How to Write About Theatre Online Workshops

First published in Critical Stages/Scènes critiques

The IATC journal/Revue de l’AICT – December/Décembre 2020: Issue No 22

It is October 2016, and I am sharing a stage at Trinity College Dublin with Peter Crawley of the Irish Times. We are talking about theatre criticism, and I want to make a point about the way every critic—and indeed every member of the audience—sees a show in a slightly different way.

To illustrate my argument, I leave my seat, climb the raked auditorium to the back row and sit next to a student. I expect her to cringe in embarrassment and everyone else to laugh. At that point, I plan to point out that this student’s experience is necessarily different from everyone else’s. For her, the performance would be uncomfortable; for everyone else, it would be fun.

Except she does nothing of the kind. She holds my gaze and remains relaxed. If she is uncomfortable, she is not showing it. I stumble on regardless, trusting my return trip down the aisle will demonstrate how a performer’s proximity can change the way we feel.

It is only after the event that Crawley explains my error. The student I had chosen to sit next to is actually an actor, Breffni Holahan. Her work includes VARDO by the brilliant site-specific company ANU. In that show, she played a sex worker in a real apartment in Dublin’s former red-light district. The role required her to get up-close and personal with one audience member at a time. She is not someone to be fazed by a wandering theatre critic with a poor sense of social distance. “I remember the moment well,” says Crawley today, “and seeing you pick the most utterly unflappable target in the room with what seemed like fated precision.”

Ah, the joys of live performance!

It is a memory that has returned to me now as I move my criticism workshops online and think about what I am missing. In the digital world, I can make the same argument as I did then. I can describe the difference between sitting in the stalls and perching in the gods. I can explain how every one of us is a product of so many influences and biases that objectivity is impossible, even if it were desirable. I can say that when someone writes to the editor to ask, “Did Mark Fisher see the same play as me?” the correct answer is, “No, I saw it with my eyes, you saw it with yours.” But what I cannot do is leap from my chair.

I can tell but I cannot show.

Since the publication of my book How to Write About Theatre (2015), I have visited universities, schools and theatres to run two-hour workshops about the craft of reviewing. In the U.K., I’ve talked in lecture halls, rehearsal rooms and theatre foyers. Further afield, I have appeared in a classroom in Valetta, a meeting room in Sao Paulo and a studio in Santiago. No two spaces are alike, and no two arrangements of participants is quite the same. I relish the unpredictability. I love the way, as with live performance itself, the tone and energy of a workshop is influenced by the room we are in and the architecture of the space, just as we are all subject to our moods, the weather and the politics of the day. These moment-by-moment shifts are what makes live theatre—and writing about live theatre—endlessly interesting.

Towards the start of a workshop, I will often prowl round the room or walk up the aisle, just as I did in Dublin, to draw attention to how much the meaning of a performance is locked into our spatial relationships. If the teacher stands in front of a whiteboard with the students sat in rows, it feels orthodox and hierarchical. If we arrange the chairs in a circle, it becomes egalitarian. If I sit behind a desk, I look defensive; if I sit on the desk, I seem open. By extension, a play performed in a proscenium-arch theatre has a different meaning from the same play staged in an abandoned factory. Even before a word is spoken, the setting establishes a distinct atmosphere, perhaps even a value system. We are not always good at articulating how that atmosphere affects us, but every time we go to the theatre, we instinctively adapt, critics and audiences alike.

I did one such workshop in February 2020 at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where Dr Joel Anderson runs an MA course in theatre criticism and dramaturgy. I did not know it would be my last real-world session for some time. Within a month, the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing universities and theatres to close. I was out of a job. Like many, I took a while to adjust to the new normal, but as a freelance writer in need of an income, I realised I could take the workshops online.

I would have called them “How to Write About Theatre When There Isn’t Any Theatre to Write About” if it had not been too close to the truth.

