A Critical Life in the Thee-ay-ter ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Critical Life in the Thee-ay-ter

Amid much on-going blogospherical discussion about theatre criticism: veteran print critic/blogger Terry Teachout reports in the Wall Street Journal on the ailing state of msm arts criticism in the US. And defends arts bloggers against the usual canards - this time from Time film critic Richard Schickel, who compared blogging to "fingerpainting". (H/t Playgoer). Says Teachout:

So many other papers have cut back on the space they devote to books that the National Book Critics Circle has launched a "Campaign to Save the Book Review." Several major newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, no longer have full-time classical music critics. And regional movie critics, like stand-alone newspaper book sections, are fast becoming an endangered species.

What's going on? The answer is painfully simple. Newspaper circulation is declining, driven downward by the rise of the new Web-based media, and many papers are trimming their staffs to make ends meet. Whenever times get tough at an American newspaper, fine-arts coverage gets thrown off the back of the sled first -- and that's what's happening now.

That's a familiar scenario, although I think that - as always - here in Oz we're ahead of the trends. I can't remember a time when a reviewer could actually make a living from his or her expertise on the arts by simply being, a la Kenneth Tynan, one of the pish posh broadsheet crrritics. I remember when I was a tyro critic for The Bulletin, I met one of my colleagues, who sat down cosily and asked me, "So tell me, what's your real job?" Since criticism was my paying gig (I spent the rest of my time being a fabulously well-paid poet) I was flummoxed. And so was my colleague. Aside from my Esteemed Colleague Chris Boyd (of whom more in a moment), I was the only person I knew who was foolish enough to consider writing reviews a real job.

I left The Bulletin, in fact, because I was refused a retainer that I had been promised for two years. After some quick arithmetic, I found that I made more money on a sole parents pension, with the bonus of having fewer abusive letters and more time to write poems. The rest, as they say, is history. But if I had been able to make a living from that job - as, say, a top political columnist would - the story might have been different. (I'm glad I didn't stay - the soul was being leached out of me and I was too young to know what to do about it - but that's another story).

Anyone who thinks this fact doesn't play into the parlous standards of theatre reviewing is kidding herself. There is little material incentive for a critic to be better than mediocre. Those critics who maintain decent standards in the mainstream press by writing thoughtful, informed reviews - and yes, there are some - work, like artists, on their own time, effectively subsidising the arts. In this way, they are no different from any other arts worker. And unless something markedly changes in the structures of the mainstream media - such as when pigs become airborne - this is unlikely to change.

Which brings me to Mr Boyd - whose ancient car alone reveals the myriad rewards to be gained from a life spent in arts journalism - who today reveals the truth about my private life (I have no friends, and am forced to frogmarch my children to the theatre if I want company). It seems that he and I, sitting shoulder to shoulder, had vastly differing responses to Newtown Honey, now on at La Mama; which is, I believe, an excellent thing. I am not Mr Boyd, and he is not me, and life is thereby made richer and more mysterious.

What I might have thought about Adam Broinowski's rather controversial Know No Cure, which received a beating from most critics - aside from the VCA's Spark Online - remains in the realm of speculation, since I didn't get there. Sir Boyd certainly hated it, and if you scan the comments beneath the Spark review, He Was Not Alone. There's no guarantee I would have liked it myself; if the actors indeed seemed lost, there's a good chance I would have had serious reservations. A major reason I enjoyed Newtown Honey was in fact the strange clarity and intense commitment of the performances. But it's worth mentioning for Adam Broinowski's defence of his show (here and here), which I personally find rather cheering. And which also points out a major virtue of the blogosphere - the bitten can bite back.


Anonymous said...

Alison, no doubt you read it, but in case you haven't get a subscription to the London Theatre Record. It is a weekly collection of reviews from all over Britain. Hundreds each week from every regional theatre. It will fill you with pride that you work in the same field as so many bright, insightful, opinionated and passionate people. It will also sadden you that we are so far from that in this country. Soldier on.

Statler said...

I think the reduction in Arts coverage is a major error on the part of the print media and I find it hard to understand their lack of vision. While it may seem like a soft option to cut back on arts coverage and in some ways a sensible business option it seriously fails to identify where the print media has a future, and where it doesn't.

