Jackie McGlone introduces two of Scotland’s ‘finest and busiest’ theatre critics and states that she’s happy to be on stage with two of the people she’s worked with for years. Mark Fisher has previously written a book on how to survive the Fringe and has now published a book of invaluable advice on how to write about the theatre, which includes advice on what to do if a play you deemed awful is suddenly a hit. Joyce McMillan has been a theatre critic for 30 years and also writes a weekly political column for the Scotsman. She is the author of Traverse Theatre Story and has a new book coming out about 30 years of Scottish theatre.
McGlone asks them if covering the Fringe gets tiring and Fisher laughs. He’s only in Edinburgh because he originally came to work in the Fringe office before he became a critic. To him the Fringe is like Christmas, a highlight of the year where you overindulge and enjoy every minute. He’s pleased that the dates of the Fringe and the International Festival have realigned as the two feed off of each other. The new director of the International Festival has been trying to give it more of a street presence to match the Fringe, something that proved very popular with the success of The Harmonium Project.
When the topic of problems in arts journalism is raised they both agree that the problems are less complex than some assume. The quality, quantity and interest in arts journalism is still there, in fact with the Internet it’s growing. The crisis lies in where the money is coming from. McMillan explains that a lot of semi-voluntary work is going into the Scotsman’s arts section because they’ve been subjected to severe cuts but still been expected to maintain the same quality and quantity of content. She’s also been told that arts criticism is on its last legs since she started 30 years ago and no longer believes it because critical thought is fundamental to public discourse and media consumption. Fisher points out that there are new experiments going on in finding funding in different places. He gives the example of the Bitter Lemons site in LA where a production can pay $100 for them to do a review. He doesn’t believe it’s the correct model because asking the productions to pay for their own criticism complicates things and potentially leaves brilliant but poorly funded productions in the dust but it’s still an example of a new system being trialled.
McMillan feels that the rise of Twitter has added an interesting element. It is essentially like word of mouth but far more visible. The act of criticism is an underrated one, everyone being a good critic is a very good thing. She explains that too many people are only interested in straightforward advertising and a highly passive audience. The more critical your society, the better off your democracy becomes. She found the public reaction to the referendum fascinating because there was a conscious shift in critical thought with a huge proportion of the population suddenly feeling free to critically engage with the media being fed to them.
Discussion moves on to the actual act of writing a critical review. Fisher has been told in the past that he should comment on the ticket price but that raises the issue of whom you are writing for. You can’t make assumptions about what your reader thinks is expensive. It’s also sometimes difficult to remember that you are writing primarily for the audience even though those involved in the production are usually the ones who are most interested in actually reading the review. McMillan explains that good criticism looks at what is there, while great criticism looks for what could be there. She has also mellowed with experience, she was much more likely to be rude in a review when she was younger. She was even briefly banned from one or two theatres, one of them simply because she made a comment about the colour of the tights the girls in the chorus wore. Now she tried not to slam individual people if she can possibly manage it. Obviously if a production of Hamlet is bad because of the person playing Hamlet only directing comments at the whole group can be difficult.
When questions come from the audience a set designer asks about funding cuts and explains that design is essentially being priced out. This is an issue that seriously angers McMillan because she knows politicians who have spent years ensuring that the arts get the funding they deserve. There have been severe cuts in England but in Scotland the reality is that in real terms there is twice as much funding in the theatre system than there was twenty years ago. The problem is that increasing and pointless managerialism is sucking up funds that should be going straight down to those in the production who actually need and deserve the money.