For the same reason, I worried nobody would be interested. Wouldn’t they all be rethinking their careers? Being a theatre critic is a precarious business at the best of times and now . . . Who would want to learn more about such an endangered profession?

But, thanks to the reach of social media, I discovered they were interested. Putting a toe in the water, I ran three workshops in close succession at the start of May. They proved successful enough for me to continue more-or-less weekly since then. Some participants have returned for follow-on workshops, others for one-to-one sessions. I have also picked up a few high schools and youth groups.

But successful or not, I can no longer circle the room. Instead, I sit looking at the same arrangement of Zoom faces in their individual spaces, flat and two-dimensional. As with online theatre, you miss the depth of field and the sense of everyone breathing the same air. It works, it is practical, it just lacks that special dynamic of bodies together in a room.

Mark Fisher with Winchester young critics holding his book on criticism. Photo: Carl Woodward

Yet, even though we are not physically together, I quickly realised the workshops do capitalise on the human need to congregate. It almost does not matter that the subject under discussion is criticism; just as important is the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with like-minded people. With COVID-19 ruling out the possibility of theatre­—and, with it, the possibility of earning a living from theatre—the morale of many of the participants has been low. “I’ve been in a slump,” wrote one South African participant on Twitter later, “but after being part of one of his workshops, I’m excited to write about theatre again!” (@Varvara13)

Morale-raising had not been my intention, but she was not alone in expressing that sentiment. “I have been sorely missing theatre of late,” wrote another, “and an afternoon chatting about theatre and criticism was just the tonic” (@E_dayEccentric).

Spending two hours talking about criticism might sound an esoteric pursuit, but talking about criticism means talking about art. And talking about art means talking about yourself, your passions, your tastes, your values, the world at large. That must have been the thought on A.O. Scott’s mind when he called his 2016 book Better Living Through Criticism. In a free-wheeling contemplation of the form, he contended that thinking and judging are what we do as a species, making criticism fundamental. “This book is also, I hope, a celebration of art and imagination, an examination of our inborn drive to cultivate delight and of the various ways we refine that impulse,” he wrote (Scott 16). Maybe writing about theatre when there is not any theatre to write about is not such a crazy idea after all.

Another happy accident is that most of the workshops have become international forums. Free from geographical constraints, online discussions are global. In one session, the conversation bounced back and forth from my spare bedroom in Scotland to living rooms in Ireland, Italy and Canada. Participants have logged on from Bahrein, Singapore and Florida. This has two effects. One is to create a sense of shared experience, of theatre lovers all over the globe dealing with the lockdown in similar ways. That feels nourishing and supportive. The other, just as valuable, is the opposite: to learn about distinct features of local theatre cultures, be it embedded criticism in Manchester, voices of oppression in Cape Town or identity politics in Ottawa.

The conversations have ranged more broadly still. Some of the best workshops have been those attended by theatre professionals curious about the critic’s job. There was the U.K. artistic director who lamented the decline in regional critics and the failure of visiting national critics to understand the local context. Another director wondered whether critics showed enough care towards productions mounted at huge financial risk. Playwrights, press officers and actors have brought equally stimulating outside perspectives. Later in the summer, the workshops took on a tone of political urgency as several people, led by playwright Chinonyerem Odimba, paid for black critics to attend. In the months following the death of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests, the participants asked questions about whose voices were being heard in theatre and in writing about theatre.

Mark Fisher leads a criticism workshop at the Santiago a Mil festival, Chile. Photo: Web

There are technological bonuses too. My real-world workshops are avowedly lo-tech, requiring no more than a pen and paper. But seeing as everyone is sitting in front of a computer, I have found it to too tempting not to make use of the share-screen function and throw pictures, videos and websites into the mix. In the middle of the workshop, I usually ask the participants to spend ten minutes writing a mini-review. Previously, they would have had to read them out loud for me to comment on. That was before an online participant suggested we use Zoom’s chat function to share the reviews, allowing me to make a speedy assessment and keeping everyone else in the loop.

