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Editor’s View: Why theatre should worry about the future of criticism

Star ratings might help sell tickets, but critics also play an important role in maintaining the future health of the theatre
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When I joined The Stage nearly 15 years ago, I wanted to be a theatre critic. It took me one week and two press nights to be disabused of this.

The idea might seem glamorous, but the reality struck me as rather different. I didn’t want to sit in a darkened room every night of the week with the same people – like being an actor in a long-running show, with less of a sense of community. I also realised that critics were far more dedicated to theatre as an art form than I was. In fact, I have never met anyone working in theatre who loves watching theatre as much as critics do.

They are – as far as I can tell – doing what they do because they have a deep, genuine passion for good theatre. They are not in it for the money or the fame: there is little of either.

Critics play an important, maybe even crucial, role in maintaining the future health of the theatre. But paid, professional theatre criticism has been under intense pressure since before those first press nights I attended.

Now, you might think good riddance – critics sometimes don’t do themselves any favours. But theatre should worry about criticism’s survival, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. Criticism provides an archive for an ephemeral art form.
  2. It helps shape understanding of theatre among the general public.
  3. Critics serve as critical friends to artists, independent voices who can challenge and interrogate their work.
  4. Reviews provide a forum where theatre can be explored by the wider world, amplifying the social and cultural impact of the art form.
  5. Reviews can help sell tickets.
  6. Critics can identify, champion and promote new talent.

This final point is the most important, especially outside London. A few years ago, the Almeida’s Rupert Goold was talking about the problems of low pay for directors.

He said: “Directors earn more and get better resources in regional theatre, but newspapers barely cover those theatres now – so building a career regionally is becoming harder than ever. Until we can resource bloggers and journalists to make those trips and build the national profile for regional work, directors will continue to scrape by in London… When I was at the Royal and Derngate 15 years ago, we often got six or seven national reviews, which made Simon Godwin’s and my names. It’s impossible to imagine that happening now. It is the industry’s responsibility to address this as much as those that employ the critics.”

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