Lyn Gardner writes about Stagedoor, a new app changing the way we access and view theatre, as well as the constant need for fresher critical voices.
When I started writing about theatre in the 1980s I was unusual. I was a woman, I hadn’t been to Oxbridge and I was young, in my early twenties. I was writing for a listings magazine—City Limits, then the largest publishing co-operative in Europe. Most of my colleagues wrote for the broadsheet newspapers and they were overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and middle class.
At that time, it was only possible to write about theatre and express your thoughts about it in public if you had a platform, and until the advent of digital, that really meant that you had to write for a broadsheet newspaper.
It was the broadsheet newspapers who defined what was valued in the culture because they reviewed it and acted as gatekeepers by proclaiming what they thought was good, and dismissing what they thought was not. Inevitably those judgements were coloured by education and background. What made the listings magazines of the 1980s different from the newspapers is that, although they covered the mainstream, they also sought out the companies and artists who were being ignored.
Times change, and I got older. Much older. I joined The Guardian and tried as best I could (but it was always a struggle) to keep writing about the companies and artists flying under the radar. Now there are many platforms where anyone can write about theatre, from sites such as A Younger Theatre and Exeunt, to personal WordPress blogs and Twitter. Suddenly everyone can talk about what they have seen.
Some claim that this diminishes the experts (those of us who go to the theatre five or six nights a week), but I reckon it just adds to the richness of the stew. The louder, the more diverse and the more wide-ranging the conversation around theatre, the better it is for theatre itself.
I reckon that it is no surprise that the explosion of a more radical, interesting theatre practice of the last 10 years coincided with more people blogging about theatre and offering an alternative view to the pronouncements of the broadsheet newspapers and winkling out companies and artists who would seldom get coverage in the mainstream press. Sites like this one have played their part in this, as have indefatigable reviewers writing for their own blogs. What’s been great about this is the way it opens up who can write about theatre, but also how it allows for greater dialogue between those who make it and audiences. As theatre has become more process-led and less product-led that is important.
The new kid on the block is Stagedoor, a free to download app which provides a comprehensive guide of what is going on in London theatre. Through a bit of tech wizardry, it helps you customise your experience so you can keep track of the artists and theatres that you’re most interested in – whilst also helping you discover new shows outside of your comfort zone. Rather than serving up the same narrow range of theatre to everyone, this personalised approach gives more space to artists working outside the mainstream. One of the things that I immediately realised when I first downloaded the app was the way that it operates as a kind of Spotify for theatre. One of the pleasures of Spotify is the way it helps you listen to bands and musicians that you might not normally have sought out. Stagedoor does the same thing for theatre. It amplifies. Its curation encourages would-be audiences to take a chance and seek out shows which might otherwise not be on their radar.
When it comes to criticism, one of the things I love about Stagedoor is that my voice is only part of the mix. It is home to a community of audience members who are constantly sharing their perspectives on what they’re watching. They are all in dialogue with each other and with theatre itself. By bringing them all together in one place, rather than spread across the twitter-sphere, the app makes it easier to discover what’s going on outside of your social media bubble.
I have just started reviewing for Stagedoor and I’m looking forward to continuously evolving what I will be writing for them. It’s exciting because we’re approaching it as an on-going work in progress, and one that will never be set in stone. I would never be able to submit a review in haiku for a national newspaper but, who knows, maybe for Stagedoor I will, if that feels like the most appropriate response. All I know is that I want to build on the last 35 years when I have tried to be more of a midwife than a gatekeeper. At Stagedoor, I’m making sure that I cover the new, the often ignored and the innovative. The very work which, as broadsheets budgets for arts coverage are slashed, is always the first to go.
As Stagedoor encourages audiences to be braver, and I hope that it will make me a braver and more unpredictable critic too – not just in what I choose to see but how I write about it too. Theatre thrives on bravery and so does criticism. I am looking forward to the challenge and continuing to be part of the conversation with all those writing about theatre, here on this site, on Stagedoor or wherever it is taking place.