A friend recently remarked how amazing it must be to be the last of a profession. We were talking about the rapidly evolving role of critics, where ‘professionals’ – those that make their living from critical writing – are being overwhelmed by non-professionals – people who write for free.
As the newly elected president of the Critics’ Circle – the professional body that represents critics across all the arts – I hope this isn’t true. And it is my job to maintain and fight for the ongoing relevance of paid critics.
Part of that is about moving with the times – I intend to put campaigning for more diversity among our number at the forefront of my agenda – and adapting to the ever-changing outlets for arts journalism, whether self-published blogs or curated platforms, that have expanded the reach and range of people writing about theatre.
It’s also about moving on. Critics and commentators can become too safe in their berths. As Lyn Gardner wrote last week about Sarah Frankcom’s reinvigoration of Manchester Royal Exchange as Frankcom moves on to become head of LAMDA: “Arts institutions quickly become institutionalised – as do the people who work in them.”
And the same may be true for critics and editors. Michael Billington is our longest-serving national critic. He has been in post at the Guardian since 1971 – in two years’ time, that will be half a century. Susannah Clapp has been theatre critic on the Guardian’s sister title the Observer for more than 20 years now (not that I’m complaining – I consider them to be among the best critics writing today).
I can’t match anything like that record, but I have been a regular contributor to The Stage since I first went freelance in 2002, and I was the first writer to be given a daily online column on The Stage website in 2005. I maintained that regime until last year, when we reduced it to a twice- weekly schedule.
But now it’s time for me to move on and make way for different voices. You will still find me in The Stage, writing features and occasional opinion pieces, but this is my final regular column.
The theatre is my enduring life’s passion. But, as I’ve sometimes written here, it can become all-consuming and we all need to ensure we have a life, too. I’ve characterised my theatregoing as a kind of addiction – and I’ve also written about addiction in other areas of my life, as well as my previous struggles with depression that I’m now in recovery from.
Part of that journey has been about personal honesty. Going public about some of these demons has helped to remove the stigma and shame – and I’m grateful to The Stage for having provided me a platform for reaching others, both in and outside the industry, with the message that they are not alone in these struggles.
Director Michael Grandage once dubbed me the caped crusader of the industry
I’m proud of what I achieved in my columns for The Stage. Director Michael Grandage once dubbed me the caped crusader of the industry, holding it to account on issues from ticket pricing to theatre restoration, colour-blind casting and audience behaviour (the latter most notoriously when I shouted at Bianca Jagger for taking flash photography throughout an opera at the Barbican). I also publicly committed in these columns to no longer reviewing productions that did not pay its actors or creative team in line with Equity agreements. I’m careful now to check before I go to see any production whether this is the case. By drawing attention to when this both happens and doesn’t happen, I hope I am raising awareness for both the industry and theatregoers alike.
This hasn’t always made me popular – I once met Madeleine Lloyd Webber at an event she was attending with the writer Edna O’Brien, and she introduced me with words that I will never forget (and would now like engraved on my tombstone): “This is Mark Shenton – sometimes we like him, usually we don’t.”
But I am a champion for the theatre, even if I can’t always be a cheerleader. Sometimes I have inevitably been controversial; and sometimes, too, I have been wrong.
As I step away from my regular outlet here in The Stage, I would like to thank the readers who’ve followed me, and the editor for providing me with this platform.
Mark Shenton is a theatre critic and journalist who has written for The Stage since 2002. Read his columns at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton