Interview: Mark Shenton on the changing role of the theatre critic

In the first of a two-part interview, Tom Wicker talks to leading theatre critic and journalist Mark Shenton about the changing role of theatre criticism, the impact of the internet and the challenges of achieving the right tone in reviews.

Mark Shenton is not a man shy of an opinion. As we sit in a cafe just round the corner from the Haymarket Theatre, waiting to see Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest, his conversation ranges across plays, places and people he’s known. Insightful and funny, not everything he says is publishable. But if anyone has earned the right to speak candidly about the theatre world, it’s him.

A full-time journalist and critic, Shenton reviews and writes a daily blog for The Stage and has been chief theatre critic for the Sunday Express since 2002, as well as contributing to a host of newspapers and magazines around the world. He’s cemented his position as one of the UK’s leading industry figures by regularly hosting interviews at the National Theatre and sitting on various judges’ panels – including the Off-West End Theatre “Offie” Awards, of which he was the founding member. In addition, he’s the London correspondent for, associate editor of and chair of The Critics’ Circle, Drama section.

His tweets are read by more than 6000 people and his blogs on topics ranging from musical theatre to profit-share and the state of London theatres invariably provoke furious debate. An expert on Broadway, he regularly travels to New York to see the latest shows. And last year he managed to find time between writing commitments to produce Shrunk, by Charlotte Eilenberg, at the Cock Tavern in London.

Producing plays is something he did a lot at Cambridge University. Ostensibly there to study law – “I actually found my degree to be useful for virtually nothing: the two most important skills I’ve learned are driving and typing” – he spent his time immersed in the drama scene and student journalism.

After graduating, Shenton moved to London and worked at Dewynters plc, editing and coordinating the publication of theatre programmes for West End and Broadway shows. He then became editor for Arts and Entertainment at the Press Association, followed by managing editor of Arts and Lifestyle. In 2002, he became a freelance arts journalist.

Hi Mark. It could be argued that theatre critics are hated almost as much as traffic wardens. Why become one?

Actually, I get an awful lot of people telling me how jealous they are! I’d begin, though, by saying that the difficulty about waking up and deciding that you want to be a theatre critic is that there are so few jobs out there. Although we have a busy media in this country – 15 national papers with theatre sections versus five in America – that’s still only 15 positions. It’s also very much a dead man’s shoes situation. Michael Billington, for example, has been in post for more than 40 years, since 1971. And even when you are a theatre critic, it’s hard to make a living just doing that, so we all multitask. For example, Quentin Letts, at the Daily Mail, is a parliamentary reporter and Libby Purves is a broadcaster and a columnist on The Times. The days of the dedicated theatre critic are very much numbered.

While you were at university you were heavily involved in theatre on the producing side. If breaking into theatre criticism is so difficult, why didn’t you go down that route?

I did think about it, and I worked with some interesting people at Cambridge – Tim Supple, who’s now a director, and Nick Ward, who used to be a writer and director but has pulled away from that now. But during my first job in London at Dewynters, doing their theatre brochures, I met a lot of producers and saw the business from the inside out. To be a producer you need to have nerves of steel and a specific approach, because you’re the man or woman who makes theatre happen. And yet, because you’re at the business end, you’re not truly creative. Of course, putting together the team is a creative choice, but, still, I’d find that frustrating. I’ve always found that my voice comes through my writing and that was the creative contribution I felt I could make to the theatre – being an overseer of it all, whether as a critic or as a columnist.

What would you identify as a theatre critic’s primary responsibility?

Many of my colleagues will say that their first responsibility is to the reader and not to the theatre business. I think that your first responsibility as a critic should be to yourself – you have to be honest. There’s no right or wrong, just how you express your opinion and whether people agree with you. There are some critics who, if they like something, I’ll know not to go. And if they say they don’t like something, I’ll be there like a shot! It’s not about being a consumer guide. The other thing I’d say is that, thanks to the internet, to Twitter, blogs and everything else, critics are no longer the end of the conversation – we’re the start of it. Once upon a time, people would pronounce their opinions from on high and the public would be unable to dispute it. Now, everybody’s disputing everything everybody says, all of the time. It’s become a dialogue.

Do you think that the emergence of the blogger is a good thing?

Personally, I regard my blog as the most important journalism that I do. It’s the most free place I can write in, and it’s the most read. There are many theatre critics but, fortunately, there are only a couple who are also serious industry bloggers. Lyn Gardner does it for the Guardian, Dominic Cavendish does it for the Telegraph, but no one blogs daily like I do, which puts me in a slightly different category. By and large, I keep theatre criticism out of the blog unless I’m not going to review it at all in print. The blog is much more of a commentary.

Why is blogging so important to you?

Because of its reach and freedom. When you write for a paper, you’re confined by word counts. But with blogs you can write as little or as much as you want. I know that one of my issues is that I over-write. When we started blogging, people were accessing the internet on computers. Now, they’re doing it on their mobiles and you can’t read long-form content on a phone. And long-form journalism is probably a thing of the past, anyway, in this attention-deficit age. But screw it – what’s great about a blog is that you can go into things at length. People don’t have to read it if they don’t want to! I find that it actually has quite a powerful impact. It’s great to be able to stir up debate.

Does the likelihood of a response affect the way that you write?

