While the mainstream press cuts arts coverage – including Lyn Gardner’s influential blog at The Guardian – theatre writing is thriving in specialist publications and online. Yet bloggers are often at the bottom of the hierarchy. Alice Saville of Exeunt argues that we must find new ways to back the next generation of theatre writers
Why the theatre industry needs to support critics – before it's too late
A recent New York Times article – grandly titled ‘The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age’ – painted the fate of the critic in bleak terms. In one of its many witty flourishes, its author opines that as newspaper after newspaper lays off its cultural correspondents, being a music critic in the US is “like being in an exceedingly dull, slow version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.”
A brief glance at the UK theatre scene might suggest things are going the same way. There's been a gradual erosion of industry jobs, culminating this spring in the loss of the BBC's Saturday Review programme, and the news that Lyn Gardner’s hugely popular and influential Guardian blog was being scrapped (although she will continue to write features and reviews for the paper).
This was a disastrous decision on all sorts of levels. Gardner's voice stood out for offering constant, patient, fair commentary on developments at every level of the UK’s theatre scene, from highlighting promising student companies, to pointing to national trends. But the host of voices and articles protesting the decision from every corner of the industry also points, paradoxically, to the strength of the UK’s critical conversation around theatre.
The days where a handful of hugely influential broadsheet critics (overwhelmingly Oxbridge-educated men over the age of 40) had the theatre scene hanging on their every word are long gone. As struggling newspapers chip away at their theatre coverage, specialist publications are rising up to fill the gaps. Industry publication The Stage recently announced that it's taken on Gardner as its new Associate Editor, and will provide a platform for weekly blog posts. Its coverage is supplemented by WhatsOnStage and Time Out, both of which offer a daily slate of smart, informed theatre coverage.
“UK theatre criticism’s move online has given it a chance to expand”
They’ve been joined by an army of new voices, too. UK theatre criticism’s move online has given it a chance to stretch its legs, expand and take time to breathe. And it’s been marked by a blurring of the lines between professional journalist and enthusiast.
Influential online theatre bloggers like Andrew Haydon and Megan Vaughan and writers at publications like Exeunt, A Younger Theatre and Theatre Bubble are fulfilling a hugely valuable role, away from the print media constraints of deadlines, style guides, and the need to court the broadest audience possible. They’ve helped expand theatre criticism into something between a hobby, an academic pursuit, and a form of creative expression.
But as the conversation widens to a point where even the smallest fringe show can expect a good handful of reviews, it sometimes feels like the industry takes this outpouring of online writing about theatre for granted. Established professional critics and theatre industry professionals alike regularly condemn reviews by these writers as hastily written, ill-informed, or even – as in a recent article by theatre director Phil Whilmott – as the theatre criticism equivalent of ‘fake news’.
As Whilmott's article suggests, theatre professionals are happy to benefit from favourable write-ups from bloggers when it suits them, but often don’t respect the people who’ve dedicated their free time to writing them.
“The industry takes this outpouring of online writing about theatre for granted”
This attitude is crystal clear when you look at press releases or ticketing pages for returning shows: quotes from reviews will be listed in a clear hierarchy, with established players like The Guardian at the top, and mentions of bloggers languishing at the bottom. Successful West End shows will only invite major critics in to review them, or will host patronising 'bloggers' events' which resurrect a dying division between amateur and professional.
I couldn’t disagree more with this approach. The industry needs to support bloggers and online publications, instead of reinforcing a value system that places some of their most dedicated champions at the bottom of the pile.
I’ve got a personal stake in this issue, as Editor of Exeunt (having taken over from co-founder Natasha Tripney in 2016) – a theatre and performance website which aims to provide a space for high-quality, closely-edited writing about theatre. We give writers space to work on their craft, time to come to a clear judgment and to experiment with what theatre criticism can be.
Unlike other theatre publications, we’re volunteer-run, and operate on a not-for-profit basis. Our income comes from a small amount of advertising, and a Friends scheme that we launched last year to help us grow. It’s meant that we can take more steps to make sure that our contributors don’t end up out-of-pocket: by reimbursing travel expenses, or offering a small fee for features that involve interviews.
