How to Write About Theatre in a Small Community

IN DECEMBER 2016, I was invited by Dr James Corby of the University of Malta (working with the Arts Council Malta) to run a mini-course on arts criticism and join a panel discussion with artists and writers at St James Cavallier. Here are some thoughts I had on the pros and cons of working in a small arts community.

Fictional theatre critics: captured!

THEATRE Criticism: Changing Landscapes is an excellent anthology of essays put together by Duska Radosavljevic. It includes lots of illuminating commentaries from around the world on subjects ranging from the unreliability of criticism in the old Soviet Union to the newly emerging history of internet criticism. 

The essays are intelligent, engaging and serious. With one exception. I confess to writing quite the silliest chapter in the book – an overview of fictional theatre critics in films, plays and novels. 

Silly it may be, but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed writing anything more. It was a fantastic excuse to read and watch all kinds of things, ranging from pulp-fiction romances to devastating studies of the critical mindset (everyone should read Wilfrid Sheed’s The Critic).

After consuming more of this than could possibly be healthy, I came up with a bit of a theory about people’s misconceptions of theatre critics. You can read that in the book. The fun part, though, was doing the research, so here for your entertainment are a few examples you can find online.

Odd to find a theatre critic in a video game, but we’ll start with this one from Psychonauts, which typifies the way the job is perceived:

The purple-headed amphibian is a crude caricature who could be a descendent of Frederick Skeates in the 1936 movie Men Are Not Gods, an imperious, pipe-smoking autocrat, who dictates his review to his secretary and refuses to say good evening or even to answer the phone (his high-handed manner makes it easier for his secretary to justify rewriting the review to the benefit of the lead actor):

Here’s a remake of A Piano in the House, a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone. Fitzgerald Fortune is a ‘theatre critic and cynic at large’ who gains sadomasochistic pleasure in hearing his wife say how much she hates him and his friend confessing to being in love with her. ‘You just need someone to bully and torture when you feel like it,’ says his wife, framing him as a critic with a psychological desire to ‘hurt people’: 

Even songwriters seem to hold a grudge against theatre critics. Here’s Jimmy Webb’s 1970 song Dorothy Chandler Blues. Like many fictional critics, this one is wearing a bow tie, is angry with his wife and appears hell-bent on destruction. ‘Good evening Mr Critic/ How many shows did you close?’ demands Webb, implying that a man who hasn’t written any ‘songs of love’ should not have the right to ‘destroy’ them: 

Lightening the tone, here’s clown Bill Irwin in The Regard of Flight being interrupted by Michael O’Connor, playing a comically pedantic critic, missing the point about what’s going on:

Finally, more laughs here as Alfred Molina stars as a children’s theatre critic:


Better Living Through Criticism

AT INTERVALS through Better Living Through Criticism, a free-wheeling meditation on how we talk about art, critic AO Scott changes the pace with a series of imagined interviews. Hold on, says his alter ego every couple of chapters, you’ve been saying this, that and the other, but have you considered this other thing? 

He may be asking his own questions, but the format forces Scott to focus. In a book that can be airy, discursive and tangential, these chapters are the most rooted. (They also have none of the coyness of the imaginary interviews in Michael Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays, but that’s another story.)

In the last of these dialogues, Scott effectively reviews his own book. In the voice of the questioner, he writes: “To be frank I’m still not sure I know what criticism is, unless it is whatever a critic happens to be doing. And in that case what is a critic?”

It’s a pretty fundamental question to be asking after 250 pages. Should it really take this long to get to the point? The answer Scott provides is that “criticism is both paradoxical and tautological. It’s whatever a critic does.” 

And if it’s not too paradoxical and tautological to say so, herein lies the strength and weakness of his book. Reading it is like watching a kite on a blustery day. It dazzles and delights, dips and dives, loops round itself, gets tied in knots, untangles itself and returns to surprise you. Sometimes, though, it disappears from view. Frequently you lose sight of the thin cord connecting it to the ground. At such moments, to paraphrase Scott himself, I’m not sure I know what this book is.

Should I say what it isn’t? Well, it’s not a practical guide to being a critic, nor is it a historical overview of critical thinking, although Scott shows great breath of knowledge and understanding on that subject. Although I love the title, I’m not sure this book actually does offer better living through criticism.

