Reviewers on Reviewing (1/2)

9th March 2007



Journalist Uchenna Izundu quizzes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph), Jane Edwardes (Time Out) and Lyn Gardner (Guardian) about the business, and art, of theatre criticism. Where did they start and how can other people get in on the act?

You have people who are earning some kind of living from writing about theatre because there are nooks and crannies where you can do that.


REVIEWERS on REVIEWING (1/2) Journalist Uchenna Izundu quizzes Dominic Cavendish(Telegraph), Jane Edwardes (Time Out) and Lyn Gardner (Guardian) about the business, and art, of theatre criticism. Where did they start and how can other people get in on the act?

Recorded: 9 March 2007

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is REVIEWERS on REVIEWING (1/2) and you must quote the url in your address bar.

Uchenna Izundu: Hello, and welcome to TheatreVOICE with Uchenna Izundu. I’m a theatre critic with Pride Magazine, which is a monthly publication for black British women based in London, although it is distributed all over the country. I’m holding a session with Dominic Cavendish, Lyn Gardner and Jane Edwardes. We’re going to be discussing what it means to be an art critic, and how you can actually develop a journalism career out of it. I would like to open the floor, so to speak, to ask Dominic how he came to the Telegraph, move on to Lyn and ask how she came to The Guardian, and end with Jane on how she came to Time Out.

Dominic Cavendish: Right, well I’ll try to be as brief as possible, because my arrival in the world of theatre is quite unglamorous. I think maybe many people find the paradigm set by Kenneth Tynan when he swanned from Oxford straight into some cushy reviewing number in Fleet Street is rather unusual. I started off in local reporting, fifteen years ago now, mainly doing news, features, that kind of thing and, luckily, because it was in south-west London, I was able to also persuade the editors involved that I could do a bit of theatre reviewing on the side. So I kept that as a going concern, it didn’t really lead to much immediately; but as a result of getting some very tiring and tedious work at The Independent doing listings, which is probably the most boring job you can get in journalism, for about a year. On the back of that, I managed to creep into the arts fold, where I was mainly a sub-editor but, generally at nights, I would volunteer my services to review. So bit by bit I built up some kind of portfolio in reviewing and finally I started to declare myself as a theatre reviewer when I got a regular, weekly job on Time Out reviewing for Jane Edwardes, who kindly gave me my real first gig. That seemed to just grow, I mean it seemed to involve a lot of nights and extra bits of work at the weekends, but eventually I got an Acting Deputy Theatre Editorship at Time Out and from that, really, I got taken seriously enough to get an interview at The Daily Telegraph where I joined as Deputy Theatre Critic in 2000, and I’ve been slogging around the country ever since, very enjoyable it is too.

UI: Lyn, what about yourself?

Lyn Gardner: Really, quite simply my route was kind of rather similar, but a bit quicker, which was that I was a founder member of City Limits magazine, which was an alternative set-up to Time Out in the early 1980s, where I eventually went on to become Theatre Editor, and then I freelanced with The Independent, and went to The Guardian full time in 1993.

UI: And Jane?

Jane Edwardes: Mine was rather more a circuitous route, in that I started off by working in the theatre in various different ways. I was the founding member of a touring company, and then did an arts administration course. And then after about ten years of that really didn’t want to do it anymore, didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I thought I might write a piece about fringe theatre, and then I amused people at Time Out who suggested I might do something there, and they gave me my first review, which I found very terrifying, but I enjoyed it enormously, and suddenly thought that maybe this is my relationship to theatre, and it’s grown from there. Eventually I became Theatre Editor at Time Out and have been there ever since.

UI: Our discussion has been prompted by a scheme that the Royal Shakespeare Company has launched, where they have brought on the Complete Works Festival that’s been running now for almost a year, and Deborah Shaw has gone around inviting theatre companies from all over the world to come perform their own versions of Shakespeare, particularly interested in cultural interpretations. So there’s been some fantastic work. And as part of the scheme they’ve recruited some journalists from diverse communities, or people who have links with diverse communities to try and raise the profile of the Complete Works Festival within those communities. So I’m a member one of those schemes and that’s how we have come to have our discussion looking at why it may be quite difficult for people to break into arts criticism as a career. And my first question, I suppose, is going back to basics. What exactly is an arts critic as a journalist? Would anyone care to take the first stab at it? [Pause] The silence, the deafening silence.

