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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

ARTS JOURNALISM – POWER & SPACE (Session 5 Giraffe)

Terry O'Donovan - 15 January 2017

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ARTS JOURNALISM – POWER & SPACE

Called by Terry O’Donovan (Dante or Die & TOOT)

I called this session to engage in a conversation about the following issues:
• How is arts journalism going to survive within an increasingly financially volatile industry?
• How can audiences learnt to trust bloggers rather than a small circle of esteemed critics/media outlets
• How can artists engage more fruitfully with arts journalists and open conversations

Some people who joined the discussion included Laura Kressley (The Play’s the Thing), Tom Morris, Daisy Bowie-Sell (Editor What’s OnStage), Lyn Gardner (The Guardian), Emma Bettridge, Jo Mackie, Matthew Linley, Mark Courtice

• Bloggers are widely seen as not as authoritative as ‘paid’ critics

• Laura Kressley has set up Network for Independent Critics – useful to look into to champion quality arts coverage outside the mainstream press & facilitate opportunities for independent critics/bloggers.

• The extremely varied quality of blogging creates issues for audiences to trust reviews – when an editor is involved it helps to build quality. Are there ways of platforms such as The Guardian, WhatsOnStage etc to create opportunities for bloggers to have editors? This could widen criticism as well as increase quality. A good reference is Resolution Review. This might also be able to be part of platforms such as Ferment at Bristol Old Vic, which has historically been critic-free due to the vulnerable stage that the work is at. It was suggested that critics be invited in to share their thoughts with the artists – what kind of a review would the write. This might help to create conversations with artists and critics as well as help artists to understand how a critic approaches writing about work.

• Vulnerability: Alongside the above it’s sometimes important for producers to be allowed to ask critics not to review something that they feel is not quite at the level that they would hope – keep the conversation open – it may actually help the longevity of the piece of work or be less of a hindrance for an artist than a negative response.

• Some very positive discussions about bloggers writing in regional areas being much more interesting and engaged in the work than that of local newspapers that sometimes copy-paste press releases! It’s hard enough to even get local press to write. There’s often a rule in place that a review will be posted online. Only once they receive an amount of hits will it be published in the hard copy newspaper.

• Tom Morris spoke about his work as a journalist and how that world has massively changed – very few salaried positions and long-term career options. Also between 1995 – 2005 the ratio between PR & journalists swapped. It used to be 30:70 and became 70:30.

• Review writers for organisations such at The Stage earn £25 per review. Are artists / venues aware of how difficult it is for writers who are earning this kind of money

• Is there a way for ACE to fund a platform for criticism? Laura has approached them and they were not keen. There is a potential clash of ambitions that would not make this a suitable platform.

• What’s On Stage have two lead critics on a retainer which means they can also write elsewhere

• PROBLEM – all of the artists and venues want lead writers to review/preview the work – that is literally impossible because that small group of people can’t be everywhere

• The Star System: Emma Bettridge wants to abolish the star system! There was concurrence BUT we teased out the love/hate relationship we all have with the stars. It’s potentially reductive but really does help to sell, especially in the age of quick-fire digital marketing. The visual impact seems to help ticket sales.

• The Power & Sell: a quote from Lyn Gardner / The Guardian really does help to sell a show to audiences, to venues, to programmers. Again, a need to generate new voices that audiences, venues and programmers can trust – Lyn can only see so many shows.

• Pay to Write: Matthew considered if it might be a good use of his marketing budget to pay for travel and accommodation to get national press to go to Liverpool to write about certain shows. How does this play out ethically. It feels that paying a fee for a review would compromise the writer yet transport might well help.

• Print media is at huge risk. The Guardian won’t exist in 5 years time if people don’t pay for it. We need to galvanise the arts industry to invest in becoming members of The Guardian etc in order to keep these institutions alive; otherwise this arts journalism alongside the rest will not survive.

• The Star System: with the ever-shrinking space it’s harder and harder to get exposure for different kind of work, eg high-quality work involving community in more obscure parts of the country. What’s On Stage has a commitment to writing about ‘big’ London openings of West End shows. Would there be a potential to not cover one of these shows and instead head out on a risky escapade to a less well-known performance? Daisy spoke about how tricky this is because their readers want to read about the big new shows, and whilst they try to cover other work it’s not always possible. Is there a way to pair reviews to encourage audiences to read on and perhaps read about something they were not expecting or wouldn’t normally engage with. WOS is growing due to click-throughs of audiences buying show tickets directly from their website – this is a key model for their sustainability – and is less possible with more alternative work.

• Embedded criticism: There has been some progressive inclusions of critics and writers involved in the development of work. This is an interesting development for potential growth of writers and artist relationships, and deeper insights into both sides of the coin.

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