The crisis in theatre criticism is critics saying there’s a crisis

Mark Shenton, chairperson of the Drama section of the London (UK) Critics’ Circle, has opened another chapter in an ongoing discussion about the changing nature of theatre criticism. After Mark commented in a Stage column that there were currently ‘no jobs’ for young critics, the critic Matt Trueman responded on Twitter that Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 8.21.48 AM

Mark has written a new column in response to this, offering the familiar assertion that there are only ‘scraps’ left at the critical table, and that the burgeoning of on-line criticism, which anyone can write for free, is contributing to the demise of ‘quality journalism’. I am writing to challenge the binaries that Mark perpetuates in his piece (I use the first person because I know the parties involved).

I believe that quality criticism can happen for free and is happening for free. I believe that by applying innovation and hard work new models can be fashioned through which critics can make money from their work and/or support themselves through related work in order to maintain their commitment to writing quality criticism. And I believe that it is the responsibility of those of us who believe in quality criticism to apply ourselves passionately and positively towards creating such innovative solutions, rather than just repeating over and over again that the end of the world is nigh.

Let’s start with Mark characterizing Matt’s Tweet as ‘defensive.’ I find this an inaccurate and alarmist description – as indeed does Matt, who responded on Twitter that he’s been making a living doing theatre criticism for three years now and that he is not the only younger critic doing this; in my view he’s going about it brilliantly. Rather than calling him defensive, how about celebrating Matt, and other of our younger colleagues, for their hard work and vital contributions to our field, and admiring them for standing up for their accomplishments? As established critics like Mark have gone on repeating (over and over again…) that the world as we know it is coming to an end, a new generation of critics has been writing excellent criticism, and in many instances creating their own opportunities to see it published.


The West End Whingers in their trademark ‘don’t pap us’ pose

Those of us who follow and participate in the London theatrical blogosphere know this litany well: since 2007 when the theatrical blogosphere kicked off, Maddy Costa, Diana Damian-Martin, Chris Goode, Andrew Haydon, Jake Orr, Melissa Poll, Natasha Tripney, Megan Vaughan, Webcowgirl and I am sure others (please chip in names, people!) have been making a vibrant contribution to dialogue about theatre in London. In their heyday the West End Whingers wrote some of the smartest, most usefully subversive commentary on London theatre available. The group sites A Younger Theatre and Exeunt Magazine are generating and disseminating fine online criticism; and Costa and Orr’s Dialogue is fostering a horizontal critical practice that disrupts the hierarchies of traditional criticism, inspired by (amongst other things) the visionary work of the American blogger and advocate Andy Horwitz. I have argued elsewhere that if you take on board all that is being written online as well as in print, this is a golden age of theatre criticism in London (an argument I will repeat in a special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on editing, coming out early in 2015).

Mark’s column also prompts me to congratulate the wonderful Kate Bassett on her appointment as Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Reading. Kate unfortunately lost her job as theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday earlier this year, indeed a cause of concern for those of us who care about quality criticism in major newspapers. Mark characterizes Kate in his column as having ‘h[u]ng up her critical hat’ and her departure from the Sindo as part of a critical ‘rush to the exit’. As Kate has made clear on Twitter, these statements went in advance of the facts. I don’t know the details but I admire Kate’s resourcefulness in now combining academic work with theatre criticism for a number of outlets. Here’s the headline: just because someone does not have a dedicated critic job at a mainstream print outlet does not mean they are not doing criticism. If that were the case, than Mark Shenton himself could no longer claim the moniker of critic.

Academia has long had a role to play in the theatre critical infrastructure, and I would argue an increasingly important one. Established critics such as Michael Billington and Matt Wolf have long supplemented their newspaper and magazine work by teaching American university students visiting London. Critics including Aleks Sierz, Catherine Love (in the UK), Jill Dolan (US), Patrick Lonergan (Ireland), and in Canada myself, Peter Dickinson, Kelly Nestruck, and Holger Syme, among many others, combine academic work with reviewing and blogging about theatre. Academic settings are an opportune place to bring concerns about the changing face of our field to light, and work together in real time to discuss possible solutions. Indeed Mark Shenton, along with Lyn Gardner, Kate Bassett and Ian Shuttleworth enjoyed the hospitality of Royal Holloway, University of London (where I was then working), about five years ago for a panel discussion about criticism organized by the student drama society; and I have organized and participated in similar events previously and since, in London and here in St Catharines, Ontario.

