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Mark Shenton: There’s nothing more exciting than witnessing the start of a theatre career

Louis Gaunt was presented with the prize for best actor in a musical by Mark Shenton at The Stage Debut Awards 2018. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Critics have a triple responsibility: we have to simultaneously record theatre history in the moment of its making, and honour its past, as well as looking to the future.

The accumulation of the knowledge of past productions is partly a matter of longevity – Michael Billington remains one of our most authoritative voices having been in post at the Guardian since 1972, an unprecedented run of 48 years and counting. But even if you weren’t actually there, as he was, there’s plenty of reference material to draw on.

The present is daunting enough to deal with: there are far more productions opening every week in London and beyond than any single critic could possibly fit into their diary.

But the future is the biggest challenge of all. Critics need to be perpetually alert to new directions taken and new talent being discovered. My colleague Lyn Gardner has described the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as her annual ‘lab’, where she experiences the work of emerging artists for the first time and catches up with the work of previous discoveries.

The Stage Edinburgh Awards – and others such as the Scotsman’s Fringe First Awards and the Total Theatre Awards – helped draw attention to some of the 3,548 shows seen there this year. Awards are far from the only barometer of success, but they do help to focus the attention of those who weren’t there.

By the same token, The Stage Debut Awards, which recognise talent at the start of professional careers, are a great way of shining a spotlight on and encouraging the next generation of major players.

As the judges (of which I am one) see and review shows, we are specifically on the lookout for them. These awards duly celebrate the most important pipeline there is: upcoming talent. The Stage has turned these awards into a real event. They could have been given out at a cocktail party, but instead it’s a full three-course dinner in a glamorous room off Trafalgar Square, with a who’s who of the industry to see them, including Rufus Norris, Stephen Daldry, Michael Grandage, Phyllida Lloyd, Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire.

‘I remember Stephen Daldry tearing tickets when he was running the Gate Theatre’

It’s one of the most exciting parts of my job: to be in at the beginning of a career. I still remember Daldry, when he was running London’s Gate Theatre in the early 1990s, tearing the tickets as you entered. Ditto Andrew Garfield, appearing in a fringe production of Beautiful Thing in a theatre on Wardour Street. Or seeing Tom Sturridge and Daniel Kaluuya win the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards for most promising newcomer for Punk Rock (2009) and Sucker Punch (2010), respectively. Later winners in this category have included director Blanche McIntyre and a trio of fantastic actresses: Denise Gough, Kate O’Flynn and Patsy Ferran.

I take pleasure in knowing about these and others ahead of their subsequent mainstream success. But it is also important to recognise our own fallibility and gaps in our knowledge, too. As a critic who is more inclined to travel west to Broadway than east to Europe, I know little about developments in European theatre. When Matt Trueman wrote a recent piece on Europe’s hottest theatre directors to watch out for in the Guardian, naming five from France, Germany, Croatia and Austria, I’d not heard of a single one, let alone seen any of their work.

To paraphrase the song from Kiss Me, Kate: “Brush up your European theatre, start quoting it now.” It’s a big world out there, and with our imminent withdrawal from the EU, it is more important than ever to keep cultural doors open, even as economic ones seem about to shut.

Of course, every critic also pursues their own interests. For me, that’s Broadway, where I’m heading in mid-October and early December to catch the latest show openings, including King Kong, The Cher Show, transfers of The Ferryman and Network from London, and such actors as Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Kerry Washington in new plays and revivals.

As The Stage’s Broadway critic, that’s a pleasure and a responsibility, as is our wider job to keep a close watch on an ever-evolving theatrical landscape. The theatre map is being redrawn all over the UK, with big changes ahead at prominent theatres from Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush and Hampstead to Cardiff, Colchester and Edinburgh. Audiences as well as critics should be keeping an eye on how these evolve.

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