DC: Well, I suppose, I mean that’s interesting, isn’t it? There’s a distinction already, I think, between an arts writer and, I suppose, an arts critic plural, you know, across the board, and a theatre reviewer, a theatre critic. And because theatre reviewing, in London particularly, can be a very intensive workload, I think you specialize alarmingly quickly if you decide to nail your colours to the theatrical mast. You have to really get out there and start seeing things four, five, sometimes six nights a week to kind of earn your spurs. So I think theatre reviewing, in a sense, is what we’re most able to comment on as a discipline and as a job, if it is a job. Loosely I suppose you could say that the art of theatre reviewing is about providing the best form of expression to describe the experience of watching a particular piece of theatre. So whatever that best form is I think will vary from journalist to journalist, and can be argued about quite intensely in terms of its range and its priorities. But I certainly think that in simple terms that’s what pays my bills; my ability to go out and see a piece of theatre and write about it. Everything else, the interviews, all the other kinds of things that I might be interested in comes, in a sense, secondary to that, because that’s where the market is. People want to know: is a piece of theatre good or not?

JE: Yes, it’s coming to some kind of judgement, isn’t it? And then it’s also putting it in some kind of context with the rest of theatre that’s going on, and analyzing all the different elements that make up a production and choosing what you think is the most significant. But that’s basically what we’re doing night after night, isn’t it?

UI: Lyn, do you agree?

LG: Yes, I mean, I think so. I think it’s fairly broad what one does, but I think Dominic is absolutely right, that in a sense the bread and butter is of course the reviewing, because if you haven’t seen the work it then becomes hard to write features about it. What interests me quite a lot is that, yes, I think, inevitably you end up specializing and obviously, our specialism is all theatre. But, in a way, I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish, actually, that it was slightly broader, and that The Times that I’m quite interested and sort of suddenly perk up are not when I go off and interview some kind of American star who’s swanking into the West End, but actually often when I’m going to write a piece that kind of crosses boundaries in some way and you know can’t be pigeonholed as being theatre, or opera, or performance, or maybe something that might be seen in a gallery, and that’s actually much more stimulating.

DC: I was just going to possibly also proffer the idea that possibly that maybe there’s more to review now than there was before. I mean, certainly my constant feeling is one of anxiety that I haven’t seen enough, and there seems to be so much to review that you’re almost set up to fail as a theatre reviewer. Not in the sense that you can’t deliver an interesting or valid judgment on something, but that somehow you feel there isn’t a duty incumbent upon you as a critic to try and cover all the bases and to make sure that nobody’s left out. And I feel that partly this is to do with ulterior priorities; there is really a problem with the quantity a journalist is involved with; in a sense there are a lot of people out there doing quite similar things, so you may get seven, or eight or nine reviews of a West End first night, but maybe one or two of a very interesting Off West End or Fringe show. And there does seem to be a slight imbalance going on at the moment, so that really, quite what a theatre reviewer is, is slightly up for definition. Are you aspiring to be the person who sits in on the first nights of the West End shows, or can you be just somebody who’s interested in theatre, per se? And Lyn’s point about those areas of connection – performance, performance art – are quite interesting. Does that count as theatre now, and if so, is it just a kind of marginal thing that you do as an extra, or is it really actually central to what you want theatre reviewing to be about?

LG: I think that’s so important, and I think that in a way that really gets to the nub of it, because: one, I think there is an argument about simply whether it is a good idea if you are a theatre critic that you then write a lot of features as well, and to a certain extent I often find that there’s a conflict of interest in doing that, because if you go out and have done a feature on something, and you’ve spoken to the director, and you’ve spoken to the writer, well actually I think it’s then very hard to kind of go with a very clear mind in order to review something. But the way actually that jobs are set up, and also for a lot of people who are working as freelancers, I mean, we’re all very lucky in the sense that we have particular jobs at particular magazines or newspapers, and know that we are going to get paid every month, but for lots of people who are trying to forge a career in arts journalism, then actually you do what you can do, but in order to get paid, and that means that you might be doing a bit of reviewing and a bit of writing and you might be doing one thing for one person, and one thing for another publication, and therefore it means that you have to be able to cover all bases, but it also means that actually you do end up in these rather odd situations, the way you might have written a feature for one publication but then may end up reviewing the same production for another publication. And I think that’s difficult because, as I say, on the rare occasions that ever happens to me at The Guardian I really, really hate it, I think the two things should be separate.

JE: I think that’s true, and I don’t do that at Time Out. I’m able to chose, so even though it’s quite painful sometimes, and for instance, I went to India to see Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it’s now my baby you know, and if the person who goes to review it doesn’t like it, I should be very upset, but I don’t feel like I could review it myself and be objective.

