Theatre criticism in Australia: what is actually going on?, with some stats

After my last post, on the closing of Theatre Notes and on Australian theatre criticism more generally, I have been thinking more, rather than less, about theatre criticism in Australia.

What I hoped would be a productive discussion with Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead turned into an extremely unproductive discussion about who the alpha-critic in town is, and I remembered (from the far, faraway Berlin) that it has been like that for a long time. Cameron attacking Alison. Alison replying back. I don’t know what happens in other cities, but this is the major story in Melbourne, as far as criticism goes. Meanwhile, the entire job definition (not a profession – it’s not a profession) of theatre criticism is slowly disappearing in Australia, attacked by shrinking word counts, diminishing pay-per-word, folding newspapers, amalgamating arts desks, the proliferation of websites that pay little to nothing, and the total collapse of quality on a general level, across artforms, making it very hard for a lot of young people to even know what good criticism should look like. And the senior figures in the profession – or rather, the senior figure in the profession, since Alison is no longer a critic, and there is only one local newspaper – appears to be majorly concerned only about furthering a professional stoush, mistaking it for something personal. There is something both scary and absurd about it, like sweatshop seamstresses fighting for the preferences of the boss, instead of organising into a union. Meanwhile, there is a new generation of young people coming up, wanting to be proper, good critics, people like Jane Howard, to whom we have a certain responsibility: to at least detect the problems within criticism, and inform people, if not exactly to solve them.

I was also starting to wonder if I was right in my assessment of how criticism seems to currently work, since Cameron Woodhead called me ‘dangerously wrong’, but nothing more specific. So I spent the better part of my evening on an impromptu spreadsheet spree, compiling – in a completely unscientific manner – as much data on as many critics in Australia as I could think of and research. (It is entirely unscientific, I repeat, but I didn’t get a research grant for this, I spent a few hours googling people and inquiring.)

And I realise I should have been more specific in my classification of critics as ‘falling between the cracks of disciplines’ and ‘having no relevant training’ in theatre. Both is true to some extent, but not simultaneously. Two groups exist, but don’t actually seem to overlap very much. Of the 48 critics I managed to look up (mostly Melbourne and Sydney, with a whole batch from Adelaide because Jane answered a few questions I asked), there were 16 with confirmed relevant training (in performance, theatre, or drama – I excluded degrees in film, philosophy, geography, and similar), and 20 with relevant practical experience (as playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, directors, or scholars). There was a very high degree of overlap between these two, but only half (10/22) also wrote for mainstream media. And of the 38 who wrote for the mainstream media, almost all were employed as arts journalists, not simply critics – meaning they were doing all kinds of odd journalistic jobs (but not meaning they were working full-time, nor that they had job security – this I simply don’t know). AND, of the 33 employed as arts journalists, only 7 had a relevant degree, and a partially-overlapping 11 a relevant artistic practice.

I hope you understand that these are SUPER-unreliable numbers, but there is currently no data on the Australian critics. There is no representative body, no union, no club, no professional organisation, no transparency, and no real insight into what work conditions are normal or not. I was making ad hoc decisions on what to consider what. But still, it seems reasonable to take from this that there is, indeed, a total lack of overlap between two kinds of critics: those with theatre training, who have either a scholarly or an artistic practice, and review on the side (they do indeed exist); and those who review for the mainstream media, and who are employed as arts journalists. The troubling bit is this: all arts journalists in this country are currently facing pretty bleak job prospects; and the critics with theatre training are largely reviewing for non-mainstream media, and I suspect (based on what I know of that landscape) that they’re not getting paid much, or at all, for their critical work.

In fact, the more I was tweaking my spreadsheet, the more clear it appeared that NOBODY in the country was earning their keep exclusively from theatre criticism; that only a few were living solely from writing (usually a combination of criticism, arts journalism, and editorial work); and that the vast, vast majority seemed to have many very oddly combined jobs. In fact, the rising question seemed to be: does anyone earn anything from criticism, and, if so, what share of their total income? And then, while shooting off questions to people, I spoke to two young critics, who both expressed hope to become more ‘senior’ and more full-time in the coming year. And I suddenly realised that they don’t know. Nobody has told them. Just like I didn’t know, because nobody had told me. *

*EDIT/CORRECTION: When I say ‘nobody’, I mean ‘two’. Following an email exchange with Chris Boyd, I realise I need to correct myself on one thing: there are critics who work only as critics. Chris Boyd is one, and has been one for a very long time. Cameron Woodhead is another. They both write the occasional feature, but otherwise write only criticism. (The complication here is that Cameron reviews books as well. I am thinking that perhaps shouldn’t count…) Unfortunately, only these two critics, out of my pool of 48, had anything approaching this ratio of theatre criticism to other work. It seemed like a very low number, so I went all glib and said ‘NOBODY’. It was technically incorrect. Apologies, Chris and Cameron, and apologies, dear reader.

