Devoted and Disgruntled: What are we going to do about theatre criticism?

From the archives. First published on Spoonfed on 23rd June 2011.

After a thought-provoking Devoted and Disgruntled Open Space Forum, Naima Khan throws in her two cents on what we should do about theatre criticism.
“What are we going to do about theatre criticism?” This title, for me, conjures an image of young theatre critics cowering in the shadows of the indomitable writer and easy target that is Michael Billington; the oddly appointed Henry Hitchings; and the intimidatingly intelligent broadcaster and writer for The Times, Libby Purves. But perhaps I’m reading it as “what are we going to do about theatre critics?” which is at least a part of the bigger question.

Tiptoeing up bendy career ladders, it’s difficult for emerging arts writers to get a good idea of their place in the world of theatre criticism: if we’re not at the peak of our profession, does anyone care what we have to say? But thankfully, the theatre world seems a lot more open after Wednesday’s Devoted and Disgruntled Open Space Forum. The evening saw attendees propose discussions with titles like “Who or What is the next Kenneth Tynan?”, “Does theatre criticism need a Showgirls moment?” and simply but crucially “Who do we do it for?” What emerged was a better idea of the way theatre criticism is changing, or rather, how it needs to change.

Does theatre criticism need a Showgirls moment?

Yep, it was the 1995 film that inspired the title for Matt Trueman’s session. He was referring to the moment when Elizabeth Berkley pushes the lead showgirl down the stairs and takes her part in a bid to jolt the hierarchy. But where the showgirls hierarchy is sleazy, ours is static. First-string critics at the national newspapers often haven’t done anything new in a while, but does that mean theatre criticism needs new writers? Not necessarily; we need new ideas, and I think these are likely to come from emerging writers who are still discovering what they really love about theatre. More publications need to embrace them.

It’s a lack of love for theatre that highlights the way the role of the theatre critic has changed. At the moment, critics are asked to review a huge number of shows, slap on a star rating, and perhaps provide some billboard quotes. As a result they sound bored. It would help if we did away with the word ‘critic’ and called for a more journalistic role. We want people who know their field to investigate it, champion new ideas and have the gumption to say that if a show is mediocre and presents nothing new, it’s not worth writing about. Shrek The Musical will still sell tickets, even if the nation’s foremost arts paper doesn’t review it.

But if we want critics to be arts journalists and really explore theatre we also need theatre makers to open up their work for discussion not just review. It means they need to stop worrying what the finished show looks like and use the press to show audiences something they don’t usually get to see, like the process of set design or purpose of shadow play. These are things that create intrigue about their theatre shows as well as highlight new ideas.

This is almost happening already with the proliferation of bloggers – who are often very different from press. I’m talking about people who work in the industry and are writing about theatre, dance, circus or puppets. Whatever their niche, they take time to look at how the form is changing and progressing and they publish their opinions. It takes collaboration between these industry insiders and arts journalists and commissioning editors to really create the stories the papers should be publishing in order to further dialogue. More importantly, it’s possible for audiences to have their say on what they want to see in the theatre too by publishing these articles online and enabling comments.

Who do we do it for?

There are already some great spaces for dialogue, like the Guardian Theatre Blog, but it’s too often used for useless discussions that don’t push the art of theatre (I mean, when should audiences clap?). Nonetheless, it’s also a place for different voices which, as readers, we crave. Matt suggested that articles in response to articles provoke thought, change and engagement but they need to be intelligent responses. And I think we can draw a line here between discussion via arts journalism and discussion via comments on blogs. So perhaps we’re writing for anyone who wants to engage or be informed, be they artists, audiences, PR agents, whoever.

If writers continue to write about game-changing ideas, shows and processes that provoke responses from audiences and other writers too, at some point commissioning editors will have to take note. So maybe we don’t need a Showgirls moment and the next Kenneth Tynan might not be a great writer, but a great commissioning editor or a bold publication.

Reports on the many topics discussed at Devoted and Disgruntled can be found on the Improbable website.

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