In praise of bias

THIS TIME last month, Marathon, a dance piece choreographed by Aharona Israel, showed up in Toronto. It was presented as part of a season called Spotlight on Israeli Culture and, as the programme blurb went, was about three people “revealing the wounds of contemporary Israeli society”. 

Writing for the Globe and Mail, dance critic Martha Schabas took issue with the production on two levels. One was the quality of the choreography, which she thought “could have been stronger”; the other was the political implications of “an egregiously one-sided view of Israel’s wounds”. In her opinion, “even the privileged perspective gets shallow treatment”. She went on to argue that a play billed as exploring “the depths of Israeli consciousness” made “a rather charged statement in what it chooses to omit”.

Compared with the reception Israeli companies have been given elsewhere in the world, this was a measured argument. Last year on the Edinburgh Fringe, Jerusalem’s Incubator Theatre had to cancel the entire run of The City when the presence of 150 peaceful protestors outside the venue proved too disruptive. In 2012, performances by Batsheva Dance Company in the Edinburgh International Festival were repeatedly interrupted by pro-Palestinian campaigners shouting from the auditorium. 

There was no suggestion of anything so censorious in Schabas’s review – just a calm, clearly stated expression of her point of view.

Nonetheless, the Globe and Mail received a complaint that suggested her review was “politically biased”. A reader had seen her make “anti-Israeli comments on Twitter and asked if someone so disposed should have been given the assignment in the first place”. 

Taking such matters seriously, the newspaper investigated the claim and ran a Public Editor piece outlining the editorial process from the point when the review was commissioned to the time it was published. Schabas had made no secret of her political viewpoint, the article explained, and her editor had run the first draft of her review past another editor with expertise on Middle East politics. The article concluded that “the writer’s point of view is clear in reading the review”.

But there’s an aspect that troubles me in the newspaper’s response (and not just the contentious assertion that “I don’t think you could describe most dance productions as political” – really ?) 

“In general,” it said, “it is better to avoid a potential conflict.” 

It went on to allude to the impartial standards expected of its news reporters and concluded that “the writer should temper her comments” now she was writing for the paper

But what is the alternative to a critic with strong opinions? Would it have been less contentious for a pro-Israeli critic to have reviewed the show? Would a critic who was neutral on the Arab-Israeli conflict have offered any greater insight? In what way would the opinions of those critics have been preferable? Why would one political bias be better than another?

My point is not to argue one side or the other about Israel and Palestine. I have my own opinions, but this is a heated issue and, clearly, people have a range of equally passionate views. 

What I am arguing is that no critic, pro, anti or on the fence, writes from a politically neutral position. Schabas’s opinions may be more apparent because they are in opposition to what she regarded as the implicit values of the production, but that doesn’t make anyone else’s opinions any less contentious. 

Supporting the status quo is as much a political statement as challenging it. The issue is more evident in the highly charged arena of Middle East politics, but the same applies to everything a critic sees. To a greater or lesser extent, all plays are political (the Globe is quite wrong to suggest otherwise) and all critics have political opinions. There’s no such thing as a neutral critic.

I think Philadelphia Inquirer critic Wendy Rosenfield would agree with me on this last statement, but a couple of weeks ago, the two of us fell into a Twitter exchange about the way in which Schabas expressed her argument. Rosenfield, who happens to sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Schabas when it comes to the Middle East, believes it is incumbent upon any critic to be upfront about their biases.

Note that Rosenfield was not arguing that critics shouldn’t be biased (which is the troubling subtext of the Globe and Mail editorial) but that they should declare their bias. If a reader is going to make sense of a critic’s argument, they need to understand where the critic is coming from. She gave an example of her own: 

I think this is right. It reminds me of what Andy Horwitz has said about a type of writing that demands a “critic acknowledge their subjectivity and prejudices, be transparent about their relationships“. As far as criticism is concerned, objectivity is an illusion. 

To move for a moment into less contentious territory, here is Charles Spencer making his bias apparent in a Daily Telegraph review of The Light Princess, with music and lyrics by Tori Amos, at London’s National Theatre:

Even as a child I loathed fairy stories and my view hasn’t changed in middle-age. More often than not they are creepy, cruel or pretentious, and often they manage to be all three at once.