No. And I welcome responses, because the issue one finds as a critic is that there is a tendency to write in a vacuum – you’re putting it out there, but you don’t know how it’s being received. In this respect, the dialogue that wraps around the blogosphere can be quite healthy, because it provides you with a meter with which to gauge how things are working. That being said, it’s much easier for people to post negatively than positively. But if we’re going to give it, we should be able to take it. When there are negative comments, you just have to accept it.

As well as blogging, you’re a prolific tweeter. What impact do you think Twitter has had on the industry?

Twitter is usurping everything in terms reach and impact. It’s fast and exchangeable – people forward and reference it. For example, wearing another hat, I do news stories for a paper in America. When you get a press release for a show that’s opening, you don’t want to re-purpose it verbatim; you want to add some of your own character. So, even at a lick, it can take ten minutes to re-process it according to house style and publish it. Now, when a press release comes in, I can have a tweet out about it 30 seconds later. This speed of turnaround has made a lot of news websites redundant.

You tend to tweet about a production immediately after you’ve seen it – and often these make their way into your blogs and reviews. How much has Twitter altered your approach to writing?

Because I’ve written the tweets I feel I own them. And when I come to write my reviews – certainly the ones for the Sunday Express, which are so short – I’ll go to my Twitter account. If I can’t think of a better phrase, I’ll use the same phrase. It helps to retain consistency. The other thing about being a Sunday critic is that you have the luxury of not having to file your copy until you’ve read everybody else’s. I’m a voracious consumer of other criticism but I find that it’s useful to state your own case first. So Twitter enables me to share my views on a show before anyone’s reviewed it. There’s little originality these days, so you have to create your own niche and make sure that you’re read more than anybody else.

Do you have a view on the growing number of online amateur reviewers?

Now that everybody has an outlet, the landscape has changed. Initially, I thought that it would be the death of the critic. But, actually, with the cacophony of voices out there, you need the professional critic more than ever; you need somebody who’s authoritative. That doesn’t mean an amateur critic can’t be one of those people. The West End Whingers have acquired authority, indeed global notoriety, because they write well and interestingly. But because they don’t go the theatre as much as we do – by and large, they have to pay for their tickets – they don’t have the same overview of the theatre world that we do. They do what the public does: see the productions they’re interested in.

The West End Whingers are known for their acerbic tone. How do you judge the line between criticism and rudeness when reviewing? Does it even matter?

It’s a very fine line and, actually, it’s a question of style. The Whingers are famous for their bon mots, as was New York critic John Simon, who used to write quite poisonous copy – it was one of his trademarks. I don’t think there’s much of a role for personal or vindictive criticism. I was once on a panel with Lyn Gardner and she made the good point that she doesn’t like to write vindictive copy about actors because they have to go on stage that night. However, she didn’t have the same hesitation when it came to directors or writers. The other day, I mentioned this to a director whose response was that he still had to go in and face the cast. So there’s always a responsibility, whoever you’re writing about. But at the same time we have a responsibility to our readers. I don’t want them to waste their money. Going to the theatre is expensive and it would pain me to think of someone paying £60 to see something that I think is bad. I won’t tell them not to go, but I’ll make sure that my review doesn’t encourage them. That’s where the star rating also comes into play.

Do you think the star rating is a good idea?

A star rating is a useful device in print journalism, certainly in the Sunday Express, where I have very few words. It’s a piece of shorthand that effectively becomes part of the review. But at the same time it encourages huge laziness – in critics as well as readers. Just this morning, I was at the gym and ran into a colleague from the Daily Express, who had also seen The Kitchen at the National Theatre last night. The first thing he asked was: “How many?” And I knew exactly what he was talking about! We did end up talking about the play, but not straight away. And when I read a review the first thing my eye goes to is the star rating. It’s a convenient way of making a pithy summary.

How do critics such as yourself – who have been reviewing at a high level for a long time – balance the weight of your knowledge and experience against the needs of your readership?

It’s really hard, and it depends on who you’re writing for. If I’m reviewing for The Stage, I presuppose a certain level of knowledge. If I’m writing for the Sunday Express, I presuppose very little. I do think there’s a terrible danger when, for example, critics cross-reference productions from 20 years ago that many people won’t have seen. But, inevitably, you have a frame of reference and it would be wrong not to draw on that. For instance, I thought that Stephen Daldry’s production of The Kitchen at the Royal Court Theatre in ’94 was better than the one at the National. A lot of readers won’t have seen the first one, but referencing it enables me to explain why the latter is worse.

In a recent blog you asked whether any single critic can be right for every show. What would be your answer?

You can’t always be the right person – absolutely not. One of the great things about being a theatre critic is that you have to go to shows that may be outside your comfort zone. That’s good, because it forces you to test yourself. But we do have a huge issue in British criticism that we do not have a single black or Asian critic working in mainstream national media. I and others including Matt Wolf convene a critics’ panel for TheatreVOICE. A couple of times when there’s been a major black play on – Kwame Kwei-Armah at the National, for example – we’ve invited a black voice to join us. That’s all been well and good, but I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable about it. Why don’t we get them in for a normal week?

It goes back to what you said earlier, doesn’t it? Because a review is just one person’s opinion, it could only be beneficial to add another perspective to the mix.

Yes – but having said that, there are only 15 jobs, so how do you supply a role for everyone? All you can hope to do is to find a bunch of critics who are genuinely passionate about theatre, who want it to succeed and respond to it as honestly as they can.

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