Dolan event

(From left) J. Kelly Nestruck (the Globe and Mail), Odette Yazbeck (Shaw Festival), Holger Syme (University of Toronto), Jill Dolan (Princeton University), Richard Ouzounian (The Toronto Star), myself, and Brock Dramatic Arts student Michael Caccamo at “The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age”, a colloquium at Brock University on 22 February 2014.

Another way that academia contributes to our field is that theatre criticism is taught as a practical discipline in a number of UK (and indeed Canadian, Irish, and American) universities. Michael Billington once commented to my colleague Melissa Poll, who was then teaching theatre criticism at Royal Holloway with Diana Damian-Martin, that he didn’t really understand the purpose of such a course, given that the dwindling number of mainstream positions in the field – evidence of the same kind of binary, defeatist thinking that I’m trying to counter here. Studying practical theatre criticism is not necessarily vocational: it provides vital writing training and experience of professional theatre for drama students, regardless of whether they intend to pursue writing about theatre as a career. And student criticism can have an important effect on local theatre scenes: my students at Brock University are now providing some of the only review responses to the work of our several important local companies; and my colleague Robin Whittaker’s students are playing a similar role in Fredericton, New Brunswick. These young peoples’ facility with online platforms and social networking consistently pushes my knowledge and practice forward; I believe new solutions about how to grow our field will come from them. But we’d not be able to provide them the opportunities to come up with these new ideas if we succumbed to Chicken Little-ism and stopped teaching theatre criticism altogether.


I have a proposal, somewhat inspired by the jar on the mantel that you had to put a quarter into anytime you said a curse word (OK, we didn’t really have such a thing at Fricker Farms in bucolic 1970s Southern California… but y’know what I mean). Next time you, Mark, or Michael Billington, or anyone else reading this has the temptation to say something in the public sphere about how theatre criticism is in crisis or dying: rather than saying that, why not rather do something active and positive that day towards supporting and expanding our field. Perhaps you could read a blogger or online critic’s work and respond to it, thus continuing the dialogue they are working so hard to foster. Perhaps you could raise the question of succession to your editor and put in a great word for a younger critic you rate. You might think of a way to involve the voices of younger critics (or academic critics) in your critical practice. You might reach out to those doing innovative critical practice in your community and offer to help. And – hey, here’s an idea – perhaps those of you who are in charge of critics’ organizations including the London Critics Circle, Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland, the American Theatre Critics Association and the Canadian Theatre Critics Association might review and adapt your membership policies around definitions of ‘professional’ and ‘quality’ so as to welcome rather than block the innovative new voices who are the future of our field.

In the column that kicked this whole thing off, Mark praised the Stage One bursary scheme that helped kick off the careers of many producers now making an impact on the London scene. He is absolutely right that it’s in the interest of the theatre industry, across its many fields, to invest in its future by supporting its emerging talent. What I just don’t get is why it’s so challenging for established critics including Mark to reflexively apply this thinking to their own practice and our shared field. Continuing to cry ‘crisis’ is not helping anything; in fact, in my view, it’s now a big part of the problem.

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19 Responses to The crisis in theatre criticism is critics saying there’s a crisis

  1. Reblogged this on Scenes from the Bigger Picture and commented:
    Great post about the future of theatre criticism from Karen Fricker…

  2. Bill Rosenfield says:

    A terrific post Karen, theatre criticism is so much more than being the lead quote of a hit show. When it is good – not necessarily positive – but strong and thoughtful, it makes the creative work better. If the “influence ” that critics once had is waning, that’s only because shows and theatres are much more saavy about marketing strategies than they used to be. Having once been a part of an industry (Recordings) that ignored the signs of their armageddon, it behooves critics to simply find other outlets where they can ply their trade. Is it the same as going to a glamourous opening night and hammering out a review that tells millions of people their thoughts? No. But the skill set which serious drama critics possess can be utilized in many different ways. Saying the sky is falling isn’t a solution. Mark and others should be saying: The sky is falling, lets figure out a way to stop it by letting a new generation in who have developed a more contemporary view of the world and its theatre.

