A better class of theatre criticism

“ACCENTUATE the positive,” sang Johnny Mercer. He further recommended that we “eliminate the negative”. And for good measure, he proposed we should “latch on to the affirmative”. This probably wasn’t what he had in mind, but as philosophies go, it’s the best we have when it comes to the future of theatre criticism. 

For many, this isn’t easy. Old-guard critics are forever bemoaning the state of the newspaper industry. They have good reason: the landscape has changed out of recognition since most entered the profession. For journalists, these are precarious times. But that doesn’t mean there’s no future for criticism. 

What it means is that it will look different (is already looking different) from what we knew in the past. And it’s those who are latching on to the affirmative and making positive steps to envisage the future to whom we should pay attention.

That’s one of the reasons I was delighted to pay a visit to the Theatre Royal Winchester this weekend. That’s where the dynamic education officer Carl Woodward has been running a Young Critics programme. Thanks to his dedication, this scheme has not only been attracting a stellar line-up of speakers (the eight-session autumn run includes Michael Billington, Maddy Costa and Lyn Gardner), but has also been arousing the interest of other theatres. 

The Mayflower, Southampton was quick off the mark in supporting the scheme with an offer of press tickets for the participants. Now Woodward has a long list of enquiries on his to-do list from companies across the southwest who want to know more.

What’s going on in Winchester is a positive reaction to a changing world. If coverage is declining, if standards are dropping, if it’s getting harder for theatre to be taken seriously, then what’s to be done about it? 

The answers are manifold and there are examples of affirmative action popping up all over the place. There’s Hall for Cornwall shouldering the cost of paying critics; there’s Mike Smith whose Wales Critics Fund aims to “help existing and new reviewers, enable more reviewing and broaden the base of critical writing”; there’s Karen Fricker’s criticism class at Brock University which this summer has extended into out-of-hours coverage of Ontario theatre on the Dart Critics site; and there’s the Young Critics programme run by the National Association for Youth Drama in Ireland which encourages youth theatre members to develop an “awareness and appreciation of the aesthetic of theatre”. 

Meanwhile in Winchester, around ten 18-25 year olds have been hearing from established critics and putting their lessons into practice in their own reviews, the best of which are being published in the Big Issue

Here are the thoughts of one participant after yesterday’s final session:

When I met them yesterday, Caitlin and her fellow young critics agreed they were keen to continue reviewing even as they acknowledged criticism would most likely be something that sat alongside their other work. That in itself should be no surprise: the number of people who have ever made a living exclusively from theatre criticism is very small, just a handful of people in a few metropolitan centres at any one time. What’s heartening is that these young critics are engaged with the idea of writing about theatre in a way that attempts to do justice to a complex artform. 

Yesterday, our conversation ranged across topics such as how to capture the detail of an actor’s performance; how to treat amdram productions sensitively: how to develop an understanding of the craft of theatremaking; and how to decide how much of yourself to reveal in a review. There are many more questions where they came from. 

And, as long as people keep accentuating the positive, as these various schemes have been doing, we’ll keep getting answers that point the way forward. We’ll also keep getting reviews as imaginative as this one by Megan Vaughan, which came up in our Winchester conversation. It’s an example of a critic using the medium of the internet to write in a way that simply wasn’t possible only a few years ago. That’s proper positive thinking.