The other day Libby Purves — celebrating her first anniversary in the hot seat as chief theatre critic of The Times after Benedict Nightingale’s retirement — wrote a piece in which she listed ten things she’d learnt as a theatre critic, such as the fact that anything written in pitch darkness is illegible (but the act of writing fixes things in your mind). I could have told her that before she began, but it’s the sort of thing you need to find out for yourself to actually believe it.
But it was her first entry that is even more obvious once you’re on the inside track, and difficult for those outside to really understand. “There are more opening nights, and more theatres, than you would believe possible.” She went on to point out that there are “twenty or thirty reviewing possibilities every week across the country”, and trying to keep “an accurate list is like wrestling an impulsive and garrulous giant octopus.”
And trying to cover it all is simply an impossibility. But all those shows are dying for coverage. Critics are inundated with requests all the time by people asking you to see their show; and while this is often professionally managed by armies of in-house publicity officers and external freelance PR agencies, there’s also, inevitably, the personal approach. The other day I was en route to hosting a post-performance talk at the National with James Corden and two of his fellow actors from One Man, Two Guvnors when an actor followed me across the foyer and approached me with a leaflet about a show he’s about to appear in.
And now there’s twitter and Facebook, too, I’m regularly approached there as well. I really don’t mind — as long as those approaching me don’t mind being told no. But in the solipsistic frame of reference that some of them exist in, they are the centre of their own universe and nothing and no one is as important.
Just yesterday I foolishly entered into a less than fruitful correspondence with one playwright who churns out a lot of plays — and puts them on in very small venues for very short runs. He sends out the press releases himself and of course it’s easy to miss them in the endless flurry of e-mails we routinely get. But this time he sent a personal note. I replied, patiently explaining the reasons I couldn’t come — whereas, naturally, there was only one answer he really wanted to hear that of course I would.
In the often solipsistic frame of reference that (would-be) artists live in, in which they are at the centre not just of their world but also want the rest of it to revolve around them, getting their latest work seen is the only thing that matters. So it’s no good explaining that there were other things that I had to do and see instead; he replied, “You didn’t patiently explain anything. You patronised me. Disrespected me by making me feel less important than others. I asked you to come and see my play, you should have just said no - or nothing at all.”
And that is indeed perhaps a better approach. Entering into a discussion gets you nowhere when the person at the other end only wants one outcome and you can’t give it to them. It’s quite simple, really: the only answer necessary is that it’s not on my schedule. But of course I routinely create a rod for my own back by being the sort of person who does try to cover a wide range of shows. It would be much easier to simply cover, as some of my colleagues do, just two or three shows a week.
There could, in fact, be benefits to doing so, too. Just yesterday Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, a professional organisation who seek to encourage theatregoing and educate theatregoers, wrote a blog for the New York Times saying, “I believe there is such a thing as too much theater. I don’t mean that there is too much produced. Rather, I believe that - as in all things - going to the theater four or five times a week, week in and week out, isn’t good for you, and indeed, I think it hampers your ability to be a good theatergoer, contradictory as that sounds.”
In other words, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. As he goes on to say, “We experience theater very differently than other forms. We can pick up and put down reading at will, start and stop a CD, and now the DVR lets us pause during live events on TV. In theater, unless we are very privileged, we must attend to every moment or we may never see it again. That single-minded focus can be wearying. So like any exercise, muscular or mental, it’s important to vary our routine to insure the greatest gain.”
Likewise, too, he suggests that we need to experience theatre in a wider context. “I also believe that all forms of culture — high and low, academic and general — have an impact on our perception of every other form, and to consume only one with a single-minded passion diminishes the ability to appreciate it most fully. I don’t pretend to comprehend everything that Tom Stoppard writes, but I was surely helped along in Arcadia by high school science.”
Many theatre critics, myself especially included, are guilty of pursuing theatre far too doggedly to get a wider frame of cultural reference. When you’re at the theatre five or six nights a week (plus matinees often in my case), for instance, you’re never in to watch television. Of course, in an age of Sky boxes and iPlayer, you could always catch up later; but I never do. So instead of working out how to squeeze in seeing yet another show, I’m going to just say no, and try to stay at home.
As Howard Sherman writes, “I strongly suspect that if you attend to more of the world, to all that’s available to you, then the world of theater will be ever richer, and its effects ever more profound. I’ll even suggest that “off nights” spent just talking with family, with friends, will bolster your ability to connect with theater (since I hope you do not converse with them during shows).”