    • Thank you Bill for your thoughtful comment — and it is delightful to see you here below the line of my blog. I really appreciate your perspective as someone who was involved in an aspect of our industry that really did change beyond recognition (dear uninitiated readers, Bill was, when I was a tyro theatre critic in NYC, the tzar of original Broadway cast recordings for RCA Victor). I agree, pragmatism and adaptability are really crucial skills for those in a field as volatile as ours at the moment; and I agree that just recognizing the crisis is no longer an appropriate response – taking action is.

  3. Mark Fisher says:

    Excellent post, Karen. It does seem to me that theatre critics always think criticism is in crisis. That’s when they’re not worrying that the West End is in crisis. I’m pleased to say the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland has always been made up of a mixture of newspaper and online critics (full list here: Would you say we could be doing more to welcome new voices?

    • Hi Mark, thank you for your comment, but I really don’t know what to make of it. OK, let’s take the word ‘crisis’ off the table for the sake of argument, if you find it overused. I think it’s inarguable that the advent of digital technology is changing the field of theatre criticism. How are you responding to this change? If that’s too big a question, how about this – How do you respond to what Mark Shenton wrote, to how Matt Trueman responded, and to how I responded? I have to believe that someone who has devoted his professional life to theatre criticism, as you have, and cares enough about it to be writing a book about it, as you are, must have some point of view on these issues. I do have thoughts about CATS’ policies, but will hang onto those for the moment.

      • Mark Fisher says:

        Hi Karen, I thought I was agreeing with you. Someone has said something similar at the end of Shenton’s blog: “I’m thinking of getting a calender printed with a monthly slot booked for the ‘death of theatre criticism’ slot – it comes around with that regularity!” Of course, the arrival of the internet means the “crisis” feels different, but I suspect the worry comes from the same place as it always has. Like you, I see the internet as an opportunity more than a threat. It reminds me of my days making a fanzine as a teenager when there was a powerful sense of allowing a wide range of non-establishment voices to be heard. Only now, you don’t have to worry about Letraset and cow gum, you can just set up a WordPress page in five minutes. I find that tremendously exciting – and the range of voices who have not only found expression through it but have also been heard (because distribution is not a problem either) is testimony to that. And as, by chance, I’m meeting a young critic in Newcastle this afternoon to talk about the job, I will treat that as my first step in your campaign on behalf of the next generation.

    • Hi Mark, I’ve responded to the question about CATS below in my response to Jake, and would love it if you could engage with the questions I raise. Thank you for clarifying your previous comment; for me, to say ‘there is always crisis’ is an ambiguous statement because it could imply passivity and fatalism (there’s always going to be one, so what’s to be done?) Glad to hear your excitement about the changes going on around us…

      • Mark Fisher says:

        Yeah, yeah. I didn’t say there always was a crisis – just that critics always think there’s a crisis. I just read an interview with Howard Jacobson saying “Culture is always dying. That’s how it reinvents itself.” Perhaps the same is true of theatre criticism. Or it could be a case, as Jill Dolan puts it so eloquently below, of critics shoring up their own power.

        So my first instinct when I read someone proclaiming a crisis in criticism is to question whether that’s really the case – and, Karen, you demonstrate very well why it’s not.

        Having said that, to rework the old joke about paranoia, just because people always say there’s always a crisis in criticism, doesn’t mean there isn’t one – and Mark Shenton is quite right to raise the question about critics earning a living.

  4. David Fancy says:

    Um, in short: Boom! Thanks for unpacking the argument for us. Looking forward to reading more online criticism.

  5. Thank you for writing this Karen. You’ve summed up much of my own thinking around this. I’ll admit that even I have raised the cry of ‘criticism is dying’, but more to alert venues and marketeers to the need of supporting the vital community of writers beyond just offering a free ticket and a glass of wine. Although of course I know how problematic support can be when someone is criticising you openly.

