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Opinion: Is Danielle Tarento Biting the Hands that Feed Her?

danielle tarento Danielle Tarento, defaced loving and with the upmost respect by James Waygood.

The knives seem to be out, once again aimed directly at the theatre blogging community. But are Danielle Tarento’s comments all they seem?

It’s no secret that I have been quite outspoken when it comes to criticism aimed at the theatre blogging community. In fact, I champion bloggers and independent critics and what we do. As well as being very proud to have been accepted onto the Network of Independent Critics’ inaugural initiative to send independent reviewers to cover the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I have also spoken out against Mark Shenton’s comments on national press “behaving like bloggers” when it comes to respecting embargoes.

danielle tarento

Danielle Tarento, defaced lovingly and with the utmost respect, using MS Paint, by James Waygood.

But there’s another storm currently sweeping through the independent critical community at the centre of which is well-respected, accoladed, and revered Off-West End and fringe producer, Danielle Tarento. In an event at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts titled Everyone’s a Critic, Danielle Tarento, on a panel that included critical veteran Michael Billington, she has seemingly made derogatory comments about critics not having “the intellectual background or historical background or time to know what they are writing about”, as reported on 10 May in The Stage.

I’m a big fan of Danielle Tarento’s work, trying a bit too earnestly to coin the phrase “The Phoenix Machine” to describe her and director Thom Southerland’s splendid track record of taking mediocre and/or lesser known musical and premièring them in London, and have a very amicable professional relationship with her as she has always been very complimentary about the reviews I’ve done of her shows. So, wading into a furore that was already in full swing when I arrived, took me back a little and initially left me a little disheartened. But reading into the article a bit deeper and offsetting it against the torrent of impassioned commentaries, I think there is more to Danielle Tarrento’s comments than meets the eye.

Intellectual Propriety

“Everyone’s a bit crap when they first start out…this is part of the process of gaining the intelligence and historical background to become better critics.”

Let’s first deal with perhaps the most ‘brutal’ of comments Danielle Tarento made.

“This is a massive generalisation, but a lot of people are not ‘proper writers’. They do not have the intellectual background or historical background or time to know what they are writing about.”

Although it does undermine the time and effort many bloggers and independent critics have put into establishing themselves on London’s theatre scene, this comment picks at a wider issue of what constitutes a good critic, as far as background and experience are concerned, these days. Before, the benchmark was set by those who had a lot of experience in both journalism and theatre, and to you had to been very good to have earned a place at a national paper alongside the likes of Shenton, Billington, Matt Wolf, Lynn Gardener, Dominic Cavendish, Paul Taylor, and the rest. But the critical scene has changed a lot. Just like the name of the event at which Tarento spoke at, everyone these days is a critic. Anyone who feels they’re articulate enough to form an opinion can do so via the glory of “teh interwebs”.

All aboard! The cast of "Titanic: The Musical". Photograph: Courtesy of Annabel Vere.

The cast of “Titanic: The Musical”, produced by Danielle Tarento. Photograph: Courtesy of Annabel Vere.

But this means that, rather than reviews being the product of a lot of behind the scenes training, reviewers are putting out content that’s now part of their grind. I, for one, know that the reviews I was writing at the beginning of my tenure were painfully bad. Thankfully, with the disappearance of So So Gay, although upset that some of my proudest work has been lost to the digital ether, my tracks are covered for some of my least refined and most embarrassing pieces of writing.

Everyone’s a bit crap when they first start out, although you never think it when you do. Indeed, I was recently talking to a very green young critic after a show, who claimed they knew everything there is to know about drag because they’re “HUGE fans of RuPaul’s Drag Raceand that its the USA where drag “is really happening”. Imagine if that got put in a review! Now, I don’t review enough drag and cabaret to even remotely qualify as an expert, but even I know that US and UK drag are two very different beasts, and that the strides the UK cabaret scene is making in drag/performance art are not to be sniffed at. Although I thoroughly scoffed at these arrogant comments, it did remind me of my own past hubris and the copious plates of humble pie I’ve eaten since whilst finding my own style and expanding my knowledge over the last five years.

Therefore, Danielle Tarento isn’t wrong: there is a lot of amateur and shallow criticism out there because of how the platform has evolved and the amount of newbies on the scene. But I don’t think people’s noses should be turned up so readily, as this is now part of the process of gaining the intelligence and historical background to become better critics. It’s why sites such as A Younger Theatre are so important in nurturing future critical talent, and why I’m thankful for sites like So So Gay and What’s Peen Seen? that enabled me to steel my craft, even though I was more than rubbish at the time.