Rather, it is a philosophical meander through the questions and contradictions that criticism presents. How can a review be a subjective expression that also aspires to universal truth? What’s the point of an activity that comes in between the artist and the audience and yet, strictly, is not required by either? Is criticism a creative act that has artistic value in itself or is it tomorrow’s chip paper? 

At its most worthwhile, criticism sets itself above the shallowness and hype of the market, so why is it so often treated as a mere consumer guide? Isn’t it true to say a work of art is itself a piece of criticism in that it reflects and comments on the world around it? Is the critic friend or enemy? Or both?

Scott has no shortage of opinions (he’s a critic; how could he not?) but he is more interested in the questions than the answers. That’s his point. The more you consider the act of criticism, the more conundrums it throws up. They are what make it infinitely interesting. 

This is an activity that not only provokes self-reflection in the critic (why am I doing this?) but also a similar line of questioning from everyone else (why are you doing this – and who gave you the right?) Despite the uncertainty, despite the animosity and despite the multiplicity of answers, criticism keeps on happening – and for as long as people keep thinking, it always will.

And here I am, criticising Scott’s book and here you are, reading about it and now you’ll go away with an opinion of my piece of writing about his piece of writing and maybe you’ll even write down your opinion . . . and the process is never ending. So should you read his book? Of course you should. Only then will I be able to ask you the questions Scott says are the “origin of criticism”: “Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” (Mark Fisher)

Better Living Through Criticism, AO Scott (Jonathan Cape)

What I’ve learnt from my rock’n’roll criticism tour

Mark Fisher, author of How to Write About Theatre, leading a criticism workshop at Liverpool Hope University
Mark Fisher at Liverpool Hope University. Pic: Michael Boyle

SINCE How to Write About Theatre came out last summer, I’ve given around 20 talks, workshops and roundtable discussions everywhere from Edinburgh to Truro, from Manchester to Canterbury, from Colwyn Bay to London. 

Largely for my own amusement, I’ve been calling it my rock’n’roll theatre criticism tour. 

The lack of groupies and cocaine has been disappointing, but getting round the country has been great. With Bob Dylan as my model, I’m thinking of it as a never-ending criticism tour – a call from the O2 Arena is surely just a matter of time.

So what have I found on my travels? I’m pleased to report that everywhere I’ve gone, people have shown a high level of engagement in the idea of theatre criticism – although not always for the same reasons. 

In Truro, the half-dozen writers on the New Reviewers programme at Hall for Cornwall are determined to improve the standard of discussion about Cornish culture. In London, the large contingent of directors on the Young Vic’s Genesis Directors’ Network are keen to find the most productive way to analyse each other’s work. In Poole, the Young Reviewers have been stretching their vocabulary by writing about children’s shows, dance performances and musicals.

Likewise, students I’ve met in Canterbury and Chichester, Leeds and Liverpool, Sheffield and Sunderland have been animated by the challenge of translating the theatre they see into words.

Along the way, there have been loads of interesting discussions.

University of Bristol

At the University of Bristol, the students had just seen Matthew Zajac’s excellent one-man show The Tailor of Inverness and were now working on their reviews. The play is about Zajac’s father who was born in a part of Poland that became the Ukraine, was drafted into the armies of both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany and fled – depending on whose story you believe – across most of Europe before settling in Glasgow and finally Inverness.

One of the students had an intriguing question. Being half-Polish himself, he was wondering whether it would be appropriate to include his own family story in the review. I could see his dilemma. If he wanted to do justice to the work of the artist, wouldn’t it be self-indulgent to start banging on about his own story? On the other hand, when he had filtered the show through the lens of his own experience – as all of us do – wouldn’t it be relevant to mention it?

Students at the University of Chichester join a criticism workshop with Mark Fisher
Students at the University of Chichester

I think it would be very relevant. Whatever his opinion of the show, he is writing from a distinct perspective and, as a fellow audience member, I’d be fascinated to know how that perspective affected his interpretation. As a critic of this particular show, he would have a unique perspective in being half Polish. It would be the thing that made his review stand out from the rest.

