Dan Barnard, 27 January 2013

What stories are we not telling?

How can we work together to tell them better?

What can we do about the star system?

This session was a a merged session, combining one that Dan Barnard from fanSHEN

had called on the star system and one that Maddy Costa had called on the stories that

critics are not telling and how we can work together to tell them better; how critics can

advocate better for theatre and artists.

Star Ratings

We discussed why the star system was an emotional subject - there was a feeling that

it was unfair on the artists, the reviewers and audiences because it reduced the

months or years of work making a show and the time the critic had spent watching,

reflecting upon and writing about the show into a tiny piece of (reductive?) information

that took only seconds to absorb. Some artists though argued that they liked the star

system - because of the speed and also because whether positive or negative we can

use them to promote our work.

The model that Little White Lies use to review films was discussed - where the

experience has a rating for anticipation, for enjoyment and in retrospect. One of the

critics present said that she felt strongly about the retrospect element - that it is

challenging with deadlines because often a few days later you feel differently about an

experience - it has affected you in a different way. There was discussion about how

this might not be possible to represent in print and perhaps even on the websites of

printed media, but it should be possible for exclusively online reviews for the critic to

log on and alter their review - and they should feel empowered to do that.

Maddy Costa talked about a project that she did with Jake Orr called Dialogue which

has reflected a lot on theatre criticism today. Some of the discussion that came out of

this was that theatre makers actually think of each other in terms of star ratings - and

also put them outside their buildings and on their websites. If we want them not to be

used perhaps we should stop using them. Someone had actually done this for a show

at Ovalhouse - which had actually received high star ratings but she didn't pin them to

her flyers - which perhaps had made people think it had got low star ratings - but she

was still happy and comfortable with that decision. It was also pointed out that at

present if the reviewer doesn't give a star rating the editor will - so the responsible

reviewer gives one as it was them who actually saw the show.

Press Nights

We discussed the idea of not having a press night. When someone tried doing this the

venue had said that “critics like press nights.” Some of the critics present argued that

most critics don't like press nights because they feel forced. In the west end they want

a press night because the next day they want their play to be the only play in the

papers that day - so it is like a news story. But does the rest of the sector have to be

led by what the west end wants? Could other theatres not adopt a different approach?

We quoted David Jubb who had apparently asked why we make critics especially

welcome when in fact we should be making just as much of an effort to welcome

everyone who comes into our theatres.

What sort of criticism do we want?

Theatre makers want intelligent critiques of their work. We discussed a desire for more

thoughtful, reflective pieces - and also for more space such as in reviews for the New

York Times which can be twice as long.

The critics present talked about there being a periphery of critics just as there is a

periphery of theatre artists who don't want to follow where everyone else is going -

they talked about this as a constant battle but one that they were fighting. Many critics

want to do more than just write a review.

There is a model of critics going into rehearsals and writing about the process in depth

- sometimes reflecting for so long that they didn't publish until after the project was

over - sometimes obviously publishing sooner.

There is also a model of being immersed in a theatre or a company and learning about

how things work - Maddy and Jake Orr had done this at BAC. Matt Trueman has also

been embedded at Ovalhouse.

Fuel are currently doing a project where critics are traveling to and writing in depth

about a number of theatres around the country.

To encourage models like these above artists can invite access - if they want to. This

can create opportunities to build trust. There is the challenge these models of how

they will be paid for. Sometimes the venues and companies can pay the critics to be

embedded but sometimes not. There is obviously anxiety about maintaining objectivity

in these contexts. Where a critic has been embedded they can observe and analyse

but would not take part in the process and would not judge it. “A process of

distinguishment not of judgement.”

There was a discussion of “how you can write about work if you only see what is on

stage” - to which the view was opposed that “all the audiences see is what is on


We discussed websites such as Exeunt where critics could write longer and more

reflective reviews. This helped solve the problems of the small word counts which

most present (critics and artists alike) seemed unhappy with. There is a challenge for

the critics who write for websites such as this, however, because they are unpaid - so

how can they sustain themselves?

The problem of reviewers not traveling to the regions enough was discussed. The

critics present said that they would be happy to travel if there transport was paid. A

model where a critic from London was parachuted in to see a show by a small rural

touring company, for example, was criticised by some present - because how can the

critic begin to understand the audience in that place if they don't spend any time there.

Theatres could help by putting more on their websites - not just the star ratings and a

link to national reviews, but also linking to blogs etc. The Young Vic have started doing

this - perhaps more theatres could follow?

We discussed bringing criticism into communities more. Someone had brought a

creative writing class on a trip to the theatre then got them to write reviews and

distribute them among their friends.

Some present argued that reviews assumed too theatre literate an audience - there

was the suggestion that reviewers could think about writing in a more accessible way.

The group re-iterated that there is a new generation of critics who are open and

actively seeking out new ideas. They are also happy to be invited to work in

progresses and other things like that. It is partly the responsibility of the artists to think

beyond the narrow frame of the first and second stringers. The flip side of this is that

these critics are often cash strapped and time poor - but they are keen to do other


Some artists suggested that they could invite academics as well as critics to come and

write about process etc in this.

How do we engage the people who use the internet less?

The theatre websites can be great but they have a relatively narrow reach in terms of

numbers of people. How can we reach people, many of whom might be older, who

engage with the internet less? The idea was suggested of using theatre newsletters

more - to publish detailed critical thinking or articles about process etc in these - and

perhaps also in theatre programmes.

There was also discussion of making blogs more printer friendly so that theatres could

easily print them and post them to their audiences.

There was also the idea of, at the end of a printed review, providing a web link to a

longer and more reflective piece about the same show, perhaps by the same critic - to

give readers who wanted to the opportunity to read more.


digital, Criticism, critics, reviews, blogs, Digital, criticism, Exeunt, Maddy Costa, Matt

Trueman, Time Out, Jake Orr, Guardian, Critics, star ratings, Reviews, CRITICISM