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
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.
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.
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.