Nevertheless I approached this musical, which has been six years in the making, with high hopes.

The honesty of this approach gave the reader a helpful perspective. Someone who loved fairy tales and hated Tori Amos would not expect to come to the same conclusions as the critic, but because Spencer had declared his bias, they could make allowances for that. By writing clearly and honestly, Spencer made his presence felt in the review, but also made space for the reader.

But back with Marathon, there is a view held by some that even to express a political viewpoint in a review is some kind of violation. Here’s a tweet I received from Gerald M Steinberg, a professor teaching in the department of political studies at Bar Ilan University:

And if you read the comments beneath the Globe and Mail’s Public Editor article, you’ll see this from Alana Ronald:

As a former dance writer I can safely say that personal politics have no place in a dance review. It’s quite simple when one realizes that one’s job is to critique a performance, , rather than cynically use the opportunity to propagandize, or indulge in polemics.

Both of these claims are meaningless to me. 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. 

Consider an example we could all agree on. Let’s say a theatremaker put on a show that argued that women should never have been given the vote and everything had gone down hill since the suffragettes. Would we really expect a critic to keep quiet about their “personal politics”, to use only their “professional qualifications”, to simply accept what the theatremaker was saying and to comment only on the quality of the acting? 

Of course we wouldn’t. We expect critics to question a production’s ideas and assumptions with the same rigour – and, yes, the same bias – as they would apply to every aspect. Politics isn’t an optional add-on. It’s fundamental to who we are.

So I find it hard not to conclude that those objecting to Schabas’s review are not against expressing political opinions in general. What they’re against, it seems to me, is expressing these particular political opinions. By suggesting Schabas has a hidden agenda (and, by implication, that Aharona Israel and her dancers somehow have no agenda) is a way of questioning the critic’s credibility and undermining her arguments. 

But we all have agendas and to pretend otherwise is futile.

The question remains about whether, in this particular instance, Schabas was sneaking an illicit agenda, Trojan horse-like, into her review. The Globe and Mail concluded that she wasn’t and, personally, I’m not sure what form of words she could have used that would have made her political perspective any clearer. I can’t see how any reader could have been misled into thinking the review constituted an absolute truth rather than the expression of one person’s opinion. It’s reasonable to assume that everyone in the audience had an opinion about Middle East politics, so why not her?

I’ll sign off with some excellent words from Rosenfield herself. Writing last year in the Broad Street Review, she made the case that it is irresponsible for critics not to take into account the world in which a production exists. It strikes me this is exactly what Schabas was doing and, I would argue, the real reason behind the complaints:

Some critics don’t concern themselves with diversity or context, sticking to the subject before them. This is its own form of injustice as well as an abandonment of the critic’s role; to see exclusionary practices and not comment on them is to perpetuate them, but also, to pretend a show exists in a cultural vacuum does a disservice to the role of art. 

Should theatres employ critics?

EVER since the first reviews appeared in the Gentleman’s Journal in the 1690s, we have accepted the idea that theatre criticism is a branch of journalism. In the English-speaking world, critics are responsible to their editors and, through them, their readers. Technically, they need have no loyalty to the theatre at all, except to the extent that it provides them with raw material. 

In reality, the picture is more complicated (it would be a rare critic who felt no emotional attachment to the artform), but the fundamental relationship stands: critics earn their money from newspapers not theatres.

But at the start of the 21st century, it feels as if that relationship is changing. Newspapers are undergoing a sometimes painful transition to the internet and, as I discussed previously, are more likely to be firing critics than hiring them. As a consequence, the theatre industry is realising it can’t take criticism for granted.

Until recently, it was possible to regard a theatre critic in much the way 
Riggan Thomson views Tabitha Dickinson in Birdman: as an irritant hell-bent on destruction, a cultural misanthrope trying to spoil everyone’s fun. If, however, there were a possibility of ending up with no critics at all (or, at least, none operating in the way they once did), theatremakers could start feeling bereft. For without critics, there would be no discussion of their work and, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

That’s why it was heartening to be invited to Truro this week for the launch of Hall for Cornwall‘s New Reviewers programme. In an attempt to do something about the critical deficit, the organisation is recruiting six freelance theatre critics – and will pick up the tab for their work. 

