Mark Shenton: Here’s to a second year of The Stage Critic Search
Sometimes I wish I’d been born 20 years later. When I went to university in 1982, there was no internet, but it was there that I first tested my critical mettle, reviewing student productions for Stop Press with Varsity, the weekly Cambridge student newspaper that came out every Friday, eventually becoming its arts editor (and then staying on after graduating to be the paper’s very modestly salaried business manager for a year). Among the stable of reviewers on my watch was Tom Morris, who’d go on to co-direct War Horse and who is now artistic director at Bristol Old Vic.
Other aspiring critics at the time were James Wood, subsequently a noted literary critic in the pages of The Guardian, then the New Republic and New Yorker (now professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard) and Peter Bradshaw, now film critic for The Guardian.
In those days, it was print or nothing, and hoping for a job in criticism was very much about waiting to fill dead man’s shoes – there were roughly a dozen newspapers with staff critics. They invariably held their jobs for life, or near enough: Milton Shulman, for instance, only retired his critical pen on the Evening Standard at the age of 84, and Michael Billington – who was already a critic with a decade’s service behind him when I first started reading him in the Junior Common Room in 1982, and is still going strong today – this year marks his 45th year in the job.
Younger critics had some opportunities on the listings magazines – as well as Time Out, the landscape also included City Limits and What’s On in London – as well as some free titles, often published for an Australian backpacker audience, such as LAM (for which I wrote). A lucky (or talented) few also scored second or third-string positions on the nationals – Kate Bassett, for instance, began as a number three on The Times, then became number two on the Telegraph.
But opportunities then were not nearly as plentiful as they are now. And that’s why I sometimes wish I had been coming of age now: I’d have just set up a blog and started writing. There’s no better way to learn than by doing it. And you acquire authority and knowledge by doing so. Instead, I took a slightly longer road: I started my life as a professional arts journalist by contributing a piece on Cambridge theatre to the monthly theatre magazine Plays International, then became a regular interviewer for it over the next decade. But I also did regular, albeit journalistic, jobs, such as editing theatre programmes for Dewynters (the West End ad agency) and then listings editor for an independent company that was later acquired by Press Association, and supplied editorial and listings data to a wide variety of national newspapers including The Guardian, for whom the company supplied a daily page (and still supplies The Guide).
But I always wanted to spend my life seeing shows and writing about them – and finally in 2002, I gave up full-time work to devote myself to working freelance as an arts journalist. I’d managed by then to acquire a regular spot on a national newspaper, and I also worked regularly for both WhatsOnStage and The Stage.
There has been a sea change in the way criticism works today. Yes, there are still plenty of names who were writing when I first started who are still writing now — as well as Billington, of course, there’s also Lyn Gardner, Georgina Brown, Susannah Clapp, Jane Edwardes, Sarah Hemming, Paul Taylor and Ian Shuttleworth (another university contemporary of mine, but who started reviewing professionally sooner than I did). Isn’t it encouraging that an industry that is often regarded – wrongly – as heavily male, that those long-serving critics includes five women?
There are also lots of new voices that have emerged during that time: Henry Hitchings, Dominic Cavendish, Dominic Maxwell, Andrzej Lukowski and Fiona Mountford, to name just a few. And there are a many more, from this paper’s Natasha Tripney to Matt Trueman and Tom Wicker, who began online rather than in print. The internet has democratised criticism as nothing else has: anyone who has an opinion has a platform on which to express it. It’s one thing to self-publish, another to have your work commissioned, edited and published by a third-party site, and that’s where outlets like Exeunt (co-founded by Tripney) and A Younger Theatre have expanded the opportunities for younger writers.
Here at The Stage we take our responsibilities for covering the immense breadth, width and range of British theatre seriously, and probably review more shows than any other national publication (and faster, too, with major reviews appearing on the same night of the opening). We also pride ourselves on having a stable of committed, knowledgeable critics. But we know that there are a lot of talented writers out there, and we want to find and nurture the next generation of critics, too. This week The Stage is launching its second Critic Search competition. Last year’s winner Dave Fargnoli has become a regular contributor to the paper. We hope that this year’s winner will, too.
Think you could be the next top theatre critic? Enter The Stage Critic Search here
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.