So, yes, I miss the uncertainty of finding myself in a new room in an unfamiliar town, searching for the moment of spontaneity that will give shape to a workshop, but so too will I miss the unintended consequences of the virus, the spirit of resilience, the easy internationalism and the meeting of online minds.

Works Cited

@E_dayEccentric. “Spent a lovely couple of hours at a theatre criticism workshop run by @WriteAboutTheat today. I have been sorely missing theatre of late, and an afternoon chatting about theatre and criticism was just the tonic. Check out Mark’s upcoming workshops at the twitter page above.” Twitter, 5 May 2020, 7:40 p.m.

@Varvara13. “What an amazing #LoveTheatre experience spending 2+ hrs soaking up the insight & knowledge of @guardian theatre critic &  @WriteAboutTheat author, @MarkFFisher. I’ve been in a slump, but after being part of one of his workshops, I’m excited to write about theatre again! Brilliant!” Twitter, 7 May 2020, 8:33 p.m.

Fisher, Mark. How to Write About Theatre. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.

Scott, A. O. Better Living Through Criticism. Jonathan Cape, 2016.


*Mark Fisher is a theatre critic for the Guardian, a former editor of the List magazine and a freelance writer. He is the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (Bloomsbury) and How to Write About Theatre (Bloomsbury). More information about his online criticism workshops can be found here.

Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture

Mark Fisher

By Megan Vaughan
270 pp. Methuen Drama

Reviewed by Mark Fisher (first published by Critical Stages)

Scan your eyes over the footnotes in this timely survey of online criticism. You’ll spot a pattern. One says: “In 2009, all of JournalSpace’s data, including every single blog hosted on it, was deleted by a disgruntled employee.” Another reads: “This post is now lost,” and another: “No longer online.”

Elsewhere, talking about a provocative London blog called Encore, author Megan Vaughan writes: “Much of these later posts were lost when the hosting lapsed.”

As the tech-savvy Vaughan might have put it herself, the space where so much vital theatrical commentary once sat is now:

via GIPHY

For anyone concerned about the historical record, such disappearances are troubling. The internet is so pervasive we forget things could be deleted as quickly as they arrived. For the future archivist trying to piece together theatrical discussions from the start of the twenty-first century, our ultra-connected world might actually look more like a second dark age. All it takes is a hasty delete key, an unpaid ISP bill or a technological upgrade and the record is wiped.

This is one reason Vaughan’s book is so welcome. Her aim, to borrow her subtitle, is to mark “the emergence of a critical culture,” one made possible by online tools such as Blogger (1999) that allowed even those without coding skills to share their thoughts in online journals. She identifies 2003 as a theatre-blogging year zero. It was then that established blogger Laura Axelrod, a playwright and actor, was drawn into a circle of New York bloggers, including director Isaac Butler and playwright George Hunka, who began linking to each other and having theatre-related discussions in public. They created an online scene. Similar groupings emerged in London and Australia.

Vaughan is alive to the irony of commemorating the interactive internet, with its hyperlinks and embedded videos, in a boring old paper-and-ink book, but she also sees the value in taking a real-world snapshot, fixed in 270 pages, of an online culture that is as ephemeral as it is uncontainable. More than this, she correctly observes that this was a special moment in the history of theatre criticism, one that ushered in a new generation of voices, whose politics, aesthetics and even manner of writing has frequently stood in opposition to what Vaughan calls the “paternalistic and parochial” values of traditional newspaper criticism.

There’s room for debate here. On the one hand, not all mainstream media criticism is paternalistic and parochial. On the other, as Vaughan acknowledges, many of the supposedly radical new generation have come from much the same educated, privileged class as the old guard who were famously characterised by director Nicholas Hytner as “dead white men.” The internet might feel fresher, sharper and more democratic—and Vaughan does an excellent job at highlighting the areas where that is true—but it can be conservative too.

