Commentary: What's the future of critics?

Mark Shenton, The Stage blog, 11/28/11

Today I'll be at the annual Theatrecraft day for young people, aged 17-25, who are contemplating a career in the theatre. I am doing a session, as I have done for the last three years, on what's involved in becoming a theatre critic. Apart from the obvious answer -- don't! -- I'm going to address some of the long-time challenges and more recent changes that are affecting the industry. And here's part of what I intend to say: Critics have been around for a long time. But will we be around much longer? It might be interesting to have a fuller cross-section of the public at large represented amongst our number. Or perhaps that's trying to fix an old model, because the other big challenge we're all facing is that the model itself is changing fast. Newspapers are officially dying, certainly as paid-for products. There are now many more opportunities for aspiring theatre writers on dedicated, website-only outlets, but there's a tendency for most of them to rely on unpaid labour. Even the Huffington Post, which last year sold itself for $315 million, doesn't pay its blog contributors. I've been consciously trying to stay ahead of the game by adapting along the way to new things. This Stage blog is now long established [and] last year I took up Twitter: my feed links to theatre news stories as they break, and I also tweet instant reviews the moment I get home about what I see. As a freelance critic, I don't belong to a single media outlet; and the good thing is that this has meant that I've been able to evolve my online identity in its own right. I'm not sure yet, but I think that's where the future may be: when the writing is on the wall, in every sense, for newspapers, I think I may need to be writing on my own Facebook wall and Twitter feed instead.


Commentary: Critics should blog, tweet, engage -- but not help sell tickets

Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, 11/27/11

It's my job to cover as broad a range of theatre as possible, in as many geographical locations as the Guardian budget, train timetables and the availability of cheap hotels allows. Sometimes I feel like a travel agent who also happens to go to the theatre. But that's just part of what being a critic entails nowadays, as much as blogging, tweeting and engaging with readers. However, there are some things I don't see as part of my job, and one of those is selling tickets. I'm not naive enough to think my review won't have any impact on the box office; but I don't think that knowing a theatre may be operating in a difficult economic climate, or is facing an uncertain future, should influence what I write. A few weeks ago, I travelled to see a touring production of an ambitious play previously been seen in London. I admired the work's fearlessness but didn't feel it had entirely succeeded, and gave the show what I hoped was a fair three-star review. Shortly afterwards, the director sent me an impassioned email, pointing out that some regional theatres were in desperate trouble, touring costs had doubled in the last five years, and unless critics supported new writing, theatregoers outside London would face an endless diet of Jane Austen adaptations and Coward revivals. His view was that a three-star review would mean that "no one comes", while four stars means "that they will judge for themselves". I don't want the gap to widen between the kind of work you can see in London and that on offer in the rest of the country. But flinging around stars isn't going to help. The person who takes a chance on your four-star review and thinks you wasted their time is an audience member lost forever.


Commentary: Stop pining for the good old days; citizen critics are here to stay

Ian David Moss, Createquity blog, 11/27/11

Last week [Kennedy Center head Michael Kaiser] published this truly unfortunate commentary on the slow death of professional arts criticism, and the rise of citizen critics as a result. Responses are all over the original post and the blogosphere. You don't need to think too hard to guess at my reaction; after all, I'm on record as saying that I think citizen critics are the potential saviors of the artistic marketplace. I believe in experts, I just think that newspaper editors shouldn't be the only ones who get to decide who the experts are. Many have already pointed out the irony that Kaiser wrote his commentary on a website, the Huffington Post, that relies for much of its content on unpaid bloggers. But I also found it ironic that Kaiser's post drew an approving two-part response from Rocco Landesman, who cites the NEA's recent collaborative grant program with the Knight Foundation as a positive example of bucking the trend. And yet one of the projects (out of 5) awarded a grant is the Detroit iCritic van, which parks outside of arts events and offers exiting audience members the opportunity to record a video about their experience and share it with the world. Several of the other initiatives also afford citizen journalists a prominent role, with few restrictions on access. If this isn't the democratization of arts criticism, I'm not sure what is. I think what sometimes gets missed by those who lament our shifting reality is the inexorable fact that there's no going back. Newspapers are never again going to be a dominant force in our lives. I suggest that, rather than pine for the good old days, we instead consider what kinds of systems and structures can accept new voices as a necessary input and still produce meaningful guidance for consumer and society alike.


Commentary: Only now do we perhaps have a chance to re-make criticism

Thomas Garvey, The Hub Review website, 11/27/11

[The] real problem with Internet reviewing is that it's still too much like print reviewing. Indeed, bloggers often ape the emasculated tea-room tone of the print crowd in some pathetic attempt to be "taken seriously," and people often foolishly declare that I don't follow the "standards" of print criticism -- to which I can only say, honey, that's the whole idea! I can write as much as I want to about what I want to; I can draw connections between art forms that no print outlet would allow; I can indulge in extended conversations with other critics and artists; and of course, I can hammer away at various miscreants as long as I have the strength. In short, I can tailor my criticism to what I believe are the needs of the moment; I'm not shackled by my paycheck, or any inability to reach the public. I know, standards aren't what they used to be, and sometimes it all looks like a race to the bottom (with newspapers leading the way). Only the standards were never real, buddy, and you were always being flattered beyond your actual critical ability, and only now do we perhaps have a chance to re-make theatre criticism into what it always should have been all along. In fact, if you look closely, you'll find criticism on the Web that is as good or better than anything you'll find in print. Yes, it's too bad we aren't paid for it -- and probably never will be. But if the pay became a reality, without the meddling editors, would you still feel the same way? And frankly, if money is the reason you're in the game, maybe you need to find another game.

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