• 22 Dec 2012 /  News, THEATRE 16 Comments

    This is part of a letter I sent out to some leading lights in the industry the other day after hearing Alison Croggon was closing her website Theatre Notes after giving 9 years to it for not a single dollar. It may not make sense entirely as I have cut bits out but I said I would put something up so here it is.


    Alison Croggon

    As we all know theatre reviewing/criticism is in its death throes. For print media it’s all over bar the counting – where I used to get up between 800 and 1200 words when I was at the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake gets a couple of hundred. And he has no control over what ends up in the paper the next day. So he must always err on the side of caution. Nothing appeared in print in my time without my advance knowledge – apart from a one-off occasion where a stand-in weekend editor trashed my Les Mis review which, as a result of the botch reult, in great part led me to be sacked. Now it is established practice that the advertiser gets preferred treatment over the reviewer. The reviewer in print media no matter how highly or lowly we respect their work is not safe to truly speak their mind.

    The announcement last week that Alison Croggon is retiring her Melbourne-based blog should sent a bleak and urgent warning to the industry. Alison is super-women – not only were her reviews of the highest order, nothing in the country anywhere near like it. She also managed a creative writing career to which is now intending to commit full time. As she should. She has left behind a 9-year legacy – an intimate and informed and impassioned legacy – with a huge local and international profile. Thanks to the help of no-one (officially). Actors complain about co-op rates – reviewing nowadays is one step down to the zero dollars in return.  Even successful print outlets like Time Out don’t pay any more. And it shows.

    Free tickets to the serious critic come with a burden of responsibilities. They’re not lollies as editors seem to think as they keep their main eye on the financial bottom line.

    I have talked about these problems to Alison in the past. The relationship between theatre companies and critics has always had its ups and downs. It is to entirely misunderstand the job if publicists think our purpose is to put bums on seats. That can happen – hopefully many many times. But that is the publicists job not ours. On any given show the reviewer is there to represent the interests of the company (at least keeping in mind its goals), but also offer  feedback to the artists involved, feedback to the audience who has seen the show, readers who are thinking of seeing the show, and readers who just want at least a little info in hand for that next dinner party. Plus the reviewer keeps a kind of record book – in my view the most important responsibility. To assist with the collation of a history.

    The biggest problem about the current situation is this. Theatre lives and dies on the night – apart from the mark it strikes on our souls. The good critic is not the person sitting in row G who sees ‘more and better’ (though the best of us do accrue a certain discernment over time). Our gift is to DESCRIBE in WORDS what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and there’s nothing there – nothing has lasted even a few hours. On other occasions the etching is permanent – unforgettable. I can still see Judy Davis walk out onto the stage on the opening night of her Hedda Gabler and, without saying a word for some time, just moving around the room, make it very clear that this character was in very deep trouble.

    We are entering a time when the theatre industry is relying on the good will and huge efforts of the likes of Alison and myself for its endeavours to be remembered. When will I get to the point at which, like Alison, I say ‘enough is enough’. What will be left to remember of your efforts? Your life’s work as artists – achievements, setbacks and recoveries. There will be no history – not even written in sand.

    Theatre is not cinema or a novel. We can’t go back to the opening night of Baz Lurhmann’s La Boheme or Armfield’s Cloudstreet. Imagine someone in 20 years saying: “I never new Cate Blanchett acted on stage – nothing here on Google’. .

    Parts of the industry has been co-conspiritors in this likely tragic slow death (unless something is done!) Marketing departments from some of the biggest companies have successfully rendered criticism irrelevant. I point to the Opera House. Companies that hire halls there invite me – Opera Australia, STC – thank you. But since the Opera House has started to organise, produce and promote its own events – nothing. Not a single invite to me. I care not for myself – but what this might mean? Not only do they not need me  (either sales are good or it doesn’t matter to their overall budget if not), they also don’t want me. Yes we had a clash over something irrelevant to criticism a few years back. But that aside, their marketing department is so wiz-bang it believes it no longer needs critics. In particular anyone unpredictable. They have the clout to keep me away. So okay no bad words in the paper two days later – a marketing triumph. But what of the future. No history?

    People in twenty/fifty years time will find no meaningful (extensive and reliable) record of what ever happened at Australia’s most renowned venue over these recent years. Very clearly marketing departments sit above publicists nowadays in the hierarchy. And their view would be: who needs feedback after a show – esp if it’s sold out in advance – end of story – job done. Oh except for the 36-hour website SOH have just produced – to which I contribute a few comments. But only to questions the SOH was prepared to let me answer. Total control – nothing less was acceptable.

    And meanwhile the rest of the performing arts gets a few ill-informed grabs from freebie happy wannabes.

    These thoughts have been brewing in me for a long time. And I offer them now in acknowledgement – to mark the day – the week – that Australian theatre culture has lost its finest (unequalled) critic in Alison Croggon. In part, if not directly, certainly underpinning Alison’s decision to quit theatre criticism are some of the points I raise here.

