I went to Edinburgh this August with the goal of reviewing a small part (namely circus, my professional specialty) of the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a mad rush. Maneuvering through the crowds to get to venues, and my endless search for electricity and WiFi in equal measure to caffeine and food while trying to see and review several shows a day was an invigorating challenge. So was the desperate need by artists who, seeing my press badge, pleaded with me to attend and review their shows, because no one else was. This got me wondering … theater arts are thriving in many ways, but can they survive in an era when arts journalism is in a severe decline?
When I realized I would have six days in Edinburgh, I naturally started signing up for shows to review. There was no shortage of options—with upwards of 3000 shows and hundreds of venues—I had my work cut out for me months in advance, just identifying which shows to see.
Once I was accredited by the media, the email invitations began to flood in as well: Do you want to see the ten best French shows at the Fringe? You and a guest are invited to an all night classical music dance party. Can you squeeze in one more award-winning show? Do you have time for a meet and greet with the artists? So many opportunities to connect with creativity arose—and yet the relative brevity of my stay (most of the folks I met at Fringe were there for the month!) kept me clocked in at a modest count of 10 shows. A mere 10 shows to see, think deeply about and then write about the next day, hours before the next shows popped up on my to-do list. It would be something of a trial by fire, I convinced myself. But a glamorous one I imagined, surrounded as I would be by misty history, grey stone buildings, contemporary artists flitting through the street and possibly free Scotch. I would just write mini-reviews I said persuasively to myself. The pressure of recapping a show’s essence quickly and authentically is the price critics pay for the luxury of experiencing so much art. That was my mantra.
After the first double feature day, I started to mix shows up in my mind a bit. Taking notes in a dark theater is usually impossible and using your phone to jot notes is often frowned upon by those nearby who just think you are texting someone. The hours I envisioned before and after shows in smoky cafes (just like JK Rowling did) were for the most part unrealized—at least in the town center, because a million tourists also happened to be looking for places to charge their cellphones and fuel up before the next show. My note-taking method became the awkward practice of talking to my phone’s voice recorder as I cut through huge swaths of slow moving humans milling around the streets.
By rushing from venue to venue, I was able to review the shows, getting home (to my Airbnb booked five months in advance, thank God) at 10 or 11pm just to dash off a rough draft based on my voice notes and hazy memories, then wake up again early to polish the reviews and start the infernal search for press images and cast names before it was time to go to the next show. You can read my reviews at CircusTalk News.
By the second day, I learned to hide my press pass under my shirt to fend off hungry artists. It’s one thing to walk down the lanes turning away dozens of flyers and pitches shared with you from the performers themselves trying to assure ticket sales. But it’s quite a different thing when your press tag is flapping and suddenly the coffee or beer line you are in becomes the pitching floor and the one-woman opera show lady needs you to know about how she got to Fringe (crowdfunding from people who believed in her) and what her show is about and asks if you have any more time in your schedule to please see it because she has not had one professional review yet.
And that situation, everywhere I went, was disheartening. Because many of the 3000-plus shows that come to Fringe come knowing that they won’t make a dime, and in fact will lose many dimes. But they come anyway, in hopes that they will not be able to simply add the Fringe to their company CVs, but also review quotes from professional publications, which will lead to programmers giving their work a second look, and to future gigs. It became more and more apparent while I walked around between shows seeking electricity, WiFi and food, that the urgent desire for reviews was intensifying as the month went on, and that there simply were not enough critics and reviewers on hand to report on even a fraction of the shows.
Some will say that Edinburgh Fringe is getting too big, and others will say that having too many shows and not enough reporters forces the cream to the top. But the lack of coverage in Edinburgh is just a large-scale demonstration of a global trend that is shrinking the role of journalism. And is there really such a thing as too much art? And are the arts in existence just to be a machine of profit with a clear hierarchy? Of course not. It’s a form of expression that touches the mundane aspects of life and makes something extra out of it, and for that reason alone, it has always required some cultural interpretation, reference and feedback—which is often accomplished by the biggest fans and consumers of art, the writers and commentators who dedicate their time and energy to making sense of it all.
And the Edinburgh Fringe does much to encourage the journalists that they attract. The Fringe media department has an expansive view of the roles played by arts media and accredits six types; general media, bloggers, photographers, broadcasters, reviewers and award judges. In addition to a very responsive media office and a bunch of resources that work to connect the artists with the critics, they also recognize arts writing with the Allen Wright Award, established in 1998 by the Festival Fringe Society to encourage and reward quality writing in arts journalism. They have also recently established the Fringe Young Writers Award in 2018, to encourage the next generation of arts writers. Clearly, it is not from lack of love from the Fringe then that attending journalists are waning, but from the declining media universe itself.
