Theatre critics – the symptom or the cause?

IT HAS BEEN an us-against-them kind of month in the world of theatre criticism. In my last blog, I summed up the hoo-ha surrounding Tim Walker’s Guardian blog about the changing face of theatre criticism. What got people’s goat was the way the former Sunday Telegraph critic divided his colleagues into two camps. 

He didn’t talk about good critics and bad, he talked about traditional newspaper critics and internet critics. To support his argument, he quoted a “leading impresario” who had “looked around at the motley crowd that had turned up to sit in judgment on one of his productions” and “realised he didn’t know a single one of them.”

It was hard not to read this as a complaint about outsiders. These critics, they seemed to be saying, were not one of us.

And now in the wake of Janet Suzman’s ill-advised comments on the racial make-up of theatre audiences, Zaneta Denny has posted a fascinating blog on Creolita touching on several topics including racism, theatre and criticism, in which she says:

Despite the open image of the arts theatre critics are still predominantly white in twenty-fourteen Britain.

Under the heading, “We need a coloured Critics Circle for ‘white theatre’“, she argues that the lack of diversity in theatre, publishing and journalism has had a “domino ‘black invisibility’ effect”. In this, she implies theatre critics are as complicit as anyone.

For this to be true, I would suggest, wouldn’t require any one theatre critic to be actively racist. On the contrary, I would be surprised if you could find a theatre critic who didn’t say they despised racism. But if those critics operate in a society rife with social exclusion, it’s possible they could propagate the “black invisibility effect” without even realising.

Denny points, for example, to the Critics’ Circle and says:

Membership is only achieved through nomination….by a member, which is probably why they only 400 members. Is it the right time to mention the word “elitist”?

Perhaps this is the point at which I should mention that not only am I white, male and middle-aged, I’m also a member of the Critics’ Circle, so you may well think me part of the problem. 

I hope I’m not, but would I even know if I were? Karen Fricker has written in detail about what she sees as the exclusionary practices of bodies such as the Critics’ Circle, many of which, I imagine, would be surprised to be characterised in this way. Her theme was about traditional versus digital criticism rather than race, but it is pertinent to quote her here:

We see these tensions further playing out in the shifting nature of membership politics in theatre critics’ associations and awards-giving bodies. I conducted an informal survey of four such associations as research for this piece, and found them struggling to adapt their policies and terminology to the digital age. As is the case with all four groups, the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) requires members to be ‘professional’, but ‘because of the nature of the industry these days, professional has more to do with a professional attitude than the necessity of earning money.'[13] For the Canadian Theatre Critics’ Association, ‘a professional is someone who has either gotten paid on some sort of a regular basis to write criticism that has been published, or who is recognized by peers as someone who writes seriously and regularly on theatre subjects.'[14] The American Theatre Critics Association ‘understands “professional” normally to mean you are paid for your reviews and there is some editorial or other supervision of your criticism.'[15] Admission to the UK (London-based) Critics’ Circle is by invitation only ‘to persons engaged professionally, regularly and substantially for at least two years in the writing or broadcasting (television, radio and internet) if [sic] criticism.'[16] It is surprising that none of these bodies mention data such as a blog’s unique page views as a consideration towards membership. Proving the existence of a readership does not seem to be as meaningful a criterion as having one’s writing vetted and validated by those already in the field.[17]

Bigger, Brighter, Louder by Chris Jones

If Fricker’s analysis is correct, none of these organisations would have to actively do anything to be guilty of the charge of elitism made by Denny. Simply by continuing the way they have always continued would make them culpable.

Perhaps this is similar to the black invisibility effect described by Chris Jones in his anthology of Chicago Tribune theatre reviews, Bigger, Brighter, Louder. He points out that the newspaper “virtually ignored” the important African American company Skyloft Players in the 1940s. Denny makes a similar observation. In as much as her assertion is true that “theatre critics often have free-reign to select which shows to review”, you could argue that the very act of editorial choice can hide an exclusionist agenda. A critic doesn’t have to do anything to have a negative effect – not doing something is enough.

All this is before we get to the question of a more visible form of bias as suggested by this tweet quoting the playwright and screenwriter Laura Eason:

So if it is true that theatre critics are not just a symptom but a cause of race, class, gender and generation discrimination, what’s to be done about it? Fricker made some persuasive suggestions about actively supporting the next generation of critics in this Mental Swoon blog. In terms of writing, I’d suggest critics should develop all the self-knowledge and self-awareness they can to counteract their biases. They need to challenge their assumptions as they write. 

Anyone got any more practical suggestions?