Paying the Piper

“When critics like Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out are on a payroll to put out lackadaisical and suspectedly ageist reviews like that for Sunset Boulevardthe Holy Grail of a paid gig is far from the Messiah of critical quality.”

It seems the cornerstone of Danielle Tarento’s comments is that there should be more paid work for critics, especially those writing for a website, as a means of improving the quality of critical response. As someone who writes unpaid (bar some paid freelance work for QX Magazine, Opera Now, and Classical Music Magazine in the past), this is a really lovely idea that I’m absolutely all for! Unfortunately, with arts sections being downsized and top critics losing their posts left, right, and centre along Fleet Street, criticism is no longer a full-time career, and even established new blood such as Tom Wicker and Paul Vale have part-time jobs in order for them to sustain their craft.

grand hotel

The cast of ‘Grand Hotel’, produced by Danielle Tarento. Photograph: Courtesy of Aviv Ron.

Paying people will not solve the quality of criticism. I ranted privately not long ago about a review I read by a very well known critic in a national paper and how piss poor it was. Out of the 260 words in length it was, 85 gives a historical context of the play, 80 words described the plot, and only 95 formed the actual review, for which only a couple of sentences formed an evaluative response. It told me nothing about the production and I thought the review was an utter waste of column inches. Furthermore, when critics like Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out are on a payroll to put out lackadaisical and suspectedly ageist reviews like that for Sunset Boulevardthe Holy Grail of a paid gig is far from the Messiah of critical quality.

This is why I think collectives such as Theatre Bloggers (formerly #LDNTheatreBloggers, for which I am a member) are what the critical community should be looking towards. Theatre Bloggers, set up and run by Rebecca Felgate and Sammi O’Neill, is an organisation of some of the most established and upcoming critical talent in the UK, that not only provides support to those finding their feet by way of advice and reviewing opportunities, but also stride to instil and facilitate good practise by way of enforcing codified guidelines. This is most likely the one of the ways that a benchmark and a standard is going to be set for critical opinion, and may be more effective than monetisation of it.

Hey, Ms Producer!

“Instead of railing against her opinion, maybe we should be given food for thought about the range of people that consume our reviews and what their needs are, and how/if we should be catering for them.”

One of the things to remember about Danielle Tarento is that she’s a producer, and therefore is going to be looking for something very different in a review to someone who is deciding whether to see a show or not. Danielle Tarento goes on to say that,

“What they are writing about is did they like it or not, which is not what I think a review should be.”

She’s absolutely right in a lot of cases from her point of view. Danielle Tarento is most likely going to be looking at a criticism of a show’s technical elements rather than a straight thumbs up or down.

Grey Gardens

Jenna Russell in ‘Grey Gardens’, produced by Danielle Tarento. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

My own purview for criticism is that there should be a compromise between a knowledgeable and intelligent analysis of a show against an emotional one. I strongly believe that there should always be an emotional element to a review because art’s reason for being is to evoke an emotional response. However, it really is about striking that balance. The entire reason I spend 800-1300 words per review is so I can, without being too verbose, give as good an analytical response as I can. I structure my review to tackle writing, direction and production, and performance as their own entities. Even then, I’m fully aware that some reviews are more ‘feels’ than deconstruction than they probably should be. Although this is a LOT of work for me, the feedback I’ve gotten from industry professionals, like Daneille Tarento, is that this gives them a lot more to go on compared to my competitors, and they’re incredibly appreciative of  the time taken and the subsequent depth my reviews have become known for.

There are many critics who don’t write for so long or go into so much depth as I and some others do. But that’s ok, because they’re all writing for their own sets of audiences, who may well want something more personal and emotive. At the end of the day, Danielle Tarento has a defined criteria for what she wants to see in a review. Being a producer means what she’s looking for is going to be more analytical than what the wealth of unpaid writers produce: and that’s fine too. Because of this, there isn’t much justification for raking Danielle Tarento across the coals: it’s just her opinion about how she see’s the critical movement and what she requires from it. Instead of railing against her opinion, maybe we should be given food for thought about the range of people that consume our reviews and what their needs are, and how/if we should be catering for them.

Yet, whilst Danielle Tarento is completely entitled to her opinion on the quality of reviews as a producer, it’s not really her that controls what is deemed good criticism. I have talked before about PRs being the new gatekeepers of theatrical criticism, and still very much stand by this. There may only 12 out of 80 “proper” critics at her shows, according to her, but there are 68 other publications that the PR thinks is worthy or being given the privilege of being invited, understanding the importance and clout of these in how the new critical landscape.