It was heartening too to see 25 would-be reviewers at Thursday’s event. No shortage of critically engaged audiences here. After filing reviews of Gecko’s Institute, which played at the Hall for Cornwall at the weekend, they will be whittled down to the final six in the next couple of weeks or so.

Institute by Gecko Pic: Richard Haughton

The scale is modest – we’re only talking about three reviews each over the coming year, no more than 18 reviews in total. But money will change hands (they will be paid £75 per time to cover their writing and expenses) and the scheme could get bigger if it proves successful. It could turn out to be an important staging post en route to a new way of supporting criticism. 

As Ciaran Clarke argued in an excellent blog post on the theme of “Cornwall, criticism and complacency”, the county has a “huge number of theatre companies” but, in his opinion, a shortage of honest criticism. The New Reviewers scheme, enthusiastically supported by Lee Trewhela, the leisure editor of the West Briton, the Cornish Guardian and the Cornishman, is designed to make such critical honesty more possible.

On the day after the launch, I sat down with Michael White, head of arts development, and Kirsty Cotton, talent development manager, and asked them what their thinking was.

Michael White: In October 2013, we merged with a development agency and created the arts development department here. We’ve been consulting artists and people in the cultural sector about what’s happened before and how things might look different. New Reviewers is part of a wider programme involving professional development, artist residencies, collaborations and so on. We’re not a producing organisation, but we can invest in the artists which can feed back into the organisation and the sector as a whole.
Kirsty Cotton: Obviously there is a financial implication for the New Reviewers strand, but the main commitment for us is the thought process that went behind it and understanding why it’s right for the community. It’s all part of an integrated direction.
Michael: In Cornwall, there’s no such thing as press nights and no such thing as previews. The show goes out on the road and, eventually, the local press might go and review it. The New Reviewers scheme increases the amount of dialogue – and rigorous dialogue is the one thing that is lacking. The practitioners have all said they’d like to have a grown-up discussion about their work. A lot of the work is really good, but the discussion needs to move on. We’re not creating journalism, we’re creating the debate.

The stereotypical view of critics is that they are the enemy. A lot of the theatre profession, for good self-preservation reasons, choose to shun criticism altogether. But you’re doing the opposite of that.
Michael: I think the worst thing you can say to someone is, “Well done, you’ve put a play on.” We’re creating a dialogue about the quality of the work.

This has also been made possible by the internet.
Michael: Yes, we have a cultural community site where you can put postings up about opportunities and your touring work. The work of the New Reviewers will be seen through blogging. We have a region-wide remit, which goes from Bude right down to Land’s End and Penzance, and we hope the networking on the website and the different voices coming in will create more of a sense of identity for Cornwall. 

The one thing newspapers can do is edit . . .
Michael: We’ll be exercising that edit through the website. People are free to post what they want, but there are standards about how to behave and I do have the ability to take stuff out. If there was a review that slated something for the sake of it, I think we would talk to the reviewer about it before posting it.
Kirsty: I was arguing last night that the reviews should be balanced, but Benjamin Symes, the artistic director of Cube Essential Theatre, was saying that “considered” would define it better. He wants the reviewer to have really thought about what they’re saying. The people we take onto the programme will have demonstrated that they can be considered in their writing. We’ll be trying to identify those people who can connect with a readership but also offer that considered response.

Theatres have to decide whether to allow negative comments on their websites. What do you think?
Michael: I believe you should because that’s where the debates start to get interesting. You can learn a lot about what you’re doing. The more difficult a piece is, the more interesting the debate around it, compared with a show that plays it safe and tries not to push the audience in any way.
Kirsty: Without risk there’s no growth.

What next?
Michael: We’ve just applied for funding for a young reviewers programme, focusing on a particular area in Penzance. If we get the support, we would be working with 400 students in primary and secondary schools and getting them to review shows. It’s setting off those little sparks that allow people to talk to each other.
Kirsty: We’re starting with theatre, but actually it applies more widely. It’s about people having the tools to debate and discuss everything.

