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Mark Shenton: For theatre’s sake, critics mustn’t be strangers to a train journey

Worth travelling for: John McCrea and the cast in Everybody's Talking About Jamie. Photo: Johan Persson
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Last Sunday, Lyn Gardner, my fellow associate editor at The Stage, said: “If you want to see theatre’s future, get on a train.” She was speaking at the UK Theatre Awards, from where she was collecting this year’s award for outstanding contribution to British theatre.

At a time of ever-diminishing space (not to mention fees) for theatre journalists in the mainstream media, with regular newspapers shredding their coverage, the acknowledgement of Gardner’s unique role in supporting work beyond the reaches of the Northern line is to be applauded. And of course she also continues that conversation every week here.

One of my proudest accolades was when director and producer Michael Grandage dubbed me “the caped crusader of the industry” – and that’s exactly what Gardner does, too: beyond our critical writing, we are in a public, evolving conversation with the industry.

It’s not enough to just say it; we have to lead by example. And that’s where those trains come in: there are only a handful of critics nowadays who go beyond London with any regularity.

And though it’s not coal mining, it takes a bit of stamina (and some advance planning, too, not least to nab affordable fares); and a personal investment of time that doesn’t always match our fees. We are paid the same fee for a review whether we are reporting from Leicester Square or Leicester, Kennington or Keswick.

But I’ve nevertheless just booked train tickets to go to Birmingham, Cardiff, Chichester, Manchester and Milton Keynes in the next few weeks. And I love it. Yes, we could just sit in London and wait for the best shows from the regional theatres to come to us: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which won two UK Theatre Awards, is deservedly heading to the Apollo next month after premiering at Sheffield’s Crucible in February.

But I’m proud of the part I played in discovering this gem in Sheffield. My five-star rave review was the first to appear the same night the show opened – and the next morning I received two emails from London producers wanting to know more (in the event, neither of them are behind the transfer, but Nica Burns – who saw it on its last matinee – is leading its move instead).

By the same token, it’s been a joy to champion Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, which is evolving into a serious powerhouse for musicals and whose revival of Hair has just transferred to the Vaults in London.

Word-of-mouth is what gives a show momentum, but critics can provide that much-needed kick-start. And theatremakers acknowledge it, too: when critical positions were eliminated in several Los Angeles publications in 2009, the artistic directors of three of the leading theatres wrote a joint letter to complain.

“It may seem somewhat ironic that leaders of arts institutions would come out in favour of further criticism. But, as artistic leaders who run three of the larger theatre organisations in Los Angeles, we’ve recently become worried… We depend on the voices of critics and arts reporters to help create a conversation with our community. If we let these voices slowly and quietly disappear, the consequences are simple and inevitable: fewer people will know about the productions, fewer people will purchase tickets and, eventually, fewer theatres will exist.”

Newspapers, under threat from the rise of the internet, are having to make some hard choices, as newspaper sales and advertising collapse simultaneously. In the summer of 2016, the New York Times – the self-styled ‘paper of record’ – quietly ended its bespoke cultural coverage in the tri-state area beyond New York City.

As Bram Lewis, artistic director of West-chester’s Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, told Deadline at the time: “For all of us in the arts, this decision is an unmitigated disaster. Our record will be gone. The 50% jump in box office will be gone. The support in funding with a Times review will be gone.”

So the paper matters to the theatre. But does the theatre matter to the paper? The New York Times sees itself as a global title, not a local one. Its public editor Liz Spayd said in a column about the revamp: “Why should a newsroom that just announced lofty international ambitions spend resources covering news of no interest to readers in Beijing or London?”

The effects of globalisation strike again. Once upon a time it would have been enough to be of interest to serve readers in Connecticut. And by doing so, they would have encouraged and inspired the creators of work there.

Someone has to pay for this, though. Quite a few UK theatres nowadays offer help with travel and accommodation costs for critics to cover them. But there’s no right answer to this, either: does this doom those who can’t afford to fund critical travels to be excluded? Perhaps the Arts Council needs to set up a separate travel fund. Then more critics can get on more trains and see the theatre’s future that Gardner trumpeted.

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