Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Uniformed members of the public, mechanisms of aut

David Adams reports on an international congress of critics

Theatre criticism on the web

The main character in Ian Rowlands's new play Butterfly, an art critic and collector, says blithely at one point that critics are simply failed practitioners. Those that can, do; those that can’t, criticise, he says, paraphrasing Shaw. (Shaw, of course, said that he who can, does; he who cannot, teaches).

Hmm. Shaw, in fact is one of the few theatre critics who aspired to be a practitioner as well as a critic, and did both equally well, albeit his theatre practice was in writing rather than performing or directing. I actually don't know personally any professional theatre critics who are performers or directors, failed or successful. The two disciplines are on either side of the footlights, as they say, and many would argue that such a separation is necessary. I know as a magazine editor, when asked to assess a new publication, I would sniff the print, hold the page to the light, feel it, weigh it, flick the pages, look at the layout, check the credits. I guess theatre practitioners do the same with a production. Those in the business aren't necessarily much concerned with content.

I say this having gone straight after seeing Butterfly to Turin to see Harold Pinter get a prolonged standing ovation as he received the European Theatre Prize and to participate in a colloquium organised by the International Association of Theatre Critics. The title was The end of criticism ?, a rather neatly punning provocation, I thought.

The threat to criticism (in the sense that most speakers used the word end, as in the end of history) came from various quarters: the cult of celebrity, when name personalities would be hired to offer opinions, the postmodern condition, where specialised evaluation is seen as elitism and everyone’s view has equal value, the market orientation of the media, where a criticism is merely a commodity; and so on.

But one villain kept appearing, which is why you are reading this here. The internet.

Professional critics earn their living by selling their skills, just like any professional practitioners. Most of us see our words stolen and reproduced all over the net, with no redress. We also see our professional work published side by side with non-professional writing with no discrimination - I wonder how professional theatre practitioners would feel if they were required to work alongside self-selected amateurs wiith no differentiation in the programme ? Or filmed and repeated without any fees ?

It is actually harder to become a professional critic than an actor. The film critic Pauline Kael famously said: “If you think it so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter, may I suggest you try both ? You may discover why there so few critics and so many poets.”

For a start, there are fewer publications who use professional criticism and, credit where credit is due, the Western Mail is one of the few provincial papers to pay its critics, however paltry the fee, although it does also use reviews from non-professional critics, its own staff journalists, side-by-side with professional criticism.

But in Turin, since the increasing problem of provincial newspapers’ abandonment of their responsibility to pay for professional arts copy was one that doesn’t affect the critics of the national media, these local difficulties did not feature.

I want to concentrate on two of the several excellent talks. Porter Anderson is an American who is one of the exceptions to the rule I mentioned before: he was an actor and dancer, became a print-media critic and then moved to television; he is currently Senior Producer of and CNN Pipeline, the world’s first simultaneous live-stream internet news network, still writes as a critic and is a former vice president of IATC. In Turin he specifically addressed the problem of theatre criticism and the new media.

“Already,” he asserted, “there rages a major battle in cyberspace between the legitimate mainstream media and the ‘rogue’ media. The renegades are the self-appointed ‘news’ sites that have no journalistic checks and balances on what they report, no traditions of restraint and responsibility, and no dearth of on-line readers eager to consume and espouse their rumours as fact.

“There is a serious divide as bloggers, chat-room mavens and mass-email operations vie for newspaper readers and a television audience that once knew clearly how trustworthy each bit of information it found would be in a major daily newspaper or on a key television network’s broadcast…You knew what you had. You knew how to read it. Today’s audience on the internet may not know. And may not realise or care how important it is to know.”

Out there, he warned, was the dilemma of fanzines, blogs, chatrooms and websites - “frequently operated and patronised by folks who dislike such establishment figures as mainstream critics. Many have no expertise in the field at all and may be adamantly proud of the fact. They may have little regard and even disdain for our hard-working and our hard-won credentials and glistening curricula vitae.”

Anderson was speaking as one who felt that “mainstream” critics had to engage with these mavericks – not least because he is very involved with online journalism and is looking for CNN at the possibility of live streams to the internet of arts events. He himself is part of the new media.

Ian Shuttleworth is editor of Theatre Record, a respected theatre critic and commentator, mainly on the Financial Times, but also for a wide range of national newspapers and magazines – and online outlets.

He started his talk by admitting that he feared that criticism, particularly journalistic criticism, might not survive to the end of the lifetimes of some of those present. He referred to the use of non-critics (and often non-writers with no interest in theatre) as reviewers, the pressures from theatre practitioners to be supportive – and the “blogosphere” of online commentary.

He was, however, like most of us, positive about the profession. “Today,” said Shuttleworth, “even though we find ourselves competing for attention with the most vapid ephemera, we are also engaged in a much more dynamic exchange of views and ideas. We no longer pronounce and judge: we argue, advocate and advise. And we listen when others do likewise, We help explain culture to itself, not as part of a debate within a citadel, but within the totality of the ongoing national and global conversation.”