I would still expect him to make The Tailor of Inverness his central focus, but if he could tell a parallel story that illuminated Zajac’s show in some way, it would only enrich the reader’s understanding. Depending on how he chose to structure his review, it could be the way he drew the reader into the story of his encounter with the play. That was the technique Benedict Nightingale used when reviewing the jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men in 1996:

I found myself questioning the Angry Men myth when I sat on a jury recently and found I was the only member convinced that the defendant was guilty of theft. It was deeply disconcerting to be the lion in a den of Fondas.

Falmouth University Students in a criticism workshop by Mark Fisher, author of How to Write About Theatre
Students in Falmouth think about How to Write About Theatre

With any other play, Nightingale’s jury experience would be irrelevant, but here it had a direct application. He was able to use a personal story to explain his reaction to the play, giving the reader an insight into him and the thing he was writing about. 

The only note of caution is not to let the personal anecdote overshadow the play. If Nightingale had been one of several jury members who believed the defendant to be guilty, his story would have carried little weight and could have seemed like an irrelevant or indulgent aside. A personal story is interesting only to the extent it illuminates the production.

At Falmouth University, where my gig even got a review, one student had a great question about how sure a critic can be of the artist’s intentions. He gave the example of Stewart Lee who has been known to alienate an audience deliberately as a personal dare to see whether he could bring them back on side again. The critic who didn’t understand what the comedian was up to and simply took Lee on face value may assume he was incompetent. 

students at Christchurch, Canterbury joins Mark Fisher's theatre criticism workshop
Students at Christchurch, Canterbury

This was a game that Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish took to another level when he gave a deliberately negative review of a Lee show as a kind of meta commentary on the comedian’s act:

It feels quite empowering to leave a Stewart Lee gig at the first available opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, Cavendish’s review generated much below-the-line vitriol, but maybe that was what the critic intended. I only suspect this, incidentally, because Cavendish told me he was fully aware of Lee’s methods and totally prepared for any backlash. He knew what he was doing. If that was the game Lee was playing as a comedian, why shouldn’t he play it as a critic?

In this case, it was as hard to be certain of the critic’s intentions as it was to be certain of the comedian’s. The best I can say is that most of the time we get the artist’s intentions more or less right, but we’re all fallible and sometimes we miss the point.

And it’s that level of uncertainty that makes the job of writing about theatre endlessly engaging. So here’s looking forward to more such discussions on my never-ending criticism tour.

Is criticism worth valuing?

WHAT distinguishes a professional theatre critic from an amateur? It’s a question that’s been buzzing around ever since some theatregoer realised the internet would be a pretty cool place to write about the shows they’d been seeing. Perhaps that person was doing something different from the critics who’d been filing newspaper reviews for the previous couple of centuries, but if so, in what way was it different? It’s not an easy question to answer.

Mark Shenton, critic on the Stage, had a stab at it earlier this week when he blogged about the online chatter that precedes productions when they move from town to town. In a post entitled Rising above the noise of internet commentary, he made a distinction between what he called “formal criticism” and an internet where “there are always lots of voices, shouting to be heard”:

The world needs voices to rise above that clamour and offer some kind of calming, unruffled perspective. Online commentary tends to polarise between extremely good and extremely bad; critics can provide a more measured voice.

As he then went on to talk about print publications, his implication (intentional or otherwise) was that this “formal criticism” took place in the traditional media while the “unmediated din” took place online. 

This strikes me as a contentious thing to say, not least because his opinion was itself expressed online. What qualifies as formal criticism? What is the mechanism by which some voices rise above the clamour instead of adding to the din themselves? Did he mean there were no measured voices online?

It sounded like Shenton was out to provoke a debate and when I said as much on Twitter, he responded:

So maybe I was getting the wrong end of the stick, even though Shenton’s post continues in much the same way, suggesting that “online no one seems to have grown up” (how?) and that there are “online vultures … circling overhead ready to feast on the latest theatrical carcass”. How this is different to theatrical gossip of old, he does not say. 

Neither does he say whether Megan Vaughan’s blog comments about, which he quotes apparently approvingly, are an example of the polarised online commentary he dislikes or the “calming, unruffled perspective” he craves.

There’s good reason for the ambiguity. The problem with the anti-internet argument is in the supporting evidence. There are too many examples of brilliant online criticism and poor quality print reviewing to make anything but the woolliest of generalisations. There simply isn’t the statistical evidence to suggest that one form of publication is either more polarised or more measured than the other. In fact, right now, if you wanted to find the kind of thoughtful in-depth commentary once the province of specialist theatrical journals, you would almost certainly go online.

