Brickbats in Cyberspace

Written for the London Theatre Blog

Modern theatre criticism has problems, and those problems are generational in nature. That’s the one overriding conclusion with which I left the Royal Court after Brickbats in Cyberspace, in which a panel of theatre critics, bloggers and theatre practitioners convened to discuss the effect of the Internet, and specifically blogging, on modern theatre journalism.

There are very few professional theatre critics in the UK, by which I mean people that earn a living from theatre criticism alone. Of those few, the vast majority are of what most people like to call ‘a certain age’. I knew this before attending the discussion; as a young person working in the field of arts journalism, it has a direct effect on my life. What I hadn’t considered was the effect it has on the evolution of theatre journalism as a form.

The small cadre of professional critics was represented on the panel by Charles Spencer, lead critic for the Telegraph. From the off, Spencer declared himself openly hostile towards theatre bloggers. He accused the blogosphere of watering down critical discourse with a morass of uninformed opinion, and claimed that same morass would soon put him and his colleagues out of their jobs.

Spencer labelled his hostility “a generational problem”, and admitted that he simply didn’t like computers and technology. He also labelled himself “the last of the Luddites”; unfortunately, this epithet is not as accurate. His contemporaries are, if anything, older and more set in their ways than he is. Which means the most powerful portion of the critical establishment wants nothing to do with new media.

How is criticism supposed to evolve and find a place in the media as it exists today, if its biggest names think blogging is the enemy?

Not everyone in the industry is resistant to the change new media offers. Andrew Dickson, arts editor for the Guardian Online, was also a panellist. The Guardian have been quicker than their competitors to embrace online content. But the publication still follows the formats and processes of print journalism. Dickson commissions reviews, blog posts and podcasts or videos in the same way as his print counterparts.

No one has yet fully grasped the potential of new media. No one has fully exploited the combined power of online journalism, podcasting, social networking and mobile synchronisation. I still structure my reviews for London Theatre Blog the same way I would for a print publication. But if the critical community is held back by an older generation with a lot of clout and no love for web 2.0, by the time we get there technology will have moved ahead of us again.

In some ways perhaps it already has. Wired magazine declared the death of blogging in October, and the theatre industry still has yet to fully acknowledge its legitimacy. Whether or not the problem is generational, there is indisputably a problem: technology moves fast, and we’re being left behind.

Also covered for the British Theatre Guide

The role of the blogger in theatre criticism was given some long overdue scrutiny in this panel discussion, held at the Royal Court on 1st December, 2008. The event’s audio was broadcast live online; an archive can be found here.

Chaired by Karen Fricker, Variety critic and lecturer in Theatre Criticism, the panel included Charles Spencer, lead critic for the Daily Telegraph; Andrew Dickson, arts editor of guardian.co.uk; Judith Dimant, producer for Complicite; and a rare public appearance by well-known theatre bloggers the West End Whingers.

The discussion sought to explore the relationship between professional print journalism and online content, as well as the reasons why bloggers blog and the opportunities for greater integration in the future.

Spencer singled himself out early on by declaring a simple dislike for new technology and voicing concerns that free online content could soon lead to job losses for broadsheet theatre critics like himself.

Dickson took the opposite stance, challenging the notion of a “battle” between print and online media. Though he agreed that print publications are foolish to consider further culling the small field of newspaper critics, he denied that blogging is to blame for the trend.

Throughout the debate, Dickson and Spencer remained opposed to one another, perhaps confirming an assertion of Spencer’s that hostility towards blogging is “a generational problem”. The majority of high-profile broadsheet critics are of a certain age, and are wary of new technological developments simply because they cannot understand them.

Lead Financial Times critic and avid blog commenter Ian Shuttleworth, contributing from the floor, summed up the situation: “It’s a great time to be a writer; it’s a lousy time to be a professional writer.”

Providing practice and exposure for aspiring writers incapable of elbowing into the tight-knit world of print criticism was suggested as one major advantage of blogging.

Spencer disputed whether this open floodgate could be seen as an advantage, bemoaning a continuing downward trend in the quality of written English. He cited the famously eloquent notices of Clive James and Kenneth Tynan as evidence of quality now long lost.

But Shuttleworth argued that bloggers are actually filling a quality vacuum left by newspaper critics hired more for their famous names than for any critical prowess. British Theatre Guide London editor Philip Fisher also pointed out that the best writers will naturally be read the most in any medium. Dickson agreed, saying that, online as in print, there are both good and bad writers; the bad ones are not necessarily confined to the Internet.

Another advantage of blogging – one that complements professional journalism instead of competing with it – is the similarity of the blogger’s experience to the average theatregoer’s, claimed the West End Whingers.

Neither Whinger harbours aspirations to professional criticism. They have day jobs, buy their own tickets and are not guaranteed the best seats. This, they said, allows them a perspective denied the professional press, who are traditionally granted complimentary seats in the most expensive area of the house.

Precisely because they pay, the Whingers feel justified in criticising contextual aspects of the experience not usually mentioned by mainstream critics, including bar prices and squeaky seats.

The potential for members of the public to comment on blogs and thus enhance a show’s word of mouth appeal was also raised, by Judith Dimant.

Complicite have experienced the power of online hype first-hand. Dimant attributed an unexpected sell-out run in Michigan, where the company is not well known, entirely to a popular blog post published on opening night.

The panel offered various explanations for the popularity of theatre blogging as a form of expression, including dissatisfaction with print criticism, a desire to vent personal opinions, and self-promotion (or, as the Whingers put it, “attention seeking”).

Looking to the future, Spencer remained convinced that blogging will signal the death of the professional critic and potentially of paid journalism in its entirety. Dickson and Dimant were more optimistic, foreseeing greater interaction between old and new media as editors and theatre companies eventually discover the merits of online content.

One contributor from the floor suggested that web journalism is in need of a philanthropic cash injection, similar to the Trust that funds guardian.co.uk, if it is to survive as a profession and not simply as a sideline or supplementary income.

One point the panel agreed on was that online journalism has not yet fully evolved. New developments are constantly being made; Twitter is already being proclaimed the successor to blogging. Both the theatre and newspaper industries need to adapt more quickly to new advances in order to exploit their full potential.

Print media and blogging were discussed so extensively that there was little time to mention middle ground publications like the British Theatre Guide. Not affiliated to any print publication, but edited to a professional standard and complying with the standards of print journalism, such outlets cannot be defined either as blogs or as professional (i.e. paid) journalism.

Perhaps incorporating elements from both ends of the spectrum will ensure that websites like this one survive as a happy medium. On the other hand, perhaps Twitter is the future, and clinging to outdated standards of quality will ensure a swift demise. The real outcome probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, but if technology continues to evolve at its current pace, it won’t be long before we find out.

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