Features Essays Published 21 November 2018

Theatre and Performance Criticism in the UK: A Survey

Dr Diana Damian Martin and Dr Margherita Laera introduce their new research project, a survey which will explore who writes about theatre and performance, and map the conditions they work under.
Margherita Laera and Diana Damian Martin

Participants in CSSD’s Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy course

In light of the radical changes that have altered the ecology of criticism in the past two decades, we are launching a survey of theatre and performance criticism in the UK that seeks to map this complex field. We aim to include in the survey those who engage with nonconforming approaches to criticism, those who operate peripherally to its established structures, whose work reflects on criticism, as well as critics, writers and cultural workers who have positions in mainstream media. We want to ask: who makes up the ecology of contemporary criticism in the UK? How do they relate to and practice criticism? What economic models underpin their work? How do they see their role in society? The survey addresses those working in established media, those who operate outside of mainstream structures as well as those engaged in experimental and collective practice, or those engaged in decolonising critical practice. This survey is the first comprehensive data gathering of its kind about the who, what, where, how and why of contemporary theatre and performance criticism in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The survey gathers data from the point of view of those who self-identify either as critics or as writers, and who operate within or in relation to critical ecologies. We take a deliberately broad definition of criticism to account for both practices that are currently understood as professional, and those that reside outside of dominant structures. These include, but are not limited to: reviewing, blogging, performance writing, eco-writing, writing from performance, collaborative criticism or embedded criticism. We define criticism as an intellectual activity that concerns the interpretation, resonance or evaluation of performance. Our definition of ‘theatre and performance’ is also broad and deliberately inclusive, encompassing such practices as live art, dance, circus, puppetry, children’s theatre and opera.

The survey considers the material conditions in which theatre and performance criticism is carried out and pays attention to the day-to-day experiences of those who produce criticism without being paid on a regular basis, as well as those of staff employed full-time by publications on a full-time basis. We are interested in gathering reliable data that will provide invaluable evidence to understand the structural, material and political conditions that shape the critical landscape and its conceptions, tensions and formal remits in the UK, and to advocate for criticism and its value.

Contexts

In the early noughties, a public debate on the professional and ethical borders of criticism and theatre and performance began in earnest. Characterised by precariousness and dwindling resources, and under pressure from a public decry of expertise and increasingly corporate ownership of mainstream media, criticism faced not only a crisis of legitimacy in the public sphere, but also a fundamental change in the modes, means and spaces it occupied. The debate pertained to the establishment of online criticism as a viable participant in the wider critical infrastructure of theatre and performance, against the backdrop of an unfolding economic crisis that had resulted in the implementation of austerity politics across the UK. The discourse disseminated in mainstream media and online publications was characterised by competing claims of professional legitimacy, pivoting around the lack of diversity of newspaper critics, unfolding cuts within the press, and a growing blogging community. This debate was characterised by a centre vs. periphery paradigm and was tied to questions of authority, at a time when neoliberal policies placed pressure on cultural institutions to demonstrate their value in monetary terms.

The structural changes that came to govern the early noughties include changes in the way theatre and performance were covered in mainstream media, the establishment of online criticism as a distinct sphere of practice, and the development of institutional collaborations, as well as what has come to be known as embedded criticism, in which writers spend time following an artistic process. At the same time, initiatives such as Writing from Live Art (2006–2008), funded by the Arts Council England and run by the Live Art UK Network, provided support for new generations of writers keen to push the formal boundaries of the practice. Across these structural changes, a discussion about the relationship between criticism and networks of power ensued, encompassing not only concerns over who gets to speak about theatre and performance, where and with what resources, but also the question of formal traditions that governed criticism up to that point.

In 2012, by Maddy Costa authored a report on criticism as part of Devoted and Disgruntled, a long-running series of open-conversations for cultural operators. The documented session was titled ‘What dialogue can be set up between people who write about theatre and people who make it?’ The report captured two intersecting lines of inquiry: the first documented the desire from performance makers for ‘thoughtful engagement’ beyond the evaluative (see star ratings), and the second, a concern that increasingly, online criticism ‘follow[ed] the established mainstream press model’. The conversation showed an interest from a range of writers, artists and other cultural workers in performance and theatre criticism that could ‘experiment with form, the way work we watch does’, which might enable an investigation into ‘the sculptural possibilities of writing’ (2012). A 2013 report by Jane Edwards for the Drama Critics Circle, the UK arm of the International Association of Theatre Critics, accounted for the growing unease and conflict between established, journalistic traditions of criticism, which understood professionalism as connected to levels of objectivity and cultural authority, and alternative practices that foregrounded subjectivity or formal exploration over evaluative practices.