This is not to say, however, that Shenton’s fears are without foundation. As a professional critic myself, I have much sympathy for his championing of “a properly edited publication offering vetted, commissioned reviewing”. That seems to me to be the most secure way of ensuring long-term standards and helping one generation learn from the last.

I’ve also got a lot of time for the views expressed by Wendy Rosenfield a couple of weeks ago in a Broad Street Review article asking Does a review that no one paid for have value? The de-professionalisation of theatre criticism, she argued, risked undermining the whole business:

in the macro sense, something tangible does get lost: credibility, for the person and the profession. By literally devaluing critics’ work, or through ignorance arising out of the far-flung and isolated nature of online writing, a profession becomes a hobby. If no one is paying you for what you’re creating, whether in a knitting circle or on the Huffington Post, who’s to say you’re doing it wrong? 

I recommend spending time reading not only her article and the fascinating commentary beneath it, but also Christopher Munden’s response under the title Does an analysis by a privileged journalist have value? in which he challenges Rosenfield’s claim to the ethical high ground. Again, there are many lucidly expressed opinions on both sides of the argument beneath his piece. It’s quality stuff. 

If this is internet noise give me more of it.

I won’t rehearse all of those arguments again here, but I will offer one other way of thinking about the question. If we can’t agree over what’s in the best interests of journalism, perhaps we can find common ground over what’s in the best interests of theatre. On the one hand, the more people who are engaging in discussion, whether as writers or readers, the better it is for the theatre industry. It strikes me as self-evident that every text, every social media comment, every blog review, makes theatre seem a thing worth talking about and a thing worth seeing.

On the other hand, there is a widely accepted belief that professionalisation benefits everyone. We assume playwrights, actors, press officers, directors, designers and all the rest will be paid. We also assume plumbers, heating engineers, caterers and electrical suppliers who maintain the theatre building will be properly remunerated. We assume this because it is fair to pay people for their labour and because it guarantees a professional attitude to the job. 

Is there a case to think of theatre criticism in a different way? I’m biased, but I don’t think there is. If the activity has value, shouldn’t we be doing what we can to ensure that value is maintained? We needn’t distract ourselves with arguments about noisiness or ethics – that ground is too shaky; instead, we can make the case that valuable labour deserves to be paid for. I’ve talked about some of the ways that may happen in previous blogs such as Should theatres employ theatre critics?, but for now let’s leave with a couple of thoughts from Australian critic Jane Howard:

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.

Independent theatre criticism or payola?

WE’RE CREATURES of habit. When we hear of something being done differently, our knee-jerk reaction is to condemn it. It’s certainly hard not to respond that way to a scheme by Los Angeles website Bitter Lemons to charge theatre companies for the privilege of being reviewed. If you’re putting on a play and you’d like it to be covered by one of the site’s high-calibre reviewers, it’ll set you back $150.

For the past couple of centuries it’s never been done like that. What we’re familiar with is a system where publishers not theatres pay for reviews. This has several advantages. If the critic’s loyalty is to the publication not the theatre, it’s more likely their judgement will be independent and impartial. And if a review is directed to the reader not the theatremakers, it’s more likely to tell it like it is.

The system is imperfect (critics are rarely as neutral as they’d like to make out and publications can have agendas of their own) but it’s worked reasonably well. 

Until now, that is. Thanks to the open-access nature of the internet and the contraction of print journalism, we’re living at a time when many critics are not paid by anybody. For those who regard criticism as a profession and not a hobby, it is becoming increasingly hard to see how to earn a living from it. That’s where the Bitter Lemons idea comes from. In the absence of money from publishers or readers, the website has turned to the theatres themselves for revenue. As the website put it:

Simply put, if a producer or a theater company wants their show reviewed, they can get it reviewed, guaranteed, but it will cost them $150 per review and that review will be originally published at Bitter Lemons.

