Features Published 22 May 2018

Theatre Criticism and Circles of Power

In the aftermath of the announcement that Lyn Gardner's Guardian contract is coming to an end, Maddy Costa writes on theatre world hierarchies and their resistance to change.
Maddy Costa

Spotlights in the West End.

I was at university when Lyn Gardner joined the Guardian: for the whole of my adult life she has been a totem and a beacon, the example to live up to. Which made it quite weird when I joined the Guardian myself and spent the last four years of my 20s as one of her bosses. She always made her own decisions about what to review, but the theatre coverage I commissioned as deputy arts editor was undoubtedly influenced by her intrepid curiosity. Like a lot of people, I had no idea what live art was until I started reading and talking to Lyn – and it took me a long time to summon the confidence she has naturally, to see this work for myself. Of course there are ways in which I wouldn’t be the person or the writer I am now if it weren’t for her.

That time on the arts desk gave me unusual insight into Lyn’s working conditions: I saw the difference between the editors who appreciated her insight and care, and those who didn’t; I shared her frustration at the way Michael Billington operated as a law unto himself, refusing to collaborate as a team; I knew how much she earned and when I left the desk and signed a writing contract of my own, I made sure I was paid more. I know that sounds shitty, but I was working on accumulated fury, at being passed over for promotion and paid less than male colleagues for more responsibility. I got my comeuppance in the first fortnight of 2014, when I received a call from Liese Spencer – the arts editor who had ignored any email I’d sent her since she took the job in September 2013 – telling me that my writing contract wouldn’t be renewed. By that point I’d been writing for the Guardian nearly eight years, after working on the desk for more than six years. I knew it was fair that I revert to their standard freelance rates and relationships, but it still hurt.

So I know something of how devastating it is that Lyn has been fired, for her, and for all of us. For years she has been the person visibly extending the parameters of what gets covered in a mainstream publication, and therefore shifting the cultural perception of what might be considered accessible to a wider audience. As stated in the open letter to the Guardian by Live Art UK: “Through the remarkable depth and breadth of her theatrical knowledge, not to mention her indefatigable enthusiasm, she has enabled your newspaper to report on festivals, artists and performances that no other major paper has.” Or, as key figures from the theatre industry wrote in their letter to editor Kath Viner: “While most critics attend the press nights of major established theatres, Lyn has been tireless in discovering and giving a platform for fringe work, experimental work, work from across the country, work that crosses artistic boundaries.” Or, as Andy Field wrote for Exeunt: “The tangible excitement (and gut-spasming nervousness) generated by Lyn’s presence is not about one person’s opinion, nor is it even about the potential boost in ticket sales that a positive notice might represent. It’s about the vital portal that she is able to open between your work and the wide-open spaces of our national, even international, cultural and political discourse.”

This is all true, but it’s also hagiography: a personality cult as unhelpful as it is understandable. Of course everyone would feel better if it were Billington being fired, not Lyn: but while Lyn has been reviewing for the Guardian the whole of my adult life, Michael has been there the whole of my actual life. I wish I were kidding you. The only way he’s going is if he walks into Kath Viner’s office and resigns himself. To think otherwise is simply naive.

The funny thing about power is that people who have it are loath to give it up. Even people whose hearts are true. And the funny thing about the people who revere that power is that they too are loath to see it redistributed. Look at the language here:

“Lyn Gardner holds a singular and essential place within the theatrical landscape” (Live Art UK)

“cutting the contract of the only major critic in the country who champions regional and experimental work will have a major negative impact both on the capacity of British theatre to release new talent and on the Guardian’s ability to represent the vitality of our national culture” (industry figures)

“[Forest Fringe’s] value to the cultural discourse in this country is not predicated on who we will become, but on who we are and what we are doing now. Lyn creates a unique means by which that effort can remain connected to parts of the theatrical world far beyond it; a channel through which the edges, geographically, artistically, aesthetically, can find passage to the centre.” (Andy Field)

Singular, only, unique: all my italics, but the emphasis is there without them. Michael is a monolith, but so too is Lyn. And any industry that relies so heavily on the voice of a singular, unique figure is an industry with a problem. Not least a problem with honesty.

Here are some things that I think the theatre industry is dishonest, or at least silent, about. It’ll quickly become clear that I’m using the words “theatre industry” in a grossly generalising and white-centric way, not to exclude but because I’m thinking about circles of power. Lyn makes the jobs of artistic directors and programmers easier: if she gives a work a positive review, it is a safer bet for their venue than a work that she missed or, worse, was received negatively by her. It’s easier for publicists to market those works with a quote from the Guardian than with a quote from a blog on the internet with a stupid name – especially given that no one needs to know or particularly cares if the quote came from a review or a blog post. It’s easier to read that Guardian writing, given that it’s all in one place, and never more than 1000 words, than it is to engage with 3000-word essays scattered across the internet. It’s easier to persuade Arts Council England to approve a grant application if Lyn’s name is there supporting it. It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and claim difference with Lyn smoothing your way to the centre and helping you be mainstream on what feel like your terms. It’s easier to talk about change, by programming hand-wringing conferences dedicated to discussing what change might look like and how it might be brought about, than it is actually to implement it.

Change requires things to be different. This is such an obvious point I feel embarrassed making it. Change requires movement: looking at the way things are and taking action to replace or remake them. Even some things that seem good, that seem right. Of course Lyn has championed every single step in that direction, and has insisted on more. But what if she is also part of the stasis? What are the changes she prevents taking place?

