Theatre criticism is shrinking even as it evolves into newfound spaces. The form has exploded onto the web, where sometimes people write for free. Whilst this broadened arena encourages multiple voices, they disappear as fast as new ones materialise, and the print industry is losing critics. It’s a paradox which dominates discussions around theatre criticism in the UK. Verity Healey talks to theatre practitioners and critics and asks: what is theatre criticism for?
'We cannot continue to do it for next to no pay'
The Barbershop Chronicles at the Roundhouse theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
In the last few years critics such as Lyn Gardner, Fiona Mountford and Henry Hitchings, have lost their newspaper slots and some, like Matt Trueman, have put away their critic’s pen. 'British theatre is a small patch at the best of times, and criticism’s scope is only contracting', writes Trueman. As a result, new theatre artists might be falling under the radar. Eleni Efthymiou, a director in Greece, tells me that despite the rise of bloggers in the Republic, due to the recent economic crisis which saw many newspapers in the country close, many of the 1,000 performances that take place in Athens every year struggle to get a critical response.
Sure, the internet’s ability to amplify multiple voices is a good thing, but multiplicity is not shorthand for knowledge or plurality. Many voices writing online are still predominantly white, middle class, physically able and neurotypical, and not just in the UK. Black and POC in most of the Global North are underrepresented, as well as those who don’t have the physical energy to sustain writing for free.
'Multiplicity is not shorthand for knowledge or plurality'
What makes a good critic?
For writer and performer Rachel Mae Brady, good critics are well informed and open-minded. Gardner believes being a good critic is about understanding 'why this show and why now?' For British theatre director Ian Rickson, who’s struggled to work out his relationship with critics both as a director and Artistic Director of the Royal Court until 2006, the best critic is a fan. However, critic and dramaturg Maddy Costa outright rejects the question. 'Who’s to say what constitutes “good”? What’s “good” for me might be awful for someone else'.
However, shouldn't critics have good historical, political and cultural awareness? For example Belarus Free Theatre's Natalia Koliada state that it is essential critics understand Belarus is a dictatorship and the company’s history and relationship to Belarus before seeing their work.
It’s complicated. Tunde Adefioye, dramaturg at KVS Brussels, implies critics exist in a world of contradictions. On the one hand, a show might defy a critic’s knowledge and cultural experience so that they don’t know how to approach it. They can also unfairly label minority artists as navel-gazing, be unable to appreciate the hybridity of references within a show, or even have to approve the message of a show to give it a positive review. To counter this, Adefioye thinks critics should consider both form and content. This was recently put into practice by writer JN Benjamin, writer for The Stage and Exeunt, who admitted that whilst Bush Theatre's Chiaroscuro was not for her, she can still appreciate its 'bold statement of intent'.
Sam Williams, a writer and theatremaker who began her career as a visual arts writer in Berlin, regrets that contemporary criticism tends to focus on the expression of the critic’s style and voice at the expense of an empathetic expression of the work described. I would add this means that a critic is focusing more on building a brand – a word people keep referring to when they talk about their writing. But being a critic should not be about being a brand.
'Critics should consider both form and content'
What is it for?
Critics and artists are redefining their relationships with each other. Talking about his collaboration with Costa, theatremaker Chris Goode writes, 'I am working with critics, in an essentially collaborative relationship; we both contribute to the making of meaning within and around a theatre event.' In turn Costa, who needed to reevaluate what she was doing as a critic, was inspired by American critic and dramaturg Andy Horwitz who described the 21st-century critic as someone engaged in dramaturgy, engagement and advocacy.
For Lily Levinson, a winner of the British Council’s International Bursaries for Bloggers and writer for Exeunt, criticism’s a necessary exorcism to explain and define a response to a performance. Hannah Goslin, critic at Get the Chance, Wales, writes, 'it felt natural and correct to understand the artists' perspective and ideals, to also notice things that you may not agree with.' Goslin and Levinson, both practising artists, reflect that criticism helps them with their work.
Benjamin is urged by a political motive. It was the lack of black people writing about Barber Shop Chronicles which motivated her to begin her career as a critic. For her – writing as a black, female, working-class woman about black and POC theatremakers who are making work about black culture, – it is a tiny way to democratise the industry.
Romana Rose King, editor of Howlround in the US, states that the platform’s genesis is similarly politically motivated. Its mission is to empower artists to write about their work and each other, as artists are being increasingly isolated from decision making in theatres and from the centres of power within communities.
'What's "good" for me might be awful for someone else'
Out with the old?
Getting rid of newspaper critics, or at least dissolving their power, seems to be high on the agenda for some people. But Suzi McKenzie, a Service Designer at Scope and an avid theatre-goer, tells me she constantly refers to Gardner’s articles because of Gardner’s historical interest in disabled-led theatre. If Gardner had not had her long term position at The Guardian, it’s possible that McKenzie might not have been as well informed about issues around disability, which might have had an impact on her work.
Some theatres are engaging with their audiences through criticism, working alongside paid professionals, not against. Hull-based theatre company Middle Child develops relationships with local communities, especially the city’s large Polish population. Their New Critics Programme provides free workshops run by critics such as Gardner and Alice Saville. 'We decided to foster critics to provoke wider conversations about theatre, particular with minority communities', says Jamie Potter, Middle Child’s Audience Development Manager.
