Sunday, 1 February 2015

Should theatres employ critics?


Hall for Cornwall, Truro
EVER since the first reviews appeared in the Gentleman's Journal in the 1690s, we have accepted the idea that theatre criticism is a branch of journalism. In the English-speaking world, critics are responsible to their editors and, through them, their readers. Technically, they need have no loyalty to the theatre at all, except to the extent that it provides them with raw material. 

In reality, the picture is more complicated (it would be a rare critic who felt no emotional attachment to the artform), but the fundamental relationship stands: critics earn their money from newspapers not theatres.

But at the start of the 21st century, it feels as if that relationship is changing. Newspapers are undergoing a sometimes painful transition to the internet and, as I discussed previously, are more likely to be firing critics than hiring them. As a consequence, the theatre industry is realising it can't take criticism for granted.

Until recently, it was possible to regard a theatre critic in much the way Riggan Thomson views Tabitha Dickinson in Birdman: as an irritant hell-bent on destruction, a cultural misanthrope trying to spoil everyone's fun. If, however, there were a possibility of ending up with no critics at all (or, at least, none operating in the way they once did), theatremakers could start feeling bereft. For without critics, there would be no discussion of their work and, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

That's why it was heartening to be invited to Truro this week for the launch of Hall for Cornwall's New Reviewers programme. In an attempt to do something about the critical deficit, the organisation is recruiting six freelance theatre critics – and will pick up the tab for their work. 

It was heartening too to see 25 would-be reviewers at Thursday's event. No shortage of critically engaged audiences here. After filing reviews of Gecko's Institute, which played at the Hall for Cornwall at the weekend, they will be whittled down to the final six in the next couple of weeks or so.


Institute by Gecko. Pic: Richard Haughton
The scale is modest – we're only talking about three reviews each over the coming year, no more than 18 reviews in total. But money will change hands (they will be paid £75 per time to cover their writing and expenses) and the scheme could get bigger if it proves successful. It could turn out to be an important staging post en route to a new way of supporting criticism. 

As Ciaran Clarke argued in an excellent blog post on the theme of "Cornwall, criticism and complacency", the county has a "huge number of theatre companies" but, in his opinion, a shortage of honest criticism. The New Reviewers scheme, enthusiastically supported by Lee Trewhela, the leisure editor of the West Briton, the Cornish Guardian and the Cornishman, is designed to make such critical honesty more possible.

On the day after the launch, I sat down with Michael White, head of arts development, and Kirsty Cotton, talent development manager, and asked them what their thinking was.

Michael White: In October 2013, we merged with a development agency and created the arts development department here. We've been consulting artists and people in the cultural sector about what's happened before and how things might look different. New Reviewers is part of a wider programme involving professional development, artist residencies, collaborations and so on. We're not a producing organisation, but we can invest in the artists which can feed back into the organisation and the sector as a whole.
Kirsty Cotton: Obviously there is a financial implication for the New Reviewers strand, but the main commitment for us is the thought process that went behind it and understanding why it's right for the community. It's all part of an integrated direction.
Michael: In Cornwall, there's no such thing as press nights and no such thing as previews. The show goes out on the road and, eventually, the local press might go and review it. The New Reviewers scheme increases the amount of dialogue – and rigorous dialogue is the one thing that is lacking. The practitioners have all said they'd like to have a grown-up discussion about their work. A lot of the work is really good, but the discussion needs to move on. We're not creating journalism, we're creating the debate.

The stereotypical view of critics is that they are the enemy. A lot of the theatre profession, for good self-preservation reasons, choose to shun criticism altogether. But you're doing the opposite of that.
Michael: I think the worst thing you can say to someone is, "Well done, you've put a play on." We're creating a dialogue about the quality of the work.

This has also been made possible by the internet.
Michael: Yes, we have a cultural community site where you can put postings up about opportunities and your touring work. The work of the New Reviewers will be seen through blogging. We have a region-wide remit, which goes from Bude right down to Land's End and Penzance, and we hope the networking on the website and the different voices coming in will create more of a sense of identity for Cornwall. 

The one thing newspapers can do is edit . . .
Michael: We’ll be exercising that edit through the website. People are free to post what they want, but there are standards about how to behave and I do have the ability to take stuff out. If there was a review that slated something for the sake of it, I think we would talk to the reviewer about it before posting it.
Kirsty: I was arguing last night that the reviews should be balanced, but Benjamin Symes, the artistic director of Cube Essential Theatre, was saying that "considered" would define it better. He wants the reviewer to have really thought about what they're saying. The people we take onto the programme will have demonstrated that they can be considered in their writing. We'll be trying to identify those people who can connect with a readership but also offer that considered response.

Theatres have to decide whether to allow negative comments on their websites. What do you think?
Michael: I believe you should because that's where the debates start to get interesting. You can learn a lot about what you're doing. The more difficult a piece is, the more interesting the debate around it, compared with a show that plays it safe and tries not to push the audience in any way.
Kirsty: Without risk there's no growth.

What next?
Michael: We've just applied for funding for a young reviewers programme, focusing on a particular area in Penzance. If we get the support, we would be working with 400 students in primary and secondary schools and getting them to review shows. It's setting off those little sparks that allow people to talk to each other.
Kirsty: We're starting with theatre, but actually it applies more widely. It's about people having the tools to debate and discuss everything.

2 comments:

  1. Should theatres employ critics? My gut-instinct is: “No.”

    Even if we’re just talking about those venues which act solely as hosts for touring productions (rather than producing their own), there’s surely a real risk of a conflict of interest at some point. It’s like book publishers paying people to review the books they publish.

    “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” as they say.

    If the theatres become the paymasters, my worry s that journalists—regardless of their own professional integrity—will no longer be 100% trusted to produce unbiased criticism. There will be a lingering concern about them becoming part of a venue’s PR campaign.

    Yes, fewer and fewer journalists are making ANY money from reviewing theatre—regardless of how much experience, knowledge and understanding they bring to the subject. The same can be said for newspaper literary editors and book reviewers. Professionally, they should be on the WWF’s Critically Endangered List, but discussion of books and writing certainly hasn’t withered on the vine; it’s exploded online during the last 10-15 years. The idea that, “without critics, there would be no discussion” of theatre strikes me as arrogant, somewhat presumptuous and—worst of all—wrong.

    Admittedly, there’s not (at least as far as I’m aware) a theatre-focused equivalent of the “Good Reads” website, but while the Hall for Cornwall’s New Reviewers programme might address certain local problems, I’m not sure if it’s entirely appropriate on a wider scale.

    That said, at least they’re trying something!

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  2. Thanks, Paul. The point I'd make is that the changing critical landscape is an issue for theatres as much as it is for journalists. Already, it's becoming more common for theatres to offer to cover travel and accommodation expenses when newspaper budgets get tight, which suggests they both value criticism and recognise the financial pressures critics are under.

    Hall for Cornwall's research says that theatremakers want honest and considered feedback. If they really mean that, then it should be possible to create an arm's length system that gets round the question of bias. It's slightly easier in the case of Hall for Cornwall because it is not a producer (apart from the annual Christmas show), so maybe the future lies with similar organisations. And, as you say, at least they're trying something.

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Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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