The best overview of what is happening to the profession of criticism in Australia has been coming from other disciplines – because every kind of criticism in Australia has the same problems; indeed, Australian criticism is one big problem in itself. Andrew Ramadge, in an insightful article about the music street press in Australia (the most common kind of criticism that any young Australian will encounter), writes: “The facts are street press pays like shit, discourages creativity and walks a fine line between editorial and advertorial. Quality journalism or criticism that appears in its pages owes more to the uphill battle constantly fought by staff than to the model itself.” Gideon Heigh, in a piece published 2 years ago, blames the “sheer dullness and inexpertise” of the Australian book reviewing on the familiar set of problems: capsule reviews, no pay, getting staff journalists to review books. Lucinda Strahan found that 97-98% of arts journalism in a sample of Melbourne newspapers carried public relations activity. While Strahan didn’t find too much of a problem with that – in her words, arts journalism is different from normal journalism in that it’s partisan and supportive – that is sort of a problem of its own kind: an arts journalist isn’t really a journalist. Ben Eltham, probably the best journalist for both arts and policy in Australia, summarised the economic reality of art criticism really neatly:

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful. Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money.

I think it would be really useful to find out, first, what actually goes on in criticism in Australia: in terms of pay, workload, work conditions, the kind of people attracted to the job, how long they last, what makes them stay or quit, etc. We know this kind of information for artists, because Australia Council actually researches artists. But nobody has bothered with arts journalists or critics yet. And how are we supposed to make proposals, if we don’t know what is going on right now…?

In this situation, it is simply absurd to fight for power among us. The question of who reviews for The Age or The Australian is becoming slightly ludicrous, because those positions are rapidly losing their prestige. First, the reviews they get to write are increasingly insulting to a critic: short, tiny, simple, and ever more often of musicals. Second, there is less and less certainty that those positions won’t simply vanish in the next few years.

And then it really won’t matter, who the last person on top was.

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10 thoughts on “Theatre criticism in Australia: what is actually going on?, with some stats

  1. [...] Jana Perkovic continues her survey (with damned statistics) of the Australian critical landscape here; much of what she says rings true for the US scene as [...]

  2. Jana says:

    At the risk of being repetitive and boring, I do have to underline, again, that my mini-study has minimal validity. I work in cultural policy research, and this wouldn’t get a look in. It can only be usefully seen as an indicator of how the problem might be shaped – the problem which we still need to delineate.

  3. Chris Boyd says:

    Just curious, Jana. In your completely unscientific spreadsheet, what boxes did you tick for me? Critic? Arts journalist? Writer? Academic? Someone who reviews on the side? Am I an independently wealthy patron of the arts? Am I someone with relevant theatre/drama qualifications or are they something less pertinent like literature? Am I making a living from reviewing? I’m guessing you got many of those calls wrong. Quite possibly all of them. And you know me better than any of the mainstream critics working in Australia. Agreed? What hope for a meaningful survey then? Let alone reliable ‘statistics’ which George Hunka has apparently mistaken your ouija-board consultation for?

    I love the passion in your writing, I think your tendentiousness is (at the very least) well directed, but I’ve gotta say I was alarmed by your lack of appreciation of the history of criticism in Australia in your last post. Did you know, for example, that the Financial Review had a fine tradition of academic criticism in the dim dark mists of time. (Pre 1990, say.) Or that in my nineteen years with the AFR I had 800 words per review, minimum. Sometimes I had 1200 words… for a local production in a national daily. Think about that! (And that was as recent as 2002 for a QTC production.)

    What about the Geoffrey Milnes of the world?

    There’s a fuzziness in your argument. You talk ‘criticism’ but you apparently mean day-to-day reviewing. That’s part of journalism, isn’t it? (Is it?)

    I was shocked — shocked I tell ya — to overhear a dancer, early in her indie career, say that artists in Australia are, now, among the best paid in the world. That the lure of Europe as a career path has waned. Long gone are the days when I, as reviewer, would be uncomfortably confident of earning more than the performers I reviewed. Not such a bad thing. :D

    Yes, the future is looking pretty dismal for us — right now at least — and we’re all reassessing our tactics and strategies. And your overall thrust is spot on… a hungry critic is not a good (or reliable) critic. It’s that hierarchy of needs thing. But, man, get your facts straight if you want to help.

    • Jana says:

      Hello Chris.