Ian Shuttleworth used a couple of phrases that stuck in my mind. He referred to the early days of the police force when officers had no greater powers of arrest or detention than any other citizen but were simply engaged to exercise those common powers: their status was summed up by a nineteenth-century judge when he described a policeman as “a uniformed member of the public”. Shuttleworth tried to approach most of his reviewing, he said, as a unformed member of the theatre-going public.

That isn’t a view shared by all critics, but it stated succinctly his position. It is remarkable that in any gathering of professional critics there will be little accord as to the role, function, qualities or responsibility of the critic. All we know is that each of us has somehow earned the right to be called a critic.

The other phrase he used was “mechanisms of authority”. On the net, he asked, what can you trust ?

“Authority does not inhere,” he said, “it is earned and conferred.”

But, he pointed out, “new-media modes of criticism simply have not been in existence long enough to evolve structures of conferment of authority.”

This is a somewhat coded way of saying that internet criticism is being done mainly by contributors with no proven ability or “conferred authority”. Old-media critics (like me, I guess) have no obvious successors because the websites, like this one, do not exercise any quality control, much less professional reward, and have no “mechanisms of authority”.

“The new-media sector had better find its mechanisms of conferring authority pretty quickly,” Shuttleworth said,” otherwise there may soon be no avenues or structures outside the academy for young critics to learn their craft and take their place in the mainstream of the cultural conversation.”

Shuttleworth’s case was backed up later by Porter Anderson, who after his impassioned plea for critics to face up to the increasing influence of new media suggested it is a matter of letting the web-reader know who to trust, and suggested a body like the IATC formulate a kind of “kite mark” standard or imprimatur – to belong to the IATC means there is at least a proven level of peer-approved competence. So you may soon see a tag on a review that may not convince all of you that the contributor is to be trusted but will at least offer authenticated credentials for those for whom it matters.

Indeed, cynics among you may still not consider the criticism of validated professionals any more worthy than the opinions of amateur reviewers, of course. But actually who is interested in anyone’s opinion ? A striking argument, yes. An original perspective, yes. An informed judgement, yes. A perceptive insight, yes. But an opinion ?

It strikes me that this idea of “opinion”, which I take to mean an unsubstantiated subjective assessment, has somehow been validated by the notion today that any one view or judgement on a piece of theatre should not be more highly regarded than another. I was with some friends recently, a social worker and a gardener (at the Welsh Botanical Gardens, as it happens) and we were having a fairly frivolous conversation about postmodernism – a condition that in general makes me feel quite unwell. What they both averred very enthusiastically was that the good thing about postmodernism was that it meant that their views on anything had an equal validity with anyone else’s.

Now these are intelligent and liberal-minded people and so I said nothing. Because I’ve always considered this mantra, “all views are equally valid”, to be merely the argument of the impotent and ignorant, the defence of the mediocre and the equivocatory, the excuse of the egotistic and exhibitionist, the smokescreen of the malcontent and the mischievous. It is both galling and defeatist for anyone who cares about culture and criticism.

Because my social-worker friend’s views on care in the community have much more value than mine; the gardener’s views on pruning and propogation have more value than mine; my views on theatre have more value than theirs.

Apart from this devaluing of specialised knowledge and specific skills, one of the things that worries professional critics like us is not that our elitist status is challenged but that there is no differentiation between the professional, the one who has proved their worth by being hired to criticise, and the hobbyist. At the end of the day theatre practice suffers – and much as some practitioners claim that critics are merely parasites, any art form will wither and die if criticism is not developed alongside the artform.

Websites like this one, and all others that I know, under the label of democracy and freedom of access, offer free space to anyone who wants to contribute (albeit in this case, only by commission to the reviews section) – and the embrace of the ethos of the “free” extends, crucially, to the rewards to the contributor: no money but the knowledge that their views are being read by thousands, maybe millions, of people. Say what you like about professional critics, none that I know do the job because they get any buzz out of knowing their words are read by lots of people.

Not that I would like to think that monetary reward is the only way of measuring quality. In fact I, like most professionals, write without a fee for publications I respect. Obviously not all paid-for contributions are valuable and not all freely-given contributions are valueless, but the test is this: if a website had to pay its contributors, and so place a financial value on their contributions, would they use any of them ? Few would be given any space at all, I suspect. In reality, the main value these contributions have is that are supplied free: a website like this one is in effect akin to vanity publishing. Other websites fill their cyberspace with reviews and articles that are all stolen from other sources, so cheating the original author of their means of making a living.

So where do we go from here ? Porter Anderson was probably the only really optimistic voice in the Turin Congress.

“I believe,” he said, “that in the future it’s the theatre critics who must lead both theatre artists and their audiences to find each other on the internet.

“I believe that we must encourage in our own cities, communities and countries, our own theatre’s internet websites…

“And I believe that we must be prepared to open out our work and our process and our hearts to these online amateurs through what internet aficionados hail as ‘interactivity’.”

What form would this “interactivity” take ? Not, if the scurrilous and opinionated commentary on this site is any example, by simply inviting critiques of criticism. But I for one do agree that all of us have to find a way to make internet criticism more trustworthy, more responsible, more valuable, more valued: over to you, Keith.

David Adams is a member of the British Critics’ Circle and of the International Association of Theatre Critics

author:David Adams

original source:
02 April 2006


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