Choosing to focus on news/celebrity gossip/sport might seem like their core business but as time goes on they will never be able to compete with the ever more available (and ever more mobile) online coverage and 24 hour news/sports channels on TV.

Newspapers and magazines need to realise *now* that their future success (or even existence) depends on them recognising that reading a paper or magazine is a leisure activity to be enjoyed in the garden, over breakfast or on a lazy Sunday - not a time for news or serious events but perfect for culture and arts.

View From The Stalls

Paul Martin said...

I'm with you on that one, Statler, and I think this typical business short-sightedness can only accelerate their decline.

I have recently cancelled my daily newspaper subscription because 1) I can read the news online, & 2) there's newspapers when I go to cafes (why pay for my own?). When I check the news online, it's usually the news headlines. When I'm reading a paper, I want to catch up on 'culture and the arts'.

I think this is an interesting point, and relates to a comment Matt made on Esoteric Rabbit about online reading habits. News is generally just a quick bite. More in-depth articles demand a hard copy.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Thesp. And Statler and Paul, I totally agree with you. Statler, things are not nearly as bad in the UK - like Paul, I have stopped buying newspapers here, it's too disappointing; but one of the pleasures of being over there is that there are still newspapers to read. There's even a choice. And it's a real pleasure to spend Saturday morning imbibing coffee and working my way steadily through whichever newspaper I've bought.

I can read long articles on line, but I'm used to it. Hard copy is better, and more portable.

Anonymous said...

I'm very excited about your new gig in msm (although it seems to me it was the better half that was cut out of the Sleeping Beauty review...) - if nothing then because I always thought The Australian had better arts reviews than The Age. (What is it with the conservatives being always ready to dislike and to disagree?)

I can see both sides of the argument, and I've been on both sides. I've grown up reading papers; my mum worked as a journalist and brought a copy home after work. Work in Croatia finishing at lunchtime, we had a family ritual of dividing the paper up after lunch, at the dining table, and then sit around swapping read bits for the unread bits. I stopped reading newspapers for a couple of years, between the ages of, roughly, 17 and 22. I thought it was too stressful. Now I'm enjoying the benefits of a student subscription again.

I read the paper online for a year, but found it very insulating: I ended up reading the two-three daily cultural articles, and nothing else. Because the web-layout tends to auto-reference articles, it keeps you in a hall of mirrors, of a sort. I've found the paper version to be much more... well, informative. I find things I wasn't looking for. This function of public information (of the lowest common denominator, if you want) is, I think, fundamental to newspapers. Specialist interests can always go to specialist publications, but newspapers are where Joe Average encounters the world. Whatever happens in the arts pages is, I think, of paramount importance for the arts in a country.

A problem in Australia, I think, is the absence of weekly, or bi-weekly, publications, of any kind except music (specifically Oz rock/clubbing). Notably political/social commentary, and art/film weeklies. Book criticism can survive through the ALR once a month, but books have a longer selling season than theatre. A2 could fill the gap, if only A2 tried to be a cultural weekly, not toilet paper...

I've recently read a chilling account of the downfall of an independent American paper, bought out and turned into a tabloid. I recommend it because it tries to explain the economic rationale behind the tabloidization; the how and the why of killing newspapers. These papers, one of the journalists is quoted saying, are edited as though their accountants had already set the date of the final edition, perhaps a decade from now. They are wringing the last dollars out of what they regard as a dying medium, even as they slowly murder it.

Alison Croggon said...

I agree with you totally, Jana. There have been one or two efforts to get Theatre Australia up again, but that all didn't work, and really the internet is the only place where that kind of regular specialist coverage can happen.

As you probably know, my background is in journalism; I was a cadet on the (now defunct) Melbourne Herald, before the Rupert days, and have worked for everybody (let's face it, there's not that many to work for). And the priorities are particular. It's going to be interesting having two bites at the cherry; it's quite a fascinating stylistic exercise. 400 words really doesn't allow much beyond generalisation - once you've covered the essential information that's basically all your words. I will try to be guileful, but there's clearly no room for exploration. It is, in effect if not in intent, a form of censorship. But them's the parameters.

Alison Croggon said...

PS I shoud probably say that I write the Oz review first, because that's the one with the deadline and the word limit, and then write TN. So it's not that they're cutting the review; the follow-up just puts in everything I couldn't mention in the short one.