The internet is bad for print media but great for journalism – in the same way that the printing press was bad for Monks who hand wrote material but great for writers.
I’m paraphrasing Lyn Gardner there – sitting on the floor with a dead-leg isn’t entirely conducive to remembering exact quotes – but I packaged up that sentiment the moment I heard it at last night’s YPIA event.
In may ways the topic up for discussion – Is the theatre critic dead? – was a little bit too broad for the time available (not to mention the fact that I’d like to have had chance to hear more from each of the panelists in their own right). Mark Shenton has blogged a good overview of some of the things that got discussed and there were lots of tangents I’d like to have jumped upon had there been more time.
It was Gardner who commented that the internet means that criticism has changed forever and the situation will never be able to be reversed (a point I made somewhat more facetiously when I accused Matt Trueman of making “a futile attempt to hold back the sea by wagging a finger at it and pulling a stern face”). This makes having a debate entitled ‘is the critic dead?’ almost pointless. The much more interesting debate would be to imagine what the critic might be now. Only this week Knee Jerk questioned the ability of critics to respond accurately to immersive theatre (the immersive element being directly against the desire of the critic to observe). During last night’s debate live art was singled out as an example of a form which has been ghettoized, commented on only in impenetrable academic speak. Will the same happen to immersive theatre (and all the variants of new work that sit outside traditional comfort zones)? Of course, it is not for the art form to adapt itself to the critic but for the critic to adapt themselves (and how they review) to the art form. If theatre is constantly innovating and adapting – why not criticism?
There are easy reasons – space, time, age, predilection, outside demands – why this isn’t happening in print media. But remember the paraphrase I started this with. The internet – that horrible word, the blogosphere – offers something different. There are no word constraints, or have-to-sees and an editorial policy enforced only by the blogger. In the way that we have to learn to use – and exploit – all new mediums there inevitably has to be a period of copying previous forms, messing up, starting again and some down right bumbling along. Why have the West End Whingers proven so successful? Because they use the form of their blog to do something that can’t be done elsewhere (would you get this, this or this in the Guardian or The Times? Of course you wouldn’t but, with the Whingers’ overt focus on audience experience, the theatre ecology is much the better for their existence). Why is A Younger Theatre such a great addition to critical debate? Because it provides a voice that simply isn’t given space elsewhere. I suspect part of my annoyance with the reviewing-previews debate was due to the fact that it transposes the rules of one medium (in this case print criticism) to another, distinctly different, medium. Blogging has its own etiquette and bloggers (myself included) don’t always hit the right balance. But have you seen those theatre companies on twitter who endlessly retweet positive comments or don’t reply to @ messages? (Yes, Royal Court for the former and National Theatre for the latter – I am looking at you). That is utterly terrible twitter etiquette. But, just as with bloggers, they’re learning. We’re all learning.
So what might the internet allow a critic to be? Obviously it widens both the pool of people who can express their views and the pool of theatre that can be recorded. Democracy writ large. Gardner (again) pointed out that there are areas that bloggers could carve out a niche in and yet most bloggers are taking part in the same circular race as the mainstream critics. That’s not entirely true but, Whingers aside, maybe we haven’t yet found a new way of writing criticism that doesn’t simply copy the form of the print media. When Andrew Haydon glanced over my blog in the wake of the preview/review debacle he concluded there wasn’t anything that approached a review on my front page. He was wrong – it simply wasn’t in a form he recognised. For I’d grappled with how I might explain my experience of Belt Up’s The Boy James. No, it’s not a traditional review. But then, as mentioned above, maybe a show like The Boy James needs something different. I don’t think I’m at that “something” yet (most basically in terms of rigour I don’t locate the piece in its context) but it’s probably closer to the experience of that show than sitting with a notebook would have been.
After the debate (when some of us had predictably decamped to the pub) the issue of the difference between reviewing and criticism came up (I tip my hat here to Trueman)- and clearly the internet free of the demands of space and ‘general’ audience allows us to redefine how we might engage in criticism. Maybe we need to look at that just as much as at how the internet looks at reviewing. Look at Hannah Nicklin’s engagement with the In Between Time festival. Again it couldn’t be in any other medium and yet it responds to work that might not be explored in the traditional model and pushes how that response might be created. Obviously Nicklin was engaged in this response by the festival – meaning it encompasses ideas of documentation as much as anything else – but it raises questions of where bloggers might follow.
There is no one way of blogging about theatre – that’s the joy of the medium – it’s for all of us to explore and find our own way. It’s easy to get caught up in rounds of debate, for us to cling to our respective positions and refuse to look beyond them. The old way might not be the new way. And we shouldn’t be afraid of that.