Features Guest Column Published 7 December 2012

Criticism As Conversation

Dan Hutton continues his series on student theatre with a look at criticism in the university microcosm.
Dan Hutton

Just as the world of student theatre is the perfect space for wannabe directors, actors and producers to cut their teeth, so too is it a safe environment for those of us who want to hone our critical skills. Following a number of fascinating conversations that I and others have been involved with over the past few months, I also wonder whether the way in which theatre writing works in a student microcosm is actually healthier than the mainstream form of criticism that currently exists.

For many decades, the discourse has been that the “general public” want critics who objectively review shows, not allowing personal taste or relationships to get in the way. We know, however, that this is nonsense; there is no such thing as an objective critic (even the “greatest” theatre critic of the twentieth century – Kenneth Tynan – had a close friendship with Olivier). Writers-on-theatre move in similar circles to makers-of-theatre, attending similar events and discussing the same topics, until over time a fleeting “hello” to a recognisable face may transform into a genuine friendship.

Though New Criticism (by which I mean the emerging strand of theatre writing that is attempting to harness the power of new media to create more useful, considered and compassionate criticism) is beginning to celebrate this subjectivity and the maker-critic relationship, it is still struggling to hold traction in the professional world, as it seems people like to maintain the pretence of the objective critic. Perhaps we should look towards universities, then, for a model of how theatre-writer and theatre-maker can work together.

Due to the fact the group of people making theatre at university is several hundred times smaller than the professional circuit, everyone knows everyone else, or at the very least knows of everyone else. This means that anyone writing about the work of other students has to be willing to say what they feel to the creator, seeing as it’s likely that they’ll end up working with them in the future. So whereas in mainstream reviews there is the sense that the critics can say what they want as they’ll be safe in the darkness of the stalls and will only have to see their victims at the occasional social event, student writers-on-theatre need to be accountable for their words. This means that everything must be justified, clear and not too harsh.

I have, at various points, been accosted in the pub by someone involved with a show who has demanded I qualify my views. I have to verbalise my thoughts, consider rebuttals and offer ideas for improvement. Sometimes we agree to disagree. More frequently, however, we both learn something. Pieces of criticism, then, act as a springboard for debate rather than closing that debate.

I know, of course, that many makers will talk to their critics and refute their claims, but it’s unlikely they’ll talk to everyone who has written about a particular show. This isn’t the case at university, where it’s possible to hunt down those who have written about your work and talk to them. Whereas certain audience members may see broadsheet reviews of professional productions as gospel, student criticism is viewed more sceptically, and audiences don’t depend on them for deciding whether or not to buy tickets; they are, purely, part of the wider discussion.

Considering most university shows (at least at Warwick) run for less than a week, student criticism is utterly useless for the purpose of selling tickets. And damn right too. Equally, no one I’m aware of who has written reviews about shows at Warwick has used stars as a value-system, instead preferring the nuances of language. Thankfully, then, there is no discussion of reviews serving “the market”. With a four-day run and many tickets sold before the opening night, it is nigh-on impossible for production teams to sell their shows with referral to any kind of criticism. In turn, then, criticism does the job it should have been doing all along: igniting discussion, observing ideas, recording events.

And as New Criticism attempts to wrestle theatre criticism out of the hands of the broadsheets and into the arms of the more democratic and accessible internet, student criticism embraces the wonderful world of the web, as the vast majority of pieces written about university drama appear on personal blogs. True, Warwick’s bi-monthly student paper, The Boar, still publishes the odd review, but generally the output online far exceeds that presented in print. As writers post their entries on Facebook, open debates begin to take place for everyone to see and get involved in. This term tumblr has also begun to be used by some production teams, with the option for others not involved with the show to add their own thoughts and contribute to the discourse.

Harking back to September’s Dialogue event, the reason student critics write is solely for the love of theatre. We don’t get paid, nor do we get tickets for free. There is literally nothing in it for the student critic except a sense of adding to the debate. We pay to see our friends produce shows, and cannot help but talk about our experiences. True writers-on-theatre don’t do it for themselves; they do it for the good of the whole theatrical ecology. If more mainstream critics found that passion again – that sheer inability to keep quiet about something and a raging desire to write about the thing they love – then maybe, just maybe, we’d find ourselves in a healthier position.

Image: Warwick Drama’s Twelfth Night, Peter Marsh.


Dan Hutton

Dan is a freelance critic and theatre-maker. He won the Howard Hobson Award for Theatre Criticism at NSDF in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and in 2013 was the runner-up for the Edinburgh Fringe Allen Wright Award for Arts Journalism. Dan is also a director and co-runs Barrel Organ Theatre.



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