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Richard Jordan: I, for one, welcome our new critical voices

Michael Billington, the theatre critic. Photo: Daniel Farmer Michael Billington. Photo: Daniel Farmer
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When fringe producer Danielle Tarento criticised theatre bloggers, labelling some of them as lacking in “intellectual background” when writing their reviews, she was met, unsurprisingly, with derision from the blogging community.

There is always a need for good criticism and it should be seen as refreshing that there are now more than just a few sources to draw from.

I think the greatest challenge arts journalism faces is that theatre encompasses so many facets. That means we can see one publication’s appointed theatre critic sent to review: a piece of performance art at Battersea Arts Centre; a site-specific installation; a new play upstairs at the Royal Court; a West End musical; or a foreign-language international festival show.

This is perhaps a little different to criticism in other artistic disciplines, such as dance and opera, but because of theatre’s delicious eclectic mix, it inevitably means that some critics may well have a preference for a certain type of work.

If I use Michael Billington as an example, I often feel from his reviewing that he is less of a fan of musicals than other genres. That does not mean I do not respect, or am uninterested in, what he has say about the latest West End musical. However, would I trust him more than I would another critic who I personally think has a greater knowledge in this field?

What you seek in any review or opinion is truth and credibility, whether this comes from an experienced commentator or a new voice in criticism. In the 1990s, The Independent recognised this as its own specific genre and made the decision to appoint Mark Steyn as its musical theatre critic.

This was, sadly, a short-lived decision, despite Steyn displaying a natural insight into the art form.

As more papers cut arts journalism, we will reach a point where only one or two key publications matter anymore. That is not productive or healthy for any arts industry: it worries me. For example, when it comes to fringe and cross-form arts, the market has been cornered by Guardian critic Lyn Gardner, who has cannily committed herself to reviewing them consistently.

While this has made her position significant and valuable, I’m concerned that we may end up in a position where the input of just one critical voice steers the programming or performance, and where one bad review simply causes a work to be abandoned.

So I welcome the diversity of strong voices joining the conversation via blogging and social media. Every opinion is subjective; there is no need for an ‘intellectual background’ to express how you feel about something.

The good critic is one who firstly reports on the show and then provides their own comment upon it. What they write needs to be engaging and genuine, but it is not their job to tell the reader what to go to see. Even if they simply write about their own experiences, the input of bloggers – that they are inspired to write about their theatre trips at all – is invigorating. And if they are honest, their input is a valid part of the critical ecosystem.

To come back to the notion of specialism, as in the case of Steyn at The Independent, we may now have bloggers who are expert and knowledgeable in niche territories: Disney musicals, for instance, or the work of Mark Ravenhill.

And even where they are not, as a producer, some of the best criticism comes from those outside the industry, those who ask the most questions about the things they did not understand. Because they, more than the seasoned theatregoer, can often help improve the work.

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