Last week I held a seminar for The Stage Events for those interested in careers in arts journalism, in which I began by pointing out the obvious — that critics are everywhere in Edinburgh at the moment, so much so that it sometimes seems there are as many people reviewing shows as appearing in them.
If not more; there are plenty one man shows, and sometimes the audience will include half a dozen or more critics, though curiously not, as it happens, at Watt, Barry McGovern’s one-man distillation of Samuel Beckett’s novel that opened as part of the International Festival at the Royal Lyceum on Saturday evening and I was the only critic there that I recognised!)
So arts journalism would appear to be alive and thriving. Except that most of that small army of Edinburgh reviewers are unpaid. And that’s not just a sign of the times, but also a worrying harbinger of the future, for those wishing to make a career in the field.
Of course, it could be said that many, if not most, of those reviewing on the Edinburgh fringe for the various theatre websites (with the notable exception of The Stage, which does pay its contributors and also offers them accommodation) and pop-up outlets (like Three Weeks and the Broadway Baby fringe website which also distributes a daily printed sheet reviews digest, amongst others) are trading their work for experience (and, of course, access to free reviewing tickets).
All critics have to begin somewhere, I realise, and just as the fringe theatre model itself would be unsustainable if actors were paid a living wage for their work, so most of these publications could not exist if they similarly paid for the work at the same rates as nationals do year round.
But there’s also no question that the landscape of journalism is changing forever, and the models (and means of distribution) have changed faster in the last twenty years than the previous two hundred. The Edinburgh Fringe provides a nearly perfect working model of what the future may look like. Just as the Edinburgh fringe provides the ultimate form of democracy, where there are no barriers to entry and anyone can (and does) put on a show, so anyone and everyone can review them, too.
It’s often said that everyone’s a critic nowadays, though it’s not strictly true; rather, everyone has an opinion and the means to publish it, whether in the form of a 140-character tweet, a blog, a comment on a bulletin board or comments section attached to a professional review, or contributing to one of the aforementioned free outlets.
But then theatre criticism has always been about matters of opinion: there are, after all, no objective standards for judging what we write about. Nowadays, far from being the ultimate word on a production, critics are only the start of a conversation around it, not the end of it. That conversation, of course, is now richer and potentially deeper than ever before. Not always, I hasten to add; Twitter has made the conversation faster, broader and more interactive, to be sure, but not necessarily more in-depth. It has also famously made the dialogue often more abusive, too.
But other outlets, like blogs, have certainly expanded the number of voices that are now speaking (or writing) about the arts. But in an ever-changing media landscape, where dead-tree journalism is hurtling the way of the Dodo towards flightless oblivion, there’s a lot of noise to filter before you get down to the authority, such as it is (or was) of people actually appointed (rather than self-appointed) for their expertise and knowledge.
Ironically, in Edinburgh where many shows are only works in development and not fully formed, that expertise and experience is arguably more important, not less, to offer them careful, considered criticism, not blind enthusiasm where every show gets four or five stars.
On the other hand, it’s healthy, of course, that we no longer have the entire territory to ourselves. Now that everybody has an outlet, not just the professional critics, this could spell the death of professional criticism. But, actually, with the cacophony of voices out there, the critic who not only has something to say but is also listened to is more important than ever.
Again, Edinburgh provides the perfect example of this: amidst the welter of unknown by-lines, Lyn Gardner’s tenacity and dedication in seeking out the most interesting work makes her work all the more authoritative. (Easily the most off-beam show I saw in Edinburgh last week was Fat, a one-man performance piece by Pete Edwards, who has cerebral palsy; I saw it with an audience of less than ten, but when I mentioned it to Lyn, she told me she’d already seen it the day before).
That doesn’t, though, mean that an amateur critic can’t be one of those people who acquires authoritative weight. Earlier this year the academic and writer Jill Dolan won the George Jean Nathan Award, America’s biggest theatre criticism award, for her blog The Feminist Spectator.
Writing in a Guardian blog, Karen Fricker - a fellow academic and part-time critic - noted at the time, “One can’t also help but feel a pragmatism in the committee’s decision - opening up to bloggers means that they’ll continue to have people to give the award to.” Noting that veteran film critic J Hoberman had just been dismissed from New York’s Village Voice at the time, she pointed out that it was “but the latest in a long list of attritions in the ranks of quality American arts criticism, and the ongoing economic downturn will surely mean more papers closing down and/or letting staff critics go in favour of freelancers and wire copy in the coming months.”
George Hunka, another American theatre critic turned blogger, duly noted of Dolan’s award, “Anyone with access to the web can be a critic these days, but fewer and fewer people can actually make a living at it. Dolan, presumably, doesn’t get paid a dime for her blog, but has her academic income to support her.”
Over here, the West End Whingers have acquired authority, indeed global notoriety, because they write well and interestingly. By establishing a blog with not only a memorable name but also the fun, flippant approach to theatre that makes them memorable to read, too, they exemplify how bloggers can carve out a niche, identity and following all of their own. Again, however, they do not make a living out of their blog; it’s a hobby.
For more serious aspiring journalists, keeping a blog can be a form of self-advancement (and public self-advertising): instead of giving it away to outlets that, however little money they actually make, are nevertheless commercially driven, they are at least writing for themselves, under the own distinct banner, which can in turn get them noticed by other outlets that may pay.