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Matt Trueman: Long-term programming is a problem for critics and artists

Matt Trueman thanks forward planning for his career as a theatre critic Matt Trueman thanks forward planning for his career as a theatre critic
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What’s the secret of success in theatre criticism? In my experience: Microsoft Excel. Forget carving out that neat turn of phrase. Don’t worry about close-reading skills or making sense of Shakespeare. What you need, most of all, is a really good spreadsheet. What were the words Kenneth Tynan inscribed above his desk? “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds – and make sure you sort every show into three neat columns in chronological order.”

All right, maybe I should have gone into accountancy – I sound just like my dad – but I do credit a spreadsheet with keeping me afloat. Wonkish as it most definitely is, I’ve kept a list of every upcoming opening night for the last 10 years. It’s kept me on top of ideas, connections, previews and end-of-year lists. Without it, I’d be lost. If a show opens and it’s not on the spreadsheet, does it even exist? (You tell me: has anyone ever seen a Trevor Nunn show in real life?)

Right now, looking ahead, that list runs off into September: September 2020. I don’t even know where I’m going to be living, let alone whether we’ll still be in the EU, but I know that on September 16 next year, I’ll probably be sat in the Young Vic main space watching Ruth Negga in its revival of Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan. That theatre is programmed all the way through to October.

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It’s not alone, either. The Royal Court’s booked up until next August. The Lyric Hammersmith’s fixed the autumn after that and the Old Vic’s sorted until next summer, with several public commissions still to come. On June 13 the National Theatre drops its new slate, presumably seeing it through a year and beyond. More theatres are following suit and announcing long-term schedules. I suspect the season might have had its day.

There are sensible reasons for this. Print brochures are no longer primary, and search engines serve up not seasons but single shows. More pressingly, longer-term planning means longer-term purchases and, if your year is on sale, you’re building a bigger advance – a big boost for theatres with serious cash-flow issues.

Big announcements allow balance, too. It’s almost impossible to achieve rounded representation across just a few shows. The sample size is too small and the swings too wild. Just look at the furore over the National’s last limited release that left out any plays written by women. In the long run, these things are more likely to level out – and theatres can’t afford that ill will.

But there are big drawbacks too – especially for an art form as nimble as theatre. It inhibits the flexibility and currency of a responsive art form, but it slows the pipeline of talent too. Time was, a new writer could be spotted on the fringe and skip, swiftly, into mainstream houses. With no slots for more than a year, talent struggles to cut through in the same
way. It’s taking much longer for emerging artists to excel.

Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman

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