Features Published 18 November 2019

How do theatre critics become experts?

Alice Saville writes on how ideas of expertise are used to define who gets to have an opinion on theatre.
Alice Saville

Michael Billington Photo:Daniel Farmer

To deserve a job as a professional critic, you must be an expert.

To be an expert, you must be a professional critic.

Can you spot the problem? These two statements are a distillation of the arguments made by many, many articles decrying the current state of theatre criticism. They create a perfect, closed loop of logic – one which cheerfully shuts out the possibility of new voices entering the charmed circle of valid theatre criticism.

Michael Coveney marked Michael Billington’s recent announcement that he’s retiring with a blog in The Stage decrying the end of expert theatre critics, and complaining that “we shall be plunged into darkness”. Billington has seen an astonishing 10,000 shows, over nearly half a century, and has somehow retained a love of theatre that shines through in his responses to the kind of performances he loves (especially farces and dramas by serious 20th century playwrights). But darkness, really?

Coveney’s concern for the future lies in his fear that other critics aren’t as ‘expert’. He complains that in the olden days, you had to “earn the right” to write about theatre in a newspaper. In an interview with Matt Trueman, also published in The Stage, Michael Billington described his career trajectory. He started reviewing for The Times at the age of 25, after a few years working in regional rep theatre – sometimes as a director, but mostly as a PR. Was he an expert then? How about when he got the Guardian top job in his early thirties? At what point did he morph from person-with-opinions into expert – was he anointed by some divine spirit overnight the second his words were printed in a broadsheet, or was it a more gradual, more arduous process?

Coveney went on to write that “the general cultural shift is towards hiring non-experts to write about theatre. I don’t understand why this happened. No editor, online or in print, would pay for opinions on economics or medicine, or indeed football, from an ignoramus in those fields.”

David Benedict makes a very similar point in his blogpost, also in The Stage: “Everyone’s a critic – but only a few know what they’re talking about”. He complains that there’s a marked decline in expertise in theatre criticism, and that newspapers take theatre less seriously than other fields.

I’m not going to pretend I know anything about the credentials of football writers, but check the Daily Mail’s health pages and you’ll quickly find out people with no expertise in medicine do indeed get a regular platform, and are free to mangle the results of small medical trials into alarmist headlines as they see fit. Journalism is, for better or for worse, the skill of communicating complex ideas to a general audience. Some journalists have done a one-year journalism course, some have a relevant undergraduate degree, plenty more have no formal qualifications. You learn by doing it.

If you’re a ‘journalist’, your most meaningful qualification is your job title and the publication you work for. These things are a magical overcoat that give your opinions the widely perceived status of fact. And they’re ripe for misuse. In his blog, Coveney writes that the only remaining theatre critics worth listening to are two men called Dominic. As a personal opinion, that’s totally legitimate (if puzzling) – like loving pineapple on pizza. But as a statement that’s weighted with the implicit endorsement of the theatre industry’s most widely read newspaper, it’s borderline offensive. And if we also say this is a statement made by an ‘expert’, it’s something we suddenly have to give serious consideration, however ludicrous it might seem.

A 1993 psychology paper made the bold claim that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert in anything. Assuming it takes an average of five hours to see and review a performance, that means you have to write 2000 theatre reviews before you know what you’re talking about. But a study that debunked that paper found that some chess players took 26 years to achieve the level that others achieved in two. The more you look at ideas of expertise, the more it falls apart in your hands – and even Coveney grudgingly concedes that “Of course, if you write as brilliantly as William Hazlitt, Kenneth Tynan, Clive James or AA Gill, it doesn’t matter if you know nothing.”

Part of me doesn’t know why I’m even bothering to argue with two blogposts that are essentially just ragings against the dyings of the light; maybe I’ll write something similar in 50 years time, when the writers I love are all dead or hopelessly out of fashion. It’s easy to complain that “everyone’s a critic” if you’re working in the perma-threatened newspaper industry, with a chosen specialism that’s so niche that it’s a step, not a ladder; either you’re up on a platform, or you’ve lost it.

But I think I want to because it’s pieces like these that create a narrative around change – one that needs shaking up.

When Ann Treneman quit her job as lead critic of The Times after two years, she wrote a slightly mournful reflection that noted that other theatre critics were less than welcoming. Only a few people have openly questioned Arifa Akbar’s appointment at The Guardian, but I’d hate the same slight frostiness of reception to meet her first months in the job, as she steps into an exacting, crucial and very public role.

Historically, the status of ‘expert’ has been the property of establishment-endorsed white men, who together act as gatekeepers ready to exclude new entrants. But there’s no mystical Hogwarts-style theatre critic training college where expertise is handed down. You become a theatre critic by writing theatre criticism. That’s something you can do with care, like Michael Billington, or you can do with a vague sense that you’re being dragged to the theatre each night by malevolent dark forces beyond your control, like a couple of other newspaper critics I can think of. And admittedly, it’s a pretty gruelling job; it means having opinions five nights a week, all year round, and writing them up in serviceable prose for midnight deadlines. It’s not really the job for virtuoso writers who might toss it aside to pursue something else. It’s a job whose value is felt cumulatively, rather than in individual shining pieces of writing. And it’s one that means you’re acting as a fine copper wire, connecting a very specific experience in one dark room to millions of people across the world. As Andy Field wrote in his tribute to Lyn Gardner’s now-lost role at The Guardian;

“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.”

I’m not sure that ‘expert’ is useful word to bandy around, when it comes to theatre critics. I’m not sure it even means anything. It’s less a term, more of a distillation of a cluster of related concepts. I think when people say ‘expert’ in the context of criticism, they’re really talking about an opaque combination of platform, experience and trust.

Platform – the reach and perceived institutional validity of the place your words appear.
Experience – of writing and thinking about theatre, but also of seeing an omnivorous range of performances – something Gardner’s described as “stocking your larder for the winter ahead, like a squirrel”
Trust – the most nebulous one to define, but it’s something that’s accumulated through consistency, integrity and reasoned analysis.

I get why all these things are valued by producers, artists and audiences. But at the same time, none of the above are prerequisites for having a valid opinion on theatre, and at least two of them are things that pretty much automatically come with getting a job as a professional theatre critic.

If you wanted to, you could redefine who gets to be an expert. Maybe ‘platform’ could also refer to how many people subscribe to your tinyletter or follow your instagram or read your blog. Maybe ‘experience’ could also be lived experience of cultures that sit outside the establishment-endorsed mainstream, or experience of working in the arts yourself, or knowledge built up through study. Maybe ‘trust’ could be about standing up for what you believe in, about writing from your politics and the things that matter most to you.

In mental health, ideas of expertise have been democratised so that service users are called “experts by experience”; breaking down the steep traditional hierarchy between doctor and patient. In academia, there’s a growing scrutiny of the power structures and unspoken assumptions that determine what’s studied and what’s valued, and a move to reach outside institutions’ walls.

But within arts criticism, ‘expert’ is rarely a term that’s designed to be inclusive. Often, it’s a wire fence used to keep new voices out, or a way of undermining people with uncomfortable opinions. By all means complain about job insecurity for theatre critics, or lament the fact that roles that are vital for the theatre industry can be axed at will by newspaper editors who think they’re not valuable. But current ideas of expertise aren’t helping anyone; they’re rusted over, and ready for the scrapheap.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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