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Diversity in criticism conference – in quotes

Act for Change and The Stage hosted a conference exploring diversity in criticism. Photo: Helen Murray Act for Change and The Stage hosted a conference exploring diversity in criticism. Photo: Helen Murray
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Earlier this week, campaign group Act for Change and The Stage hosted a conference exploring diversity in criticism, discussing the landscape today, how it needs to change and the critic’s role in shaping culture. The panel included The Stage’s associate editor and theatre critic Lyn Gardner, the Royal Exchange’s associate artistic director Matthew Xia and theatre blogger Megan Vaughan.

Here, we look at some of the key points made on the day.

Lyn Gardner, theatre critic and journalist

Often when people, and groups of critics get together, what they are really doing are screaming about the loss of privilege. And the truth is that when I started writing about theatre about 30 years ago, there were basically about 15 white, male, middle-aged Oxbridge-educated males writing about it. We have to really think hard about an art form and what it does when the spectrum of people writing about that art form is so incredibly narrow. Inevitably it means that we are products of our upbringing and our education, and when we go to the theatre as critics we take ourselves there as well.

The situation we have now is incredibly bad for people like me and my future, but actually is good for theatre, because in the past there were only 15 white males writing about theatre as quite simply you needed a platform. Now there are many available.

I don’t think for a moment that it was my editor who said let’s cut Lyn Gardner’s blog on the Guardian. It was managing editors who made those decisions, so therefore I think it’s absolutely important that we have those conversations with those people who are in power, rather than just going ‘oh, let’s not bother about that because we can’t change anything until [a new] framework is in place’.

There is a responsibility for all of us working in the industry to reach out and encourage those bloggers from different backgrounds who are writing about theatre in different ways and make sure they get a press night ticket, which is a privilege as much as the critic for the Guardian or the Independent.

I think the Arts Council needs to look hard not just at funding art, but at funding the initiatives that support art.

Megan Vaughan, theatre blogger

I believe we should remove theatre criticism from all mainstream newspapers, because it’s only then that the powers shift and the traditional Oxbridge, older, white, male voices lose a little bit of the stranglehold they’ve had on the criticism.

Matthew Xia, director

The blogs will affect a particular group of people who are coming to the theatre. I think the national press is helping us sell 500 seats a day in Manchester and in most main subsidised theatres.

What I worry about is some of these critics might only engage with the lived black experience when they see it on stage. And that worries me. Because they don’t have the reference points to know whether something is authentic, or literal. Just be aware of the lens that you view the world through – people have unconscious bias, opinions. There’s no way you can eradicate that from your work, so incorporate it into your work.

Lindsay Johns, writer and broadcaster

A lot of the time the reason that the Henry Hitchings or Michael Billingtons of this world are there is because they’re really good. They’re smart people who can write really well and bring a huge amount of intellectual rigour and eloquence to the profession.

[When reviewing a show by a young, black playwright] critics are too afraid, rightly and wrongly, of being called racist. They can’t be down on the show so they praise the authenticity of the street dialogue. We’re not calling it out, we’re giving it a pass and a lot of this stuff is not great.

Just because you might identify with a particular tradition or background, for instance I went to the Finborough to see a play set in Harlem. I’ve spent a lot of time in Harlem so I’m familiar with that racial and cultural background, I also thought it was a really good play. The two are not mutually exclusive, you cannot identify with a particular cultural or racial background with a piece of work, but it doesn’t mean you have to suspend your critical faculties in so doing.

Alistair Smith, The Stage’s editor

Most newspapers and magazines are commercial businesses and they have looked at the numbers and given space and money to areas that are better read than theatre reviews and attract more advertising. It is as simple as that. This is also a context we should be aware of when we discuss improving diversity among mainstream theatre critics. If we want buy-in from non-specialist publications (i.e. not The Stage) then we will have to convince them of why it is worth their while.

While The Stage has a responsibility to serve the theatre industry – which is our readership – I’m not convinced that we should expect non-specialist publications to feel the same sense of responsibility. If we are to get them to listen we need to appeal to their self-interest.

Chris Tookey, film critic

There should be more Asian critics, it’s as simple as that. However, that’s not going to happen overnight. If there are more Asian bloggers for a start, that will in the end create more critics. If you’re not Asian, and you’re going to see an Asian play, then do your homework. Try and see things from another point of view. If you’re going to be a critic on everything, you need to see things from multiple points of view, not just your own.

I felt anger about people who think that white people who have been to public school like me feel entitled, I’m upset about that too. However, you shouldn’t just feel entitled because you’re from an ethnic minority, you’ve got to work at it.