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Mark Shenton: What does The Stage survey tell us about the future of theatre criticism?

Lyn Gardner. Photo: The Stage/Catherine Gerbrands Lyn Gardner. Photo: The Stage/Catherine Gerbrands
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It’s a bittersweet fact that Lyn Gardner topped the lists of both the most regularly read and most valued critics from respondents to the survey undertaken by The Stage and published this week.

She shares a page with me in the print edition of The Stage every week – as well as an online platform – and also regularly writes interviews and features here and elsewhere. However, she no longer has a regular outlet for reviewing since the Guardian, to howls of industry protest, ended her contract in May.

That decision upped the stakes for critics everywhere at the time: if Gardner of all people, whom the UK Theatre Awards only last year honoured with its special award for outstanding contribution, could be let go, then surely no one was safe.

But, as The Stage’s survey has now proved, she is both widely read and overwhelmingly trusted by readers.

The loss would have been nearly unbearable at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe, where alongside the long-serving Joyce McMillan of the Scotsman, she has long been my go-to critical voice. They are the critics I rely on most to steer me through the maze of Edinburgh. But she has fortunately, and wisely, been snapped up by the Independent and will also be writing daily blogs for The Stage.

Of course, just as Edinburgh is always a forum for discovering new creative talents, it is also a place where new critical voices can be found, amid all the noise of the festival, and is where many a young critic cuts their teeth. I’m not discounting them by any means – but Gardner and McMillan, with their long-range view of how the festival works, offer an important critical benchmark.

‘Mainstream media only has itself to blame if people interested in theatre look elsewhere’

And, in the changing landscape of culture, and the evolving place of criticism in it, it is also significant that 54% of respondents now consider critics less important than they were than a decade ago, as opposed to 46% who answered the same question in the 2010 survey.

But, if critics are losing some ground in the overall landscape, an even bigger drop is recorded for friends and word of mouth: whereas in 2010 it accounted for 47% of the opinions people trusted most, it is now only accounts for 29%. Instead, in the noise of conflicting opinions, some 65% of respondents prefer to place their trust in a combination of mainstream media (26%), specialist publications (27%) and online independent critics and bloggers (12%, double the 2010 statistic)

As the survey was conducted by The Stage, one of the examples of a specialist publication cited, it is perhaps unsurprising that readers, who are already reading a specialist publication, have voted to place their trust in them over mainstream media. But mainstream media only has itself to blame if people interested in theatre look elsewhere: as coverage in its pages diminishes, readers are being forced in another direction.

When I interviewed Ben Brantley of the New York Times three years ago, he speculated about the future of criticism in this brave new world, and stated: “We are still so much in the early days in the way that the internet works – but eventually there will be a shake-out and a hunger for vetted, authoritative journalism. It’s very much in flux and it is hard to predict at the moment what is going to happen. I feel very lucky to actually have a forum and a job. But there have always been critics, since the Athenians, so I assume there will always be some sort of market for it. It’s just that we’re in the twilight of a certain tradition.”

I am extremely gratified to find myself placed third in the list of both the most widely read and valued critics, after Gardner and Michael Billington (the latter our most senior critic, having been chief critic at the Guardian since 1972).  I have long fretted about the future for professional critics, but I’m more encouraged than ever that the wheel is being reinvented.

We no longer have the territory to ourselves. This is entirely healthy, with independent writers claiming a bigger slice of the critical pie (though it remains hard for them – and us – to make a living from it). We are also, finally, seeing more diversity in the field (though there’s still a long way to go), with both the Guardian and The Stage regularly employing people of colour. As for gender, we now have virtually equal numbers of male and female critics writing in the established media, with seven out of fifteen of the most read critics women. And while only three of them make it onto the top eight of those whose opinions are the most trusted, it is Lyn Gardner who tops both lists.

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