“Bloggers have helped expand theatre criticism into something between a hobby, an academic pursuit, and a form of creative expression”
Photograph: Jon Jordan
And it’s also helped us work to make sure that the conversation is as broad as possible. After becoming painfully aware that there wasn’t a single black or ethnic minority theatre critic writing about the UK’s increasingly diverse theatre scene, we launched a call-out for new voices. We’ve since welcomed joint winners Ifeyinwa Frederick and Aniqah Choudhri onboard, as well as commissioning articles from across our shortlist.
But as well as supporting writers, a big part of what we do at Exeunt is about supporting theatre companies at the smaller and more experimental end of the spectrum. There’s a growing tranche of performances outside the West End which newspaper critics no longer have the time or funds to cover - and it’s this thriving culture of grassroots and experimental work which signals the future of theatre.
Gardner’s Guardian blog was a rare mainstream outlet for discussion of this work. British Council Head of Arts and Disability for the EU, Ben Evans explains its huge influence: “I was particularly struck by an encounter with a Portuguese programmer. He would often know about companies before I did, because he regularly read Lyn Gardner’s blog. He’d booked one particular show for a festival solely on the basis of her review.”
Whereas new shows from big companies like Forced Entertainment or Cheek by Jowl will automatically be on international programmers’ radars, “a trusted blogger like Lyn is key to smaller companies, helping them achieve a wider profile outside the UK.”
“A trusted blogger helps smaller companies achieve a profile outside the UK”
This statement is both a resounding endorsement of Gardner’s work, and, as Vaughan’s blog post points out, a signal of a pretty worrying state of affairs. As she asks, “Exactly how did we get to the point where we rely so heavily on one mainstream voice?” The theatre industry needs to work together to support voices from non-traditional sources, and it needs to work fast.
This question is especially urgent as Brexit gets closer to becoming a reality. UK theatremakers risk becoming cut off from the rest of Europe, missing opportunities to tour and reach international audiences for both practical and reputational reasons.
Evans is clear that he’s keen to keep the profile of UK artists high: “We may be leaving the EU, but we’re not leaving Europe. The British Council sees a crucial role for bloggers and critics as players in a long and proud tradition of cultural exchange”. And, he says, the British Council will soon be announcing an initiative with established and newer bloggers to reflect on the importance of the cultural relationship between the EU and the UK.
Gardner’s blog was especially powerful as a mainstream voice that helped lift work by emerging, young and experimental artists into an international conversation. Now it’s gone, the theatre industry needs to follow the British Council’s lead. And that’s becoming especially important as major outlets increasingly install paywalls: The Times, Financial Times, and The Stage have chosen to do so to maintain the quality of their coverage, but that decision also makes their theatre criticism much less accessible to non-regular readers.
“The theatre industry needs to support voices from non-traditional sources”
Working conditions for UK critics are tough. Many work for low or no pay, juggling reviewing with day jobs. But that hasn’t limited the strength of their output so far. To Evans, “the UK conversation is seen as being a step ahead in some areas. For instance, in arts and disability there are opportunities for discussion and debate which are so interesting to an international audience.”
As established media platforms founder, the crucial thing is that this culture of discussion and debate doesn’t. By launching Exeunt’s Friends Scheme I’ve issued an invitation to the UK’s theatre industry to step up and support the conversations that help it flourish. I hope it’s an invitation that will be accepted, and extended more widely to writers across the UK’s eclectic, brilliant blogging scene. We need new paid opportunities that will support writers to do their best work, while allowing them to rigorously defend their impartiality and to confront ethical questions head on.
In the (almost) bygone era of print journalism, criticism could easily be characterised as a parasitic profession that fed off theatre’s creativity without giving much in return. But a new generation of online writers is quashing that idea and proving that criticism is a creative, nurturing, supportive force in its own right. To do our best work, we need the industry to support us, too.
Alice Saville is a writer and arts journalist. She is Editor of Exeunt, a regular contributor to Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine, and makes costumes for performance.
Find out more:
> Read Megan Vaughan ask: How much is theatre journalism worth? in The Stage
> Check out this recent book: Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes by Duska Radosavljevic
> See a conversation about theatre criticism in the digital age over at Exeunt
> Find out about the Network of Independent Critics and its Edinburgh Fringe support scheme
> Watch a video of Lyn Gardner talking to young critics about theatre blogging