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Lyn Gardner: The future of criticism lies with its audiences

An audience giving a standing ovation – could they be the future of criticism? Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock An audience giving a standing ovation – could they be the future of criticism? Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock
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The Stage criticism survey makes for fascinating reading, and I don’t say that because I and other writers for The Stage did well in the polls.

It reflects a growing ambivalence about the role of critics, where and how they operate, who they are and how what they do connects with the industry, celebrates it and keeps it on its toes by encouraging it to be bold and brave.

When The Stage ran its criticism survey in 2010, 46% of respondents said they thought critics were less important than they had been a decade before. That figure has risen to 54% in the current survey, perhaps reflecting the erosion – which has sped up in the last couple of years – of mainstream press coverage. During my last three years at the Guardian, the number of reviews I wrote declined every year. It’s a pattern being repeated at other publications.

That creeping attrition doesn’t much affect the West End and the flagship companies, or the boutique houses in the capital. No editor is going to say: “Sorry, there is no space for the new Alan Bennett at the Bridge.” But it does affect work produced beyond London, the new and emerging, and all those diverse voices who are experimenting and playing with form.

These are theatre’s life-blood, and they require critical support and interrogation if they are going to get a chance to provide the ongoing creative and artistic transfusions that theatre regularly requires.

Survey respondents identified more space in mainstream press as one thing (along with greater diversity of reviewers and more regional coverage) that would help improve the critical landscape. But I can’t see mainstream criticism stepping up to that plate at a time when it is fighting for its own financial survival and chasing clicks.

‘It is time for the industry to think harder about what criticism is and the role it has to play in the work theatres and artists produce’

You and I might think it is important to document a fragile show by an as yet unknown artist, but most newspaper editors are going to want to be certain that review will pays its way in clicks before they commission it. In the current climate, newspapers are primarily focused on their own survival, not on supporting the arts.

Yet 87% of respondents said they believed critics play a “crucial role” in the industry, and The Stage’s editor Alistair Smith is right in saying that theatre should be worried about criticism’s future health.

But maybe it is also time for the industry to think harder about what criticism is and the role it has to play in the work theatres and artists produce, how that work is documented and how theatre might help itself by taking a role in developing criticism.

That means theatres need to be less in thrall to old-style national press coverage and look to other sources of criticism, including digital platforms, but also potentially to platforms they might create themselves. Supporting criticism is not just about trying to support existing bloggers, important though they are.

In the past, theatre has relied on those outside the industry to create a critical dialogue around the work they create. But in a world where they can no longer expect that, perhaps they need to do more to develop and support informed, adventurous critical voices who have the vocabulary and understanding to engage with theatremakers and create an ongoing critical dialogue around the work that can help it, and artists, reach their full potential.

‘Theatres need to look to how they can play a significant role in creating local and regional critical communities’

Encouraging and aiding the development of local bloggers is one way of doing that, but theatres, particularly those outside of London, need to think more deeply about what criticism is and what it might do for them and their communities of artists and audiences.Particularly when The Stage survey indicates that word of mouth and friends is a more trusted source of opinion than mainstream publications. Could audiences be those –friends too?

I think they could, and should, and that’s why a new approach to theatre criticism, in which theatres see developing critical voices as part of audience and artist development and invest in it accordingly in terms of both time and money, is needed.

Critical friends (different from bosom buddies) who see everything you have done and become experts in what you produce may well be far better placed to think, write and talk about the work than a critic from London who parachutes in occasionally but is seldom seen from one year to the next.

I don’t think mainstream criticism is going to disappear, but I do think that, as the pool of what is covered shrinks, theatres need to look to how they can play a significant role in creating local and regional critical communities that can help keep the public conversation around theatre robust, challenge the status quo, act as midwives to new work and celebrate the deserving, while ensuring that theatre remains visible and reaches an ever widening community. They have already got those people, and they are called the audience.

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