A few days ago I attended 'Leading London Theatre Critics In The Spotlight' at Royal Holloway University. This event was, for me, an exciting one. Lyn Gardner, Mark Shenton, Ian Shuttleworth and Kate Bassett in one room? I entered the dark studio with an anticipation rivalling that of a child on their first day of school; I was ready to be inspired. I was not disappointed, particularly with Lyn Gardner. Her contribution as a theatre critic to the theatre world is not only insightful, but it is admirable. Unlike other London critics, she ventures outside the big city to support regional theatres and shows which do not boast the likes of Jude Law of Keira Knightley. Although this is not to diminish the respectability of the other critics. It is the sad truth of the situation that under the pressures of the recession, theatre critics are not provided with the expenses to travel out of the city. Worse news still, with no money in the newspaper business and the rise of free blogging sites such as this, why is there a need to pay struggling theatre critics when there are so many online going unpaid?
Now this is not the first time I have heard all of this. In fact, this is the third time I have been warned off my career path, and even though this time it is by the top end theatre critics who even worry about keeping their jobs, I am not going to give up before I have even begun. This could be a terrible mistake that sees me near enough wasting a year of my life with no income or means of supporting myself, but who knows? I could just get lucky.
What worries me more in fact is how the lack of 'expert' theatre critics will affect the reception of theatre and performance. With The Times employing in-house staff such as culture columnist Libby Purves to replace Benedict Nightingale as the new drama critic (a position that comes around once in a blue moon) to cut costs, it is difficult to see how, at age 60, she can even find the working years left in her to fill his almighty boots. It takes years of experience, preferably some notion of what it is like to work in the theatre world, and a great interest in performance to be heard and respected by someone like myself, a mere student. I listen to the experts because they are exactly that. They know more about it than me, they have been around longer, seen many more shows and written tens of thousands of words in their time. They know what they are doing. Who do I listen to if all the experts die out?
What is of even further concern is how contemporary theatre will be affected. It is my belief that there will always be some instances where contemporary performance is better understood or appreciated by someone who has experience with new styles of theatre; someone who can contextualise a company with other works they have produced; someone who understands what the whole point of a piece is. It is true that in some cases contemporary theatre fails, and this can be determined by most audience members, with or without the background knowledge, but do we want to risk not going to see a new and exciting piece of theatre because the reviewer (through no fault of their own) just didn't get it? Even the critics who have been around a while have got it wrong from time to time so what chance does anyone else have? My theories are yet to proved, but I know that if the reviews of an ignorant, inexperienced critic become detrimental to the progress of contemporary theatre, the editor will have a lot of people to answer to. Lets just hope Livvy Purves does justice to her new title.