It is also in the nature of theatre to be local. Although the internet is global, the most dynamic blogging has been in response to very particular theatre scenes— especially those in London and New York. Take the example of the 2012 production of Three Kingdoms by Simon Stephens, which animated theatre bloggers even as it left many mainstream critics nonplussed. The online commentary Vaughan quotes makes it sounds like a thrilling occasion, but for me, living 400 miles from London’s Lyric Hammersmith where it was staged, it is just another show I didn’t see. Consequently, the claim made by former blogger Matt Trueman that Three Kingdoms would “change the course of British theatre” sounds as parochial as anything printed in a London-centric newspaper.

He’s not even necessarily wrong (although eight years later, I’m still waiting for the shockwaves to reach me in Scotland), it’s just that theatre blogging is not a mass-participation project. The best commentary has emerged when a small group of intelligent writers have talked among themselves about a shared experience that, by its nature, can only ever have had a limited audience. In theory, anyone can join in the discussion, but in practice most people are outside the charmed circle.

Inclusive or not, what’s important is that this kind of discussion was not possible before the twenty-first century. Two-thirds of Vaughan’s book is a compendium of exemplary blogs written by other people, a reflection of her belief in collaboration and non-hierarchical structures. You can imagine some of those blogs being published in the traditional media, but for the most part, they have a quality of their own. On a surface level, that might mean non-standard spelling, Twitter-friendly abbreviations and emojis, all of which defy the top-down authority of “proper” writing. There is no pretence at objectivity here; it is writing aware of its partiality, happy to be messy, emotional, human.

On a structural level, blogs have a degree of immediacy, responsiveness and reflexivity that old technology does not allow. In the case of Three Kingdoms, Trueman’s bright and breathless response sits alongside the thoughts of bloggers such as Andrew Haydon, Dan Rebellato and Catherine Love, each of them cross-referencing the other and building on a foundation of ideas. When Sarah Punshon joins in, questioning the production’s sexual politics, her perspective shifts the discussion, causing the others to reflect on an aspect they had glossed over. This is criticism as a collegial activity. The writers are no less assertive than their old-school peers, but they can compromise, change their minds and be open to nuance. A theatre blog doesn’t have to be the last word.

In her selection of blogs, Vaughan also shows how dynamic the internet can be. She focuses on the case of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a monologue about a pro-Palestinian activist, which was abruptly dropped from the schedule at New York Theatre Workshop in 2006. Where once you would have expected the city’s arts reporters to expose this apparent act of censorship, here it was the bloggers, spearheaded by Garrett Eisler, who kept up the more-than-daily pressure on the theatre. Within a single month Eisler alone had published over 100 posts on the subject. Even the fast-paced world of daily newspaper journalism could not match that level of scrutiny.

Vaughan highlights too some of the political voices who might have been marginalised were it not for the internet. Anyone who wants to rail against misogyny, racism and institutional bias can set up a blog today, just like the theatremakers who have gone online to discuss their creative practices without recourse to specialist theatre magazines.

As well as speed, interactivity and access, blogging can break free of the conventions of theatre criticism. Although too much online writing simply apes the format of newspaper reviews, the medium allows creative thinkers—Vaughan included—not only to break the rules but to respond to theatre in a more apposite way. She gives examples of critics using Venn diagrams, rhyming verse and her own Kafkaesque venture into bureaucratic form-filling criticism.

That’s a clue to Vaughan’s bigger interest in what she calls “outsider criticism”. Although the bulk of the book is given over to people who would otherwise be regarded as insiders, she is drawn to the voice of the “unedited, the informal, the amateur and the autonomous.” In the DIY spirit of the punk fanzine, the internet upturns the hierarchy of writer and reader and makes space for bottom-up criticism. We should be grateful to Vaughan for being on hand to take such a stimulating snapshot before the bits and bytes melt into techno-oblivion.

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 wonder.land, 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.