Backseat driver

Backseat driver

28 March 2018

 Joanna Trainor explores the power of criticism

The group at Monday’s discussion came up with a whole range of ideas on how we can fix theatre. Only two people spoke about criticism and how that could change to help the industry.

One person asked for reviewers to be paid (please, there’s only so long you can eat cup-a-soup for). And the other comment was from the artistic director of Paper Finch, Joe Bunce, who spoke about the relationship between critics and artists. Bunce believes that there is a “reflexive relationship between criticism and the industry that creates a cultural conversation. Theatre-makers and buildings rely on it being written.”

Although nice in theory, for Bunce the London-centric focus of reviews means that important and challenging shows are being left out of “theatre history". He said, “People read The Stage or The Guardian or theatre blogs and they’re getting such a fraction of what the industry is.” Bunce points to The Flood that was on at Victoria Dock in Hull last year as a prime example of this. “Half a million people engaged with this piece and none of the national critics came to see it.” The Guardian and The Stage both sent writers, but you can see what he’s getting at.  

Associate editor at The Stage, Mark Shenton, sees critics as being a representative for the audience. “By and large we are not responding to the artists, or writing for the actors," he said. "We are responding on behalf of the audience as critics in the national press.” Shenton’s idea of criticism sounds a bit like a secret club that artists aren’t welcome to, rather than the 'all in this together' vibe that Bunce is speaking about. It’s not a reviewer’s job to think about ticket sales when they write their copy, but that doesn’t mean that criticism can’t have a role to play in the theatre-making process.

NSDF feels like the right space for that, and even Shenton can see that “critics and performers are in a dialogue with each other” at the festival. “What I think is unique about NSDF is that there is a formal channel for critical voices through Noises Off – it’s an integral part of the landscape here. And that those voices are carried through to the public discussions.”

Bunce pushes this further, envisioning Noff as a “nurturing” publication for the artists. “The responsibility, I think, is on the editor to create a narrative that isn’t completely condemnatory of an artist.”

It will be interesting to see how companies take on what’s being said here. If and how they will take on conversations they’ve had at the bar, comments from the discussions or even lines from our reviews. One producer even said that after some encouragement from Shenton, his company decided that they do want to take their show up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and are now actively looking for venues.

See, criticism can change theatre!


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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca