Blog: We Need More Diversity in Our Theatre Critics

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I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, mostly as a response to my article on female playwrights and London theatres but, as with many things in life, I’ve been putting it off and pushing it further down my ever-lengthening to-do list. However, the past week, with the responses to the NT’s Macbeth and reviews I’ve seen from other bloggers on other shows, has put these thoughts at the front of my mind again so I just thought, hell with it, let’s face the music (and dance) …

Theatre is a racist, sexist, elitist, classist and ableist industry. It might not realise it – hell, many (posh white people) will be appalled at the very suggestion – but it is.

(I say this with very much the leading theatres and mainstream review outlets in mind. I know some regional and local theatres do great work to address this, but I’m aware they do this often in a thankless environment.)

Because of this fact, various initiatives, commentary and discussion has come about to consider how we might address these very real concerns. What doesn’t seem to be included in these discussions is how our predominately White, middle/upper class and majority male critic base should be part of that discussion.

When the demographic of our mainstream critic base is so narrow, not only is it not representative, but it means critics cannot possibly hold productions fully to account and consider all the possible diversity and inclusion issues that are presented. This isn’t just a theoretical point, it’s a fact. By having such representation issues within and amongst critics, key issues are being overlooked – either accidentally or deliberately.

Add to that, even the way the critics communicate reads/sounds the same. There is no variety in experience, background, language or means of expression. The reviews are too similar. Sure, they may vary in the star rating of the show, but I am talking about the language of communication and how we engage with theatregoers and new audiences.

The privilege within our critic base needs to be acknowledged and urgently addressed.

Last September, my analysis on the lack of platforming for women writers at London theatres went up. As we all know, quite a few people read it. Now, you would think this would make me all smiles, right? Surely nothing pleases a blogger more than a viral hit?

Well, wrong (for me, at least).

Two things bugged me about the impact of that article – one, why am I still not being paid for all this shit (a tale as old as blogger time) and two, why did it take a lowly blogger such as myself (a position that is routinely dissed by many a ‘proper’ critic out there) to think not only is such a piece needed, but actually sat down to write it?

Why a blogger and not a paid critic from a mainstream outlet?

Well, I’ll tell you why because, by and large, this issue was unnoticed by the mainstream outlets and their employed critics. And why is that? Because many of them probably didn’t ‘see’ it. Just like ableist, racist and sexist portrayals and productions are not identified when they are right in front of them.

Now, this isn’t about me crowing about how amazing I am – I am a White middle-class woman who had a private education. I appreciate that I, too, am part of the problem. But at least I am educating myself enough to see these issues when they are right in front of me and, more importantly, calling them out.

Now, this has been going on since back when I was blogging for the Huffington Post. Whether it was throwing my toys out the pram on a man being commissioned to write a play about feminism (Blurred Lines at the National Theatre) or being absolutely appalled that the sexual assault of a young woman was being used as a source of comedy (Raving at Hampstead Theatre), basically it was just me who saw these things, and it was just me who called these out.

Where were the paid critics, huh? Where were they? When our critics came from a circle so privileged and elitist too, we are perpetuating a cycle that is never broken. Critics exist to call out as well as to review. If critics don’t call out, and audiences remain largely drawn from the White middle-class also, theatre is stuck in its racist, sexist and ableist circle that it will struggle to ever break free from.

We need more diversity in our critics to address this.

And this keeps coming around, whether it’s in problematic depictions of Black woman and White saviour tropes in, ironically, Les Blancs at the NT to a deeply uncomfortable White woman-focused look at the exploitation of Indian women in surrogacy play Bodies at the Royal Court. I seem to be one of very few talking about this, and when I look around, I realise that it is because the scene remains so White and so privileged.

And I say this knowing I miss just as much as I see.

Yes, I may have picked up the classism and casual racism in some of the casting in the NT’s Macbeth but I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t focus enough on the worrying trope employed in David Eldridge’s Beginning, which Meg did and, correctly, called out in her review.

And though I can wave my female playwrights flag and shout, ‘ooh, look at me and my feminism’, I’m afraid to say I didn’t focus enough on British Asian voices, or highlight the extent to which even when women writers from minority backgrounds are hired, more often than not they are from overseas rather than British backgrounds. And I thank Jingan Young and other women on Twitter for pointing that out to me.

So, why is this? Why do we fail?

Well, it’s very hard to not only acknowledge that we all have a bias, but to train yourself to see beyond that is a constant work-in-progress. White men and White women cannot possibly see all issues of representation, men cannot possibly wince at each and every poor representation of women on stage. And rich people rarely notice any concerns with stereotypical depictions of the working class.

Currently, the narrow demographic of theatre critics means they are part of the problem of diversity and inclusion in theatre, not part of the solution.

I cry out for the time when theatre critics – however many remain in the future – are abundantly diverse and inclusive. I fear this may well never happen. Certainly, that’s how I felt at the press view of Macbeth recently.

In the reserved area for the interval drinks, I was shocked at how White the critics pool was. Apologies if you are a person of colour and were in that area but I couldn’t make you out from the blinding sea of whiteness all around me. And everyone spoke like me – the accent and language that screams ‘Home Counties privilege.’

I was truly gobsmacked. Judging people by their skin colour obviously but, my god, representation matters and there was no diversity in the critics’ pool at all that night.

Which was then reflected in the reviews. Nobody liked it, obviously. I mean, you couldn’t; it was awful. But again, I seemed to be the only person who picked up worrying casual racism and classism in the production. I didn’t see anyone else gasping at the worrisome use of a Black woman as some form of voodoo witch, or the portrayal of working-class women and men.

And added to that, I’ve sensed overt and explicit prejudice from critics too, whether it’s in the defence of ‘yellowfacing’ at The Print Room, criticism of gender and ethnic diverse castings of Shakespeare, and lascivious comments on the appearance of both men and women on the stage. Add to that, the derogatory comment I heard about Vicky Featherstone from the critic sat next to me as the lights went down on the press night for Gundog at the Royal Court and I feel fair to say I see many critics being complicit in the issues of discrimination that bedevil the industry.

There are issues of unconscious bias when such a narrow circle of criticism exists, as well as a very real chance of prejudice and discrimination. And unless explicit, deliberate action is taken to specifically address this, I don’t see how it will change.

First, there ain’t no jobs for theatre critics anymore, so the opportunities for new writers coming through are few and far between. And even when new jobs come up, privileged power structures will always seek to replicate themselves, meaning that more White middle-class people (still usually men) are hired to fill the few roles that become vacant.

So that leaves bloggers as the remedy. Only, why should we be? We’re not paid. We shouldn’t be relied upon at all. There should be no expectations or obligations placed on us until the industry itself is prepared to support us.

And more than that, blogging has its own issues of in-built privilege. It costs money to be a blogger, a hell of a lot of money and time for which we never receive compensation, hence only people of means can persevere as bloggers for any meaningful length of time (I feel my own time is running out, as it happens).

Moreover, why would any person from any kind of background other than White and privileged want to write about theatre? It’s an industry that excludes other communities and identities continually and explicitly. Even when called out, theatres drag their feet and make it abundantly clear diversity is a burden rather than an opportunity.

And this resentment is a worry that MUST be continually called out.

Critics, we really do need to diversify. All the mainstream outlets, I ask you to develop a more inclusive review team – I don’t care if that means I lose out. We need more representation from minority backgrounds, fewer white people, fewer middle/upper class reviewers, more representation from people with disabilities… If we don’t, theatre just will not change. And it must if it is going to have any kind of relevance.

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