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Mark Shenton’s week: Honesty is not always the most popular policy

Tom Hollander in Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Johan Persson Tom Hollander in Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Johan Persson
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Honesty, in art as in life, is always the best policy – in fact, it is the only policy to live by. There’s only one version to remember if you do. And when it comes to reviewing, that is my job, too – to tell the truth, or at least my own truth of my reaction to what I’m seeing. So I freely admitted in my review of Travesties that opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week that “there are great big chunks of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 fizzing firework of a play when I simply don’t have a clue what it is about or what is going on.”

Sometimes people solicit my opinion more privately – I was recently asked for my full and frank opinion on a musical I had recently seen a reading of, and answered by saying that my opinion was not worth anything if I didn’t say exactly what I thought, even if it wasn’t necessarily what they wanted to hear. In this case, my advice was simply to shelve it. As much as I enjoyed the reading, the show concerned is not in need of revival or revision, and I have serious doubts it would be any more successful in finding an audience second time around than it did the first. But then there are examples of exactly the opposite, such as the far greater success of Chicago and Blood Brothers on revival than the first time around, so perhaps they mustn’t take my word for it. But they asked, so I gave my honest opinion.

But I’m also mindful of the Somerset Maugham quote: “People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.” I love nothing more than to praise; but critics are not just cheerleaders. Sometimes, unfortunately, they need to be critical, too.

Fair pay

We live increasingly in the age of ‘free’: people don’t want to pay for content, whether its journalism or music, and sometimes simply the time that professionals might be called upon to offer their services.

I’ve lost count of the number of times media companies and corporations ask and expect me, as a full-time freelance journalist, to contribute to their programmes for nothing. There’s somehow an expectation that we are so hungry to be visible in the world that we’ll happily give up our time to do so. There is a certain cachet to being asked, but it doesn’t feed me, emotionally or literally, so I invariably turn those opportunities down – unless it is actively promoting something I am closely associated with, in which case there’s a publicity benefit to a cause or publication I am paid by.

My latest gripe is with Theatrecraft, an annual event that encourages young people to come to a central London venue for a day to explore opportunities to work in the theatre beyond performing on its stages. I’m all for promoting that noble ambition, but I hope we are encouraging them towards careers that will actually pay them if they take them up. Instead, I was invited to prepare a 50-minute workshop and Q&A for which there was no contributors’ budget beyond travelling expenses.

I accept that the cost of paying fees to workshop facilitators might cost the organisers more than they have budgeted for, though the event partners are SOLT, the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s Masterclass programme and the Mousetrap Foundation. Theatrecraft organiser Nicola Seed told me, “We do honestly ask all our speakers to donate their time. As you can imagine, everyone’s generosity is hugely appreciated. Truth be told, we couldn’t make the day happen without it.”

So often, of course, young people are told the same thing: that if they want to work in the theatre, they’ll have to do so free. Seed told me, “We are in agreement that no one should be encouraged to work for nothing. Indeed we strongly encourage all exhibiting organisations to bring any paid jobs, graduate schemes and employment schemes, to show the attendees what opportunities are available out there. It’s one of the primary reasons for running the event.”

But if the event is there to tell young people that their work has worth and needs to be paid for and not given away free, perhaps the messengers shouldn’t be unpaid. Some of the speakers who ‘donate’ their time are, of course, representing organisations from which they are already receive a salary or already make a substantial living thanks to their royalties. The rest of of us have to earn a living from what we do.

But sometimes…

It is not always about money. I also give my time, without expectation of financial reward, to a number of awards events, as judge for the The Hospital Club’s h100 Awards (held last week), the UK Theatre Awards (the weekend just gone) and the Peter Brook/Empty Space Awards (presented on November 1). Yes, I do get invited to the ceremonies (though have not this year been able to go to the first two), but it’s more about lending a voice and experience to them. In the same way, I am also on the board of Mercury Musical Developments, and part of the selection panel for those seeking to receive Stage One producing bursaries. So I do give back to the industry I care passionately about.

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