UI: I’m quite intrigued by the point that both of you have made, because I would have thought that going to interview people who’ve been involved in the production would help develop some sort of intimacy, so that when you are watching it you would be able to actually see whether they have tried to fill those objectives that have told you about.

JE: You shouldn’t have to be told what the objectives are to begin with; you should go into the theatre and you should be able to see what the director’s intentions are by sitting in the theatre. Whereas if you’ve had somebody telling you, then it’s probable that it would be very clear to you, but it may not be for the person sitting next to you who hasn’t had that advantage.

LG: It’s like having privileged access. I mean, my ideal about going to review something would be to not even have read the press release, I mean it’s very seldom that I read a programme.

UI: Oh really, you read it afterwards?

LG: I read it afterwards. You know, certainly as far as the programme in particular is concerned I absolutely don’t want the thing where it says Director’s Note, and the director then tells you what you’re supposed to think about the production. You know, I’m really just not interested in that. I kind of like the idea of some kind of purity.

DC: In theory we should be having this conversation at a moment of great optimism, because the internet has finally opened up the doors to people who want to get experience, who want to be able to go and cut their teeth writing reviews, and maybe would have been just put in the bin if they’d sent application forms to the very small handful of arts desks beforehand. But at the same time the internet seems to be creating all these problems in terms of cost cutting, the feeling that, in a sense, there’s just a plurality of opinions, how on earth do you forge your identity as a critic? Is it by shouting louder then everyone else? So it’s an interesting time, I’m not sure if the internet is going to be ultimately that useful for theatre reviewing. I think it might actually end up a dilution of the form.

UI: What would be the views of Lyn and Jane? I was quite interested in trying to find out, especially when you’re starting, as Dominic has just pointed out, how do you start to develop your voice? I mean now, as you’ve just pointed out Dominic, can anybody be a critic? Or is there something that distinguishes you from Joe Bloggs on the street?

JE: Well, there’s two questions there really. I think that the internet has provided certain opportunities. There are websites which don’t pay you, which have enough credibility with press officers, so if you can get them to commission you, then it’s a chance to start reviewing, and you’re not going to develop your own voice unless you actually start to write reviews. That’s really the hardest thing, just to get started in the beginning. But the wider question is that there is this kind of dilution that loads and loads of people are writing reviews but personally I think it’s quite clear, I think if somebody is writing with a certain authority, or if you read the fanzine letters about Wicked, it’s just enthusiasm, you know, which is fine, but I don’t think that’s going to be sort of, it’s going to replace somebody who has considerable knowledge of the theatre.

LG: I agree and I disagree with what Jane is saying. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right, you know, a critic is not a fan in quite that way. But I think that in a way all three of us sitting round this room are absolute examples of people who came out, in fact, of the explosion of listings magazines in the 1980s – routes which actually prior have had routes then in to national newspapers that previously was not an accepted route. And I think that it’s kind of quite easy to be a little bit snobby about the web. Quite simply I think that what is happening on the web is a similar kind of explosion to what happened with the listings magazine.

UI: What’s the listings magazine?

LG: Well the listings magazines like City Limits, and about the fact that now, like Metro and all those free sheets really came out of the split between Time Out and Inter City Limits in the 1980s. And at the same time Richard Branson at the time set up another magazine called Event, and then various newspapers such as The Independentstarted doing listings, and that created, effectively, more jobs. And what you actually have is a really quite interesting situation in Britain, which is different in other places, which is that you have quite a lot of people who are earning some kind of living, maybe not their full living, from in fact writing about theatre or writing about the arts in some ways, because there are lots of little nooks and crannies in places where you can do that. It may be that actually they also have a job in an insurance office, or they’re a civil servant, or whatever it might be, but they are going to the theatre a couple of nights a week and they’d be writing for something perhaps like Metro or like Time Out or on a website. And I just think that in many ways that is a good thing, because actually what happens is the greater pool of people that you have writing in the first place – seems to me that actually in the end probably the people who then rise and aspire, and get basically what it comes to, if there are less than twenty, less than fifteen jobs or maybe as little as kind of ten or a dozen jobs that when it comes to those of us who are really earning a full time living out of writing about theatre, on national papers and on Time Out. And I think that’s not a bad thing because we may get different types of voices coming through, and I think that that can only be a good thing.

