Thoughts on being a critic…

Critics have themselves become the focus of criticism recently, with many an article and post on the matter emerging in recent months. This is me adding my thoughts into the mix – possibly in a slightly garbled manner, I grant you – about how I see it as a young critic, part of the new breed trying to break through.

Being a critic, in my experience, puts you in an odd position when it comes to the world of theatre. You’re in amongst the action – yet you’re not really in the fold. You’re a part of the industry – but you’re never going to be in the thesp or techie gang. It’s not hard to see why, either. But, whilst knowing that being best mates and bosoms pals with the people you’re critiquing would be not only awkward but potentially detrimental to your review, our strangely liminal position also saddens me a little: I truly believe that theatre critics are a necessary part of the performing arts industry. (Possibly it’s also because I can’t help a part of me in vain still believing, or hoping, that it’s all glitz and glamour and fame.)

On a basic level, it provides the public with a service: recommendations of what to see, what to avoid (I know, you know this. There’s a point to it, promise…). Just like a travel manual for a city, it’s a map and a personal tour guide through the must-sees and don’t-sees of what’s currently on. Of course, it’s the ‘personal’ bit that people can object to. Subjectivity of reviews is a common complaint that I’ve heard; and then, occasionally, there are those accusations of “Well they just didn’t get it”. Of course one person’s opinion isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all on a show. We all know that. That’s largely why I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that more and more reviewers are emerging from different corners. The Edinburgh Fringe epitomised this issue this year, with a few whispers about too many reviewers diluting the relevancy of critical opinion. Yet the shows complain if anyone dares to suggest their (negative) review could represent a definitive truth – so we can’t win really. The increasing number of opinions out there – from nationals to smaller publications to humble little blogs such as my own – should be celebrated (look at how many people are watching theatre, and thinking about it, and writing about it – it’s GREAT!), acknowledged and used as a platform for conversation and debate. Critics should be speaking – personally and publicly – to each other to a wider extent to get even more people discussing and engaging with theatre. How could that possibly be a bad thing? Of course people want to reach the top of their field, and of course there’s the practical business element: publications want to be selling more copies or getting more hits than their rivals. But – and I know I’m starting to sound a bit like that girl from Mean Girls – it would be exciting to have more visible communication and support between different kinds of critics to get conversation about theatre to a higher profile. Twitter is of course a great platform for this, and the debate just the other week about ‘Ageist Arts’ threw up some very interesting viewpoints and arguments. Yet it would be fascinating if there were more in-depth opportunities to discuss performances and industry issues in an open community (not just those who are lucky enough to get paid for what they write), interactively (the speed of Twitter is what makes the debate come alive) and without the restriction of 120 characters. This of course would allow the old masters and the new kids on the block to converse and debate on an even playing field.

Which brings up another issue in the world of the critic. Amateurs. Anyone with access with the internet can call themselves a critic these days, as a small number of disapproving writers have pointed out, their words dripping with disdain. I suppose you could say I’m proof of this, although my experience pre-blogging does come from positions and contributions I’ve had to apply for in some way. But I doubt it would have stopped me from publishing this blog if this hadn’t been the case. It was a point that was thrown directly in the faces of some of our EFR reviewers at this year’s Fringe: on two occasions that I know of, our student critics were challenged, on the Mile or in a venue, by someone who felt we were unfit to review. Who were we? What training had we had? What right had we to write “anything we liked” about these shows? Well, in a world of blogs and social networking and online interactivity, we can technically – within reason and the law of course – write anything we like. Of course, we don’t. We have a particular aim, our reviewers were presented with style guides, tips and of course their reviews were edited if necessary. But the issue goes beyond practical points of organisation. These comments and accusations were troubling and offensive to me because of their attitude to young critics and student writers. I’m not sure what “training” these people expected us to have, but the best form of training is experience. Yes, you can improve your grammar, or perhaps be given lessons in the art of a witty opener. But if you’re seeing lots of theatre, thinking lots about theatre and most of all writing lots about it, that’s training: and that’s the way to improve. Certainly, young and amateur reviewers such as myself and other EFR reviewers (and many, many others at the Fringe and beyond) will have less experience. It may appear laughable that I’m here writing about the way to becoming a good critic when I am only 21 and have only been reviewing for a couple of years. But to suggest that we stop reviewing for these reasons is ludicrous. The whole point is to encourage and, if you like, “train” a new generation of critics.

Take, for example, the current production of Twelfth Night at the Globe: there is no press night until the West End transfer, a point discussed by Mark Shenton in his blog for The Stage (‘Shenton’s View’). Therefore, for the large part, the reviews coming in are unofficial, from the pens and keyboards of paying audience members: from those well-known for their writing (e.g. Dominic Cavendish, who took it upon himself to purchase a ticket in order to review the show) to those lesser known members of the public putting their opinion out there on blogs or social networking sites. And oh look – some of them are interesting, articulate, well-informed! Who knew! And although they may not have quite the readership that Cavendish’s Telegraph review will have got, on that one night they saw and heard the same show as him, and decided to write up their thoughts, opinions and judgements just as he did. Some of them will be better written and have more supporting knowledge than others; but the point is that, unusually, these opinions are the ones that might be read for a change, in the absence of organised press. Which is great! Let’s face it, if we leave it all up to the Michael Billingtons and Lyn Gardners of the world, what happens when they’re no longer writing? And how does a new breed of young, enthusiastic, talented writers emerge if not through experience, practice and recognition?

This is one of the most frustrating elements of being a critic in the context of student theatre in particular. The investment into student productions can be epic in terms of time, emotion, creative belief and – sometimes – money. It is of course natural that nobody likes getting a negative review. Furthermore, it is certainly reasonable that performers, directors and anyone else involved should not expect to be personally attacked, mocked or insulted in a review – every comment should be fair, relevant and justified. But are reviewers extended the same courtesy? Well, not always. I have seen and heard critics being slated by dissatisfied thesps and comedians more savagely than the critic themselves slated the show. Why is it acceptable in one direction and not the other? There can be (and in most cases should be) a tendency to show generosity towards young performers, which is important to encourage fresh creative talent: they’re trying something new; the intention was there, if not the execution; credit where it’s due, they’re a young team with potential; they’re learning their way in the industry. Well, so are young critics. We too are learning how to be the best that we can be – developing our art, finding our voice, adjusting and practising and finding our way, and always improving. Feedback is great. Rejection and dismissal is not.

At university, there are so many opportunities to be a critic; beyond this, the trail in search of a paid job runs cold for many. Amongst all the schemes encouraging youngsters into the arts, critics should not be forgotten. Being dismissed as “amateurs” and therefore not worthy of having our opinion heard is disheartening, rather insulting and not healthy for the field, which needs to have new blood just as much as the realms of directing, writing and acting. I’m not saying everyone would write good reviews. But many would. And yes, I’ll be confident and brave and say it – I would. We’re all part of this fantastic industry, this amazing world of theatre – and we shouldn’t be shut out

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