Like many people today, I have been saddened to read the press release that states that Irish Theatre Magazine is suspending publication, due to the withdrawal of Arts Council funding. I’ve been aware of this decision for some time, because I sit on the Board of ITM, but it was still very disheartening to see the news in black and white today.
I wanted to take a moment to consider what the consequences might be of the loss of ITM. I need to stress that I’m doing so in a completely private capacity: because I am on the Board, I also think it would be unwise for me to argue one way or the other about whether the cut was the right decision, though I know there are opinions about that already in circulation across social media. Rather, I just want to turn some attention to the future, to consider what can happen next, if anything. Here are some issues that immediately strike me as being urgent.
- What happens to theatre criticism outside Dublin?
Like any publication, ITM had its critics, but one achievement that can’t be quibbled with is that it gave coverage to companies that no-one else was writing about. While critics in the national press (people like Eithne Shorthall and Emer O’Kelly, among others) do make a concerted effort to see work outside Dublin, in general most small and emerging companies in Ireland struggle to get any kind of national coverage – unless they bring their work to Dublin. The loss of ITM thus has some negative consequences for those companies.
First it means that those companies are omitted from the written record. As an academic, I am constantly made aware that one of the ways that we can reconstruct the history of Irish theatre is by looking at newspaper advertisements and reviews. I think it’s sad that when historians look back a century from now, they may form the impression that there was little or no theatre in Ireland beyond the M-50. They’ll be aware of Druid, but mainly as a company that visited the Gaiety from time to time; and they’ll be aware of Coradorca, as a company that sometimes staged work in the summer (when Dubliners were visiting Cork). What will they know about Livin’ Dred or Blue Raincoat or all of the great theatre that’s been produced in Limerick during the last decade? What about all the young companies from Galway and elsewhere? What about theatre in Kilkenny? Absence of evidence will undoubtedly be seen as evidence of absence.
Second, there is the fact that reviews help emerging companies. Those reviews often form part of funding applications, and also are used to persuade venue managers to take shows that are touring. The loss of those public endorsements will have a disproportionately negative impact on companies outside the capital.
A third problem is how new work is promoted. In Dublin, the theatre community is big enough that word of mouth, especially via Twitter and other social media, can help to sell shows. But beyond the capital, companies are still very dependent on reviews – which are then recycled on posters, radio ads, and so on. I have a strong memory myself of being approached by a theatre producer when I was reviewing a show in Galway about ten years ago: “I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like the show,” he growled; “you’re entitled to your opinion. But for God’s sake would you just give me a line I can use on the posters?” Those words were delivered half in jest (and thus, in typical Irish fashion, were absolutely serious), but I don’t think things have changed much since then. In general I think there’s a very poor understanding of how different kinds of marketing are necessary in different parts of the country.
- What kind of theatre criticism do we want?
When Karen Fricker was editor of ITM we held an event with the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2003, asking what kind of theatre criticism Ireland needed. It was a great conference, happening in Liberty Hall and featuring contributions from people like Richard Eyre and Garry Hynes, as well as several national and international academics and critics. And it was attended by about 100 people. There was a great buzz about the whole event, and it reverberated for months afterwards.
It’s difficult to imagine such an event being greeted with that kind of excitement now – for many reasons.
So I think we are now much further away from understanding what we want of theatre criticism in Ireland than we were 10 years ago. Many of the producers that I speak to in Dublin are dismissive of theatre reviews, though some still suggest that a positive review can help to sell a show (but only when accompanied by good word of mouth). Nevertheless, it still seems to be the case that most theatre people want their shows to be reviewed. For many theatre audiences, the purpose of a review is to act as a kind of consumer guide, to answer a question that we may not be able to answer for ourselves: should I go and see this show? And for academics, the function of a review is to act as a record. Practitioners too have a range of opinions about what reviews do for and to their careers.
But my overall point here is that the different parts of the Irish theatre community – practitioners, producers/venue managers, audiences, academics, etc – all want and expect different things of reviews, and not all of those things are possible or compatible with each other.
My own view is that criticism should meet some of the objectives above, but should do much more than them. In our society, when something important happens, we write about it. When the Irish team wins the Six Nations, it is written about. When an Irish writer wins a literary prize, the newspapers write about it. When a Garda Commissioner resigns, we write about it. I’d like to think that our arts are sufficiently important that we should write about them in much the same way.
In short, we should write about theatre because theatre matters. And if we don’t write about it, we are creating the impression that it does not matter – that it is not ‘newsworthy’, that it is not worth recording for future generations.
