Matt Trueman, 28 January 2013

This session has its roots in a regularly-voiced concern - sometimes a direct

accusation - that theatre critics don’t get out of London enough. It’s a problem; what

ought to a be a national conversation is dominated by one - admittedly sprawling and

vibrant - theatre scene. However, I also hoped that not-London would include theatre

cultures overseas, which are equally under-represented in British theatre criticism.

It’s worth noting that this question wasn’t seeking to address those mainstream critics

employed by large media organisations that can, should they wish/deem it important,

cover travel and accommodation expenses incurred in doing so. There is a wealth of

young critics - many working unpaid - who do not have such luxuries. Getting to a

show in, say, Plymouth will involve a train fee upwards of £39, a bed and breakfast at

around £35 and general food expenses. Even with a press ticket, such costs make a

trip like this very difficult, especially as/if the review is itself unpaid. And that’s before

the time spent away from one’s desk and/or other (paid) work. It’s hardly surprising,

then, that young critics opt to see the surplus of work in London rather than head into

regional theatres.

Some theatres, however, have paid a critic’s expenses themselves. This, it was

argued, is what a theatre’s press budget is for. This does, of course, raise the question

of critics accepting such hospitality and whether that may (unwittingly) compromise

their judgement. Second, it raises the matter of value for money. Often offers like this

are made in relation to festivals rather than individual shows, since the critic can see a

number of shows in a single trip. However, that doesn’t necessarily give a picture of

that theatre’s regular output.

Rather dispiritingly - from my point of view, at least - it became clear that the call for

critics to attend more regional theatre might actually be reducible to the mainstream

press alone. The benefits of a critic coming are a) that a review can sell more tickets

than local press alone and b) that it can carry more clout within the industry. (A three

star national review being worth more in these terms than a five star local review.)

These factors are unlikely to be the case with young, unpaid, independent critics.

Many work online in a way that doesn’t necessarily connect with local audiences.

Does that mean such young critics can’t provide sufficient value for a theatre’s


Though local arts journalists - the Yorkshire Post’s Nick Ahad being a prime example -

can provide brilliant coverage of a particular theatre scene, there are benefits to a

genuinely national perspective. Firstly, it’s very hard for London-based critics to argue

against, say, Newcastle’s local authority cuts without having been to Newcastle.

Second, in the long-term, emerging critics with an understanding of the UK’s theatrical

ecosystem(s) will prove beneficial to both theatre and theatre criticism. Besides, in the

immediate moment, it may not be a question of just thinking economically - will this

review pay the dividends of the expenses incurred in terms of tangible results, ticket

sales and/or influence. Criticism can be of benefit in other ways. Another plus was the

opportunity to see work in a local, rather than a London, context with the different

flavours, responses and reception that might entail. It was also noted that the quality of

local critics - particularly on national website such as What’s On Stage - can be

unknown and/or variable.

So, is this something that the Arts Council could fund. As far as anyone present knew,

ACE have not funded an individual theatre critic to date (though Dialogue are in the

process of exploring an application). Doing so might beg the question of the critic as

insider/outsider - but, in response, it was argued that criticism is an important part of

the wider ecology and, if it needs subsidy to become sustainable in the long-term, then

that could/should fall within ACE’s remit. It was pointed out that ACE’s openness to

funding emerging independent producers has shifted in recent years, as those

individuals have required support at the start of their careers.Another suggestion - one

that has apparently cropped up in a different on the D&D Roadshow events - involved

a consortia of theatres contributing small amounts, however some felt that this would

still require some tangible benefits in terms of a worthwhile platform.

Two models:

a) The Critic’s National Tour - either a critic or a group of critics spend a certain

amount of time (three-weeks/a month) stopping off in different areas around the

country. They see work across the region - in large regional theatres and smaller

venues, engage with local companies’ work and meet individuals that work in the area

- so that this becomes less about seeing a singule show and more about mapping an

ecology and exploring different locales in a fuller way: the who, the what, the where,

the how, the flavour. Theatres provide digs lists, local knowledge and help to

arrange/reduce costs for their own specific region. Is it possible to involve media

partners? How can this journey become a larger piece of work or a series of

articles/columns in order to a) provide the tangible results theatres crave and b) help

the critic(s) to earn some money en route. Ultimate ideal(istic) aim: a combination of

ACE funding (Strategic Touring Fund rather than Grants for the Arts, perhaps) and

theatres’ contributions (as consortia) to cover expenses, subsistence and provide a

basic living wage.

However, if this model just happens once it has less value than if it recurs. Yet, that’s a

big commitment for a single/group of critics over time. Could this become a regular

rolling position - a paid opportunity for emerging critics based on an application

process of some sort?

2) Critic(s) to apply to ACE for an annual figure to enable travel around the country.

Figure necessitates seeing a certain amount of shows outside London annually. If the

critic is to retain some freedom of choice, how does this impact on coverage. Critics

need to engage with RSC, Chichester, Sheffield etc, but these are already getting a

fair amount of press as is. However to impose otherwise would compromise the critic’s


The appeal, however, is to enable a critic to compete in terms of regional coverage on

a year round basis, giving a fuller picture of the national landscape than is possible at

the moment. In a way, this functions almost like a retainer. What it might not do is a)

solve the problems of time as cost, ie provide a fee to match work that could have

been done at home and b) have the status as ‘event’ that would enhance earning

potential (though travel could allow freelance critics wider scope to pitch future

features with a regional slant in tandem with the show being reviewed.)

International work was briefly covered and it was noted that there are opportunities

through the ACE international travel fund, the IATC (open to Critics’ Circle members)

as well as other sources of funding from around the EU or individual festivals

themselves. A note of warning was sounded that this could leave a critic out of the

major conversation, but that’s just a ‘problem’ to be weighed against the potential


This report is too late to make the actioning session, but Matt Trueman is going to look

into the possibilities of the annual Critics on Tour model.


CRITICISM, Theatre Critics, Arts council, Londoncentricity, Young Critics, International

Theatre, Strategic Touring Fund, arts council, criticism, Arts Council, Regional

Theatre, Criticism