I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I read “Waiting in the wings: when will young theatre critics get their big break?,” published last Thursday in the Guardian. Clearly the same question could be asked here in New York, although I’d note that the “tectonic plates” referred to in the story’s lede has shifted here more often than there. Still, the thesis seems to be that the blogosphere might be better-this-than-nothing training wheels for young critics, but no one can really be validated without a major paper making a new hire. That’s a bit of old thinking, if you ask me, but it’s still something we should be discussing and either agreeing with or debunking.
The piece, posted by Matt Trueman, features these graphs:
Let us remember that Kenneth Tynan was 25 when he took up the post in 1952 that is to be vacated by de Jongh, before graduating to the Observer only two years later. And, it was a 26-year-old Michael Billington that first reviewed for the Times in 1965.
Today, however, such early elevations are unthinkable. Billington’s status as “Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic” matters. While it does not prove him right, his 38 years of first-string service are deemed a badge of honour signifying a wealth of potential references. In contemporary criticism, authority is everything, and it is nothing without both expertise and experience. As far as I know, there are no regularly employed theatre critics under 30. For all their vim and vigour, their self-assurance and their passion, the young critic is inevitably a naive one.
And this is, of course, true and not true. I wrote my first reviews for the New York Resident and the Village Voice when I was 21. Heaven knows I was naive. I remember reviewing a Corneille play at, I think, the Pearl, and I’d never read any Corneille and didn’t have brains enough to do so beforehand. What a disservice to everyone involved! The thing about Ross Wetzsteon, the longtime theater editor at the Voice, was that he was very willing to give people a shot at failure. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but the importance for a critic to fail is as important as it is for an actor or a playwright or a director to fail. And I’m not saying the review I ultimately wrote on that show at the Pearl was terrible, because Ross would never publish something that was inadequate or unpublishable. But it did need a bit of work, and Ross provided that because he fundamentally understood the power of the learning process for a critic. And that process inevitably must be hands-on. This fact leads to the graphs in the piece that follow:
The question, then, is not one of whereabouts, but of training: where are tomorrow’s critics going to come from? If authority rules, what opportunities exist for aspiring critics? How do we become authoritative? The simple answer lies in building up experience: by seeing and engaging with as much theatre in as many diverse forms as possible. It is a case of gradually whittling away the 10,000 hours supposedly required to achieve expertise. This, of course, takes years.
Undoubtedly, the unlimited space of the internet has made it easier. Sites such as the British Theatre Guide, the London Theatre Blog and What’s On Stage have provided young critics with new platforms. However, the range of theatre on offer is limited. As one commenter on Brown’s blog remarks, most emerging critics are weaned on the worst excesses of fringe theatre, where the only valid critical response is dismayed exasperation. Critics improve not through general diagnosis, but when confronted by theatre that challenges and inspires, elusive theatre that resists categorisation and defies definition.
But nor does such work prove easy. The vast majority of these younger writers are working for little more than a byline. While I am not suggesting that the world owes its critics a living from the off, a total lack of payment reduces young critics to amateur enthusiasts. When criticism is no more than a hobby to be fitted around other work, little time remains for broadening one’s perspectives by engaging with other art forms and the world beyond – as the true critic must.
And this is where I think all of us in the arts community need to have a conversation. For it’s not just publications, be they newspapers or magazines or websites, that bear a responsibility to try to pay its writers, but it’s the arts groups as well that are going to have to deal with the continuing shrinkage of critics, of coverage in general. Why TCG does not want to address this meaningfully simply baffles me. I mean, could it broaden its Affiliated Writers program?
Another aspect of the aforementioned graphs really bothered me — the part about being “weaned on the worst excesses of fringe theatre.” To me, this smells of the same elitism between the Broadway community and Off-Off-Broadway.