However Adam Morley, CEO at community interest organisation Minerva – which provides arts access for children and adults with complex needs in Cumbria – says that not only is there a feeling that theatre criticism is not for people in isolated communities, but that theatre itself isn’t. People still feel they don’t belong and 'more young people engage with film reviews rather than theatre,' he writes. Would they feel the same if they felt theatre criticism was empowering, or in a form they felt they could relate to or create?
Some critics are also afraid for their safety. People can be reluctant to write for fear of a social media backlash, which can lead to self-censoring. Former blogger turned PhD researcher Megan Vaughan states that people shouldn’t be censoring themselves, but this is less easy to say if trolling is threatening or intimidating a writer. Benjamin tells me that she feels uncomfortable about people identifying her or approaching her in real life.
Taking it seriously
Vaughan wonders why people in the UK think criticism has to have an impact at all. But in other countries such as Germany, it is possible to buy two theatre magazines, Theater Heute and Theater der Zeit, in the corner shop. 'What Germany has built into its DNA – and what Britain does not have – is an intellectual tradition that sees the arts as productive of civilisation. That makes for a certain aesthetic seriousness' says Williams. But things can be done differently.
Chris Goode & Company's WEAKLINGS. Photo: Richard Davenport
How could criticism change?
Rickson has spent hours consoling playwrights torn apart by critics – some of whom never wrote again. He wishes that editors would take heed of the literary world and think more creatively about which writers would write perceptively about which shows. Gardner thinks theatres need to follow in the footsteps of Costa’s Theatre Club or Middle Child and rethink their relationships with audiences, broaden the idea of who gets to be a critic and rethink their reliance on the big critics who give star ratings. 'Why go around chasing the opinion of one person, valuing that over the views of 900 people already sitting there who might help you engage more and better serve those in your area?' she says.
Critic and dramaturg Laura Kressly, Vaughan, Williams and Rickson all agree that criticism has a great deal to learn from fandoms – not just for their enthusiasm and sincerity, but for their commitment to detail, and the way they use their observations as a matrix for understanding the world. If it can happen in football, why not theatre? But Benjamin points out that for theatremakers who struggle to get their voices heard and their work platformed, the present structures and critics who receive cultural authority from various institutions serve a purpose. If we did not have a star system, the developmental opportunities that happened for those involved in Nine Night, a play by Natasha Gordon about black culture by and involving black theatremakers directed by Roy Alexander Weise, might never have occurred.
Goode who would like critics to feel easier about directly contributing to the work raises an important question around the distinction between reviewing and criticism – the former being more of a personal market-based response to a performance, and the latter engaging in 'ongoing dialogue with the work of art.' It is an issue he feels the world of theatre criticism needs to tackle more directly. Helpful distinctions might also define the terms such as fandom and amateur writing more clearly too, perhaps persuading bodies to invest in writers who need to build up experience, but can’t because the real fact of having to earn a living by other means eventually takes its toll.
'Why go around chasing the opinion of one person?'
Kressly, who set up the Network of Independent Critics, believes that the Arts Councils in the UK need to take criticism more seriously as an art form and set up an independently funded body to promote different voices and to address the sense of elitism she perceives the form has around it. It is not that much different in Europe. 'How can we create a review corps that is better adapted to our time? The current, almost exclusive white club could use a little more colour and inclusiveness', writes Adefioye. He is referring to Belgium's colonial past, which is currently a big theatrical issue.
Certainly, theatres and press officers could begin to change the status quo by making sure that their press nights meet certain criteria. Benjamin tells me that she and Bridget Minamore always make it a practice to see how many black people or POC go to review shows on press nights, especially if a show is about black culture. How many disabled reviewers review shows who have disabled performers in them?
Olivier nominated actor and playwright Athena Stevens writes how language and understanding of disabled performers need to change, citing a recent example of a critic at the Globe mistaking sign language for mime. She adds that even writing for free, or for low remuneration, is an act of physical privilege.
'It's demanding and serious work. We cannot continue to do it for next to no pay.'
Time for a manifesto?
Inspired by artistic director Milo Rau’s manifesto at NT Gent, I asked several people their thoughts on one for criticism, but many were not keen. However, Vaughan tells me that lots of bloggers are writing manifestos, we just don’t hear about them because they don’t have the same status as Rau.
When it comes to any manifesto, Adefioye and Williams say it best: 'Criticism does not just make demands in respect of the work described; it demands of the critic to transform themselves to match the task', Williams explains. 'That’s been my experience of writing about canonical artists like El Anatsui and Stuart Brisley as well as artists who are personal friends. Now, the manifesto written in my soul might be ecofeminist. Someone else’s might be Afrofuturist. I hope they’ll find ways to dance together. It is demanding and serious work. We cannot continue to do it for next to no pay. Amateurism is a great way to start. But it is a terrible way to go on.'
'Ask the question: How can I better inform myself?', says Adefioye. 'How can I decolonize my thinking without asking the underrepresented and marginalised group to do that for me? That is a major challenge for critics in Belgium and abroad.'
Verity Healey has written about theatre for Howlround, Exeunt and Open Democracy and has been on residence with Belarus Free Theatre and Good Chance. She has also just completed Oxford Playhouse Playmakers' program and is currently on the Royal Court's Script Panel scheme.