      I said more than once up there that I haven’t done a meaningful survey, but attempted to actually get a modicum of data into my hunch. People write ALL THE TIME that critical writing doesn’t pay and is done by unqualified people (e.g., Gideon Heigh in Kill Your Darlings, Ben Eltham in The Crikey, me in the previous post), and that’s exactly as empirically invalid as me googling a bunch of people. Neither is data. I haven’t lowered the factual accuracy of the debate, in other words. (I am now tempted to say: seriously, trust me, I’m a researcher. It’s funny how often in recent times critics have been making claims to their non-topical degrees :) .)

      What’s more interesting is that people have actually been sending me emails and twitter messages with info about their degrees, pay rates, and artistic practice. I didn’t push anyone, it seemed quite intrusive to do so – it’s always intrusive to spreadsheet people. But if we end up knowing more about the critical profession in Australia, in order to correct my completely incorrect data – then I think the exercise will have been worth my while. Why do we not know this, anyway?

      As of you, I used what information is available on your blog: I know of a degree in computer science, assumed another in English. I know you have worked as an editor for The Big Issue, and you do interviews, but more of your work is purely critical (reviewy?) than that of most critics, so I put a hesitant ‘x’ in the ‘arts journalism’ column thinking about how this should really become a survey, and how the relevant question would be about income breakdown: not the ratio of review work to non-review work, but income from criticism vs income from other work. The other problem is time: concurrent versus serial work.

      What I find amazing is that we even talk about this. I was in Germany, it was middle of the night in Australia, I thought ‘hmm, I wonder’. Suddenly I have questions about my methodology and people linking to results. That seems to signal that this might be a topic of some interest, not just to me (and not just in the middle of the night). If that is the case, I am happy to repeat the test with a proper questionnaire, an anonymous (or not) submission protocol, and someone independent on the other end of the Excel table. Hopefully someone paid for the work :)

    • Jana says:

      Sorry, I broke my response in two so it doesn’t get eaten up by the Interrrrnet.

      I am not positing a dichotomy between Europe and Australia. Not in terms of employment, not in terms of wage or salary, not in terms of how long newspaper reviews get, not in terms of who has better critics, not in terms of who has better employment conditions for critics. I was simply describing a specific pinch on the critical culture, unfolding in Australia right now. We have a specific problem, and there are other parts of the world offering solutions to problems which aren’t the same, but are similar. If you don’t think it’s worth looking at other models, that might be worth learning from, then at least let’s try to define our own problems and solve them (which I’m also trying to do, unscientifically). I mean… what else?

      The rest I’m not sure how it relates. I can see the relevance only to the Europe-Australia dichotomy, so I’ll leave it for now, lest we get side-tracked. The most interesting thing you raise is the difference between criticism and reviewing. Would you say it’s an important distinction to make? In terms of service to the artist, historical record of the artform, information to the audience, and the public debate?

      I would say, being held on the spot, that out of good reviewing comes criticism. Would it be worth trying to separate them? What for? Do we even have ‘theatre criticism’ as such in the mainstream media? Do we even have it in the blogs? How would one and the other be defined? And, in terms of the current discussion, which is the demise of all critics and criticism in Australia, is it a useful distinction? Is one less worthy of preservation than the other?

  4. Jane says:

    In the process of procrastinating finishing a review, I just conservatively worked out I did about the equivalent of 14 weeks full time unpaid work in review writing this year, writing up just under half of the shows I saw. I think I’d rather have not calculated that.

    • Jana says:

      Oh my god. Did you calculate the time spent watching the shows as well?

      I shudder to think what the figures would be for me. Especially since I covered Theatertreffen this year, and most shows were 5+ hours long. I easily did 40 hours just of watching.

      • Jane says:

        Yes, that’s including time watching (I guessed it roughly averaged out to two hours a show), but only if I went on to review it – or rather publish a review on it, I didn’t even look at the several dozen reviews which never reached a state fit to publish.

        • Jana says:

          That’s an extraordinary amount of work, then. (By the way, I’ve fixed the security regime, so I no longer have to approve every comment. Sorry!)

  5. Jana says:

    Actually, following an email exchange with Chris Boyd, I need to correct myself on one thing: there are critics who work only as critics. Chris Boyd is one, and has been one for a very long time. Cameron Woodhead is another. They both write the occasional feature, but otherwise write only criticism. (The complication here is that Cameron reviews books as well. I am thinking that perhaps shouldn’t count…)

    Unfortunately, only these two critics, out of my pool of 48, had anything approaching this ratio of theatre criticism to other work. It seemed like a very low number, so I went all glib and said ‘NOBODY’. It was technically incorrect. Apologies, Chris and Cameron.

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