The Critics’ Circle Conference, held yesterday at the Royal Central School for Speech and Drama, proved to be a lively, well-attended event with a series of discussions looking to the past, present and future. Though there was much debate, the one thing that everybody did agree on was that we are living through a time of great change – almost as great as the invention of the printing press according to Lyn Gardner – and that nobody quite knows what is going to happen next. The event began with a look back to 1913 with Frances Hughes and to the creation of the Critics’ Circle, when there were over 50 critics writing for various papers, even for Sporting Life. She was followed by Nicholas de Jongh who roundly criticised the scandalously large number of 20th century critics who failed to champion the cause of the abolition of censorship but rather went along with it and feared the alternative.
The past dealt with, it was time for Libby Purves to chair a discussion on criticism today with Kate Bassett (once of the Independent on Sunday), Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph), Mark Fisher (freelance) and Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard). Of the panel, both Purves and Bassett have a recently lost their jobs. Although Purves is being replaced, that is not true in Bassett’s case, which introduced one of the main themes of the day: whether there is any future for the professional critic and whether there will be a 200th anniversary of the Critics’ Circle. All five spoke wisely about the need to be readable, however short or long the review, the need to create a record for posterity, and the need to relate what is happening in the theatre to the world outside. The importance of an independent voice was emphasised in the face of an increasingly powerful PR machine, which swamps the media with information about the dresses worn on the red carpet while the critical voice gets muffled. It is sad, said Cavendish, that we are living through a golden age of theatre but that the publishing medium is going through a tectonic shift, which is making it difficult to report what is happening theatrically as fully as one would wish.
Along with the survival of criticism, the other big topic of the day was the value of online criticism dealt with in particular in a discussion chaired by Lyn Gardner (Guardian) with Michael Coveney (whatsonstage.com), Kerry Michael (artistic director Theatre Royal Stratford East) and Matt Trueman (freelance and online blogger). Are there positive aspects to the fact that criticism is in crisis? Kerry Michael was there because he has struggled to find critics who reflect the audience that comes to Theatre Royal Stratford East, so much so that he has invited bloggers in to see a production before the traditional print critics. He has introduced a tweeting zone in the auditorium and also looked to involve audiences in the programming of the theatre resulting in a programme that is made with them rather than for them.
The debate about online blogging was the big theme of the day. Those in favour saw it as a chance for people to write at greater length, to experiment with form, and to write about and champion the kind of theatre that most interests them. Blogging and online comments have resulted in a democratisation of theatre writing meaning that critics begin the debate rather than closing it down.
On the other hand, the newspaper critics valued their professionalism, their ability to write about any form of theatre in however many words they are given, and their vast experience of theatregoing that they can bring to any performance. They felt that the online critics could become rather insular and academic, speaking to each other rather than to the wider theatregoing public.
Both sides are aware that if newspapers are going to abandon criticism then the possibilities of finding a paid job are extremely limited. Is criticism going to go back to being a hobby for the rich? How can bloggers afford to go to the theatre night after night? How can young critics make a career given the shortage of jobs? Nothing new there, said Coveney.
In addition to those mentioned above, Jonathan Church (Chichester Festival Theatre), Nica Burns (West End manager), David Eldridge (playwright), Hattie Morahan (actor) and Michael Simkins (actor) represented the theatre industry. Morahan spoke of the strange nature of the press night; Eldridge of how criticism has become less painful as he has got more experienced; Jonathan Church of how popular taste can be very different from that of the critics; and Nica Burns stood up for the role of the critic as she did at the Edinburgh Festival. Simkins told some good jokes.
The conference was left in a state of doubt and uncertainty, embraced by some and feared by others.
Thanks to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama who allowed us to use their premises. Above all, thanks to Heather Neill and Ian Herbert for organising the event.
Anyone wishing to hear the debates in full can listen on http://www.theatrevoice.com/10311