Amber Massie-Blomfield: How Lyn Gardner’s theatre blog changed my life
Lyn Gardner has announced that her regular blog for The Guardian is to be cut. Although she will continue to write reviews and features, she will lose the 130,000 words through which, over many years, she has built a picture of Britain’s theatre, in all its complex, messy glory. It’s no overstatement to say that for many in the sector – including me – seeing our art form reflected with her characteristic passion, precision and grace has given us faith that the work we’ve dedicated our lives to really does matter.
My own relationship with Gardner’s writing began at drama school. In our critical studies class, we were handed some poor quality photocopies of journalists our lecturer deemed important. It was the beginning of an adventure. Through Gardner’s words I encountered, long before I ever would on stage, the likes of Gecko, Shunt, Chris Goode, Improbable, Fuel – companies and practices that shaped not only my experiences as an audience member, but, in many ways, my life.
Gardner is driven by a deep fascination with the promise theatre holds
It was thrilling to be guided by her beyond the West End, into dank railway arches, abandoned swimming pools and forgotten pub theatres at the end of the Northern line. Her words gave coherent form to my dawning sense that theatre was not (only) something that involves a bunch of well-spoken actors perfectly enunciating the words of some dead bloke, but rather an art form that works best when it is alive to the world around it, in conversation with its environment, politics, and – crucially – the people that have come to experience it.
Through her blog I learnt that theatre is about so much more than simply what ends up on stage; that a theatre is a place where a community gathers, and that creating a meeting place fit for a community is a complex business. Later, when I began working professionally in the sector, her writing – probably uniquely in the pages of the national press – seemed to recognise the nuance and creativity required of those working behind the scenes too.
I have been fortunate enough to get to know her in person and learnt that she is every bit as generous as her writing suggests. When I was a PR at the start of my career, she took the time to talk to me about my aspirations. Later she told me she could see me running a theatre – it was those considerate words that gave me the confidence to apply for an executive director job for which I was woefully underqualified. I wonder how many other emerging theatre practitioners have been invigorated by the simple kindness of her engagement with their art and ideas; for how many it has been the sustenance they need to persist in a sector that can often seem unforgiving.
The irony is that what makes Gardner’s work so crucial is that it’s driven by a deep fascination not only with the theatre as it stands, but more importantly, with the promise it holds. The future it seems is usually unglamorous, often inconveniently located, and typically lacking in star turns by former X Factor finalists. It’s not a subject matter conducive to high click through rates. Gardner always shows up, anyway.
What lessons should we take from this? Probably, that we should all pay for the kind of journalism we believe in – I’ve been ignoring those pop-up support requests on the Guardian website for a while now, something I’ll rectify post-haste. But more than anything it is, for me, a reminder that the virtues that characterise Gardner’s work – generosity, an uncompromising belief in the future, love – are pivotal to a thriving theatre ecology. They shouldn’t be taken for granted.