Yesterday, it was announced that Emmanuel Kojo is heading up a new Equity campaign to create a code of ethical standards for theatre critics, in a bid to stamp out racist reviews. This is something that feels overdue, and I’m keen for Exeunt to engage with it. The past few months have brought much-needed scrutiny of the ways in which Black and ethnic minority artists are marginalised within the theatre world, and have re-emphasised the need to talk about their work with as much care as possible.
That starts with looking inwards. Malik Nashad Sharpe has rightly pulled me up for my 2018 Time Out review of Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz, and especially for the way I talked about anger, which is something that’s disproportionately attributed to Black people. I was trying to express something about the performance’s use of audience participation but I didn’t word it well, or consider the impact my whiteness would have on my perspective – so I want to say sorry to Travis for a review that was written too quickly, and wasn’t careful or sensitive. I also want to apologise for not publishing Malik’s piece critiquing my review on Exeunt, and to thank Malik for deepening my thinking on how my whiteness impacts my critical perspective. In the future, I also want to think more about how we can platform responses to reviews on Exeunt and make room for ‘right of reply’ (something we haven’t historically done), while at the same time supporting our writers as much as we can in what is often a fraught landscape for theatre criticism.
Sometimes, people try to position arts criticism as something neutral, rarified, isolated from the wider world we live in. It’s not. It’s a microcosm of every single social faultline there is; class, region, age, ethnicity, disability. Every phrase is revealing and loaded – it suggests a cultural background, a mindset, an education – and if criticism is dominated by white middle-class writers, that limits the kinds of conversations we can have, and the perspectives offered on Black and ethnic minority artists’ work.
I want to make sure that Exeunt is continuing the work of seeking out and supporting Black and ethnic minority theatre critics. Whiteness should not be the default critic lens. In the absence of clear (or any) paths into the tiny handful of full-time theatre critic roles, I want to find ways to support Black and ethnic minority writers so that criticism can be a path where the rewards outweigh the difficulties, and to make sure that we achieve representation at editor level, as well as at writer level. And more generally, it’s also important that we keep making space for writers to take longer to think about challenging performances, and to resist easy verdicts.
A review is an act of assigning meaning to an ephemeral live performance, and that’s always going to be fraught with subjectivity, misunderstanding and difficulty. It’s a set of pencil marks that’s trying and capture the complex, vivid, 3D reality you sat in front of. It’s often produced under heavy pressure; midnight deadlines, style guides, wordcounts, the need to present a cohesive viewpoint when your perspective might in fact be conflicted or fragmented. There might be a small minority of theatre critics who – like the Birdman stereotype – are drunk on their own power, and love dishing out pithy put-downs and triumphant, click-gathering one or five star reviews. But lots more theatre critics are very aware of the responsibilities that come with their work, and of the need for careful and supportive critique. Still, every artform has a huge gap between aspiration and reality, and this gap is extra-big in theatre criticism, where artists spend years making works which critics will often have only an hour or two to deliver a verdict on.
These pressures mean that writers often fall back on shorthands; an Exeunt article from a few years ago traced the way that little cliches make their way from reviewer to reviewer – handy words like ‘knotty’ or ‘febrile’ – in a way that was meant to be funny, but also pointed to the way that we end up falling on easy words to express complex ideas. We’ve got to be extra careful that doesn’t happen when we’re talking about marginalised artists. I want to make sure that we listen to Equity’s findings on the cliches and offensive shorthands that minority artists encounter in reviews of their work, and to make sure that white writers take on the responsibility to be actively anti-racist, and to examine their own language and thought patterns.
We’re in a very difficult time for critics and criticism. We were even before the pandemic, but theatre criticism is now under threat from multiple sides. Jobs which were already precarious and very low paid (meaning that most critics write around study or other employment) have disappeared overnight with the pandemic. And more than that, there’s a sense that writing critically about performances produced in these impossible circumstances isn’t the right thing to do, and that it won’t be for a long time.
The Equity campaign faces a central difficulty; theatre critics and reviewers often don’t view themselves as part of the theatre world. They’re employed by media publications which have their own codes and sets of rules, and don’t have the expectation of accountability which comes with public funding – and the kind of reviewer who refuses to wear his mask correctly during a socially distanced performance is unlikely to engage with a project like this.
But this pandemic has shown that theatre critics can’t stand too far apart from the artists they review; when crisis hits, we’re all left looking for answers together. And one of the things we have to search hardest for is a fairer way of working, when this is over.