Drama Matters: Theatre Criticism vs Theatre Journalism

Should theatre journalism come with a warning label?

By now, it’s almost a cliché to comment on how much theatre criticism has changed in the past decade or so. Since the rise of the internet and social media, the way in which critics and audiences analyse and discuss performance has shifted dramatically, with scores of articles and symposia on the subject appearing on a yearly basis. Though there’s undeniably a long way to go and the boundaries of this new landscape have yet to be defined, there’s no doubt that the community of people writing about theatre has created a richer, more exciting literature. While we’ve been championing the changing face of theatre criticism, however, I worry that we’ve allowed the related – but separate – discipline of theatre journalism to suffer a serious blow, allowing a more vacuous and commodity-led tone to permeate our news outlets.

The difference between theatre criticism and theatre journalism is subtle but worth discussing. According to the dictionary, “criticism” is “the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production”. “Journalism”, on the other hand, is “the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news”. For the purposes of this piece, I define “criticism” as anything which resembles a “review”, in all its guises; “journalism”, conversely, is the process of commentary and reportage which surrounds that.

Ideally, we might expect that “theatre journalism” exists to give us information on recent developments and in-depth considerations of particular topics. The world’s best journalism in the twenty-first century uses all sources at its disposal, makes genuine enquiries about the subject matter and holds people to account, all while remaining ethical and imbuing within it an implicit critique rather than simply relaying facts; in a post-structuralist world, we know that objective “truth” is a fallacy and recognise that to read any journalism is to read a specific outlook on events, either by its very existence or the content itself.

The sad fact is that, more and more, theatre journalism is defined purely by the press releases released on any particular day, tasking whichever reporter is on duty with rewording and restructuring to make readable copy for any given publication. Read the theatre news in The Stage, The Telegraph or The Guardian, and they’ll all say pretty much the same thing from the same perspective. And where are the journalists digging deep for a new, exposing story beyond simply getting the scoop on which TV or movie star is next lined up to play Hamlet? Theatre journalism, then, runs the risk of simply becoming an arm of PR departments, perpetuating a cynical, consumerist economy.

And though we have the regular, relevant and consistently brilliant blogs of Lyn Gardner, The Guardian also continues to publish the banal, meandering thoughts of Mark Lawson in his Theatre Studies column, whose title alone demonstrates its inanity. Lawson, almost without exception, consistently churns out pieces which would have been irrelevant at the end of the twentieth century, let alone in 2014 (pieces on curtains and intervals are particular favourites). Whether you believe journalism should set or comment upon the “agenda”, you can’t argue with the fact that it shouldn’t, whatever it’s doing, be looking to the past on such a regular basis. As the need to generate content grows ever stronger with publications seeking to keep advertisers happy by churning out more material than we can ever possibly read, this problem will only deepen; you only need to look to WhatsOnStage’s advertorial listicles or The Independent’s digestible, plain review round-ups to see how widely this trend has spread.

This isn’t to say that insightful, meaningful journalism and commentary isn’t being written. For a start, we are fortunate to have a consistently strong interview culture which, although ordinarily dictated by production opening, can produce fascinating insight and debate. Similarly, every now and then a feature piece will come along which redefines thought and discussion in a way only good journalism can, and sometimes arts desks produce genuinely important news stories. Often, however, the “scoops” and “insight” are left to memoirs which, due to stringent libel laws, are about ten years out of date by the time they’re published.

What we need is a journalistic community which, beyond the confines of the “review”, challenges and holds to account the subject on which it comments. Though it’s true that many newspaper sections – from politics to sport, economics to lifestyle – are often in the pockets of those about whom they write, the arts seems to me to be the perfect space to explore what journalism might mean in the contemporary world, walking a postmodern tightrope of celebration and critique. Journalists must be passionate about their subject, but at the same time must have the freedom and space to expose and challenge where necessary. As an independent form of theatre criticism crystallizes around us, it may be time to begin thinking anew about how an independent theatre journalism might look alongside it.

Dan Hutton

About Dan Hutton

Dan is a freelance critic and theatre-maker. He won the Howard Hobson Award for Theatre Criticism at NSDF in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and in 2013 was the runner-up for the Edinburgh Fringe Allen Wright Award for Arts Journalism. Dan is also a director and co-runs Barrel Organ Theatre.

Dan is a freelance critic and theatre-maker. He won the Howard Hobson Award for Theatre Criticism at NSDF in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and in 2013 was the runner-up for the Edinburgh Fringe Allen Wright Award for Arts Journalism. Dan is also a director and co-runs Barrel Organ Theatre.

Leave a Comment