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Unpaid critics are the lifeblood of British theatre criticism

Yesterday, respected theatre producer Danielle Tarento was quoted in theatre industry publication The Stage saying that online reviewers are not “proper writers (…) they do not have the intellectual background or historical background or time to know what they are writing about. What they are writing about is did they like it or not, which is not what I think a review should be.”

I’m sure she didn’t imagine the firestorm she unleashed – certainly, my social media has been ablaze with it ever since. I’m also sure that she had good intentions, and she did point out that it was a “massive generalisation”. But what she has highlighted, and what is becoming continually more apparent (especially to this publicist who used to be an online reviewer) is a hideous cycle of snobbery and insincerity that is plaguing London theatre publicity.

Because she is wrong. Horribly, misguidedly wrong. Unpaid critics are one of the most important voices in British theatre, and it’s important to cultivate them, to encourage them, and to respect them. That is not to say that they are more important than the paid newspaper journalist, but they deserve more than this – and the reasons why they’re been trashed so readily and so openly are, frankly, disgusting.

From a big picture perspective, print journalism is not doing so well – the age of information has made their once protected ability to disseminate information most effectively a laughing-stock. Social media has furthered the democratisation of news – and of opinion. You no longer need a journalism degree to comment on what’s happening in the world. The oft-quoted adage that “everyone’s a critic now” couldn’t be more true.

So what do high profile print journalists have to cling to? There’s an easy argument of expertise – after all, they are the most experienced at what they do. They’ve been around the longest, they have more insight than the rest, they’re more qualitative – and that’s the line established critics in the theatre industry are clinging to. They “know better”. Which, in terms of knowledge and experience – of course they do. No question. But that doesn’t make them “better”.

Compare the experience of the high-profile print journalist to the online reviewer. The online reviewer may not have as much experience, but they have passion – since there was never a question of any money from this, the reason they’re writing is because they care. That immediately adds a different spin. The online reviewer may not have all of the facts and figures – but they know how they feel. If they’re good at what they do, they can communicate that. And it’s the value of that that producers like Tarento don’t understand or see.

Also, those two vast generalisations don’t even begin to cover the rollicking gamut of theatre press out there, from bloggers through online review magazines to short reviews on cooking websites (yep, that also happens). There are paid-up newspaper journalists with less experience than online reviewers just as there are the opposite. There are writers who try and earn a living out of it, and those with second jobs. There are websites with teams of writers, and critics who work by themselves.

It’s a beast, a behemoth, and it serves no purpose to make it eat its own tail. By having a wide range of voices, we create a hierarchy of credibility: one reviewer of any stripe is not going to give a conclusive response on their own – it’s reading a variety of reviews when patterns start to emerge, and it’s best for the reader (who, lest we forget, this is all in aid of) to have a wide range of insights – which is how most other industries operate (collated reviews on Amazon, etc.)

We, as an industry, need to support every aspect of this critical process.

But we don’t – and here’s where it gets ugly. Established critics often moan about the upstart online reviewers, as it’s “their fault” that their job no longer exists. And theatre producers want the established critics to see their shows – they are, after all, “the most respected” voices in their field. So they kow-tow – they deride the online reviewer, they buddy up to the established critic, and privately tell them that they’re more important. And then the private starts to spill into the public.

This kind of snobbery and elitism serves little purpose. Yes, it assuages a wounded ego or two. Absolutely, it bemoans the death of a critical establishment that was well-educated to do a job that no longer has a financial model. But it’s fighting the effect, not the cause. It also enrages, dismisses and insults a wide range of people that perform a critical function, have an enormous part to play in attracting audiences to the theatre and do all of this for next to no recompense (which is a kettle of fish in and of itself…).

In case it wasn’t obvious – I think online reviewers are hugely important. The lifeblood of the industry – said it in the title and all. As a publicist, I strive to approach all sides of the critical industry respectfully – because we all deserve that. I champion online reviewers to my producer clients, and hope that, in a small way, that starts to turn the tide – if only a little, I don’t think little old me is making a huge difference, but small battles…

I think the reaction to yesterday’s tidal wave of anger speaks louder than words – rumor has it that Tarento spent most of yesterday emailing online reviewers saying “I didn’t mean you”. Let’s see how many turn up to her next show.

Here’s some nice thoughts from some other online reviewers/critics as well:

http://vilearts.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/hulk-smash.html

BLOG: Is the way we read reviews changing in the age of social media?

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One thought on “Unpaid critics are the lifeblood of British theatre criticism

  1. Pingback: OPINION: Let’s not do the timewarp again

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