Good looking actors and voyeuristic critics

IS IT legitimate for a theatre critic to write about an actor’s body? That was the provocation laid down by freelance casting director Annelie Powell on Twitter this weekend.

It’s worth taking a look at her Twitter feed to see how people responded. It’s an interesting discussion.

You can see why it is an issue. As Powell added herself:

At the start of the 21st century, we’re all very sensitive about the question of body image. Whether it’s a matter of skin colour, disability, gender, age, size or weight, the arguments are repeatedly made that we should accept people on their own merits and not on their appearance. To do otherwise would be prejudicial. In public life, this is the principle we try to operate by.

Should the same apply to theatre? The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that critics should not judge performances on the basis of their prejudices. No, in the sense that everything on stage contributes to the production’s meaning and is all potential material for the critic’s argument. That includes what the actors look like.

When Maxine Peake played Hamlet at the Manchester Royal Exchange last year (see main picture), it would have benefited nobody if a critic had dismissed the production on the basis that Hamlet “should” be played by a man. Equally, it would have been odd for a critic not to mention that Peake was a woman. Her casting was part of the production’s meaning. I didn’t see that show, but if I had, part of my job would have been to analyse the implications of that casting.

Imagine a production of Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy in which a portly actor was cast as Stan and a skinny actor was cast as Ollie. Or a production of King Lear in which Lear was played by a 25 year old and his three daughters by women in their 60s. Those would be legitimate (if eccentric) directorial choices, which any critic would want to engage with. But you couldn’t do that without reference to the age and physique of the actors. Although the actors have no control over those attributes, they can’t escape them either. 

To stick with Powell’s analogy of a job interview, the critic would assess how well the actors dealt with the challenge (“Despite being 65, Cordelia has a youthful lightness of touch”), and would give them credit for what they achieved through their own resourcefulness. Unlike a job interview, however, the critic couldn’t deny it was a challenge in the first place. In many cases, not to refer to the actors’ physicality would be to miss the point. 

So to answer Powell’s initial question, I would say yes, it is sometimes necessary to comment on an actor’s physical appearance. But I suspect what she’s getting at is something else. This would be to comment on an actor’s physical appearance in a way that offered no insight into the production’s meaning, no view of how the actor was using their unique physicality, and told you only about the critic’s predilections. 

You can see why this happens. Theatre is a voyeuristic artform in which one group of people sit in the dark observing another lot of people. To pretend that isn’t the case, to act like you don’t have an emotional reaction to these bodies in front of you, is to betray something of theatre’s essential quality. On the other hand, if you write like a voyeur, you’re likely to give a warped view of the event.

In the 19th century, this was commonplace. Male theatre critics would frequently comment on how attractive they found the female leads, irrespective of the parts they were playing. Today, such writing is widespread in magazines and websites that discuss Hollywood celebrities, but thankfully more rare in theatre criticism. The theatre critic of recent times most likely to share his opinions about physical beauty was John Simon, whose cruel description of Diana Rigg as being “built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses” prompted her, after she’d recovered from the insult, to compile No Turn Unstoned, an anthology of bad reviews.

You can make up your own mind about Simon’s defence in this interview which he gave to Kalina Stefanova-Peteva in Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?:

We need beauty in the theater. An actress who is genuinely talented but not beautiful should definitely do what she’s doing. However, if she were also beautiful it would be a plus. And I would print such a statement, as almost no other critic would . . . Of course, it’s even more wonderful if the actress makes you forget that she’s not beautiful, if a plain woman can make you believe that she’s beautiful with her acting. I’ll kiss her feet for such an accomplishment. But it doesn’t happen very often . . . I don’t see why one shouldn’t be praised for being beautiful if one can be praised for being intelligent. Intelligence is just as much of an unearned miracle as beauty.

