Ecologies and Economies

Originally written for Exeunt.

Money. It’s quietly accepted as something of a grubby word in the arts. Tangled up with funding decisions, disputes over pay and that even dirtier word “commercial”, many of us would prefer to ignore the part cash plays in our encounters with culture. It’s a financial relationship that much theatre itself actively seeks to elide, masking what is essentially an economic transaction with the romance and illusion of invented worlds; the relationship is elegantly shifted from service provider and consumer to the infinitely more palatable roles of artist and art lover.

But while attempts have been made within both performance and academia to interrogate, unveil and reverse this shift, little effort has been given to examining the role of the critic in this project of economic disguise. Asked for the purposes of a recent seminar to reflect on my own economic relationship with theatre, I realised for perhaps the first time just how complicated that relationship is. It’s a fraught and tumultuous affair, in which the boundaries are ever-shifting.

As a critic, I’m in the fortunate position of rarely paying for tickets – or at least not paying with money. But if the transaction is not a financial one, just what is each party getting? Are the performers in front of me rendering me a service, or are we engaged in some vague form of in-kind exchange? And how does that exchange shift in its value depending on the nature of the words I proffer up by way of payment and on the inherently commodifying collection of stars I decide to award at the top of my review?

Such thoughts were also spurred on by a conversation I stumbled upon on Twitter – that evergreen source of column inspiration – in which Megan Vaughan stated her adamant belief that no critic should receive free press tickets. It’s a belief that is emphatically reinforced in her blog’s manifesto, in which she writes: “tickets given in exchange for words are not free and will not be accepted”. It’s a principle that, even as I read it again now, makes me squirm a little with the knowledge of how much I blithely accept for free and how that absorbs me within a larger economic system.

Of course, theatre criticism has its own set of economics. The much contested star rating acts in conjunction with the words below as a form of currency, with the stars often functioning as pounds to the prose’s pennies when we might hope for the reverse. Editors speak of being economical with language, of squeezing as much value as possible out of a necessarily limited word count. And that’s not even considering the money involved, when there is money involved, although the circular arguments about writers being paid or not being paid hardly need retracing.

What I’m more interested in probing is how the accepted structure of theatre reviewing, tweaked a little to accommodate digital media but essentially the same in its convention of giving press comps, reconfigures the relationship between spectator – now critic – and performance. If the audience member who is suddenly made aware of the performer’s labour experiences discomfort, where does that leave the critic? In that moment, can we identify with performers in the knowledge of both being workers in the same industry? Or are we irreconcilably divided by another kind of economic relationship, in which critics act as the bestowers of value?

Briefly playing devil’s advocate, I’m also tempted to question this value itself. Realistically, casting aside any hopeful delusions about the level of influence I wield, my cash is probably still worth more to theatres than my words, at least in purely economic terms. But in a non-monetary sense, I believe – as a critic surely has to – that the discourse around theatre has a value of its own. By seeing work, by engaging with it and its aesthetics and ideas, by drawing intelligent, astute links, and by assessing the overall shape of the landscape, a critic can, as Andrew Haydon has suggested, assume the role of “ecologist”. Without accepting free tickets, however, the vast majority of critics simply wouldn’t have the means to take on this role. Do we therefore buy a non-financial stake in the theatrical ecosystem through an implicitly financial agreement to be part of that same ecosystem’s economy?

I offer uncertainties rather than answers because I’d prefer to leave this column as an open question mark. I’m not even sure these are the most important questions to be asking right now, as many other unresolved debates cluster around the horizon of contemporary theatre criticism. But as we attempt to map new critical contours, perhaps we should be aware of the restrictions of the established cartography. If we accept that theatre, as much as it might attempt to hide it, exists within a web of financial exchanges, then we also need to accept our place within that same web.

I’ll end, appropriately, on one last question – one that I’m at a bit of a loss to answer. Given this acceptance, should we as critics be attempting to move beyond our current entanglement within a surreptitiously economic system? Or perhaps, instead of “should we”, the real question should be: until we find a model that eschews the concept of an exchange of anything other than ideas, can we?

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