Being Sold Short

“This is a subject that could be explored as a full academic study, let alone a longer feature, which I feel such a discussion deserves.”

I think it should be pointed out that there is probably a lot more surrounding these comments than we’re privy to. I think Danielle Tarento has been sold short by The Stage, especially as What’s On Stage’s piece on the Everyone’s  A Critic event comes across as less inflammatory, adding Danielle’s comment that:

“I am not saying they should be censored. Whilst I have no problem with anyone writing about anything – that’s what the internet is about – if we’re going to do real theatre criticism outside of the printed press it has to be looked after.”

The cast of 'The Grand Tour', produced by Danielle Tarento. Photograph: Courtesy of Annabel Vere.

The cast of ‘The Grand Tour’, produced by Danielle Tarento. Photograph: Courtesy of Annabel Vere.

As much as highly regard The Stage as an important publication, I think a mere 354 words around such seemingly incendiary comments (some of which is dedicated to Billington’s role in the panel discussion) does Danielle Tarento a bit of a disservice, especially as The Stage prides itself on paying all its writers, and even has a brilliant initiative to find and nurture new critical voices, so its not like they’re totally against her views. This is a subject that could be explored as a full academic study, let alone a longer feature, which I feel such a discussion deserves. Unless we ourselves were present at the Everyone’s A Critic panel discussion, we don’t know what else Danielle Tarento said or what context of discussion these were said within, which may well change the entire timbre of her comments.

So before we rant and attempt to crucify Danielle Tarento for her comments, let us actually think about where she’s coming from as a highly respected and talented producer, and the context for which these comments will have been made in. I for one, will still be supporting her amazing shows and not supporting a bloggers’ embargo for which I’ve heard suggested, and reading a bit more between the lines when it comes to ‘shocking’ comments such as these.

Danielle Tarento is a London based  producer who has worked on shows such as Titanic: The Musical, Grand Hotel, and Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD. For more information about her work, including upcoming shows, visit tarento.net.

For more information about Theatre Bloggers, visit theatrebloggers.co.uk.

3 Comments on Opinion: Is Danielle Tarento Biting the Hands that Feed Her?

  1. Monica Vale // 12th May 2016 at 13:37 //

    Well said. I think also we need to differentiate between critics who offer independent, impartial and informed opinion against those like West End Wilma and LondonTheatre1 which are essentially ticket agencies but get quoted by PRs and on posters. There’s no impartiality when you give an overenthusiastic review to something because you know it will earn you commission in ticket sales.

  2. If you take a typical Southwark webpage/poster, I’m picking GODS AND MONSTERS at random – it quotes reviews and star ratings from The Stage (paid circulation 30,000), Time Out (free circulation 300,000) and my own, er, ‘organ’, Londonist (regular online readership 1 million). So which is the most influential when it comes to telling London theatregoers what to see?

    • JWaygood // 12th May 2016 at 16:51 //

      Ah, but what are the actual stats for theatre reviews within the publications? I’ve heard that one national paper’s theatre section only gets 6k unique visitors per month, and if that’s true that’s only 2k more than me, even though it’s overall readership of the publication is considerably higher (but dwindling, like the rest of them). Not to down-play The Londonist (I do love it), but I’d probably go out on a limb and say its Secrets of the Tube videos and irreverent articles about London events and places draw significantly more clicks than its theatre reviews. I can’t imagine the click-through rate from those types of articles to theatre reviews is particularly high compared to the site’s overall retention.

      Yes, circulation definitely does feed into the influence of a publication, and its why pull-quotes and star ratings from them will always feature on more prominent promotionals. But that doesn’t always mean that they’re necessarily more highly valuede. Reviews from bloggers tend to be promoted more via social media because that’s a platform in which they excel in (if executed well). For example, my monthly Twitter reach/impressions is around the 50k at a base, which is decent for a solo operation. Blogs may even be better read and engaged with than the bigger publications. My publication here specialises in long-form theatre reviews, therefore many of its readers engage more fully in my reviews than those of the nationals because its something more in-depth (possibly).

      It’s swings and roundabouts, and although figures might say something more obvious, people shouldn’t underestimate the intangible influence smaller publications can have, and hence why they are becoming as important and valued an analysis and opinion on the subject. It would certainly be audacious to say independent critics are more important and far-reaching that established critics at nationals and copy from publications with large circulations. But too often the clout of bloggers is significantly underestimated, and neither does writing for one of the big publications means that the reviewer is more “proper” than the rest. Especially when more and more blogs are starting to eek onto promotionals and establishing themselves as theatre authorities, especially when it comes to off-West End and Fringe!

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