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.
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?