The thing about being a theatre critic, or a critic of any art form, is that you can often feel like you’re standing in front of a locked door, trying to find a way to get in. For example, you may give a show a very positive review only to have your work ignored by the PR team, who choose reviews from a bigger publication over yours. When you write for a smaller, or less established publication, you are the smallest fish in the biggest pond, a pond that only becomes more vast when thoughtless PRs make comments like: “Oh, glad you’re all here, but just to let you know we were really hoping for FAMOUS SUCCESSFUL CRITIC to come along.” And yes, this did happen to a friend of mine as they stood in the foyer of a theatre, with other local critics waiting to review a show.
Sometimes you’re popular; the phone never stops ringing, the emails never stop dropping into your inbox, and these emails are quickly joined by follow-up emails, checking that you received the first email. Sometimes your website crashes because of the sheer number of people trying to get on it to read reviews and get your email address to tell you about another show that you have to review. Other times, friends you haven’t seen or heard from for a while will leap out of the ether, inviting you to review their new show, saying, ” We must catch up, it’s been too long!” only for your enthusiastic response to go unnoticed; calls are missed, texts are forgotten, and back into the ether they go. You have no idea how much we critics suffer, I mean, really.
I’m being dramatic here, but the truth is, that being a critic can be a lonely existence sometimes; spending long nights in front of the computer, trying to write your seventh review of the day, is necessary, it’s what we signed up for when we took the first step on the broken cobbled road that leads to becoming a critic. But that doesn’t mean that these nights are easy, or enjoyable, and sometimes they can be pretty isolating – have you ever stayed up so late that nobody else seems to be on Twitter? It’s very odd.
While I can’t speak for other critics, I put everything I have at that moment into my reviews, but even then, I have off days. I’ve had days where summing up a simple synopsis takes too long, and days when my writing is so poor, and so utterly unreadable that I’m begging my editor for a late pass so I can attempt to completely rewrite the piece. I’ve had weeks when the prospect of writing another review fills me with dread, when writer’s block has had me staring at a blank word document wondering what the Hell I am doing and why on earth I keep doing this to myself.
I’ve had days when comments on my work have made me glad I chose this path, and days when a simple error on a review, or an omitted piece of information has The Reader completely doubting me, my work and my reasons for reviewing. As a reviewer you get used to the angry commenter’s cry of, “Oh, what do you know, you’re just a failed and bitter director/actor/producer/playwright.” Although, from experience, I’ve found the commenters that are the most vicious and the most personal in their insults of a critic are usually connected to the show that I’ve reviewed – whether they are directly involved with the show in some way, or they are related to someone in the production.
That is not to say critics are infallible, because no one is. It’s impossible to never make mistakes. Errors can range from spelling and grammatical errors, to factual howlers and even, wait for it, a lack of writing talent. Every critic has a different style; you get the A.A. Gills of the world who seem to delight taking cruel swipes at those in the spotlight (remember what he said about Professor Mary Beard?) There are others who specialise in schmoozing; the ‘Star Fuckers’, who slither up to actors and directors to tell them facetiously how wonderful they are, and how much they enjoyed their work, before desperately attempting to become part of their entourage. One of my biggest pet peeves is the critic who just wants to see shows for free, because for these critics, their writing is just an afterthought – these are the critics that give the rest of us a bad name. The ones that don’t fact check, make sweeping statements, offend the director and the actors with their poor words, the ones that arrive late to shows, the ones that are rude to press officers, PRs and FOH staff. I have no time for these people, and frankly, neither should anyone in the industry, this is not the way to move criticism forward.
So, this morning, I read, with interest, Jethro Compton’s Angry Young Man blog post, in which he argued passionately that the relationship between the media and the theatre industry must change, and I whole-heartedly agree. Although I believe that when Mr Compton refers to ‘Edinburgh’ in the post he means the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and not just the city itself, and that being an unprofessional writer doesn’t automatically mean that you are a bad writer. I could be defined as not being professional, simply because I don’t get a regular income from my writing, something which my bank account likes to remind me. Yet, I would say that my writing style is more professional than amateur.
The theatre industry critics need each other in order to survive, and as a new generation of theatre makers and arts journalists are swelling the ranks on either side, we must come to a mutual understanding of our intertwined industries. Criticism, for me, comes out of my respect and love of the arts; I don’t want to see anyone fail, I simply want to see them creating pieces that they, and by extension, I, can be proud of.
I am an Angry Young Woman, and critics and theatre practitioners both work in industries where our errors, failures and other issues are played out in public, so let’s break down the barriers and smash open the locked doors that sit between us and let’s get the theatre industry and the press working together, so that we can all start yelling, and yelling together about the ongoing issues that affect the media and the arts.