We constantly talk about the quality and future of theatre criticism but seldom about its sustainability, which is a much bigger issue!
Many of you know that I’m currently on a bit of a break from theatre critiquing. Work and physical and mental health have meant that I’ve had no choice other than to press a rather large “Pause” button on Grumpy Gay Critic for the time being. Why? Because it’s a LOT of work being an independent critic. I’ve essentially been brought to the precipice of giving it all up simply because it’s something that is difficult to sustain unless you’re a fully paid critic or happen to have financial security on your side. But as we’re seeing more and more cuts at the publications that used to be the bastion of theatre criticism, and the rise of the influence of bloggers and independent critics, a conversation about how we enable the good voices to continue to be heard is something we really need to talk about. So why aren’t we?
The Customer is Never Right, Right?
“[“Top critics” and editors] set the standard for “good theatre criticism”, and if the customer doesn’t like it and/or wants something else, then the customer is, according to them, wrong.”
A lot of the current discussions around “the future of theatre criticism” has been “top critics” and editors talking about protecting the quality of theatre criticism and validating its platforms. From my experiences it’s been more about the old guard bleating about the “dangers” of bloggers as they see more of their influence decline to them. The crux of their arguments is that there is a drift happening towards a new standard of theatre criticism that they don’t like. All these arguments and forums are often dominated by “top critics” and editors rather than bloggers (1 out of the 10 strong panel at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was a blogger), but they know best, right? The problem I have with this argument that, frankly, the new standard has already arrived! To say that bloggers have a paltry influence in theatre criticism is insufferably pompous and blinkered. We’ve established ourselves a thriving and integral part of critical conversations and in some cases have rivaled and even bettered some of the more institutionalised voices.
The reason this has happened is that bloggers and independent critics have tapped into a customer demand for something that is different to what was only available before. Yes, there are now some very emotive responses to theatre that are not too analytical, but that’s what some audiences like to read. Some audiences want something witty and snappy, and there are publications that provide that. Others only want to see a star rating. But that doesn’t mean that the traditional long-form review is redundant. They’re still being read and cherished by those audiences who still want that style of reviewing, still consuming reviews that manage to get decent column space in what remains of newpapers’ arts sections. My reviews for Grumpy Gay Critic come in at around 1000 words, making them comparably more in depth and detailed to other fellow indie critics. But both Grumpy Gay Critic and all sites that offer something different have grown over the past few years, simply because they’re being read and used by PRs and theatre companies, whilst the arts and reviews sections in the big publications have done nothing but decline and reduce.
The audience for theatre criticism today is one that thrives on diversity. Every type of voice, as long as it’s honest, informative, chimes a cord with its readership, and is of use to theatres and PRs, is as valid as that of the “Lead Critics” of the crumbling ivory towers that are large publications. Therefore, “top critics” constantly banging on about protecting the status quo and “quality” of theatre criticism is the wrong way to approach the audience. They’re basically saying that they and they alone set the standard for “good theatre criticism”, and if the customer doesn’t like it and want something else, then the customer is, according to them, wrong. But this only serves to alienate “proper theatre criticism” from a market that is already thriving without it, achieving bugger all and ultimately driving the last nail deeper into their own coffin.
A Broken Solution
“The problem is that you’re incorporating people into a system that’s already falling apart. Theatre criticism is no longer a full-time occupation, and these posts simply do not pay enough for it to be the only means of sustenance for a critic.”
The most talked about solution to maintaining the “quality of theatre criticism” is trying to absorb good bloggers into the current structure by making them staff writers. The problem is that you’re incorporating people into a system that’s already falling apart. Theatre criticism is no longer a full-time occupation, and these posts simply do not pay enough for it to be the only means of sustenance for a critic. Out of some of the well-known critics I know: one has a bespoke self-employed legal business, another teaches critical writing at several universities, and another is a semi-retired architect. My current salary is over £25,000 p.a. (and that’s pretty mediocre for London), and if I were to move into a full-time paid critical position it would certainly have to come close to matching that or I simply wouldn’t be able to live and review at the same time unless I’m prepared to really tighten my belt, or have a considerable amount of capital to fall back on. Given that my mother’s parents were refugees and my father grew up in the poor part of Swansea, unless there’s some Nigerian Prince who is inexplicably related to me and wants to transfer some royal funds into the UK via my bank account, there’s not much chance of me replacing Paul Taylor anytime soon.
Work, Work, Work, Work, Work
“Back when I was reviewing on average 3 shows a week, you’re looking at up around 16 hours a week that goes into Grumpy Gay Critic…That’s a total working/writing time of about 50 hours per week.”
So, unless you’re somewhat privileged, the only course of action is to blog or write unpaid for a publication on top of a full time job. I work a 37.5 hour week meaning that any shows I go to see are in the evenings after work. My write-up time is essentially lunchtime, any time in the evening I’m not out at a show, and my weekends. Each review for me takes about 2-3 hours from first draft to final proof. So, back when I was reviewing on average 3 shows a week, you’re looking at up around 16 hours a week that goes into Grumpy Gay Critic (3x approximately 2.5 hours shows, and 3x approximately 3 hours writing time per review). That’s a total working/writing time of about 50 hours per week.
I am by far not the only independent critic in this situation. Many bloggers and indie reviewers also work full time. Some sites are run and coordinated by people who also work full time. So So Gay, where I started reviewing, was just that. The entire team of editors, sub editors, and contributors were voluntary and had full-time jobs, and yet So So Gay still managed to be nominated alongside The Guardian for Stonewall’s “Publication of the Year” in 2011. Many existing sites are run on a similar unpaid model, using ad revenues to cover the running costs, as well as there being us solo souls that pour our leisure hours into reviewing theatre. Being a blogger or an independent critic is a LOT of time and energy. We do it because we love the theatre, sacrificing a lot of our spare time to do this because we want to.
We manage to make it work, but sometimes only just. What’s Peen Seen?, a great site that I was privileged to write for, closed because Adam Penny, it’s owner, was unable to sustain it on top of a full time job. Even among the Theatre Bloggers network, there are sometimes the odd voice that seeks advice because they’re finding it difficult to sustain what they’ve created, expanded upon, and been successful with. Those who stay sometimes stay at the skin of the teeth, having to make compromises to do so.
How To Fix It?
“Unless we figure it out, the critical scene will always be a collection of good voices that will pipe up but will eventually be lost because they cannot be sustained, plus a conveyor-belt of wealthy individuals who can put the time in because they have the money.”
So you can see the problem: “top critics” see the only solution is to preserve the dying status quo by subsuming struggling voices into a structure that does not address the issue that makes that voice struggling in the first place; with independent critics being unable to sustain their craft unless they’re financially wealthy. But how can something be sustained when the means to sustain it no longer exists? This is why the conversations about sustaining theatre criticism, especially among bloggers and independent critics, is actually far more important than protection the “quality” and “future” of theatre criticism. Unless we figure it out, the critical scene will always be a collection of good voices that will pipe up but will eventually be lost because they cannot be sustained, plus a conveyor-belt of wealthy individuals who can put the time in because they have the money.
One possible solution is for independent critics and/or critical posts to be sponsored by various bodies within the industry, as the Boston Globe did recently, but, as Michael Billington pointed out, it does pose questions about the impartiality of reviews. But does the fact that it can fully fund a critic outweigh possible conflicts of interests, especially as some would argue this type of funding is tantamount to advertising anyway? But again, we need to discuss this, and not what makes a blogger worthy enough to write, and what platform is worthy of publishing an opinion!