It is no secret that theatre has a diversity problem and, that is a stew that only thickens when we look at the state of theatre criticism. At the end of 2016, it was reported that there were no critics of colour working at national newspapers and, the situation is just as abysmal on other platforms. That’s not to say that a few initiatives haven’t popped up in an attempt to change the landscape, but these opportunities are few and far between and, the accessibility of certain schemes in questionable. In light of this, it is no surprise that Act for Change, an initiative that strives to strengthen diversity in the live and recorded arts, decided to bring about a live, forward thinking discussion to address this imbalance: Widening the Lens.
The day opened with two speeches (from Alistair Smith, Editor of the Stage and Grace Ladoja, director), the former of which explored the current landscape of theatre criticism as a whole while the latter explored the importance of broad perspective and appreciation of the arts, and the importance of engaging young people within this dialogue. Alistair actively dispelled myths surrounding the ‘cushy’ life of the theatre critic and drew our attention to the growing issue of plummeting salaries and lack of job security whilst Grace shared anecdotes from the grime scene to stress to us the importance of bringing about change and engaging those who are often ignored. Both stressed the point of the contribution that criticism offers to the industry. And with these important words shared with openness to the room ventured into a panel discussion that took a closer look at the current landscape and state of British theatre criticism.
Welcome to the stage: Lyn Gardner (national theatre critic), Matthew Xia (associate artistic director at Royal Exchange), Megan Vaughan (theatre blogger and PhD candidate), Chris Tookey (national film and theatre critic), Lindsay Johns (writer and broadcaster) and Alistair Smith (editor of The Stage). When Alistair offers up the unsurprising question, ‘Is theatre criticism under threat?’, we are met with the usual reiterations of arts journalism being in great danger and this mostly being due to a cultural shift in the media. This is nothing new. We’re all aware that people just don’t pay for physical papers anymore and with more and more media outlets going online by the day, I doubt this industry will make the comeback that paperbacks did when they were under threat. The internet is a much meaner and suspicious competitor than a wealth of e-books that’s for sure. However, there is a key investment in the publishing industry of wanting to balance and harmonise the co-existence of paperbacks and digital editions. Whereas in the media, particularly when we focus on criticism, it has become very much a cost cutting exercise and within this we lose a wealth of arts journalism alongside seeing a lack of support for established voices, never mind emerging critics. The latter of which has likely had a great deal of influence in the rise of the theatre blogger.
Lyn stressed that it is in the industry’s interest to invest in theatre bloggers and the contribution that they offer to the theatre world. A topic that Megan Vaughan honed in on given that her PhD research examines the theatre blogging community. She made the controversial but nonetheless important suggestion that in order to level the playing field between critics and bloggers, we need to remove some of the power from mainstream media and that will loosen the stronghold that the more traditional voices have on the industry. This statement is charged but with good reason because if we’re having a discussion about diversifying the voices in criticism then naturally that suggests a shift in power and in platforming. Matthew added that traditional routes into criticism have led to the formation of a narrow opinion pool.
However this conversation then took a swift turn into a problematic realm. Lindsay Johns described his fascination with the intersections of art and race but then continued to speak of how the lack of a Black British middle class is part of the issue in this debate and, how the classics such as Dickens offer us ‘rigor and eloquence’. His speech only turned more sour when he described ‘great art’ as ‘timeless and universal’ but shunned “you get me blud” plays and wanted to see another aspect of the Black experience. Now talking about art within the western dimensions of high and low culture is never the wised route to take. But for a man of colour in an industry that is sparse of POC to share these narrow generalisations that project onto black art in this manner is dangerous. It is fine for something to not be to someone’s taste and I am not suggesting that he should like plays that would fit within his categorisation. However, to suggest that this art isn’t great because it doesn’t follow the traditional grammatical rules of English is absurd. And as for universality, that is a concept that should be described as an old wive’s tale that belongs with Disney – what is universal in the west or rather for those who view the world with a wholly western gaze is not universal elsewhere. Universality is a nonsense buzzword that means very little beyond churning out more work that resembles the classics to appease those who align themselves with original dead guys that wrote them in the first place.
Grace Ladoja, Matthew Xia and members of the audience challenged Lindsay’s comments. But, the debate took a whole new life on twitter when playwright, Bola Agbaje tweeted her experience of Lindsay commenting on her “you get me blud” play and expressed the importance of how writing from experience speaks to a whole new group of people. She also stressed the essential point that white writers are not expected to represent all white people, so why is there still an expectation on Black writers to represent all Black people. The idea that we as Black people are representatives for our entire race is inherently flawed and poor logic, yet we are still assumed to be such. Plus, when we sit down and examine this in the context of theatre conveying the Black experience, there are plenty of angles being explored. However, many Black artists are working with little to no funding and in smaller venues, which critics fail to go to. And so the question of diversifying critical voices and the material that is reviewed continues in its circular, non-solution based cycle.
The second panel conversation, chaired by Shami Chakrabarti, was opened up to the audience to ask questions and share their thoughts. This stretched from comments on the dire state of arts and education funding in the UK to references to schemes that aim to change the state of criticism such as The Stage’s BAME/POC placement scheme and the Royal Exchange’s Greater Manchester Theatre Critics Scheme. There was a lot of talk of encouraging bloggers to seek opportunities outside of the current industry structure, however this raises issues around fostering a culture of working for free – something that is already rife within the arts world. Plus searching for these opportunities is a task that’s likely just as challenging as completing Fort Boyard – but without the downpour of gold at the end.
Conferences like Widening the Lens are always a great start to opening a dialogue that welcomes more voices into the mix. However, the difficulty is that these events often lead to lively debate but do not produce action points or a continuation of the conversation beyond the walls that they took place in. Yes, this event was important and necessary but what’s needed now is some actual action. We all know that change doesn’t happen over night but an ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ attitude doesn’t make much of a difference either. I am curious to see what initiatives and follow up conversations arise from this. But, I’m also proud of A Younger Theatre’s continued efforts to broaden the wealth of voices who write for us and become more representative of our readership and society. This is something we do because it is not only necessary but because young people are the future and, poor representation and lack of inclusion need to be left in the past.
The internet is a great tool for changing and challenging cultural landscapes but what we also need now is for the top of the industry hierarchy to widen its lens, to look beyond the white middle aged, middle class, Oxbridge educated, male gaze that it has comfortably resided in and, rethink what criticism is and can be. Within the current constructs of the industry and a growing push for diversity and inclusion, it’s becoming all too simple to sit and discuss diversity but to remain inactive in making change or pass up responsibility. And this is why when an audience member asked the panellists what they, individually, were doing to challenge the state of play, it was disappointing that this topic was mostly talked around but not directly addressed.
However, an important thought to take away from this conversation around diversifying theatre criticism shared by Matthew Xia is that it is not about changing the lens, but about introducing lots more lens. The task at hand is to make space for those lens and that is something we can all actively work towards together.
Widening the Lens took place at the National Theatre on October 19th 2017. Find highlights on twitter using the hashtag #AFCDEBATE17