Mark Shenton: The Guardian’s loss can be Lyn Gardner’s gain
I have written so often about the disappearing landscape of contemporary theatre criticism, both in the UK and New York, that I feel like a stuck record.
Back in 2013, I reported: “All good things come to an end (and some not so good things, too). I’ve been predicting the demise of careers in print journalism for some time, and yesterday the latest scalp was claimed: my own. After some 11 and a half years as theatre critic for the Sunday Express, I have been laid off.”
Yet five years later, I’m still here – an associate editor for The Stage and its New York critic, plus reviewing regularly for londontheatre.co.uk. So I was down, but not (yet) out.
This week came the news that the Guardian has decided not to renew the contract of Lyn Gardner, the long-serving deputy theatre critic who has been with the paper for 23 years (to Michael Billington’s 46-plus years). The Guardian stated: “We have decided to look to add some new voices to our arts coverage. Our commitment to coverage of the theatre remains absolute.”
I’m all for new voices, but not, please, at the expense of one of the most trusted and experienced there is. That’s not so much throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but expecting the baby to give itself a bath: without Lyn’s guiding voice and authority, which she has cultivated over many years, the benchmark for excellence has been removed. Hers is the first voice I routinely turn to during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, for example, as she has an uncanny knack of searching out and finding the most interesting work. What will the fringe be without her?
As the reactions across the theatre industry as well as among readers have shown, this loss is being very keenly felt – just last year Lyn was awarded a special UK Theatre Award for her outstanding contribution to British theatre.
She was the first journalist to be given the honour; previous recipients include Ian McKellen, Matthew Bourne and Timothy West. As she commented at the time: “It feels particularly important at a time when criticism in broadsheet newspapers is under siege and facing cuts, and when the theatre industry itself faces significant challenges in terms of local authority funding and future income streams, that [the award] is recognising the importance of expert, high-quality criticism and arts journalism. I hope that in my own small way I have made a contribution to keeping the conversation around theatre – particularly in the regions, where too often great work both off stage and on goes unsung – alive and kicking, celebrating all the things it does brilliantly and all the things it is trying to do better.”
Now Lyn is herself the subject of conversations about the ongoing viability of professional criticism to which she has contributed so much. But if my own experience is anything to go by, she can and must survive. Yes, it was a life-changing event when I found myself laid off and lost a regular income stream – and that remains the biggest challenge for all of us: earning a living from this rather than it just being a hobby.
Yet the best critics – as the rise of the blogosphere has so amply demonstrated – don’t necessarily have to exist tied to a brand-name newspaper, but can exist as brands in their own right. This has partly been enabled by Twitter, that gives us a direct route to a readership. When Libby Purves lost her berth as theatre critic of the Times, she launched a personal website, theatrecat.com, which has become a home for her critical writings. Now it is regularly quoted on front-of-house displays and in press ads.
Though some might see the rise of the critic as a brand in itself to be problematic, there’s a great deal of power in the independence from the usual critical fray it affords. And while a number of national outlets seem to have gone down the ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ route, deliberately employing non-specialists to review theatre, that critical fray has been diminished in value.
Yet in the middle of this it has been notable that The Stage has not only kept faith by reviewing more theatre than any other national publication, but is continuing to expand its coverage and the writers help it do so. The Stage was also the first to offer Lyn a home for her commentary columns when the Guardian discontinued those a year ago. I’m extremely proud to share a weekly page in the print edition with her, just as I’ve been proud to serve on various judging committees, including the now discontinued Empty Space/Peter Brook Awards that played such a big role in recognising studio theatres in London and beyond, as well as the annual UK Theatre Awards.
Lyn’s departure from the Guardian, however, may yet prove to be a bigger loss to the paper than to her. Newspapers may be shooting themselves in the foot when they lose their greatest writers. A similar thing occurred at New York’s Village Voice and Variety: they stopped being required reading. The Guardian still has Michael Billington; but for how much longer, I wonder?