A couple of days ago, it even claimed to be having a degree of success:

On the eve of opening night for previews at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Bitter Lemons has over 30 exclusive Bitter Lemons Reviews ordered and purchased – that’s right pre-purchased – and those top quality works of theater criticism will be rolling out over the next couple of weeks. You’ll be able to see them all in our Bitter Lemons Reviews section here.
We offered a deeply discounted 50% off our regular price of $150 just because we love the Fringe community so much and understand how important it is for them to get quality coverage from a truly experienced, savvy, historian of the ephemeral arts, plus we saw this as the perfect opportunity to introduce the Los Angeles Theater Community to our new business model for theater criticism.

In the thread beneath this article you’ll see how editor Colin Mitchell has been dealing with accusations that this is a “bonehead move” that amounts to “payola”. It has been criticised in greater depth on the Parabasis blog and by Howard Sherman who said:

But linking coverage to cash on the barrelhead smacks too much of payola, of pay for play, even if it’s out in the open. I think it can only serve to diminish the site’s credibility, and may well, in the long run, result in a diminished Bitter Lemons, which would be a shame. After all, can this model hold up if paying companies start receiving blistering pans, or simply indifference?

These are valid concerns and the proof will be how the scheme plays out in practice. I’d suggest, though, that the ethical concerns are not the greatest problem. If the writers remains true to their existing standards and the theatre companies really do roll with the punches, I can imagine it working – at least in theory. I can foresee another problem about how theatre companies would choose to allocate their review funds ($150 would get them only one review and I imagine they’d want more than that), but maybe they’d find a solution to that as well.

What concerns me more about the Bitter Lemons scheme is that it favours only those companies that can pay. The question would be less about what the site published than what it didn’t publish. At the moment, if you buy a newspaper or alight on any other theatre blog, you can read the reviews in the reasonable belief that someone thought the shows were interesting enough to write about. A pay-per-review scheme means being interesting is no longer the main criterion. What counts is a company’s ability or willingness to come up with the dosh.

That would be good neither for the website itself nor for the theatre ecology as a whole. If a producer chose not to pay, it would be as if their show never existed. The website would be imbalanced, readers would be left in the dark and worthwhile artists would be excluded from the critical discussion.

We can only watch what happens, but it seems to me that while the impulse to raise money from a different source is an understandable one, Bitter Lemons is not looking in quite the right place. 

If theatremakers and audiences believe in the value of criticism – and if they agree that valuable things should be paid for – then we need to find sources of funding that have fewer strings attached. I’m thinking about arts councils, charitable trusts, universities, theatre federations or other organisations, such as Hall for Cornwall in Truro, that have an understanding of the bigger picture and a belief in editorial independence. These alternatives could still lead to ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest, but then so does the existing system, and in an era of declining newspaper revenues, they seem to offer a more likely future for the professional critic.

Critics on criticism: audio and video

IS IT POSSIBLE to separate the form of a production from its content? Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss doesn’t think so. In the question-and-answer session after her address to the 2015 conference of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), she was asked whether she was guilty of reviewing a show’s political issue rather than the show itself. 

Her reply to the New Orleans audience was succinct: “The content and the production are one. You don’t separate the meaning of the show from the style of the show.”

I think she’s right. As I wrote in my last blog:  

You wouldn’t ask a critic to suspend their judgements about aesthetics or technical achievement, so why demand that they should deny their political perspective? I’m not convinced that’s even possible, but even if it was, to mute your political reaction would itself be a political act. 

Other topics covered by Weiss include the problem of being remembered only for the controversies (she lists five of them) and the importance of editors being engaged in the arts. You can hear her full session here:

While I’m in an audio-visual mood, there are plenty more conversations with critics to be catching up with. This year at the Theatre Royal Winchester, a group of Young Critics have been privy to the insights of experienced critics at a series of masterclasses. So far, they’ve had visits from Lyn Gardner of the Guardian, Mark Shenton of the Stage, Megan Vaughan of Synonyms for Churlish, Tim Walker formerly of the Sunday Telegraph and several others. I’ll be there myself before long – as will the talented critics listed here

You can listen to the best bits online, starting with this sequence of short podcasts featuring Jake Orr of A Younger Theatre and Lyn Gardner:

There is also loads of material you can catch up with from The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age: A Colloquium at Brock University, St Catharines, Ontario in 2014, including this 14-minute collection of highlights:

Finally, here I am with Andrew Dickson talking about theatre criticism at a conference about Adapting, Performing & Reviewing Shakespearean Comedy in a European Context last summer: