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

posted in: Blog | 9

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.

9 Responses

  1. Jane

    I’ve recently been thinking that the most immediate trouble with criticism in Australia is, perhaps, that it’s not totally in crisis. And what we really need is for things to become a whole lot worse before they become better.

    Here, there is just enough paid freelance work for writers to go after – I pitch reviews to editors before I’ll review it on my blog, because I need to make an income from my writing. This, I worry, makes my work haphazard – it’s now very occasionally on my blog, and more often for various publications. This has lots of advantages: the pay is just one, but also I love getting to work with editors and I’m a stronger writer because of them. But it also means I’m not as adventurous with the form and with writing as I need to be, and paid work (and the often short deadlines that come along with it) has to take precedence over my blog. I think this is true for many writers here – most obviously and, still heartbreakingly, with Alison Croggon shutting down Theatre Notes.

    If this paid work dried up, then I think we would start to see change. Then we would need to make a push and an effort. But now, the moment I start exploring alternative platforms and methods of reviewing is the moment I give up my income.

    Australia Council did do some investigation into funding or supporting criticism. I was interviewed but never heard of anything coming out of their discussions. At the moment, everything is just fine: there are enough of us out there getting paid a little, there are enough voices talking about theatre, theatre companies can find pull quotes to place on their facebook page and to put in their grant applications.

    There is a crisis, yes, but it’s hidden by too much movement on the surface.

    Perhaps we need for it to completely implode, so we can build it up again from scratch.

    • Jake Orr

      Hey Jane,

      Naturally this blog post is destined to spark conversation, and to get people thinking. The crisis suggestion is, I think, true, but equally I think you are right. We are currently at a position here in the UK as you are in Australia where things are okay. Some people are getting paid, some people choose to write. There has been cuts within newspapers, from critics themselves to number of pages to hold criticism.

      I think you are right, what we really need is for it all to crumble and to start again. That’s when we will be in a crisis, and that’s when ultimately we’ll be able to completely start afresh and remove all the criss-cross of complications that we currently have because we have a model in place.

      It is only through complete destruction, or downfall, that we can begin to build something new. Until that point, it is, as you suggest, all surface movement.

      I do think though that there needs to be public subsidy in supporting critics. Not sure how or what shape, but there are currently schemes and support within Europe, that aren’t reflected beyond this. Call it a different culture, and the value of the critic, but we have to move towards this at some point. I’m just not sure what shape it will take.

      Thanks for the comment,

  2. Jon Bradfield

    Really interested by the question of how arts industry might support criticism. Good piece. One little thing: this isn’t the only place where I’ve seen Kate Bassett and Libby Purves referred to together as evidence of a loss of permanent critics but their circumstances are very different. While it’s true Kate’s role has gone, Libby is being replaced. The role remains.

  3. Simon Stephens

    It’s a fascinating summary Jake. I would add one further thought. Other writers and artists won’t share my view.

    I don’t write in a critical vacuum and can’t imagine doing so. I think I write in lots of different contexts (personal, political, economic etc) not in isolation.

    The critical context is one of these. The best of the writers currently writing about theatre in the way that I find most inspiring tend to be writing online freed from the burden of word counts and editorial demands and star ratings.

    They provoke me. They illuminate my own work for me. I feel pushed by them. They suggest artists to me I’d never have come across otherwise. They suggest possibilities to me about what theatre can do or be that I would not have come to independently and so stop me from writing the same play over and over again.

    I find it essential to engage in these type of conversations and while I can have them with colleagues and also with academics I find the contribution of the best of those writers you list invaluable.

    Reviews sell tickets, of course. They hold a night out in the theatre up for posterity. But they also, for me at least, CAN inspire artists to do better, work differently and think differently about our form.

    They often don’t, especially in newspapers where their function is more to advise on a night’s entertainment. Which is a perfectly reasonable function, of course.

  4. Gary Hills

    Jake – the legacy issue is an important one. I’ve recently reread Kenneth Tynan’s Theatre Writings which makes me realise that critics contribute to an archive of a specific production but also to the bigger picture – the state of the art at any given time.

    Which leads me to wonder if there is also a role for organisations such as the British Library or V&A as archivists and curators. Involving them – and indeed ACE – may well raise the thorny issue of quality but that’s another debate.

    • Jake Orr

      Hey Gary,

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I think your point on the legacy of writing (and yes, a very fine choice with Kenneth Tynan!) is very important. There could be some potential links with the V&A and British Library, although I’m sure both would currently state that they are doing their fair share. The British Library collects all play-scripts for their archive, and I imagine they hold every newspaper too. With the V&A I do know they currently fund Theatre Voices, which whilst not strictly theatre criticism, does fit within the greater ecology of what I was writing about.


  5. Amber MB

    Just catching up on your v interesting blog jake. A couple of thoughts to throw into the mix:

    Firstly, I’m not convinced by the idea that arts criticism in mainstream media is on a crash course for destruction. Indie and The Times are facing very individual crises (and as someone has already said I don’t think that the job is actually going at The Times, just Libby). Meanwhile, the BBC has just announced a 20% increase in arts spending, and I’ve also heard Sarah Sands talk hugely passionately about the increasingly central role arts plays at the Standard suggesting what’s happened at IOS isn’t a standard policy across the board at Lebedev’s papers (for the record she was speaking at an advertising conference so she didn’t have any reason to be exaggerating on that particular point).

    The media is facing a hugely challenging time in terms of the role it plays in people’s lives, which is forcing many titles to reappraise how they operate. I don’t believe they are all going to reach the conclusion that arts criticism has no part to play in the take on current affairs they offer their readership. Some might- but others may in fact conclude that they’d like intelligent engagement with the arts to form an even greater aspect of what they offer.

    Secondly, your point about critics being supported by the arts industry itself. It’s an interesting idea, and I think if we think that’s what we’re moving towards we need to start developing a clearer picture of what it might look like. At the moment theatres are very well served by critics in the ways you suggest. But we are, IMHO, woefully under served in terms of critical/editorial discussion of the ‘business’ of theatre (for want of a better word). With the honourable exception of The Stage I think we’re sorely lacking a regular, intelligent commentary on: how buildings are run, how tickets are priced, how programmers are structured etc… Effectively the roles CMU, Rotd, Leftetz et al play for the music industry. I think something like that could hugely contribute to improving how the industry goes about its business. A call to arms, if you like!

    • Jake Orr

      Hey Amber,

      Thank you for the comment, and as usual, you have a really great take upon this, not only in your work but your wider understanding of press relations, which is really useful.

      The BBC announcing 20% increase for arts spending is (as far as I understand it, although it officially is announced today) going to be heading towards the increase of the arts being viewed and recorded for viewing on the BBC. I also imagine it would stretch as far as to continue the work that the collaboration between the BBC and the Arts Council England have achieved with The Space. I’m not sure that this new spending will actually encourage arts writing, or criticism, which is my particular interest, although broadly speaking any arts coverage being increased should be celebrated.

      I honestly believe that there is no future within print, especially where arts criticism sits within this. A quick look at the changing coverage of the Guardian will give an indication of this. There has been a dramatic decrease in arts writers being employed/contracted for their work, instead a focus on user-generated content. Which, whilst great for broadening representation of the arts, is reducing the arts writer to a smaller role than ever before.

      You’re right about the lack of specialist coverage on the industry beyond the acting, writing, and direction. Although there are plenty of individual writers, and publications that do, upon occasion, publish this sort of writing. I think it is just a case of us not hearing this within the industry. The work of the Arts Marketing Association who regularly publish papers, research and news on the changing face of arts marketing is a fine example. There’s also numerous people who write often about ticketing within the arts, which is rarely covered within The Stage.

      There is always room for more, and certainly improvement within coverage. What this blogpost has achieved so far is to generate discussion around the ideas, we’re still a long way into beginning to think about what ‘the future of arts criticism’ will be, but everyone has to start somewhere.

      Thanks for the insightful comment,

  6. Madhav Vaze

    very enlightening interaction on a topic which is on anvil these days1 situation in Maharashtra, India, is precarious, in that, neither theatre doers nor viewers are interested in theatre criticism at present.Thanks to the reviewers and so called critics, who have no credibility in the first
    place, and the complacent theatre doers.You don’t expect take away and throw away culure to have any concern for serious critique of a work of art, in this case,the theatre. The digital criticism (Blogs/facebook etc) is just like having a short time interaction with a co-traveller; Not necessarily you cherish it (Madhav Vaze, Pune city, Maharashtra, INDIA)