Lyn Gardner: On leaving the Guardian – and where next for criticism
Every night that I am at the theatre, I marvel at the talent on display. And I often muse why one particular actor or director is working unpaid on the fringe when another is starring at the National Theatre. Not that everyone wants to work at the National.
The thing that often separates the two is not talent, but opportunity, which is of course also tied to privilege and simple good luck. We all need our little patch of sunlight if we are to bloom, and some of us are lucky to get it. Some are not.
When I went to review theatre at the Guardian in 1995, I was one of the lucky ones. I was also a rarity: a female critic with two small children. A male critic – they were pretty much all older men at that time – had already mansplained that being a mother and going to the theatre every night was not compatible. No, it’s not easy, but with heroic family support, I kept going.
Back then, 23 years ago, you either had a platform or you didn’t and that platform was in print. At the point I got my gig at the Guardian there were plenty of people freelancing just as I was, who wrote just as well and as perceptively about theatre as I did. Or better.
I had employed many of them during my time at City Limits, and I was as impressed by them as much as I am impressed by the bloggers today who are out there every night covering theatre for little or no recompense. Any one of them might have done the job as well as me, but I was the one who got lucky.
I joined the Guardian at a time when it had money and space and when theatre was changing rapidly and re-imagining what it might be
Then I got lucky again. Many had warned me that being number two to the tireless Michael Billington would be frustrating. But I joined the Guardian at a time when it had money and space and when theatre was changing rapidly and re-imagining what it might be.
I set out not just to review the crumbs left over on the mainstream table but actively to seek out the new, the exciting, the artists working away from the traditional spaces and using different forms and languages. The then arts editor of another paper once asked how I knew about this stuff.
But I was only able to do what I did with the platform of the Guardian because of a particular set of circumstances that converged, including the emergence of the internet. For 10 years, I wrote a blog that wasn’t just about product but about process and how the industry operated. I was lucky to have a platform to think out loud about theatre.
As of June, I will no longer be writing for the Guardian, as my contract has not been renewed. But others will. The baton gets handed on. I have every confidence that they will fight, just as I fought, to ensure new and diverse voices get heard. But cuts to budgets and space mean that my successors will face a much tougher job to maintain their own agency and fight not just their own corner but theatre’s corner as an art form too.
Over the past two weeks I’ve been deeply touched by the way industry figures have protested against the Guardian’s decision. There have been numerous articles: some have made me cry, some laugh and some frown a little.
My loss of a platform at the Guardian doesn’t mean that theatre criticism is dead, merely that the conversations are taking different forms and moving elsewhere. To sites such as this one, to places such as Exeunt, to the postings of individual bloggers who are as curious and passionate as the Guardian once allowed me to be, but which no longer does as it limits coverage to the already known.
There is a lesson in this for theatre itself and how much it remains in thrall to mainstream theatre writing, even as that coverage crumbles away. Theatre is in trouble if it places too much faith in the words of a single individual – whether that happens to be me or someone else – and just a few mainstream platforms; the media boulders that only really care about their own survival in the final reckoning.
A strong critical culture is crucial for any art form; it helps it develop and move forward. An unexamined theatre is a moribund theatre. But it doesn’t have to be the mainstream press that does the examining.
Instead of wringing its hands at the increasing lack of interest by newspapers in what it is doing, or playing the game of pasting up the stars awarded by the broadsheets, how much better it would be for theatre to recognise that critics and artists have a symbiotic relationship that needs cultivating and supporting.
That means that theatre and funders have to stop relying on old media and think creatively about how they can support new platforms and critical voices both on a local and national scale. Because only in helping to spread the patches of sunlight will theatre itself get lucky.