What is the Future of Theatre Criticism? A Hurtling Car-Crash

Theatre Critics

Theatre criticism is booming. Theatre criticism is in a crisis.

These two statements sit side by side with apparent contradiction to each other, but they are both true. In the UK in 2013 we are experiencing both a boom within the art of theatre criticism, whilst simultaneously entering a crisis. The boom comes from the joyful explosion of digital theatre criticism, through blogs, and online magazines such as Exeunt and A Younger Theatre. The crisis unsurprisingly comes from the demise of the print media and in particular with paying criticism.

At the recent Critic’s Circle Centenary Conference observations were made on the ruthlessness of the cuts of theatre critics such as Kate Bassett (Independent on Sunday) and Libby Purvis (The Times) last month. This is inevitable, with critics on the payroll for newspapers considered a luxury when a digestible take on criticism can be rolled out as the Independent on Sunday has since done.

In ten years time there will be no more theatre critics employed by newspapers, or if there are, then they will be long held posts with little movement for those other critics who are working tirelessly. We have to look towards online theatre criticism to see any real future. Simple really, but where one model crumbles it is being replaced with a model that is even more ruthless than before, where the only sustainability for digital publications and websites is to drive a huge amount of traffic through its servers. Theatre criticism can not do this, despite all our hopes. As an art-form it is too niche, and whilst the likes of WhatsonStage attracts advertisers it is only because of their bowing to celebrity gossip that taps into a fan base that drives traffic, it isn’t for the art of criticism.

Michael Coveney at the Critic’s Circle Conference made the remark that if someone was to consider theatre criticism in the future it should be as a hobby. The reality of this remark is astounding. We can celebrate the likes of writers such as Stewart Pringle, Catherine Love, Matt Trueman, Daniel Hutton, Andrew Haydon, Amelia Forsbrook, Miriam Gillinham, Maddy Costa and others, but to look towards them as the future of criticism is unrealistic. There is no sustainability in any model currently that can support their writing.

Theatre criticism may be adapting with the form of response (long-form criticism, embedded criticism etc), but how will any of these writers and responses be supported in the future? Not through the newspapers, and certainly not from websites that we know of now. It will become as Coveney suggests a hobby, but when there is so much demand for valued criticism in London and beyond, how can any of these writers effectively manage the demand of night-after-night reviewing with no reimbursement in return? What will happen is clear: these writers will fall as they attempt to support their writing through other means, and ultimately criticism will shrink, until it is only for those that can afford to sustain themselves off a private income. Selected and reduced criticism.

So what are we going to do about this? By we, I’m not referring solely to the writers who engage in criticism, or the Critics Circle, but much broader. What are we, the arts industry, going to do to safe guard the future of criticism?

Immediately I think the following response: why should the arts even care about criticism? 

If theatres use reviews as a marketing tool, and if theatre criticism helps to (excuse the cliche) put ‘bums on seats’, shouldn’t theatres and arts organisations care about the demise of theatre criticism? Shouldn’t they be caring enough to want to safe guard not only the writer’s future, but the potential impact that will take place upon their ticket sales? Reviews do sell tickets. Newspapers do sell tickets. Not every ticket, because there is already a healthy level of audience attendance within the arts to support at least some ticket buying, but we can’t deny the impact a five star review from the likes of the Guardian will have upon a production.

This, of course, sees the critic as only the marketing aid, but what of the legacy of work. To have a written record of a show for generations ahead of us to experience the same joy that we have felt in the theatre, surely this is worth safe guarding against? Yes, you could argue that television and cinema broadcasts and recordings have this covered, but reading an in-depth, intelligent and captivating piece of prose on a theatre performance adds a level of humanity that is void for recordings. And what of the need to develop a landscape that is coloured by the responses of informed critics, who survey, and assess through dialogues and written responses the merits of our theatre industry? Isn’t it more in our favour to have criticism that is joyfully inflected with the varying voices within criticism, as it currently stands?

Here are some questions to ask:

Can theatres support theatre critics and theatre criticism?
Can an arts organisation sponsor a theatre critic?
Should the Arts Council England open a fund for the development of theatre criticism?
How are the arts, industry and otherwise, helping to support and counter-act the demise of theatre criticism?

Arts organisations have to come to the aid of criticism and more important the Arts Council England has to acknowledge the crisis theatre criticism is heading towards. To sit back and ignore this hurtling car-crash that we are heading for is self-destructive.

I know the response already that this call-to-arms will receive: Why should we care? Haven’t art organisations and the Arts Council England got better things to fund? What about the art, the artists, and the money that is desperately needed to even allow criticism to exist in the first place? And why should criticism be supported by public funding, doesn’t that just dislodge the independence of a critic and their subjective eye? These are all valid, but please consider the argument too.

Can you honestly imagine a world without the balanced opinion and response of art through criticism? Can you honestly see a future without theatre criticism?

I look at the work that is being written by some of the writers I’ve already mentioned, and it saddens me to know that in a few years time those voices will be silenced. I’m saddened to know that the work of artists I value across the theatre industry will no longer have their work intelligently and passionately dissected and analysed. Most of all, I’m saddened that right now the arts industry is turning a blind eye to this.

We can not ignore this crisis. We have to find a way to support, finance and develop theatre criticism. The first step is to acknowledge what we are facing, with the second beginning to think of ways in which we can rethink, reshape and dream of a better, more sustainable system to support our critics.

Theatre critics can’t do this alone. The writers I’ve mentioned can’t do this alone, they need the support and assistance of arts organisations, and of the industry as a whole, and yes, even the Arts Council England to develop the future of criticism.

What is the future of theatre criticism? Right now, there isn’t one if we all turn away from this crisis.

Can we reinvent the future of theatre criticism? Yes. Yes we can, but not alone.