Why Birdman’s Tabitha tells us more about actors than critics

THERE has been a lot of good stuff written about the fictional Tabitha Dickinson in the Alejandro Iñárittu movie Birdman. Played by an icy Lindsay Duncan, she is the New York Times critic who threatens to derail a fictional Broadway show. In a city where one newspaper counts above all others, everything depends on her opinion. This adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stands to live or die on her say-so.

Theatre critics are naturally curious to see how their kind are regarded by others and have been paying close attention to Birdman. When the film was released in the USA, the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones argued that Tabitha was merely the latest in a long line of fictional critics who exist to serve two narrative purposes. One, he said, is “to render a verdict so the plot actually can end” and the other is:

to serve as a convenient antagonist. And that means that if the artist is to be a lovable if flawed soul, then the critic has to embody such qualities as imperviousness, dismissiveness, cruelty, defensiveness, callousness, conservatism, ignorance, and, in the case of Tabitha in “Birdman,” being as she has apparently decided on a lousy review in advance, evil incarnate.

Today, Matt Trueman has weighed in, pointing out in his inaugural column for What’s On Stage that the arguments made against Tabitha by the fictional lead actors, played by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, don’t hold water. Just because a critic has less at stake than an actor, he argues, doesn’t mean there is no risk in writing a review:

Good criticism always costs the critic something – or at least, it should. It involves risk: not as much as making theatre, sure, but risk nonetheless.

This is all on the nail and, while we’re righting wrongs, I’d like to think Jones and Trueman will join with me in taking issue with Gustave Flaubert. He’s a big name, to be sure, but the French novelist, whom Norton’s character quotes in the film, surely got it wrong when he said “a man is a critic when he cannot be an artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” 

This is one of those statements people are prone to making about critics that sounds persuasive until you think it through. What Flaubert says is possible, of course. Someone could become an informer having failed to be a soldier. But there’s no reason this should be true in all cases. Is every informer a failed soldier? Some might be, but why all of them? Maybe they had no interest in the military life and just wanted to give secrets to the other side. Maybe informing is what they always wanted to do. Is that so hard to imagine?

Likewise, there are many critics who have no interest in being artists. The thing they most wanted to be was a critic. Others still are happy to do both. Many switch between the roles of artist and critic throughout their lives. It’s not a competition – they’re just different jobs.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

This kind of idea about criticism persists, as do some peculiar notions about critics themselves. Tabitha is no exception. Some things about her are believable. It’s perfectly possible, for example, to imagine a theatre critic distrusting a movie star who tried to stage a Broadway show. You could also accept she felt personally responsible for protecting the art of the theatre. What is not credible is that this critic would carry such a degree of hatred of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson that she would decide to pan his show even before she saw it. And even if that were the case, there is absolutely no way she would admit to it in public. To do so would be career suicide.

But we needn’t dwell on this. It’s an excellent film but it’s not without its unlikely moments. Like the press conference that takes place in a dressing room and the preview performance that’s treated like a rehearsal, Tabitha’s excessive animosity is a detail we accept because it serves the forward momentum of the plot.

Besides, it seems to me that Lindsay Duncan’s character is not in the movie to comment on critics. She’s there to reflect on the actors. Before we meet her, they tell us she is an “old bat” who looks “like she licked a homeless guy’s arse”. These opinions tell you more about the defensiveness of an insecure theatre profession (the major theme of the film) than they do about the critic. Tabitha is just a catalyst for what happens to them.

In their encounters with her, both of the actors come out looking ridiculous. It is true she remains glacial and aloof, but given she is accosted in a bar by two rather needy and aggressive men, she is actually pretty restrained. 

They, on the hand, are desperate for her approval. What they fear is not her, but her rejection. 

The film doesn’t take her side, but neither does it suggest she does badly by the skirmish. It’s not interested in that. What she’s there for is to show up the actors. Thus, when she finally chooses to write a rave review – “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” – it is to amplify the movie’s Chekhovian sense of pathos. Birdman doesn’t need Tabitha to be a complex or credible character; what it needs is for Riggan, like someone out of Uncle Vanya, to be unable to enjoy the moment of critical glory she gives him. As far as the film is concerned, she has done her job, even if it isn’t any kind of job I recognise.

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?

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.