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Lyn Gardner: Emerging talent will suffer if critics are allowed to vanish

Playwright James Graham has called for action over the decline in theatre criticism. Photo: Richard Davenport
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While at Edinburgh in 2009, I reviewed a play called A Western staged at Forest Fringe by a young company called Action Hero. The review had pride of place on the Guardian’s arts pages and was one of over 50 shows I reviewed that Edinburgh alongside numerous blogs and features.

Action Hero was not completely unknown: those smart people at Battersea Arts Centre were already on to them. But it was the first national review the company had received. It certainly helped their mums understand what they had been doing since leaving college, and may have brought the company to the wider attention of producers and funders. Last year Action Hero joined Arts Council England’s national portfolio.

Action Hero’s trajectory may well have been upwards without that first review. But I suspect it helped, and it popped into my head this week as I was reflecting on not having been to the Vault Festival this year. It’s my loss, because among the companies performing, there’s probably one of the Action Heroes of tomorrow.

After the Edinburgh Fringe, the Vault Festival – alongside Buzzcut in Glasgow and Pulse in Ipswich – is one of the best ways to see fledgling work in the UK. But the runs are for just a few days, which makes them hard to fit into reviewing schedules for national papers, and doubly difficult when review slots are being slashed.

With external funding supporting the expansion of its existing coverage, The Stage has been doing its bit to cast a critical eye over the festival  with more than 15 shows reviewed so far with ratings ranging from two to four stars. Bloggers too have been taking up the slack, covering shows that might otherwise go unreported and in the process not just encouraging artists but also new audiences. But for bloggers, reviewing is exhausting, mostly unpaid work. Like many young artists, young bloggers will be working each evening for free after a full day’s work elsewhere to pay the rent.

When review space is tight it’s not the West End that gets cut, but the new and innovative

But it’s crucial work because mainstream media coverage is getting worse, and when funding gets tight it is those on the bottom rung of the funding ladder who drop off first. So when reviewing space gets tight it is not the shiny, starry mainstream shows in the West End or at the National or the Royal Shakespeare Company that get cut, but the new, the unknown and the innovative.

It’s the same for theatre beyond the M25. There are plenty of theatres I used to visit regularly on my Guardian beat, but are now less likely to get a look-in. If the Curve in Leicester can’t garner a review what of the tiny Other Room in Cardiff, which last year was one of the nominees in the Peter Brook awards?

Last year in these pages James Graham said he was less likely to premiere plays in the regions because of a lack of media coverage. He’s right: a new play at the Bush and Royal Court by an unknown writer will be covered, but a new play at Nottingham or Sheffield is far less likely to get the same level of coverage.

Graham has also rightly observed: “Whether you like it or not, national coverage keeps a show alive, and gives it potential to have a future life, not just in terms of transferring to the capital, but the play being alive in the national consciousness. If people aren’t talking about your show, it’s reached its limit.”

But it’s not just the public and the potential audience for a production that is limited by a lack of reviews, it is also the possibility of playwrights and theatremakers starting conversations with programmers elsewhere.

One of the reasons the Edinburgh Fringe still holds sway in getting emerging companies and fledgling work seen widely by theatres, is the sheer convenience for producers in seeing so much work in one place. But schlepping across the country and a night in a hotel may be worth it, if reviews by those you trust have alerted you to a company with a great show you haven’t previously heard of.

The industry should continue to remind newspaper editors at every opportunity that they are failing their readers by neglecting to provide theatre coverage of depth, breadth and geographical spread. But it also needs to look harder at what it can do to create the conditions in which good criticism can flourish. That may well include investing in local critics whose work can benefit all theatre in the region.

Initiatives such as the one instigated by Manchester’s theatres to encourage bloggers, are welcome, not least because it is rarely the case that those writing for mainstream media are better writers or are more perceptive than bloggers. But we have the benefit of editors, and you learn as much by being edited as you do by seeing a broad range of work and writing lots of reviews.

Without the support from theatres – and ACE too – I worry not just for the future of theatre criticism, but for all the Action Heroes out there whose work is in danger of going unreported and unsung.

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