Theatre in Wales

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Critiquing the Critics

Theatre Critic Book

Kalina Stefanova- Who Keeps the Score on the London Stages? , Harwood Academic Publishers , October 1, 2018
Theatre Critic Book by Kalina Stefanova- Who Keeps the Score on the London Stages? A new month begins, an October 1st with a difference. It begins my last season of writing about performance in Wales. The ending to come of a chapter, whose length was never intended, prompted the re-reading over the summer of a brace of theatre books. Some are forgettable, books of and for the moment. But some of the authors deserve to be remembered. Kalina Stefanova is one of them.

Hers is a book that is different. It was published in the year 2000. The National Library does not hold a copy. The largest bookseller site has a few copies on offer, its price averaging £100. It was probably read in small quantities at the time; it appears here only because it turned up nine years ago on the shelves of the Oxfam bookshop in Aberystwyth's Great Darkgate Street. I read it in 2009 and, in this time of retrospection, again in August. Much of the content is anecdotal and forgettable. Nonetheless, even if its readership was ever likely to be narrow, its 210 pages hold much of interest.

Kalina Stefanova won a Fulbright Visiting Scholarship to the Department of Performing Arts at New York State University. The year was 1990 and she was from Bulgaria. She followed the period in the USA with a British Council Scholarship to City University. From the USA time she published “Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?” This book is the British counterpart. Formally, it is made of 19 authorial questions to a range of theatre professionals. The answers, printed verbatim, are of varying length, ranging from a paragraph to a page. The selection of interviewees is formidable, comprising 28 critics, 15 dramatists and directors, 5 producers and 6 publicists. Nick Hern, the one publisher, also contributes.

For an academic imprint Stefanova's approach puts empiricism before theoretical considerations. Her own direct writing is contained within an 8-page conclusion. Her judgement on the critical scene of her survey is “a very worthy and admirable model of theatre criticism- an exemplar of the golden middle way.” This middle way is one that distinguishes London from both USA and Europe. On the nature of the critic: “Not a star who calls the shots, as is the case in New York. Neither a lofty scholar nor a biased insider, as is mostly the case in Eastern Europe.” The effect of those formative years in pre-1989 Bulgaria is evident.

The making of the book took place in another century. The Web had been in existence for eight years but was the domain of a small minority. James Christopher remembers the time before. At Edinburgh in 1986 the newspaper for which he was writing folded. He had the use of a photocopier and printed his own. In A3 format with a run of 1,000 the information had a value and it was priced at £0.20 a piece. These were different days.

A minority of the interviewees hold teaching jobs in universities but most have a background in plain journalism. Jeremy Kingston at Punch was a restaurant critic for 6 years. Alastair Macaulay at the Financial Times did dance, then music before theatre. Jack Tinker was an exception. “When I was about 12, I decided I wanted to be a critic.”

That journalism paid and the critics write about occasional flights to Moscow or Beijing. The rooting in journalism means that the prose has to be readable. It also has to be grammatical. The fight for space and greater word-count is a consistent topic. Lyn Gardner: “good theatre criticism requires space but newspaper editors don't want to give it.” John Gross writes of the stylistic tradition: “English [sic] journalism is more casual than American journalism in general. English writing tends to be more personal, ironical and nuanced.” Matt Wolf, an American in London, points to the advantage here: “British critics have just seen more.”

John Elsom provides a comment that does sound British. “The death of the critic is when they become slick, when they use the same adjectives or phrases, like the same things and lose any connection between the theatre and life. This could lead to a self-obsessed and rather masturbatory activity. Critics can easily become narcissistic.”

The book does not take the lid of the theatre of Britain as a whole. It is London and Stratford. One of the interviewees comments on the resilience and vitality of regional theatre. It is theatre that is made from plays and dramatists. The Fringe gets small mention so it is a view from the centre. But then the centre is an impressive one.

Relations between makers and commentators are mainly cordial. Michael Billington recalls the cuffing he received from David Storey, an incident that was amplified in the retelling. But more common is “there are at least half a dozen critics whose responses are intelligent and whose work I listen to.” Arnold Wesker says of the ones whom he rates highest: “you get a sense that they care about the theatre. If something excites them, it's a discovery.”

Alan Ayckbourn: “the best criticism is written by those with a genuine love for the theatre who want to convey their enthusiasm to their readers.”

Sir Alan has it.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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