The value of criticism: an interview with Mark Shenton

The value of criticism: an interview with Mark Shenton

10 April 2017

Mark Shenton is the lead theatre critic for The Stage. Kate Wyver sat down with him to ask for some advice

“So I told them: fuck you.”

We must value our own work if we are to expect others to do the same. This is the message Mark Shenton makes clear as he tells the story of being fired from the Sunday Express, after 11 years as their chief theatre critic, only to be emailed by The Huffington Post a day later, asking for free labour. The Huffington Post received the above response.

Shenton is emphatic that journalists should not give their work away for free. While he understands that most critics need to start writing for free in order to build experience and a following, and acknowledges that writing for a website such as A Younger Theatre or Exeunt is acceptable as they’re not commercial sites, he states, “If you write for free for a commercial publication you’re writing your own suicide note.” In those cases, money is being made. It's just not being made by you.

He is emphatic in where he places the blame for the state of arts journalism as he cites the example of The Huffington Post. A few years ago, founder Arianna Huffington sold the publication for more than $300 million, yet the site relies on free labour. “Perhaps it’s over anyway,” Shenton ponders on the future of journalism. “Perhaps there won’t be a job for you in 10 years time, but if there isn’t, it’s because of The Huffington Post. It’s a successful business that has built its business on not paying journalists. It has single-handedly killed journalism.”

Shenton’s words may not be the most reassuring or optimistic, but at least they are honest. For those who want to pursue criticism, he is still encouraging. He has come to NSDF for the first time, and although he can only stay for a few days (as he has to get back to London for the Olivier awards), he is generous with the little time he has, leading a workshop, seeing some of the shows and spending several hours with the team from Noises Off unpicking the difficulties of arts journalism.

He is incredibly supportive of the platform this festival provides: “It’s really important to help to nurture new talent, and to show people the range of possibilities on offer.” He sees the workshop programmes as the most valuable part of the festival, providing the chance to talk to and learn from industry professionals. “NSDF is not a place where you start, it’s a place where you grow.”

This applies to young critics, too. “It’s a great training ground.” Learning your way and forming your own tastes as a critic, he says, is “all about exposure to different types of art”.

When reviewing student theatre, the line between wanting to be analytical and truthful can be difficult to navigate, particularly when you’re not a show’s biggest fan. Shenton strives to “always travel hopefully”, but the nature of the job guarantees some disappointment. The critic’s responsibility to a reader is to not to let them waste their money, so honesty reigns. “You’ve got to be as constructive as you possibly can be.”

“The great cliche”, he says, “is if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. If I can, that’s what I prefer to do. But sometimes I’ve got an editor waiting for the review and I have to write it because there’s space to fill.” When dealing with a tricky show, he offers the reminder that a review is only one person’s truth. “It’s all subjective.” There is always a line to be drawn between truthful and offensive. “You have to go out there and be bold and make a statement. But our job isn’t to kill dreams.”

So what is our job? “Nowadays of course, everyone's a critic because of social media. There’s so much noise on the internet, so many voices shouting at each other.” This is why there’s such a need for experienced critics, he says. “We need somebody to rise above the noise.” Shenton makes a clear distinction between being authoritative and being right. “There’s no such thing as right or wrong in criticism. You’ll know my writing comes from a position of passion and hopefully some kind of authority, which is all a critic can do. You can only bring your passion and integrity and authority to it.”

One of the major topics of discussion at NSDF this year is diversity, or rather the lack of it. Shenton touches on this issue in criticism. “In this country we still do not have a single black or Asian critic in a major publication.” So how can we change this? “It’s the classic thing of if you build it they will come.” While ultimately a person appointed in the role of the critic “must be the best voice”, he suggests that papers need to make more of a conscious effort to invite in diverse voices. After all, if those voices aren’t nurtured, it only makes it harder for them to become those authoritative voices.

Shenton’s best advice for young critics, aside from not giving work away for free? “See as much as you can, and write. Write, write, write.”

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