Whenever people talk about the future of theatre criticism, it’s hard to escape a gradually-descending feeling of deepest doom. Established outlets are firing staff, or cutting their contracts to ribbons. Commercial review sites are raking in cash while showing no interest in paying their writers. Bloggers are struggling to juggle their growing output with full-time day jobs. So amongst this undeniable gloom, the modest success of Exeunt’s Friends Scheme is a faltering beam of spring sunshine.
Exeunt was founded six years ago by the brilliant combo of Natasha Tripney and Daniel B Yates as a volunteer-run online theatre magazine committed to doing things differently. It rose out of the Guardian’s theatre blog, and of a culture of people who were passionate about discussing and debating theatre in a way that print media didn’t allow for. [For more history of UK online theatre criticism, try Andrew Haydon’s fascinating chapter of Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes]
So what’s changed since then? Exeunt has grown and flourished, and so has a whole landscape of online writing-about-theatre. But fewer and fewer people are getting paid for their work. In March, news trickled out that Lyn Gardner’s contract for regular Guardian blogs had been axed. Loads of great stuff has been written on this, so I’m not going to say much more – but it’s a huge blow to UK theatre coverage, and experimental and regional work will be hit hardest. It shows that mainstream theatre criticism is under a new and drastic level of threat, and it’s the left-leaning, open-to-experimentation voices which are at the most risk. It’s also harder for readers to access the discussion that remains, as publications like The Stage and The Times put up paywalls. Exeunt is committed to championing, responding to, critiquing (and sometimes carping about) theatre, live art and dance on a platform that’s free to read.
And as we get bigger, it’s been harder and harder to do that with no money. There’s a huge amount of admin and labour involved in keeping Exeunt going, as well as love. Rosemary Waugh and I are committed to running it ethically, offering our writers as much benefit for as little commitment as possible – whether that’s coffee and cake, or social events, or writing feedback, or mentoring. But we’d love to do more. And in our desire to run Exeunt in a fair way, we often end up being harder on ourselves than the most brutal of capitalist overlords.
We took the fraught step of launching our Friends Scheme last December, and were completely delighted by the response. We now have 60 Friends who make monthly donations that help keep us afloat. It’s made a huge difference to what we can do. We can now pay writers a small fee for interviews and features – the labour-intensive, edit-heavy pieces that let us look deeper, and chip into wider theatre industry debates. As well as being just a decent thing to do, it’s helped us widen the conversation around UK theatre.
And after realising that the voices writing about an increasingly diverse theatre scene were still overwhelmingly, almost exclusively white, we launched our paid Black and Minority Ethnic columnist call-out. If theatre criticism relies on people with the time and self-confidence to put in hundreds of hours of free labour (which is a wonderful thing in itself, don’t get me wrong) the conversation will necessarily be narrowed. Our call-out has helped us find and support the new voices that the industry badly needs, and has paid off with some great features – including Nicole Acquah’s widely read piece, Why can’t a black body be just a body onstage?
We’d like to do more, and do it better. That would mean increasing the fees we can offer to writers, paying people to help out with the admin side of Exeunt, and funding updates to the tech side of the site (including an easily navigable archive for students and researchers). And we need your help.
As squeezed newspapers and other mainstream outlets make cuts to their arts coverage, making Exeunt as sturdy and fair as possible feels increasingly important. If you value what we do, then help us keep doing it by signing up to our Friends Scheme here, from just £2 a month. If you work in theatre, consider persuading your organisation to join, too – because as Meg Vaughan’s blog on Lyn Gardner rightly argues, the people who need to fight hardest to secure the future of theatre criticism are the people who work in the industry themselves. As an added bonus, if you sign up to give £5 a month by May 30th, you’ll get our second zine, Rites of Spring. But however you choose to support us, you’re guaranteed the warm glow that comes from doing something to help the theatre criticism storm clouds lift (even if they’re just so much dry ice).