The early noughties, then, were marked by two competing processes. The first was the interrogation of professional boundaries marking theatre and performance criticism, fuelled by the growing number of self-authored blogs, independent publications and incentives that bypassed traditional, journalistic structures of the practice in the UK. Some of these have been captured in Duška Radosavljević edited collection Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes, which traces the emergence of embedded writing and the establishment of online criticism, taking an international approach. The second process was the development of a new generation of critics and writers confronting the formal and cultural politics of criticism by means of grassroots explorations, emergent from within the field of live art and performance. This generation builds on the legacy of one of the only Arts Council-funded publications on performance, Performance Magazine (1979–1992), as well as from the Writing from Live Art project.

In 2014, a group of independent critics gathered for a series of informal meet-ups to discuss ways in which the current ecology might accommodate different ways of working, and ways to ensure sustainability. Participating critics were Maddy Costa, Diana Damian Martin, Andrew Haydon, Catherine Love, Dan Rebellato, Matt Trueman and Megan Vaughan. Since then, the whiteness of much critical discourse in mainstream media, its male dominance, and its resistance to alternative modes of discourse have been counterbalanced by multiple initiatives that have sought to create space for public conversation, such as Theatre Club, to consider inclusion and power in critical voices, such as Critics of Colour and The White Pube, to name but a few, and to explore writing that moves beyond performance, such as Critical Interruptions and Something Other, or that rethinks the politics of criticism, such as the Diverse Actions Critical Writing workshop series.

Of equal relevance to this landscape is the changing economic and cultural positioning of criticism, notably in the mainstream media. This is most evident in the increasing pressure within the media to adapt to the changing cultural policy outlined by the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), and the Arts Council England. The DCMS published a white paper in 2016 under Ed Vaizey that argued for more sector use of ‘commercial expertise’ and the need to ‘strengthen private and corporate support for the cultural sectors’ (DCMS 2016). These political conditions emerged at the same time as a growing number of cuts to the theatre and performance coverage in mainstream media, and the lack of funding opportunities for online criticism. For its sixtieth anniversary in 2007, the Arts Council England commissioned a public consultation on the value of arts, emphasising how the culture sector now needed to demonstrate its value in economic terms. These political and cultural changes demonstrate that austerity impacted on the sector with pressure for a more market-driven process of valuation.

The survey

This survey aims to begin to capture the impact that these structural, economic and cultural changes have had on a wide array of criticism practices across theatre and performance in the last twenty years. It seeks to gather quantitative and qualitative data on who undertakes work within criticism, how they conceive of that work, and what kind of economic and professional conditions characterise its multiple strands. In doing so, the survey also attests to the challenges of capturing such a shifting ecology, and methodologically considers questions of identification, definition and ethics within its structure.

The proposed survey takes two fundamental hypotheses: first, that theatre and performance criticism has seen a wide diversification of practice over the past twenty years, that has resulted in new conceptions, forms, approaches and methods. Second, that there is an urgent question concerning the cultural value and use of criticism, and the disproportionately low economic and infrastructural support it receives. This is notably creating a distinction between commercial practices of criticism, and practices that rely on free labour and voluntary work.   

The survey results will be analysed in several outputs that will be made available to the public through articles in Exeunt Magazine. An initial report will be compiled for dissemination soon after the survey closing date and will be made available here. We will then use the data gathered for further research and dissemination. The data gathered will be treated under the Data Protection Act.

The survey was designed over a period of eighteen months, with additional research assistance, a social sciences survey design consultant and a wide range of consultations and focus groups. The survey is funded by a research grant from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, with additional support from the University of Kent, with research assistance from Bojana Janković.

To keep up to date with our news and events, please follow @margheritalaera and @DianaADamian. Link to survey HERE

Advertisement


Margherita Laera and Diana Damian Martin is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Advertisement


the
Exeunt
newsletter


Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.


Advertisement