, in circumstances that came about largely by accident, I set myself a test. Rarely do you get to the theatre without knowing something about the production beforehand. Maybe you’ve read the play. Perhaps you know the work of the company or the director. Or, at the very least, you almost always know the title of the play. I say “almost” because last October, during the interval of The Select (The Sun Also Rises), a show based on Ernest Hemmingway’s novel, a woman bearing the wrong programme and a confused expression asked me why it was called Hamlet.
Last week, though, I was in her position. The 24 Hour Plays, staged as a fundraiser for Dublin Youth Theatre, had attracted an impressive group of professionals for its frantic exercise in accelerated theatre-making.
I took my seat without getting a programme but, I thought, the style of the six playwrights – Fiona Looney, Amy Conroy, Arthur Riordan, Michael West, Paul Mercier and Gina Moxley – ought to be as unmistakeable as a fingerprint, and any critic ought to be able to pick the directors out of a police line-up (Garry Hynes, Louise Lowe, José Miguel Jiménez, Alan King, Annabelle Comyn and Jason Byrne).
So began the game of Spot the Playwright/Director. In James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, a cogent argument that – among other things – groups of collaborators are smarter than any individual, he mercilessly debunks the idea of expertise.
Financial experts continually underperform in the market, lay people are better at predicting human behaviour than psychologists, and, worryingly, half the time pathologists will differ over the cause of death. All of which is a long way of admitting that I got two guesses right out of 12.
With the expertise of a nonpsychologist, I know what you’re probably thinking: “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Crawley! You’re perfectly well qualified for your job. And, besides, the programme was probably lying.” Well, yes and thank you. But I’ve wondered ever since what else a blind audition approach might reveal if we arrived at a theatre stripped of expectation or prejudice. For instance, tests have shown that wine experts favoured identical wine from more expensive bottles. (Then again, those tests were run by psychologists.)
(Last week, I was surprised, at The Theatre Machine Turns You On: Vol 3 festival of new work, by how many young artists were making work about their own lives, as though inhibited by the old adage: write what you know. A better approach, for so-called experts and beginners alike, is to get a better understanding of what you don’t know and seek to fill the gaps in your knowledge.)
“Isn’t it great that the theatre can still surprise you?” somebody said as I reported my score and sought whatever charity I could get. More usefully, though, I better understood the extent of my own ignorance.