DC: Yes, I’m not saying that in cultural terms it’s bad, but my distinction is that it does create a greater plurality of voices, and it’s more democratic and easier to start I suppose, but my concern is what do you do once you’ve started, I mean there’s plenty of opportunity for people to get some experience, but I think because the internet represents in a sense the arrival of the downward pressure on the broadsheets, in terms of they’re all cost cutting a lot, there’s a frantic attempt to provide content for nothing now so the broadsheets are playing the same kind of game as any other websites really, which is can we keep the readers hooked for long enough the present them with an advert? And my worry is that if you were giving advice to somebody who was thinking about starting out, for example, if you had someone who was starting a city job and goes to the theatre in the evening it may actually become the norm in that the only way you’re really going to be able to fund a career as a theatre critic, long-term enough for it to become serious and important is by actually having a completely different kind of day job, and I wonder if that is actually a significant change – that before there would have been a slightly larger pot of jobs that would have paid well enough for maybe more than a dozen journalists to come along and now you wonder whether, in fact, that sort of reviewing coterie, in a sense, is shrinking, surrounded by a much greater number of people who can’t pay their way.

LG: I really, really disagree with that, because I think actually the route in to being a theatre critic has always been a rather odd one. There is no training where you turn round and say I am going to go off and be a theatre critic unless actually effectively the route in the past has been that you went to Oxbridge and you were called Michael.

JE: And it’s still very much like that.

LG: I actually think that what’s happening is helping to change that. And I think as I say I think what happened with the listings magazines…

UI: Sorry to interrupt Lyn. In what way do you think it’s helping to change?

LG: Well actually a much broader group of people actually have access and a platform. After all, what is it that makes me a theatre critic and what makes me different from somebody else out there? You know, many, many thousands of people who are out there who go to the theatre a lot and really actually are extremely well informed and probably actually write better than I do. Well the only thing that makes me different is, in fact, that I have the job… I have the gig… I’m paid…

JE: It pays your bills.

LG: I have the gig and therefore I have the platform for my views and I am paid for it because somebody – thank God – somewhere said, “Yes, that Lyn Gardner, that’s the person that we want”, but actually, you know, I think there are lots of other people out there who probably could do the job as well as I actually do it and it’s just a mixture of, kind of, luck and you know being in the right place at the right time that I actually did get it. And I think in my case even more so because when I started out as a young critic in the 1980s – and I think probably Jane’s the same – there were very few women. There were night after night after night when I went to press nights where I was actually the only woman there for a period of time, And some of my other colleagues on the listings magazines, yeah…

JE: I remember Michael Billington calling it a travelling men’s club.

LG: Yes and I can remember Michael Coveney turning round and saying to me, you know, “It’s not a suitable job for a woman.”

UI: Because you’re out late at night.

LG: Well yes, and lots of lonely time on trains, and actually you know another thing is both Jane and I are probably aware of because you know actually it’s a really difficult job to do when you’ve got children because I never put my children to bed at night. So there are all those things that actually do operate. But those things have changed over the last twenty years and I think that actually the web and the fact that there are more nooks and crannies allows more people to come in at the base of the profession and I think Dominic is right in a sense that perhaps they’re coming in to a profession where actually those people who own and run newspapers and magazines are increasingly asking people to exploit themselves and do stuff for free.

UI: Yes, you see that now in the London Paper.

LG: But actually when you’re starting out, you’ll do anything.

DC: My worry is that the YouTube culture – which is basically “Let’s get the users to provide the content” – is becoming the norm in the sense that if you look at The Independent, it has a slot now called You Write the Review, which seems to me quite obviously a cheap way of theoretically engaging the reader but actually just filling a space undermining…

JE: The same for the London Paper.

DC: …undermining, really, the very small reviewing quota they’ve got there. And bit by bit you can see them almost saying, “You know what? This isn’t really that important, Joe Punter knows what he thinks about these things. Let’s open it up to them let’s slice the budget for actually reviewing this stuff. Let’s not send anyone off as far as Scarborough and Manchester. Let’s do a little kind of West End round-up”…

JE: And have just stars.

DC: And before you know it you’re following an agenda which has been set from on high, really, and there’s nobody… and I’m not saying it’s as bad as that…

LG: Yes, I understand what you’re saying.

DC: But my worry is that what one would hope would be the glory days of reviewing which would be more people, better quality because of more competition is actually going to result in dissipation and fragmentation and particularly, and this is the thing that I’ve always been vexed by, because I started off in journalism thinking there’s no point in me trying to become a theatre reviewer partly because I didn’t come from a particularly theatre family and I always presumed that you had to be carried around on cushions and be Sheridan Morley to be a theatre reviewer, but also I thought well everything’s going to change, it’s going to be much more of an ethnically diverse bunch in journalism and actually who’s going to read another white middle class male on theatre reviewing? And I’ve always been concerned as to where is the pressure in the sense of competition; is it that we’ve only really got these separate organs like the Voice and other Afro-Caribbean newspapers and actually they speak to their own readerships and there’s no cross-over point and so I’m allowed to carry on doing what I do but I somehow feel that I belong to a bygone era that actually things should have changed ten or fifteen years ago, and I don’t know whether you know or can think why there doesn’t seem to be much outward pressure on these job, I mean do you think that people just feel discouraged? People in your position feel discouraged about applying for theatre reviewing jobs before they even start.