I think that theatre criticism is not an ‘art’ in the sense that theatre is. But I do think it’s an important form of writing, and important example of the craft of prose writing and literary analysis. It can be taught; it can be done well, and it is an important part of our cultural conversation, and indeed of our cultural well-being. I believe strongly that the strength of a society is evident in its willingness to discuss ideas – and I’d include in that the willingness of critics to discuss the ideas that go into making theatre.
Let’s leave aside here that many people complain about Irish critics, and/or the state of criticism in Ireland. We can aspire to having a vigorous and rigorous critical tradition in this country. That aspiration is now several steps further away from being realised.
- Blogging is not the Answer
I’ve heard quite a few people say that theatre criticism of the kind we find in newspapers has been rendered redundant by the arrival of the blog. As someone who has been blogging about Irish theatre for about 10 months, I don’t think we should see blogging as any kind of substitute for professional criticism.
Blogging is certainly a useful way to discuss theatre, but it is by its nature often partial and unreliable. A professional theatre critic will see everything; as a blogger, I see only what I want to see. A professional theatre critic has an obligation to be negative if he/she feels it’s appropriate to do so; a blogger can (and usually does) write only about things that he/she likes.
There is a place for blogging in our theatre conversation, but it can’t take the place of well informed, rigorous, disciplined, and regular criticism by a professional theatre critic. This leads to the next problem –
- Sustainability of Online Resources
A question that many of us who work in the digital humanities are asking is how we can ensure that our online work lives on. This question is clearly urgent with blog posts. A newspaper will be archived by our national cultural institutions and can be accessed a century from now. It’s highly unlikely that this blog will exist in its present form in even five years.
This is also pertinent to the online status of Irish Theatre Magazine and other Irish cultural journals. Ten years ago, there was a great rush to have material published online, with the view being widely promulgated that online publication is cheaper, more accessible, and more efficient than print. That is true, of course, but only in the short term. As many people are now discovering, online publication has an ongoing cost: you have to pay for storage indefinitely, and as software develops, it is also necessary to upgrade content so that it can be searched and displayed more accurately.
The web is only 20 years’ old but we all already know of countless digital graveyards: websites that were set up and run for some time – and which are now obsolete because the owner ran out of money or enthusiasm or support.
I think it’s a point worth noting here that ITM’s print catalogue can and has been securely archived, in libraries all around the country and abroad. But the question of what happens to its online content is far more complex. Isn’t it ironic that the printed version of the magazine will live on long after the website disappears?
What this shows, I think, is that anyone who’s running a website that is funded by an arts or educational agency should contemplate what will happen to the content if/when the funding disappears. That’s quite a worrying prospect, when you consider how important many online resources are for Irish theatre.
- What kind of theatre magazine do we want (if any), and how do we want to pay for it?
Since it began, ITM effectively has had two models, both of which had drawbacks.
The first was the print magazine, which ran for about 10 years. I used to love getting the magazine through the letter-box every quarter, but I know that it had its critics too. Some readers and theatre people thought it unfortunate that so many reviews appeared long after shows had finished. And there was also a view that magazines were too dependent on subscribers’ willingness to continue paying. There was a strong sense when the magazine stopped being published that printed criticism was no longer sustainable.
The second was the online version of the magazine, which overlapped with the printed version for some time before it went entirely online. Online publication has much to recommend it – you can publish reviews quickly and can allow for audience interaction. The problem, however, is that online publication requires much more frequent editorial input: audiences expect that reviews will appear within 24 hours of a show’s opening, and they expect that if they want to comment, those comments will be quickly moderated. Websites now only are visited if traffic is driven there by social media – requiring a dedicated (full-time) social media person. That kind of model can only work if you have a full-time editor – not to mention critics who can turn around work within 24 hours (and editors who can copy-edit during the same period). But even our national newspapers are struggling to make this kind of model work. Expectations of what an online resource can and should do have evolved very rapidly since ITM first went online.
If ITM is to have a successor – and I hope it does – I think it might be necessary to consider models that are different from the two above – or which perhaps might combine the two above in some way. Along the way, we’d have to answer the following questions.
- If people want theatre criticism, how much will they pay for it?
- If people want reviews, how long are they willing to wait for them?
- Does Irish theatre need a written record of its productions?
- Does that written record need to be preserved?
- Are there enough skilled and knowledgeable critics in Ireland to cover the 200+ professional productions staged in Ireland each year (hint: no, there aren’t)? If not, where can they come from? Are those critics willing to write for free or for as close to it as possible?
- Are there people out there who are willing to edit 200+ reviews, plus features, for no money or very little money, for several years?
- If this doesn’t happen, what will the consequences be?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, though I do have opinions about some of them. But I think it would be useful if we could start discussing these issues in more detail.