    My Cassandra-like warning ends with this. If the Australian theatre industry wants to look beyond the petty squabbles of this or that review or reviewer – if it looks to the future and asks: why is there nothing to remember all that work to which we devoted our lives? Then the industry itself will have to find within its imagination/resources for some form of solution. I began this conversation with the acknowledgement that theatre companies and reviewers make strange bedfellows. We ARE bedfellows. We always have been. But for how much longer? Sleeping alone is okay – but not a lot of fun over a long time.

    I just don’t think enough people in the right jobs have had the time to think about what’s happening. I can do no more than alert a few of you to what I see as a looming crisis. In fact it has effectively arrived. The future history of Australian theatre – an empty page? Nought? Nothing? Is that what we want?


    Posted by James Waites @ 6:23 pm

16 Responses

  • Chris T Says:

    Thanks James.
    I think your work on this blog has fulfilled the important role of historical record and I enjoy the way so many of your critiques have such a strong emphasis on the historical context of an artist, a company and our theatre culture.
    I know how much it costs you sometimes too.
    Somewhere Dionysus thanks you.

  • Jana P Says:

    Thank you for this very informative post, James. Would I be able to repost it, or parts of it, on GS, with a link to your website?

  • James Waites Says:

    I am hoping to re-commit to the site in 2013 after too many gaps of months of a time of late. Thanks Fruity for seeing through my dastardly game plan – my site is intended to be more about history than criticism – I haven’t the strength (or is it enthusiasm?) for the later so much these days.

    BTW: great art involves the conjoining in equal parts of the gifts of two gods – Dionysus and Apollo. Well that’s another of my potted theories. Meanwhile both subjugated to carrying Hermes’ bags! Then there’s Lady Diana of course …

  • James Waites Says:

    Hi Jana – it’s all yours – do what you will. I read your piece too – it was wonderful.

  • Alison Croggon Says:

    Hello James – I owe you a letter! And thank you. Your entire email was very moving, but this particularly strikes me: “Our gift is to DESCRIBE in WORDS what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show.” Yes.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thank you for your kind words Alison – I wish you all the best in your creative writing. JW

  • Cameron Woodhead Says:

    Hi James,

    I agree with your sentiments regarding the bleak outlook for critics, but take issue with the detail of your argument and how it’s slanted against the MSM (who still, after all, have an important role to play in all this, and will continue to do so if and when they shift entirely online).

    “Now it is established practice that the advertiser gets preferred treatment over the reviewer. The reviewer in print media no matter how highly or lowly we respect their work is not safe to truly speak their mind.”

    I have to say this is not my experience. The dwindling word counts, the subediting blunders, those are evident for all to see. But my arts editors at The Age (all four of them) have always – ALWAYS – stood up for the critic against the advertiser. There are many ways of truly speaking one’s mind, and to suggest that a print media review doesn’t do this just because it’s short doesn’t follow at all.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks for dropping by Cameron. I’ve knocked together a big rough picture – fine tune as much as you like.

  • Jason Blake Says:

    Hi James,

    True, arts coverage and arts reviewing is coming under pressure. Suggestions from within the SMH that arts should be dropped Mon-Fri, for example.

    But just to clarify, as it stands today, I do have absolute control over what runs in the paper. It’s called writing to length. On occasions where cuts are made – late changes to available space – they are always run past me.

    And while wordcounts have contracted, I’ve countered by pushing the number of theatre reviews published up. In 2012, I’ve had 160 run in the paper, averaging 350 words apiece.

    There seems to be a notion out there that advertising impacts the tone or content of a review. It does not. I’ve never had any contact whatsoever with ad depts and ad spending has no effect on what is written or when it runs.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks for that Jason, I will post a longer reply to comments from both you and Cameron when I get a chance. I am pleased to be corrected – not just for the sake of it, but it’s a better situation at the major city dailies than I had been led to believe. I think I got caught up in an unsuccessful experiment in my last few months – when conditions were really dodgy. That possibly colours my views. More next time


  • Andrew Fuhrmann Says:

    This is a very lovely post, James. Thanks you. Like Cameron and Jason, however, I quibble with a few details.

    As Time Out’s performing arts editor in Melbourne — and I speak only of my experience with the Melbourne masthead — I should point out that we do regularly run paid reviews, roughly one a week at the moment. That’s something I had been lobbying for consistently since arriving in 2011. My editors here and in Sydney were always sympathetic — I think they recognise the value of good reviewing.

    Obviously, though, in a city like Melbourne, that’s not enough to cover everything I feel we should cover, so, yes, we do also run unpaid reviews, when we can. That’s a problem.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks Andrew will have to go back to Journalism 101 and learn to check facts. I will reply to all three of u together soon – been interviewing for National Library today. Big job – stuffed…

  • James Waites Says:

    Hello Andrew, Jason and Cameron. Like I’ve said if i am going to enter into this kind of commentary I clearly need to get my facts right. I don’t thing there is any disagreement to the notion that the space, time and money that leads to best-practice gtheatre reviewing are shrinking fast. While clearly there are still some meaningful exceptions – which you site. My main point in raising the issue is not about blogging v print, word-count, editorial independence or payments. In all instances there are clearly still exceptions.