UI: I think coming right back to basics when it comes to journalism that it’s a common problem regardless of what field you want to enter. That one: that access point is so narrow, and two: if it’s not the starting salary, the point is, how do I get my foot in the door? And we’ve just been speaking earlier now on trying to juggle possibly having a full-time job and review in the evening if you think I can’t make a full-time job out of it? So yes, I do believe to some extent it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, some people feel “What’s the point? I can’t get my foot in the door in the first place.” And even if you do, what are your career prospects? How far can you run with it? And some of that is about a self-confidence issue and I think some of that is also about accessibility: how do you break open the doors to show people that it is something that’s fulfilling and you can actually develop a career? I’d like to throw that back to you.

LG: Well you can except that I think that we need to be realistic about it coming back to the point that you’re pointing out that the point of access is very narrow but actually the point of kind of end is very narrow because if it comes down to it that there are effectively a dozen of us we’re there often until in fact one day we fall off our perch in the aisle seat aged 88.

JE: Well it’s very much like that because once you get into theatre if you are the number one theatre critic somewhere there’s actually nowhere else for you to go, I mean quite often people don’t want to go anywhere else but there is nowhere else to go you’re not going to go back into the main body of the paper, so that you are going to go on and on and on doing this job until you fall dead in the aisle.

UI: So it’s the love that keeps you all going.

LG and JE: Yes.

JE: It’s complicated feelings, but it does mean that there is no career development. Number twos are just waiting for number ones to drop dead. I mean there is no training, is there?

DC: But I think that’s why there’s a problem with theatre, I mean it’s not just that, I mean clearly editors are much more willing these days… I think there will be a change in culture just because of cost and youth is everything now and you’ll see a slightly higher churn-rate of lead jobs I imagine in the future. I mean its quite unusual to have had so many lead critics in the same job for so long at the same papers. I think it seems to me that around the edges you see a lot more change happening which suggests that at some point that will filter up to the top. But I wonder what the message one can send out to people is about starting in reviewing? And whether if you look at the kind of theatre we’ve got, I suppose in a sense it does reflect the reviewing climate we have which is that if you have a critical mass of white middle class people reviewing in a sense some of the priorities of the theatre-making world are going to be indirectly or directly gravitating toward that – this is just a kind of feeling that I have – if you don’t have voices from outside that group particularly dominant then you’re going to, its going to be, very hard to create the kind of theatre that’s actually going to encourage people from other communities to come in. Do you agree with me about that at all?

JE: Well I agree that you do need a wide number of voices reflecting it, but it’s hard to find the people who get to the point of wanting to do it in the first place, I think. For whatever reasons people get discouraged, so on the whole most of the people certainly that I come across that want to do the job are white middle class. I have very few, if any, applications from elsewhere. So it’s kind of getting before that stage of people actually feeling that they can apply to Time Out or wherever and looking for jobs.

LG: I think what Dominic is saying is very interesting because the question is “How far do reviewers, people who review, actually then create the culture.” One of the problems in theatre altogether of course is that we don’t have a single black director of a building. Without doubt, British theatre is largely white; it is largely still male as well. And I think the point about: if as a reviewer what we do is that we take our own interests and our own cultural baggage to the theatre with us, then there is an argument for saying that that culture will never change because it certainly won’t reflect the experience of being anything other than being white and middle class. Just to give you an example, funnily enough I’ve just done a blog about this in the light of Debbie Tucker Green’s Generations and Alexandra Wood’s Eleventh Capital. When I was a young critic in the 1980s – and I don’t know if this was the experience for Jane – I kept on seeing plays written by women which attempted to use different structures in the way they were written and frequently what would happen was that all my male colleagues, which was the vast majority of people who were also writing, would say about those plays was: “Ho hum, sort of kind of really quite promising, but this young woman doesn’t know how to structure a play”, and actually my argument really was that what was happening was that these young women were trying to find different ways to tell their stories through different structures and the problem is that if you have, that what happens is that the dominant culture can keep other new things that are coming up down, I think that critics have got to learn to be more open.