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Mark Shenton: Are critics being sidelined?

Sharon Small (Caroline) and Michael Attenborough (Director) Sharon Small (Caroline) and Michael Attenborough (Director) in rehearsal for Luna Gale
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There’s no question that we are living in an era of massive change where the lines between what old-fashioned traditional critics do and the new wave of commentators via blogs and websites is altering the rules of engagement forever.

I have a foot in each camp myself: I’m still part of the ‘old’ guard that writes for a weekly print newspaper (this one), but I also have, for more than 10 years now, been writing a daily online column here too (which you are reading now).

I now also have a personal website and, with my colleague Terri Paddock, have also been instrumental in creating a new distribution platform for bloggers to get their work to public attention via MyTheatreMates.com. One of the challenges of blogs that aren’t attached to established media platforms like The Guardian or The Stage is establishing their presence – there are countless people writing about theatre now, and all power to them, but how do people find out about them?

That’s one of the dilemmas we are seeking to address – by bringing an audience to bloggers by aggregating their content in one place.

So I’m hardly one to complain when theatres themselves have started embracing the blogosphere, and are actively encouraging their direct engagement. But the other day I received an invitation from an agency that Hampstead Theatre had employed to solicit blogger engagement with their forthcoming production of Rebecca Gillman’s Luna Gale that opens there on June 22. I’ve separately, of course, already been invited to see the show by Hampstead’s external PR on the opening night, but this invitation came for a performance several days ahead of it, on June 18.

That means that bloggers are being invited to steal a march on the traditional critical outlets, as no embargo was mentioned. Hampstead’s PR told me that she’s been told that the idea is that they write about the subject of the play – it’s a story about a baby born to drug-addicted teen parents – rather than review the play, as such.

But it’s surely naive, without spelling it out, to believe that bloggers will confine their comments to the context of the play and not its substance, i.e. whether it is any good. Theatres seem to want it both ways now – and Hampstead is more guilty than anyone in fostering this critical divide. Critics are already specifically not invited to review plays in the Theatre Downstairs, but they seem now to be saying ‘Bring it on, everyone else. We’ll even give you free tickets. And you can come before the critics, so you’ll be ahead of the game.’

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that there’s now a multiplicity of commentary on the theatre, and its good to see a theatre actively engaging with bloggers. But how long will it be before they stop bothering with the critics at all. But guess what? When there are no critics left, there’ll be no need for PRs, either – just agencies who supply bloggers.

Already we’ve seen West End advertising campaigns for shows like The Book of Mormon that have relied entirely on twitter commentary from theatregoers who’ve already paid to see them long before the critics have gone near them. Only recently we saw the West End import of a Broadway hit The Elephant Man hold an opening night and party ahead of the performances they designated for critics to come to, as I’ve written here. So I think I’m right to be suspicious that there are moves afoot to sideline us, if not actively silence us.

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