Theatre critics losing their jobs and missing the point

IT’S FUNNY the different things people hear when someone speaks. When Tim Walker’s blog appeared on the Guardian website yesterday, you could have assumed from the first reactions he was stating a widely held point of view. As a critic who had recently been made redundant, he had some authority to observe that:

Now, all too often, the seats in the stalls where my colleagues and I used to sit are being left vacant.

He wasn’t the first to say it, but it’s unquestionably a concern that critics are losing their jobs and not being replaced.

And if you looked at the below-the-line comments that first appeared, he seemed to have struck a chord. Later in the day, the NUJ even posted a link on Twitter – it is, after all, in the union’s interests to keep journalists in work. 

So far so reasonable. But almost as soon as this was happening, a Twitter-storm – or perhaps a squally shower – was breaking:

And by the time the afternoon was through, three fine blogs had been posted – one from Catherine Love saying:

Is this what theatre criticism is supposed to be about? Selling pricey cultural products to the middle-class and middle-aged? Obviously, I don’t think so. But I worry that the picture Walker paints here is not solely his own. This, for many people, probably is what theatre criticism represents: something distant, cosy and irrelevant, hawking a few more tickets for that West End show with whatshername off the telly in it. And it’s not a kind of theatre criticism I really want to be part of.

one from Andrew Haydon saying:

But, as I’ve said many times before, to hold up newspaper reviews as a gold standard of excellence requires those newspaper reviews to be the best reviews being written in the country. And they aren’t always.

And one from Rebecca Felgate saying:

Listen, I hate to break it to you, but print sales are dwindling. But let’s just for a moment pretend that they are not and that we do not live in the digital age…why are we even pitting the two mediums against each other? Surely they achieve the same thing – they disseminate information to those wishing to consume it. I for one enjoy print publications and online publications side by side.

Meanwhile, the comments beneath the original article were turning sour. What these people had heard was quite different from the first group. This wasn’t the sad story of one critic losing his job, it was the testimony of a writer who appeared to be ignorant of the brilliant writing that was being done online, a man who could write:

Sadly, I just don’t see that conversation – led so confidently by the newspaper critics for so long – being continued in any serious form online or anywhere else, for that matter, in the future.

In these terms, Walker’s article was years behind the curve. It was as long ago as 2012 that Alison Croggon gave up her Theatre Notes blog with this as an explanation: 

other blogs sprang up, written by a new generation of curious, intelligent people who were fascinated by theatre, and they began their own discussions. In Melbourne theatre, which I think is exceptional in its sense of community, artists and critics began to have lively and often mutually enriching discussions, instead of scowling across a bitter divide. A community of conversation replaced what had been a deafening silence.

If that was true two years ago, how much more must it be now?

With his talk about a “motley crowd” of unknown critics, the supposed lack of authority of internet critics and the “perfect relationship” between “middle-class, affluent” and “getting on a bit” newspapers and audiences, Walker reminded you of the gentleman critics of old. As Love put it:

And if newspaper criticism as Walker sees it is just about serving a privileged, ageing minority, reinforcing in the process the idea that theatre is not really “for” the majority of the population, then perhaps it’s not such a loss.

But there is another issue at stake. Yes, it may not be in anyone’s interests to sustain a dinosaur generation of clubable critics (clubable in both senses). Yes, Croggon was right to say:

But surely it is in everyone’s interests to sustain something. Intelligent, imaginative and agenda-setting as the unpaid internet critics are, they seem to me to lead a precarious existence. 

As far as I know, neither Love nor Haydon will earn a penny directly from yesterday’s posts – any more than I will from this one. Felgate said she made money from Official Theatre “after years of investment”, although she didn’t say how much. This concerns me because as soon as these talented critics get a better offer or as soon as they get tired or distracted by some other life event, they simply won’t have time or energy to continue. If you think elitism is a problem in traditional media, just think through the implications of an internet dominated by those who can afford the luxury of the time to contribute. 

For the individual critic, unpaid online writing seems to me sustainable in the way business sponsorship of the arts is sustainable. You can get by for two or three years, but when priorities change you’re back to square one. You can achieve quite a lot in that time, it is true, but just as we would complain if theatremakers were being denied a living, so we should ask ourselves if critics writing for the love of it – and only for the love of it – is in the best interests of the theatre we all want to celebrate.

