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Megan Vaughan: Has theatre blogging really changed? Or is it just us?

Ferdy Roberts, Lasse Myhr, Nicolas Tennant and Sergo Vares in Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2012
Ferdy Roberts, Lasse Myhr, Nicolas Tennant and Sergo Vares in Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2012
Megan Vaughan
Megan Vaughan is an arts blogger from Cheshire, now based in London. She has worked in theatre administration in both the commercial and subsidised sectors since 2006.
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So, Matt Trueman is worried about the decline of theatre blogs. Fair enough I suppose; we all worry about something. In my case it has mainly been funding deadlines and Aleppo, but since Thursday morning I’ve also had to face the fact that my peers and I are disappointing Trueman. And there I was thinking 2016 couldn’t get any worse.

Trueman’s piece warrants a response, not because he’s wrong, but because of the arrogance of his position. It seems he’s suffering the combination of selective memory and blind privilege that I affectionately refer to as Old Bastard Syndrome.

Old Bastard Syndrome [noun]: a collection of symptoms afflicting the naive and/or the jaded, combining to make sufferers believe that “things were better in their day”, often combined with false accusations re the root of their ills. (See also: Brexit.)

Those wonderful days when the internet was full of lazy hate speech

Let’s go back in time a bit, to 2012, and the UK premiere of Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith. According to Trueman’s article, the halcyon days of theatre blogging are epitomised by the debate around this show, as we waged “guerrilla warfare… [in] a full-blown stand-off, as bloggers and critics stared each other down over a stage full of sex toys and animal heads”. Oh, those wonderful days where everyone despised each other and the internet was still full of lazy, unnuanced hate speech from professional critics about bloggers, or from bloggers about professional critics. Yeah. “Bring back National Service.” “Hanging’s too good for ‘em.” FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT.

But that’s not how I remember 2012. By that time in my blogging career I’d been a theatre criticism nerd for several years already. Along with Trueman, Andrew Haydon, Daniel B Yates, Catherine Love, Sarah Punshon, Maddy Costa and several others, I read about Three Kingdoms, blogged about Three Kingdoms, talked for hours about Three Kingdoms. I agree it was a time of headstrong debate and passionate feeling about the way that critics responded to something so new and unapologetic. But I’m not sure I see how our writings from that time were too far removed from the plethora of review blogs that even Trueman acknowledges we have today. The 2012 crew weren’t different or special. Writing online, we were able to give the required space and words to our arguments, but the majority of these posts were, pure and simple, reviews of the show. And that tradition continues today.

In 2012, we had Love discussing misogyny in Three Kingdoms; today we have Rosie Curtis exploring her complex personal feelings about feminist solidarity with Emma Rice and Bryony Kimmings. In 2012, Trueman was discussing German theatrical excess in a British context; today, Ian Foster questions the conservatism of all-white casts. In 2012, I was running bad jokes through Google Translate; today, James Varney plays with the conventions of spelling to discuss the American archetype in Sweet Charity.

Laura Kressly, blogger and co-founder of the Network of Independent Critics, is positive about the current blogging community too. She says:

I recently discovered an army of very young bloggers out there, some of whom are still in uni, or school. Seriously. Look up @ohmymusicals [Em Jenkins] – she's 17. They are out there and they aren't hard to find, and they are talking to each other. A lot. It's beautiful. I'd suggest to Trueman he start with his Twitter followers.

So what’s Trueman’s problem? Why does he feel like something’s disappeared? Can he really just be pining for a time when we all fought more? I wanted to ask the other bloggers than he mentioned, to see how they felt about his comments. Here’s Love:

I wonder if part of it is just to do with a sense of community dissipating... Because for a while, it really felt as though there was an oppositional critical dialogue going on which was really exciting, at least for those of us who were part of it, and that's perhaps less visible now.

Haydon told me something similar, putting those conversations into the context of newspaper criticism at that time. He specifically remembered Nicholas Hytner’s famous dismissal of the "dead white males" who then occupied most of the lead critic positions:

I think that's likely to be an unrepeatable moment. The conditions of the time (the arrival of the technology, the extremity of the calcification of the ‘dead white males’) can't ever really be repeated. Apart from anything else, it would take at least 20 years to make today’s ‘old guard’ seem as monolithic as the 2007 lot.

So… have we… have we… won?

The answer, of course, is no. But the battleground has changed. As a new generation of voices stakes their claim to dwindling space in mainstream publications, and the 2012 cohort of bloggers focus on different opportunities and career paths, the question of criticism’s financial sustainability permeates both sides of the trenches. Freelance rates are down, sponsorship of reviews is ethically questionable, and crowdfunding is burdensome. My own output in 2016 has been affected by a combination of things: a successful crowdfunder increased my sense of obligation, then a new job brought unforeseen conflicts of interest; together they led to simple, old-fashioned burnout. The free labour involved in blogging extends beyond the writing; just managing the time commitment can be an emotional ordeal.

Kressly is typical of the average theatre blogger:

I work two part-time jobs spread over six days, plus the odd bit of small-scale producing, plus reviewing 3-4 shows a week. My socialising is mostly limited to friends taking my plus ones. I get more review invites than I can accept, even with a collection of people who occasionally guest review. Also, I'm at that age (I'm 35 next year – 35 – fuck) where my partner and I want to start a family and need to get on with things rather than putting it off for much longer. So I'm not sure what else Trueman wants from us. Sure, I'd love to write a reasoned, articulate response to his article but I won't have time until at least Sunday.

That Trueman glosses over these issues is a marker of his own success. Despite what his official biog on The Stage still claims, Trueman is no longer a blogger. He quietly gave it up, years ago. In many ways, I’m happy for him. He’s one of the best critics we have. But Haydon likened his argument about blogs to “sitting about in Russia in 1926 and worrying that the Revolution just doesn't feel as Revolution-y anymore”. Costa said it was “the most Billington thing he’s done in ages”, which says a lot. I reckon it’s a bit like he’s been choppered to safety, then turned back to bitch at those left on the life raft for not paddling properly.

Thing is, I bet if you spoke to the mainstream critics that we were once kicking against, most of them would raise a groomed eyebrow, take a slow swig of cognac, and say “Oh really, darling? That was a ‘beef’, was it? How exciting.” Those arguments and conversations felt like everything to me five years ago, but did they really register with critics and editors? I hope we helped to invigorate and encourage online conversation about theatre, and the new writers arriving to have those conversations, but that many of the ‘dead white males’ have since retired is no great victory, just the passing of time.

Perhaps Trueman’s insistence that theatre blogging is dying is simply evidence that the further his career goes, the more distant from it he becomes. After all, Old Bastard Syndrome can develop long before it is detected. We can only hope that this contribution to the debate is antagonistic enough to shake him out of it.

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