    One of the strongest arguments you make is something I feel very passionately about: the closed door system of many of the bodies that make up schemes like the Critics Circle. I understand that of course these ‘professionals’ want to keep their jobs, and need to put food on the table, but it does frustrate me immensely that they continually refuse to offer help to those climbing the ranks. (Of course not everyone is like this, thank heavens for the ongoing support of Lyn Gardner for example). There needs to be a greater balance between understanding where the role of the ‘professional paid critic’ is and trying to support the generations that will come after them. Something that currently seems to lack as the cry goes up that criticism is dying and yet they offer little to put out the flames of fire they themselves are fanning with their cries.


    • Hey Jake, thanks for the reply, and I appreciate that in strategic instances ‘crying crisis’ can be useful. I would expect that at this point, A Younger Theatre is sufficiently established such that you and your critics are included in press lists without needing to apply too much pressure – or is it still a slog?

      Yes, the professional organizations thing is important, and I am glad to see you acknowledge that. I had a very interesting loooooong conversation on Facebook with the likes of Andrew Haydon, Diana Damian-Martin, and Melissa Poll about this a while back. I went into that convo slightly cynical about how important those organizations **really** are and what they do – but Diana very rightly pointed out that membership in the London Critics’ Circle could be very useful for her in terms of grant applications in both academic and artistic contexts (as her PhD is about theatre crit). Being included in them can be an important step in a critic’s process of legitimation and establishment. More broadly, just because some of these organizations seem like fusty old boys’ clubs doesn’t mean they need to STAY that way.

      So off I went to poll the four critics’ organizations mentioned (London, Scotland, Canada, US) about their membership policies, and had online conversations with those who run each of them. I found all of them (I’ll quote myself here, from this piece also tagged above — ‘struggling to adapt their policies and terminology to the digital age.’ All of them, for example, seem to be grappling for a useful definition of ‘professional’. Mark Fisher told me that for Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland professional has “more to do with a professional attitude than the necessity of earning money.” OK, but my question is, what are the measures of a professional attitude? Who decides that? Similarly, the Canadian body says getting paid is ideal, but being ‘recognized by peers’ can count too. OK, but what peers and what counts as recognition? The Americans underline the importance of editorial oversight on writing; to me that cuts out independent bloggers, some of whom are mightily important (by their standards Jill Dolan wouldn’t count). The London organization is most stringent, in that you need to be ‘substantially’ writing criticism for at least two years, begging the question, of course, of what constitutes ‘substance’ (and I hope they’ve edited their website in the meantime BTW because there is a huge typo in it, not exactly proper form from an organization so nominally dead set on upholding high editorial standards).

      All of this adds up in each instance to existing members vetting applicants using quite subjective criteria, when there could be criteria set up regarding statistical data (page views etc) and indeed, pace the London organization, how long one’s blog or site has been active.

      My research on this could have gone much further – and I would love to hear stories from the front, as it were. Jake, are you in the LCC? Have you tried to join? How’d it go? Melissa Poll, I believe you have some stories from the trenches on this?

      • Mark Fisher says:

        Karen, you raise a valid question when you ask “what are the measures of a professional attitude? Who decides that?” The CATS doesn’t have written membership criteria, but at least one of our members has suggested that we should formulate some, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we do that. And in the process of writing it down, we’d have to confront those questions again (we’ve confronted them already, but only in spoken discussion).

        But I can also give you a more pragmatic answer. For the CATS to function, we need a group of people who are seeing roughly the same set of productions. If a critic saw everything in Edinburgh but nothing in Glasgow, or vice versa, they wouldn’t be in a position to contribute fully to a discussion about theatre in Scotland. So in this sense, “professional attitude” would translate as “getting out and about and seeing a wide range of stuff”. That, of course, is easier for those who are being paid to do the job and who can claim back travel expenses – and that raises questions that chime with what Mark Shenton is saying.

        It also chimes with Karen’s suggestion that “You might reach out to those doing innovative critical practice in your community and offer to help.” In this particular instance, the most meaningful help would be financial. It would be interesting to know if there were any trusts or funding bodies out there which would be willing to shoulder the costs of theatregoing hitherto covered by newspapers.

