Posted on 31/08/2010
Four leading London theatre critics offered a capacity audience in Royal Holloway’s Studio Theatre a fascinating – and sometimes bracing – view of their profession in a panel discussion on the evening of 26th February. Kate Bassett (The Independent on Sunday), Lyn Gardner (The Guardian), Mark Shenton (The Sunday Express and The Stage online), and Ian Shuttleworth (The Financial Times and Theatre Record) offered insights on the ways in which the decline of print media and the rise of new communication technologies have reshaped the critical field in the past several decades.
The event was organised by the Department of Drama and Theatre’s Student Workshop, in association with the departmental research group on Political Currents in Recent British Theatre and Performance. Event organiser Sheryl Hill, creative learning officer of the Student Workshop, co-chaired, along with Dr. Karen Fricker, lecturer in contemporary theatre and deputy London theatre critic of Variety magazine.
There is, the panel revealed, no set path or required training to become a theatre critic. All four of the panelists have been interested in theatre since university, and worked their way into professional criticism by associating themselves with existing publications. Evidence of the power of networking was very apparent on the panel – Gardner gave Shuttleworth his first work as a critic, and Shuttleworth gave Bassett hers, all at the now-defunct London City Limits magazine.
Theatre criticism remains an elite profession: as the panel noted, there are no theatre critics of colour at any major London publication, and the even gender mix on the panel contrasts with the continuing dominance of male critics in the field.
Blogging is a democratising force, however, opening up the field of to new voices and new energy. While this diversification has many positive effects, the panel also stressed the importance of the expert subject knowledge and experience that they and their peers bring to the field. The last four theatre critics to be appointed by major London outlets have been established writers and commentators who do not have expert subject knowledge – a worrying trend, agreed the panel, though one more associated with celebrity culture (Gardner stated, perhaps half-jokingly, that she ‘fully expects to be replaced by Katie Price’) and the economic downturn (most of these were internal appointments, Shenton pointed out) than with a trend towards dumbing-down.
Gardner noted the ways in which the internet is allowing criticism to become more interactive: the comment function on blogs and websites is allowing audiences and artists to respond to reviews, and to transform what was previously a one-way communication into a dialogue.
‘Start blogging – and start networking’ was the panel’s parting advice to the aspirant student critics in the audience.
Read panelist Mark Shenton’s blog about the event here, and a blog by Royal Holloway Drama and English graduate Matt Boothman here.