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Mark Shenton: Unpaid theatre criticism will lead to a narrow pool of voices

Photo: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock Photo: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock
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He who pays the piper calls the tune. So goes the saying. And that maxim was going to be put to the test at Edinburgh this summer with a new reviews website that announced plans to offer independent reviews to companies who paid £50 each for the privilege.

Those plans have been shelved for now; in a holding page on the website, a statement reads: “We were hoping to bring a new way of reviewing to Edinburgh this year but it seems that is going to be more complicated than we thought. So we will bring that in 2018.”

That’s the Donald Trump excuse. Trump has said that: “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated”; “I realised it’s [North Korea] not so easy”; and, of the presidency, “I thought it would be easier… this is actually more work.”

Who’s to say that a paid review is more authoritative than one produced for free?

Actually, the Edinburgh website need only to have looked across the Atlantic to a similar effort by an LA theatre website called Bitter Lemons to introduce a similar scheme two years ago. That became mired in immediate controversy, and little take-up by theatre companies.

The debate that occurred around it highlighted many of the problems with this approach. Yes, there is a crisis in professional, paid-for theatre criticism – it’s in a cycle of decline, as the constant round of lay-offs in American papers has proved; but it has been matched by a much faster rise in unpaid criticism, via blogs and websites from the Huffington Post to the Arts Desk, that use professional journalists but don’t pay them for their efforts.

And qualitatively, of course, who’s to say that a paid review is more authoritative than one produced for free? There’s more than one national newspaper outlet nowadays that’s simply not worth reading anymore for the insight or analysis of the reviews of their lead drama critics. (I always breathe a sigh of relief when reading the second or third string reviews instead, as they will at least have something to say.)

But if readers are no longer paying for criticism by buying newspapers or paywall subscriptions, the Bitter Lemons and Edinburgh initiatives were an attempt to find someone else to pay for the review, namely the recipient of the opinion. As Steven Leigh Morris wrote in the LA Weekly at the time of the launch of the Bitter Lemons scheme, “It rips up a long-standing covenant between critics and readers that the critics’ public writings are financially independent of the subjects they’re covering. Regardless of any critic’s claim that payment by his subject won’t affect his independence, when the theatres become the critics’ employers, and if the practice becomes widespread as a ‘new financial model,’ as it’s being described, there are two victims: the readers, and the art of criticism itself. The pollution spreads like an oil spill, rolling over the once-clear divide between criticism and marketing.”

The Stage’s US correspondent Howard Sherman raised another problem in his personal blog at the time and that’s to do with a kind of hypocrisy. “Here is a theatre site, arguing for the right of union actors to work for notably less than AEA actors elsewhere in the country, that is saying their theatre coverage is dependent on being paid to cover that same community.”

Theatre criticism has become, like making theatre itself, a passion project: one that people want to do regardless of financial remuneration. And with theatre tickets being the price they are, the offer of a free ticket may be remuneration enough. We can’t stop people working for free. But the problem with this is that it narrows the field to only those who can afford to do so; just as low paid or unpaid arts internships become the prerogative only of those who have other means of funding their living expenses; commentators and critics will only be drawn from people who have to work hard at other things – whether academics, accountants, lawyers or teachers – or not work at all, with parents who can fund the indulgence.

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