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.