    It was to let my readers know that if theatre-goers and theatre-makers are not satisfied with the coverage (be that in column inches or depth of thought) it will up to them to do something about it. There is no major motive to ‘remember’ how theatre was in the early part oft he 21st century. How to solve the problem i don’t know. The same problem elsewhere: New York’s Village Voice, which boasted a swag of the city’s best arts reviewers has put out to pasture many of its best.

    I am just putting it out there because sure as hell salvation is not going to come from anywhere outside the confines of the theatre profession – if you want to be remembered you are going to participate in some problem solving yourselves. I mean why can’t I even (asa not-for-profit p=organisation) get hold of a copy of a photo of Judy Davis in Hedda Gabler, or Kosky’s Tartuffe in colour without getting express permission from the photographer as well as all and everyone in these photos?

    As reviews get shorter and reviewers get paid less we will neither attract nor afford the talent to what is not easy work, nor will we be in a position to skill them up beyond a few sentences about the plot and the acting of those in lead roles. Which takes nothing away from you guys – in fact I think you all do a great job in very constraining circumstances.

    To hark back to olden times – truly olden times, it is worth noting that Kenneth Tynan was taken out to lunch and wooed by the paper’s owner, not even the editor in chief. When Katherine Brisbane was at the Australian she traveled interstate regularly to report on theatre there. And when I was starting out at the National Times, I would watch the then very senior and respected Harry Kippax arriving at opening nights in a chauffer-driven SMH staff car. Even those reviewing today who are getting paid are surely not enjoying such luxuries or what they might mean to doing a better job or in terms of professional respect.

    Some of what I wrote was based on my own experience towards the end of my time at the SMH. These circumstances may well have since changed – been corrected or improved. But there was a restructuring at the SMH and the Age which merged the positions of publisher and the editor-in-chief. Prior, if one of my reviews created a kerfuffle, two senior staffers could argue it out: back James or feed him to the lions based on the merits of the case. What happened was that the person in charge of editorial content was now also responsible for the financial bottom line. What emerged was greater pressure to satisfy the advertiser (the complainant). (It’s here I have gone and tripped over myself by presuming the situation has not changed.) Key to my downfall was the cultivated rumour that I hated musicals, when all I did was hate and love productions of musicals in approximately the same proportions as high drama. To show you how easily influenced and ill-informed my senior editors were, they were advised to take me off reviewing The Boy From Oz because I would surely hate it – think of fuss in the Letters page and consequent loss in advertising revenue. Of all the musicals I had reviewed this was easily one I was approaching with more than an open mind – eagerness – high hopes. Interestingly when the show’s producer Benny Gannon got wind of this he contacted the SMH, in a great compliment to me, declared if I was not reviewing The Boy From Oz then he did not want anyone else from the paper to be my substitute. I didn’t need help from Gannon to like the show. Part of his struggle, and why he pitched in, he told me, later, was the amount of undermining his show was getting from one of the more of internationally-based musical production outfits – some of whose shows I had bitch-slapped in the past. And my removal from the reviewer’s chair for this show was, in his view, another example of their dirty tricks. Given what I had written about some of their shows, you might understand why. But that the paper’s senior staff would not know that if anything I was looking forward to The Boy From Oz, showed how little they new about my value-set.

    By the way I had already been given my three-month’s notice to quit – so this was all going on in the run-down to my departure. It intrigued me greatly when I bought the first Saturday edition of the SMH after my departure to find that, along with my replacement Bryce Hallett’s debut – in the form of a large and enthusiastic review of yet another corny imported musical Big Rive. And at the back of the arts pages, a full-page colour advertisement for the same show. Nothing against Bryce, let me make it clear. But on evidence over the next few years he clearly proved to ‘love musicals’ in general more than I did. And international musical producers certainly took out more and bigger theatre advertisements than anyone else in the theatre game. If the way such decisions are made today at the SMH or Age is different (and better) then i am pleased to hear that.

    I’ve not answered all your questions directly but that’s enough for now. Errors of fact acknowledged in my broad sweeping statements, I still think we have a problem And it’s not one for which there is an easy answer. What i am saying is if theatre practitioners want the situation to improve, they are going to have to get their hands dirty and get involved in finding a way of getting out of the hole we have dug for ourselves. It is in their own interests as much as it is for reviewers – if for different reasons. Not that different however. Ultimately we all after the same goal – a vigorous and and much talked (and written) about theatre culture

  • Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?: a few choice quotes | guerrilla semiotics Says:

    [...] Waites at Alison Croggon Retires Theatre Notes at [...]

  • julie copeland Says:

    what a generous & apt response to Alison Croggon’s admirable Theatre Notes.
    I’m very glad to now be out of the business of trying to promote/support artists & culture in Australia.
    you’re both heroes!

  • James Waites Says:

    Sorry for not responding on the site – I am pretty sure I emailed you – will go look – thanks for your kind words – everyday I think of withdrawing from public life – such as it is for me – a tiny sliver – I remember the glory days of ABC One (is that what it was called back then or Radio National?) – anyway learning so much from you all – can never seem to get my hands on Martin Harrison – he gave me very many early breaks – and you did too xxj

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