The democratisation of theatre reviews

By Evi Triantafyllides, Head of Community and Social

I read an article a couple of weeks ago published by The Stage that really struck me.

“Prolific fringe producer Danielle Tarento has criticised the quality of reviews being produced by online bloggers, claiming many are not “proper writers.”

“Michael Billington said that it was dangerous for young critics “expected to write for nothing”, because they would not be able to subsidise their passion past their 20s.”

To what extent are these statements valid, I asked myself. Very limited, I think.

This might be a fairly optimistic and forgiving way of looking at things, but here it goes…

Tarento on bad quality and poorly thought out reviews.

Well, so who is a proper writer and who is a proper reviewer? Writing, as well as expertise, are acquired skills; traits that only get stronger with energy and time. Yes, those 12 or so top qualified reviewers may have mastered them, but isn’t this mastery attained only after going through the necessary learning curve, and shouldn’t we be encouraging more people to embark on that journey?

And even so, why should all theatre reviews be written by only a few? In a period where the democratisation and abundance of reviews has become a part of daily life, why should theatre reviewing be an outlier?

Yelp allows anyone to review restaurants, coffee shops, bars.

Food bloggers, fashion bloggers, any type of bloggers and the almighty Yelp. The boundaries of expertise are becoming more and more blurred by the year, and, more than ever, we are seeking opinions from like-minded, trusted people that are similar to each one of us. Why? Because the reality is that we are all unique, strive to find answers and are satisfied in dissimilar ways. And the reality is that we are all curious and want to learn as much as we can, from as many as we can. The very reason why this newly found model of “mild experts”, “somehow experts”, “like minded someones” is being received so well.

So why should it be any different in theatre? From its inception, theatre was created as an art for the people, and has currently, sadly, turned into one of the most elitist and unreachable forms of art. One that the industry is desperately trying to put back onto the radar of the masses. In my opinion, the rise of bloggers, is one of the most notable, organic developments in this direction yet. We want the masses to know about theatre and we want the masses to know that theatre is for ALL of them! And without realising it, this new breed of reviewers, is doing just that: reviews that are somewhat rushed and not that intellectually enlightening in content implicitly tell us that theatre is something for anyone, something that can be interpreted by anyone and an activity that can be diverse enough to satisfy anyone!

Let me elaborate on this: Theatre is a form of art. And any form of art, with theatre being no exception, has a purpose that is never entirely factual. It can evoke feelings, it can educate, or it can simply be overlooked. But no matter what effect it has on any individual, the only characteristic that is agreed upon, is that it is open-ended and subjective. What’s more, theatre is also a form of entertainment. And even though many will cringe to the thought of this, there can never be a right or wrong way of how people perceive, react, or consume it, as its end goal is always a form of pleasure (whether it is intellectually stimulating, or not at all).

And now imagine this: A theatre performance is praised by a top notch critic for its excellent use of historical facts on a specific matter, rich dialogues with intertwined meanings and fantastic creative direction. On the other hand, an amateur reviewer just describes the scenes without doing much research and says that he didn’t get it and felt quite bored. Surely, the former is a more intellectually educated review. But does that mean it is also one that I should pay more attention to and trust to actually go see the show? It depends on who I am. If I am someone with a similar disposition to the former, probably. If, however, I don’t really know much about the subject and care more about the strength of a performance’s characters rather than the language used, or at that moment would care more about finding a show that will satisfy a specific need I have (let’s say, a feel good comedy) I might as well be better off consulting the latter.

Does this then mean that all reviewers should be treated as “equal’? Absolutely not. But it means that the more reviewers there exist, the more space there is for all theatre-goers to find a review that can resonate with them and the higher probability there is for more shows to be reviewed. Pure… maths. And what about the reviews that get noticed, read and prestigiously published? That, boils down to supply and demand. Thankfully (!) we are not the most accepting of species, and so if a reviewer’s opinion is widely appreciated he will rise and reach further audiences. If not, he will eventually stop, or be satisfied by finding and reaching a specific niche, be it 100 quirky followers, friends and family, or… just himself.

Billington on reviewing as a source of income.

Sure, getting paid for an activity or a specific effort is great, and I don’t think anyone of us would say ‘no’ if offered the money. But a remarkable trend that the internet and the era of e-everything has brought to the world, is a dramatic rise in the number of people taking time to express their opinion or reveal a small something of their character just for the sake of social acceptance, a reward which is non-monetary in nature; a momentary fame in the form of some sort of ‘yes’: Instagram likes, Twitter followers, page views, post shares, recommendations with a simple click of a heart icon, and the list goes on. People do it every day, all the time, and in many instances, with much more passion than any paying activity or their day to day jobs. We don’t really realise it, but these are forms of non-monetary rewards that we actually seek to attain more and more. If there’s one virtue that the convenience of the web has brought to Western civilization, it’s the ease in which people can express themselves, as well as the necessary environment to take these expressions in a more serious manner, as someone out there might be listening. Art, photography, writing, fashion, music. Paths that were always considered low paid for the most and hard to break through for the non elitist, are for the first time easily available and accessible for everyone to exercise as a hobby, without much thought, without much effort and without the pressure that if it’s good enough, I need to be getting paid for it. And apparently, thanks to social media, people are growing fonder of the idea by the day. A picture that I just took, a stream of thought that I jotted down, a song I composed: there is finally a way for us to get the world to know about it, a reason that we can justify time spent on constructive activities we love doing outside the workplace. Hobbies! Hobbies that have found a sense of purpose. Hobbies that have found a reward beyond the realm of money. Hobbies as an absolute necessary component of our well-being, healthy state of mind, confidence, reason for living and happiness.

Bloglovin’ allows you to follow your favourite theatre blogs.

And theatre reviewing is again, no different: it’s a somewhat passive hobby (theatre-going) that has found an outlet to be turned into a more participatory one (theatre-reviewing), with a satisfactory enough measure of acceptance (reach, reads, follows, likes) to turn it into a passion for many.

Should we then not aim for more money being dedicated to it? By all means. But in an industry that is struggling for funds, I would like to think that people who want to share their opinion (or, in search for a better word, review) have finally found a formula that is motivational enough to keep them going beyond their frivolous 20s, and one that we, as spectators, hold a responsibility to keep applauding.