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Opinion: Loss of Critical Jobs Are Not the Problem. The Press v Theatre Bloggers Divide Is

the press v theatre bloggers

The Press v Theatre Bloggers

Published on Thursday 5 February in The Stage is an interesting rally to arms from Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, Daniel Evans, about needing to “save” critical jobs at major UK publications. It comes from a recent spate of bad news where long-standing and established critics have lost their posts, or that, upon retirement, their tenure has not been continued.

All very good and true stuff, but what worries me is the implication is that “theatre bloggers” are still beneath press critics. Evans suggests that in order for credible criticism of shows to continue, this top-tier must be protected and preserved. He goes as far as to state that the “bloggosphere is not a substitute”.

Whilst nowhere near as snide as Tim Walker’s recent rant, Evans’ comments, although coming from a very respected and knowledgeable position as Artistic Director of a theatre group that covers the famous Sheffield Crucible, form part of a wider rhetoric that is very despondent of theatre bloggers. The suggestion is that bloggers and online criticism don’t offer quality reviews, and this just isn’t at all the case.

A Critic By Any Other Name?

“[A theatre critic is] anyone who offers a valued and knowledgeable opinion on a creative work, presented in a readable, entertaining, and informative format.”

The fundamental question is “what makes a critic”? To me, it’s anyone who offers a valued and knowledgeable opinion on a creative work, presented in a readable, entertaining, and informative format. In truth, anyone who can actual give an opinion backed with reasons and relevant experience has always been viable critic. However, for a long time, only those who have been able to establish themselves at publications have been able to have the visibility and an audience for their particular opinion, and thus a profession and a reputation could be made of it.

However, times have changed. The advent of the World Wide Web means that critics who did not have access to print journalism have been able to put across their views, and in recent years this has particularly exploded with a spate of theatre bloggers having dramatic effects on productions, and providing the theatre-going public with a plethora of analysis to any given show.

But what makes press critics so different from those theatre bloggers: or “citizen journalists” as the programme for Cats so spitefully coined? They get paid a salary. Theatre bloggers do not. They’re associated with a particular publication. Bloggers less so. Other differences dictate style and content restrictions that are placed on press critics (style guides, word counts, deadlines etc), whereas theatre bloggers are free to decide on their own content and approach.

Other than that, the same essence of theatre criticism is there, and always has been: a valued and knowledgeable opinion on a creative work, presented in a readable, entertaining, and informative format.

Blogger Be Good

“…bloggers who have excelled have done so off the back of the quality of their work, and nought else.”

The truth is, that there are theatre bloggers out there who been offering as good a standard of criticism for shows as any press critic, sometimes even better and more honest, and have been for a while. Yes, there has been some rubbish stuff out there. But the bloggers who have excelled have done so off the back of the quality of their work, and nought else. We’re given just as much praise and promotion for our reviews, sometimes alongside more established critics, often having pull quotes and star ratings published on promotional materials side by side. To be picked out from the apparent ocean of opinion as a choice quip is accolade indeed. It’s these bloggers that rise above it all and establish themselves, and will continue to for as long as they output as high a standard of criticism as anyone else, regardless of getting paid or not.

In fact, us theatre bloggers do all this in our spare time, and sometimes at our own expense, and still meet these expectations. Indeed, even given the restrictions placed on us we still manage to support the theatrical arts, especially the fringe, with more scope and dedication than most of the major press outlets. So why do we deserve such snobbery, ire, or dismissal?

No Substitute?

“We’re certainly not an undesirable temporary nuisance, we’re growing into a fully fledged industry.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s always disheartening to hear of critical voices going dark at publications, and sad that avaricious and cynical arguments are behind these decisions. Regardless of being the top billing of the circuit, they still offer good criticism that adds to and compliments what the rest of us produce. But such posts have seen their hay-day and are disappearing: a fact that is very hard to dismiss.

The ugly hard truth of the matter is that online is where theatre criticism now lies, and bloggers have excelled in thriving here. We’ve gotten a head start in cementing ourselves in, building a brand and identity, and creating quality criticism. Yes, bloggers have been a major catalyst in bringing about the changes at major publications, so I can understand some of the bitterness. But we really are part of the solution and not the problem. All we’ve been doing is embracing a new platform and finding an audience, many of which have migrated there. Celebrated PR companies such as Kevin Wilson PR have not just been very accommodating of theatre bloggers and online publications, but also incredibly supportive in giving us a rival visibility. Elsewhere, Rebecca Felgate at Official Theatre is also building a viable and influential association of “citizen journalists” – the #LDNTheatreBloggers – which is building its membership and clout. We’re certainly not an undesirable temporary nuisance, we’re growing into a fully fledged industry.

Verdict

“There is decent criticism among bloggers, and will always continue to be: on-line will not see the death of good criticism.”

Theatre bloggers are where theatre criticism is heading, or at least where it’s making a noticeable impact at present. So can we please stop purporting this us versus them mentality! There is decent criticism among bloggers, and will always continue to be: on-line will not see the death of good criticism. But in order for good criticism to prevail, we must find it, support it, and promote it, as not to lose ground to those with louder and poorer analyses and better SEO.

For more information about Official Theatre, visit www.officialtheatre.com.

For more information about The Stage, visit www.thestage.co.uk.

For more information about Kevin Wilson PR, visit www.kevinwilsonpublicrelations.co.uk.

2 Comments on Opinion: Loss of Critical Jobs Are Not the Problem. The Press v Theatre Bloggers Divide Is

  1. I think you’re right: there are poor critics writing for traditional publications and excellent ones writing for blogs. I wonder, though, if you think it’s a problem that, as you put it, “theatre bloggers do all this in our spare time, and sometimes at our own expense”. Isn’t that a shaky foundation for reliable, long-term criticism? I’ve written a couple of blogs on similar topics here: http://howtowriteabouttheatre.blogspot.co.uk

    • That’s a very good point, Mark. I know that sometimes my own reliability can be shaky when work and personal life throw things at me. I think it’s something that needs to discussed and thought about at length. Something that networks like #LDNTheatreBloggers can certainly look at, to ensure there’s support and sustainability in what we do.

      But then again, when one voice goes silent, another one crops up. The loss of What’s Peen Seen? is something that has been sorely missed as it became a well known bastion for good criticism. But because that’s disappeared doesn’t mean the quality of overall criticism online has dropped. People find new outlets, or new players come onto the scene. PRs will then ultimately be the ones to sort the wheat from the chaff, which many are doing a good job of currently.

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