  6. Really interesting, Karen. Lots of food for thought. All hail the blogosphere.

  7. Jill Dolan says:

    Karen, thanks for continuing the dialogue in your typically perspicacious and incisive way. I utterly agree. All the “death of . . .” arguments (from the death of criticism here to Schechner’s “death of the avant-garde” in the ’80s) seem mostly self-serving for those who launch them, meant to shore up their own importance when they feel their traditional power dwindling. Better to observe as you do how progressive change morphs what we understand as, in this case, criticism. We absolutely must continue to teach our students how to write arts criticism, as you do so beautifully. Whether or not they pursue that work professionally, it can only help them become more creative and critically engaged spectators and artists and citizens. I’m quite enthused by what I see in the critical blogosphere, and find it so rich and diverse and productive I can barely keep up. Thanks for the hopeful spin on this discourse.

  8. webcowgirl says:

    Hi, Karen, nice to read this. I do think there is a crisis in paid criticism – I’ve been writing my heart out for years and I’ve realized there’s probably no chance that I’ll ever make a penny off of my hard work again. But it’s part of an overall change in the kind of writing that used to be done for newspapers for money. I think we will devolve to a lower quality of writing overall as paid positions continue to evaporate, but I am glad that there are so many voices out there – yet I fear in the current environment we’ll be reduced to maybe three or five full time critics in a few years time as newspapers either get rid of their staff (what happened to the people who used to review for The Metro?) or don’t replace those who retire. Charles Spencer is retiring at 56 and while I wish like hell I could step into his shoes, there really isn’t a chance of it happening. Ah well. Hopefully I’ll have some better luck organizing the King’s Head Festival of Queer Theatre next summer and maybe manage to get my play produced.

  9. Mark Shenton says:

    Am glad to have sparked off an interesting debate — critics are not yet dead, I agree, but our writing may no longer feed us (financially speaking) anymore is the main point I was trying to make. And its interesting that Karen, Jill Dolan and others of course now make their main income from academic teaching, so of course are free (in every sense) to contribute to this debate.

    One tiny clarification: “Just because someone does not have a dedicated critic job at a mainstream print outlet does not mean they are not doing criticism. If that were the case, than Mark Shenton himself could no longer claim the moniker of critic.” I actually *DO* have a regular print outlet, namely THE STAGE, on whose website my blog also appears. But I don’t think, for the record, that being PRINTED is what qualifies me as a critic; nor indeed that I’m paid for my work. But my worry is that, unless critics are still being paid, we’ll simply be hobbyists who need to find an income stream elsewhere. As you, Karen, have successfully done.

  10. Interesting column, Karen.

    I can understand Mark’s concern that writing without financial reward may make certain people regard us as “hobbyists” – the UK Press Card Authority certainly does. Unless you earn at least half of your income from journalism, you’re not deemed a “professional”. That does irritate me somewhat – as far as I’m concerned, it’s the quality of your writing which determines whether you’re any good or not and bodies like the UKPCA have no provision to recognise the contribution that some people who write for free do make. Journalism standards vary hugely in both traditional print media and online only outlets – and money really has very little to do with it. Professional bodies need to catch up with changing times.

    It would be nice if there was more cash in what we do, but our team is lucky enough to be able to effectively bankroll our work through various day jobs. Frankly, I’m more concerned about the cast and creatives on the fringe circuit who are still paid peanuts – there just aren’t enough venues out there like The King’s Head Theatre or The Hope Theatre that commit to paying Equity rates. I am adament that online only critics are making a valid contribution, but any money up for grabs in the arts needs to be diverted into funding for new productions not paying for more critics.

    Although I can understand the thought process behind the argument, I really don’t think online critics/bloggers are to blame for the lack of paid writing work. However, criticism is changing. Personally, I think it’s changing for the better – but as someone who writes online and has a day job, I have my own bias to declare.

    For what it’s worth, I regard Mark as a critic simply because he is one. As I mention above, it really doesn’t matter who you write for and/or what kind of reward you get, a real critic is one who isn’t afraid to offer an opinion and who can and does back that up with a coherent argument.

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