There’s a fascinating paragraph in that text by Andy Field, repeated almost verbatim in the letter sent by Live Art UK:

“In their statement on not renewing Lyn’s contract, the Guardian spoke of wanting to add ‘new voices’ to their arts coverage; an approach that is seemingly not being extended to their longstanding male critics in art (Jonathan Jones – 19 years), film (Peter Bradshaw – 19 years) or theatre (Michael Billington – 47 years). The bitter irony of this is that Lyn is perhaps the best means they currently have for finding those new voices, relentless pursuer that she is of new perspectives and new ideas, and equally tireless in finding space and a context for them at the Guardian. Additionally, assuming that these new voices will not enjoy the stability of Lyn’s former full-time position, the paper is thus forever locating the work those voices will cover as implicitly as marginal and contingent as the livelihood of journalists covering it, lacking the seriousness or commitment they deem worthy only of the most mainstream fare.”

I can understand the suspicion here towards the Guardian but, while there’s a part of me aghast to be taking the position of defending the most toxic employer I’ve ever had (and I’ve worked for the Evening Standard), the fact that since cancelling Lyn’s blog a year ago it has been commissioning theatre writing by younger women including Bridget Minamore, Corrie Tan and Kate Wyver, whether they’re covering the mainstream or not, gives me a little more faith that it might be true to its word. What’s snagging me, though, is the ease with which Andy slips between the new voices of artists and the new voices of critics, blurring one with the other. As though they were the same thing. As though, in making space for new artists, Lyn also makes space for new critics. As though those two spaces weren’t mutually exclusive.

That exclusion reinforces the idea of Lyn as singular and unique, as demonstrated by Rowland Manthorpe in a blog post for Wired that infuriated me less for what it said than the chorus of approval it received from people I otherwise admire. He wrote: “This is why British theatre will miss Lyn Gardner so much: because, through it all, she performed the most basic act of any journalist, critic or not: bearing witness. She watched, often alone, and she wrote it down. Without her, who will even do that?” Oh, I don’t know Rowland. What about everyone writing for Exeunt? What about all the people who keep their own blogs? Sorry, of course: in your rubric they’re just fans. Not cultural critics. Not serious or committed writers at all.

New critical voices haven’t found space in the Guardian, and so they’ve had to make their own spaces elsewhere, usually writing not for pay but for the love of an art form that doesn’t love them back, because it loves Lyn, and for two decades hasn’t needed to do anything else. In making those spaces these voices, these new cultural critics, have also made new forms, attracted new readerships, initiated new conversations: a point made incisively by one of the people appreciative of those changes, producer and engagement wizard Tobi Kyeremateng on Twitter. The theatre industry – apologies again for the generalisation – hasn’t needed to support those writers, or read them, or seek them out, and the moment an opportunity opens up for them it shouts no. When Lyn’s Guardian blog was cancelled a year ago, Megan Vaughan wrote a terrific post on her own blog challenging the theatre industry to take action: instead, the industry watched as Lyn was signed up by the Stage and sighed with relief. That was 14 months ago. How many of the key industry figures who complained then, and signed that open letter to the Guardian now, have in the intervening period petitioned the Arts Council about the need to support criticism, as Megan suggested? How many of them set up a direct debit, donating £10 a month each to Exeunt? How many of them thought about setting up an initiative like Critics of Colour but decided it would be too difficult, or wouldn’t get them enough back in return? How different might the landscape of theatre criticism feel, how many more people might feel they could afford to walk there, if any of these things had happened?

Such is the human tendency to focus on the personal rather than the structural, all this could come across as the bitterest of sour grapes. Arguably I’m angry at the Cult of Lyn because I am among the people rendered invisible by the common appreciation of her as singular, unique, watching and writing alone, and because I am one of the unpaid. I’m not going to make any false claims for myself: my track record on Exeunt and my own blog with a stupid name demonstrate how bad I am at getting out of London or getting off the beaten track. Unlike Lyn, who has remained tirelessly devoted to theatre, I spent four years seeing almost nothing because I hated almost everything. And while I could complain at the paucity of my current earnings – in the four years since the Guardian fired me, I’ve failed to pay more than £100 in tax – I know this is in fact a sign of incredible privilege: possible only because my husband pays our bills. None of this changes the fact that, in focusing so narrowly on Lyn’s coverage, Lyn’s opinions, Lyn’s tastes, Lyn’s style, the theatre industry ignores the privilege required to write about (or indeed make) theatre, and does nothing to challenge that.

I know there are exceptions. I also know that what little money I have made in the past four years has been from theatre institutions and artists paying me to write blogs, reviews, programme notes, run workshops, or host discussions, money earned in a context of general disgust at how this chips away at independent thought. And I know that in suggesting people in the industry with stable salaries donate money towards platforms such as Exeunt – platforms that, for all their efforts towards building new structures, end up re-creating the traditional media model because to do otherwise is to remain invisible and unheard – I’m making the same mistake everyone else makes in considering trickle-down economics an answer rather than the problem. The hierarchies of the theatre industry are the same as those in capitalism as a whole; they are tenacious, resistant to all opposition, and will swallow up even the best-intentioned, me included.

Lastly I know this: that the severing of Lyn’s relationship with the Guardian isn’t a disaster, it’s an opportunity – as Lyn herself attests in the Stage – for “theatre and funders … to stop relying on old media and think creatively about how they can support new platforms and critical voices both on a local and national scale”. Arguing for her reinstatement isn’t just wasted energy, it’s a cry for things to remain as they are, stuck in a crumbling present, when change requires crying, shouting, arguing for possible futures instead.


Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.



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