6 Replies to “Theatre critics losing their jobs and missing the point”

  1. Although I'm a freelance journalist by profession, theatre reviewing (I don't think of my self as someone who commits theatre criticism) is essentially an unpaid hobby even though its for publication online; essentially, I'm happy to put aside the time to write the review in return for getting a free ticket or two for the shows in question. But, yes, paid work can get in the way and–dare I say it–I feel I have something to offer that many members of the public don't. Not an "informed" opinion, per se; but at least one written in a hopefully engaging, informative and entertaining manner.

  2. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for this useful roundup of response to the Walker post yesterday, and especially for the links to the excellent blog responses of Catherine Love, Andrew Haydon, and Rebecca Felgate. You close by worrying about the precarity of the online critic's existence (a worry I share) but I query your unequivocal statement that these and other online critics will surely stop writing online when their "priorities change." How can you be so sure about this?
    I too was intrigued and heartened by to learn that Felgate makes money from her blog on Official Theatre. Andrew points out that “alternative models” for criticism “are starting to emerge”, pointing to grant support that Jake Orr has received for A Younger Theatre and Dialogue (the latter a project Jake shares with Maddy Costa). Again, I don’t know the specifics of Jake’s fundraising efforts but it is exciting to know that grants are starting to come in for his projects. Andrew also points to Exeunt as a “standard-bearer” for excellent online criticism, and from what I can tell they support their work at least partially via ads and partnerships. There may be other online theatre writers who are finding ways to support their work financially, and I would love to hear about them.
    New models are indeed slowly emerging; and I don’t think that any of us has the power to predict other writers’ future choices. Rather, as I wrote here, I see it as the responsibility of those of us with stakes in this field to support and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. The history of media is one of transformation, and we are living through a period of especially rapid media evolution. How can you be so certain that the initiatives mentioned here (and perhaps others we have not heard about yet) will not develop into something sustainable?

  3. Karen, I can only speak for myself, but priorities and necessities do change over the years — as they must. The decision to start a family, the need to pay the bills — all of these affect a freelance writer's ability to continue to write "for the love of it" rather for money. Time is far too scarce, and responsibilities intervene. My online criticism did indeed directly lead to a brief period during which I reviewed plays for the New York Times as a freelancer. I stopped doing this for reasons you can read about here:

    Here in the US we have no outlet like Exeunt, which is a fine publication indeed. But the ability for independent writers like myself to continue to write about theatre is contingent upon some kind of professional and financial recognition. (And if we have little time to write about theatre, we have less time to become entrepreneurs and innovators.) The Guardian's "Noises Off" column and its policy of hiring freelancers to write for their blog provided some of both, allowing writers to retain their professional independence while rewarding them with small but significant remuneration. Nothing has risen to take its place.

    "Writing for love," if that's what it is, is fine for younger critics. But as writers get older and more mature — and as those priorities change (and you can be sure that they do) — their critical perspective matures as well. What we well may end up having is a coterie of young critics who fall away to be replaced by even younger critics at an alarming rate. Critics like John Gassner and Eric Bentley produced significant critical work well into their fifties and sixties, demonstrating perspectives informed by decades in the theatre. (An additional worry is the increasing academic professionalism of both theatre and criticism through which professional degrees matter more than aesthetic and critical acumen — but that's another story entirely.)

    That's only my personal perspective, of course. But priorities do change; if one doesn't stop writing entirely, one is forced to slow down considerably.

    All best,

  4. Thanks for this, Karen. The link your referred to isn't showing up. I think you mean this:

    You're right, I can't predict exactly how people will behave, but I know from my own experience that when I'm busy doing one thing, I can't be busy doing another. People get more demanding jobs, move house, have babies, have to commute more, don't have time to get to the theatre . . . all kinds of things that can get in the way of writing. This is true for paid and unpaid critics, but if you're being paid, there is a particular incentive to keep on doing it.

    Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe there are enough people out there to keep the ball rolling. Maybe as one generation gets tired or moves on, another generation will arrive with more energy to replace them. As Andrew Haydon pointed out in a tweet today, even Tynan only did the job for 11 years. I think that's actually how the landscape looks at the moment.

    If I suggested the initiatives you mention weren't promising, I didn't mean to. Quite the reverse: I very much hope they become sustainable. As you know from your experience with Irish Theatre Magazine and I know from Theatre Scotland magazine, it's a shame when all the lessons learned, knowledge gained, skills acquired get thrown away. It feels like a waste. Then all that happens is a few years later, a new bunch of people come along and make the same mistakes again. I'm against reinventing the wheel and in favour of sustainability.

  5. Forgot to say: in the short history of the internet so far, several theatre blogs have already come and gone. It's not unreasonable to suppose others will come and go in the future.

Comments are closed.