“Is the Critic Dead?” Or rather “How to Keep the Critic Alive”

How can theatres with a non-mainstream audience get critics through their doors? I’m paraphrasing a question asked by Rebecca Atkinson-Lord at the Young People in the Arts panel discussion entitled “Is the Critic Dead?”  It’s been well over a week since the event where Rebecca asked one of the most important questions of the night, and it has stayed with me since.

The discussion lasted only an hour and fifteen minutes and while it raised some interesting points, it didn’t really get to the meat of the issue. Rebecca did.

Co-director with Rachel Briscoe at Oval House Theatre, her question relates to the audiences that attend theatres like hers where the majority of the audience represents a minority of the national population. Oval House Theatre consistently showcases important, well-produced shows relating to gay and lesbian theatre, women’s theatre and writings about Black and Asian audiences. Off West End Theatre Award winner Arinze Kene’s fantastic Estate Walls premiered there and the theatre’s international connections brought the hilarious and moving Mother/Son to our city. But like many theatres with non-mainstream audiences, they face the challenge of how to bring their shows into the wider discussion on theatre.

I think the first step is for critics and writers to acknowledge that the this kind of non-mainstream theatre is important to the mainstream or at least it should be. The concerns of minority audiences mirror the concerns of the mainstream, though perhaps in an unfamiliar way. Estate Walls for example, looked at uninspired teenagers and what becomes of them. The discussion following Mother/Son brought up issues of teaching sexual diversity in schools and the upcoming evening with Peter Tatchell will bring to light human rights issues and global politics.

While critics on the panel at the YPIA event like Matt Trueman and Lyn Gardner have done a great job in highlighting the fringe in general, the shows in theatres like Oval House are still repeatedly left out of mainstream discourse. The same fringe theatres like Battersea Arts Centre and Finborough crop up time and time again, and for good reason: they produce consistently good theatre.  But how they can a venue like Oval House also be featured?

I think a better balance of fringe reviews and features is required in mainstream publications. The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida Theatre didn’t have to try to get the critics in. With a synopsis featuring a pretty blonde, drug addiction and the middle classes, the critics flew through the doors like moths to a flame. But would they take the same attitude to shows like the upcoming Pandora’s Box which explores a Nigerian mother’s choice to leave her son in a Lagos boarding school or return him to the harsh streets of London?

I hope that example doesn’t imply the matter is black and white, I acknowledge there are many grey areas. There is an urgent need for the less featured theatres to get organised, to send out informative and concise press releases with high quality images and offer up charismatic interviewees. And they need to do this consistently.  During the YPIA event Mark Shenton mentioned the sheer volume of theatres in London there are to cover. He’s right, but let’s not cop out. If critics are not dead, if they really are alive and vital, they need to go to where the real stories are. They need to regularly cover the huge range of socio-political issues raised in theatres like Oval House before these shows hit the bigger theatres. And perhaps the newer/international shows should trump revivals? What are your thoughts?

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2 thoughts on ““Is the Critic Dead?” Or rather “How to Keep the Critic Alive”

  1. Hi Naima

    Thanks for the heads up about this post.

    I think my question was less about how to get ‘mainstream’ critics to non-mainstream theatre and more a general wondering about how and if those critics can understand work that’s often far beyond their own cultural or socio-economic frame of reference.

    There’s a big part of me that thinks that the very best work deals with the essentials of human experience and so is universal. But then there’s another, slightly rebellious, bit of me that wonders if that’s really true. Let’s take Shakespeare as an example – there are whole swathes of the Bard’s best that are lost on modern audiences. As theatre makers we edit or update and expect our critics to be well enough versed in the context of the play to understand the difficult or obscure bits. We also acknowledge that often, audience members with a broader understanding of the context will enjoy the production more because they aren’t floundering in a sea of bafflement.

    However, if a critic comes to see a new Nigerian play for example, it’d seem churlish to expect them to get all the references, colloquialisms and cultural references because, let’s face it, most of our critics are middle class white folk. I find myself wondering if it’s that fear of being an outsider, of being out-of-your-depth, of not understanding (and god forbid somehow writing a review that makes some form of faux pas) that is what keeps a lot of critics from engaging with non-mainstream artists and audiences.

    The question I asked at the YPIA was really more about trying to understand how the critics present felt about reviewing across a cultural divide. Like you, I was disappointed that on the whole they failed to engage in a more robust manner with the issues behind the question. And like you, I don’t think the matter is black and white, but I find myself wondering why there isn’t greater diversity of race, class, gender within the circle of UK criticism. As Lyn said during the discussion, the best way to use critics is by comparing their taste against your own and then using their verdict as a barometer to indicate what you might enjoy – but if they don’t like something because they didn’t fully understand it, then how can that verdict be accurate?

    I see a big part of my job at Oval House Theatre as being about supporting the kind of voices that you just can’t hear in other theatres. It’s not about tokenism, but about broadening the scope of common understanding to include new or unheard viewpoints, to make our shared cultural life that little bit richer. For me, it’s like adding a sliced chilli to a pasta sauce – the un-initiated might find it too much at first, but with acquaintance the added depth of flavour becomes a vital part of the dish. I think Lyn, Mark, Matt and the Whingers all do an admirable job in many ways, but I find myself wishing that all critics worked that bit harder to broaden their palettes.

    • Hi Rebecca, thanks very much for your comment and for clarifying the point you made at YPIA (that’ll teach me to write a blog post ten days after the event!). You made a bunch of really great points I have some thoughts on.

      You rightly question the universality of the best plays and who is best to critique them. I think sometimes the most significant plays are not universal; instead they push audiences to think about experiences far outside our own, particularly when it comes to new writing. Amphibians, for example, showed audiences a glimpse at the intensely competitive mindset of elite swimmers and made for inspiring and unfamiliar theatre. Little Platoons by the same playwright, is an equally important piece of theatre about the education system. Not everyone will be familiar with the subject matter and it might be especially hard to relate to if you’re not a parent. Nonetheless it’s compelling, crucial theatre.

      These might not be classics that stand the test of time but they deserve attention now. An ability to place what we see in the context of the world around us is essential for all journalists, including arts journalists. So when we find ourselves baffled, isn’t it our job to research what we don’t understand? To find out why cultural references are significant even if we never really get them? I, for example, don’t drink and was brought up in a teetotal household so often don’t understand a lot of references to boozing. Does that qualify me any less to review a play in which drinking or pub-going are major themes? So when you wonder “how and if those critics can understand work that’s often far beyond their own cultural or socio-economic frame of reference,” I think research is the answer.

      You also asked why there isn’t greater diversity of race, class, gender within the circle of UK criticism. I think we need greater diversity in thought. That can come down to race, class, etc but I think the best critics are the ones that come at the art they see from a unique angle regardless of their background. I take Lyn Gardner’s point about comparing a critic’s taste to your own but that’s more about the individual review readers rather than the wider discussion. Something else Lyn said at the YPIA discussion about critics following each other nose to tail hits the nail on the head. What’s the point of the same group of critics repeatedly writing about the same types of plays and audiences?

      As you say about your job (and I think the same about mine), it’s “about broadening the scope of common understanding to include new or unheard viewpoints, to make our shared cultural life that little bit richer”

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