Disclaimer: We do.
It’s been pleasingly meta in The Stage this week, as critics discuss criticism; The Stage’s criticism survey is out and Lyn Gardner once again tops the list (have a read of Mark Shenton’s article about the results here). Gardner’s response to the results is interesting, using it as the starting point for a discussion on the changing relationship between criticism and regional theatres. Within the article, she suggests that the industry needs “a new approach to theatre criticism, in which theatres see developing critical voices as part of audience and artist development and invest in it accordingly” whilst also saying that “theatres need to be less in thrall to old-style national press coverage and look to other sources of criticism”.
I understand where Gardner is coming from; she’s beloved by theatre-goers and theatre-markers across the country, and so everyone wants her to review which she physically cannot do (I apologise for the constant Twitter spamming that she and other critics receive from us). However, I feel her article neglects the fact that there are two very different reasons theatres want critics; to benefit tickets sales/raise awareness of a specific production and for their own reputation.
Fundamentally, the relationship between criticism and regional theatres depends on what we want criticism for. Gardner highlights how “The Stage survey indicates that word of mouth and friends is a more trusted source of opinion than mainstream publications”. That is certainly true. Our post-show eflyers ask our audiences to spread the word, and we know it works; word of mouth on our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 transformed sales. From a personal perspective, I have friends whose criticism I’d trust more than a review in a paper.
We love reviews from our audience. Hearing that our Christmas shows are a family staple, or that a teenager sat enthralled watching Hamlet really makes our day; we tell stories for audiences to engage with, and when they love it, it’s a great feeling. It’s not just ego-stroking though; audience feedback provides insights into the experience that we don‘t see from the producing angle. Whether it’s to do with accessibility, or facilities, or the Box Office process, audiences have the power to shape the theatre-going experience (one of the most useful bits of criticism from an audience member was to do with our e-tickets; our print-at-home tickets had an ink-heavy logo, and we changed it).
Since April 2017, our marketing strategy has become focused more on social media (see Arts Marketing: a Critique); with the development of our podcast and blog, we’ve created more opportunities for engagement between us and our audience. When we announced our two-hander production of Dracula in early 2018, we had some lively discussions on our Facebook page about the decision; Lucy and Charlie responded with them in our podcast on small cast shows. I have no idea how many people actually read my blogs, but we’re always ready to discuss and engage with our audience.
I do have some qualms with Gardner’s suggestion of regional theatres helping develop critical voices in blogs. We love getting reviews on blogs and online sites like Daily Info for Culture Calling, but they’re not necessarily written by professional reviewers, and can lack technical insight. Everyone has to start somewhere (I write as someone who reviewed for students papers), and I don’t want to diminish the value of these reviews but surely the onus for development should be on them, not the theatres they are reviewing. As a regional professional company, one of the marketing struggles we face is how to differentiate ourselves from amateur companies and press coverage plays a part in this. A regional newspaper normally reviews both professional and amateur productions (which is good), but doesn’t differentiate between them.
Gardner suggests we should invest time and money accordingly. Those are in short supply in regional theatre, whilst regional press is similarly underfunded. Here in Oxfordshire, The Oxford Times has great relationships with the theatres and art centres across the county, but are understaffed (we and other arts organisations in the county will frequently supply our own articles). I know that The Guardian and The Stage can’t be everywhere at once, but surely there is some way for national papers to support local writers. Journalism is a job not bound by location; a journalist in Yorkshire could have an article listed online easily by a national company, generating more clicks whilst also building their reputation. Maybe some sort of scheme is needed, a relationship between local press and national papers…but that is a whole other article.
In terms of audience development, I do agree with Gardner. However, her article neglects one of the fundamental benefits of national press; with national coverage comes a national reputation. This is why so many regional theatres clamour for Lyn Gardner and Mark Shenton to see their shows; our ticket sales are strong, but we want people outside of the A34 to know that we’re here and making exciting theatre.
In terms of artistic development and to grow as a company we need national press. Glowing reviews from our audiences are essential for ticket sales but have little impact on growing our reputation within the industry. The work we are currently doing on Brave New World is extraordinary (see Attention Must Be Paid), but it feels that once again, a show that could really be remembered, be iconic and be talked about will only remain in the memories of Oxford.
It’s not just for the company’s reputation; national coverage (or the lack thereof) can influence/hinder our creative output. Agents want our casts and creative team to be reviewed in national press; we have found that when making offers to actors, their agents say “Oh, they’ve done Oxford.” Behind the scenes, our administrative team would like some national acknowledgement; the work you’re proud of can feel insignificant in a job interview, for example, when your company has little to no national coverage. – sometimes it feels like we’re still an emerging company, rather than an organisation that’s been producing acclaimed work for over 20 years.
I feel very strongly about national coverage (see If You Build It, They Will Come); not only do I work in a regional company, but I love writing about theatre and probably still slightly dream of being a critic. I agree with Gardner when she says that criticism is changing; however, I feel The Stage survey results don’t represent the drive for national coverage felt in regional companies.