In the US alone, media lost two significant new journals in the month of August, a continuing sign of what has been considered the years-long slow and torturous death of journalism by many. For example, since 2008, brick and mortar newsroom reporting has declined by 24% in the US. Much like the rise of reality TV (because it is more affordable to get untrained people to display their lives and opinions for free or next to free than to hire trained actors and scriptwriters), the world of journalism began that same arc with the invention of blogs and YouTube, where anyone can join the marketing race to popularity in order to fetch advertising dollars. Partially in response to this symptom, the niche for journalists of any stripe who expect a living wage has shrunk drastically. Still, the rise of DIY journalism is not the culprit but the symptom of a push that has more to do with capitalism and the almighty rule of investor profit than it has to do with the lives of those people who rushed in to fill the gaps (bloggers, YouTubers, etc).
With user-created content being the focal point of criticism and reviews nowadays, the majority of the 3000 shows of Fringe (and all the world’s fringes) will have to be content with customer reviews. Those reviews carry their own cultural value in and of themselves but what their existence also indicates is an erosion of a profession and by connection, an industry.
The trouble is, customers are not necessarily motivated to give reviews unless they absolutely loved or despised the show. This means the existence of more impartial reviews attempting to recognize a show’s uniqueness (its motivations, its political or personal explorations, its attempts to disrupt or maintain the status quo, its approach and worldview) will be on the decline. And while this might not seem at first as tragic a loss as the lack of reporters being sent to Hong Kong to weigh in on the human rights protests, it does have some similar cultural repercussions. Citizens (as opposed to journalists) on the ground in Hong Kong surely can reflect the action back to the rest of the world, but they may not be as willing, able or motivated to put it in political context, to compare it to historical precedents or to convey conflicting viewpoints on the issues. And in just that same way cultural journalism goes to the wayside. With the loss of arts reviews, we lose the record of cultural and political trends in art, the historical context of a work and the attempts at impartiality to convey the spirit and purpose of an art work.
Besides this heavy loss to the entire culture, there are losses to the artists themselves. Without quotes from local media such as The Stage and The Times (and even these bigger media outlets have incurred cuts that impact their ability to provide as much coverage) as well as the smaller outlets, the essence of the live show lives and dies with its liveness (and perhaps a few moments of its show trailer left to convey to the world what the show was about and its impact). This means that future generations of artists will be left to glean for themselves from the scant record what a show was about, let alone what import it may have had to the people of the time.
While artists might be tempted to think that the value of a review for them arises only in its positive depiction (and the quotability of that) of their work, the true value is part of a larger system that keeps their business functioning in a healthy way. This theater value chain as I like to think of it, with several variations, goes a little something like this: the artist, the idea, the director, the creative team, the producer, the work itself, the promoter, the venue, the live performance, the critic, the audience. With the loss of one link in this chain, the whole system wobbles and struggles. And this system is not just food for the soul. It is food on the table. The arts industry in the US alone is reported to contribute $764 billion to the economy every year. So clearly, art matters to us.
We all know that without the artist, the world loses the art itself. But without any other link in the chain, the world loses access to the art also. And the decline in numbers of critics/reviewers due to corporate greed during a time of tremendous growth and creation in the art world (growth in part in response to the amount of change humanity is facing) creates an imbalance of epic proportions—it reinforces shows that are made popular by the powerful already; heavily funded shows that tend to be heavy on production and light on ideas and commentary about our current world. Sound familiar? While there are many reasons for art (to entertain, to reflect, to express, to criticize, to explore, to name a few reasons), by cutting off the more exploratory or responsive expressions of theater in favor of sheer entertainment and money-making ventures, is just one (albeit subtle) way to further poison humanity, but not allowing its full expression, and by not conveying a true picture of what is actually happening at Fringe this year or at any storefront theater in any town in any city or country around the globe.
So critics matter, and when a festival of 3000 shows includes a big margin of their makers desperate for feedback from critics, this is a red flag to the arts world, and especially to cultural funders and administrators in a position to reverse the problem. It is a sign that the time has come to foster and fund the growth of arts journalism and cultural journalists as much as we encourage the growth and development of artists, arts institutions and the industry in general.
Stumbling around Edinburgh for six days this August, I was as humbled by the amount of creativity I encountered as I was wracked by the FOMO I experienced for all of the shows I might have reviewed had I simply been able to time travel or replicate myself. For the sake of every artist bearing flyers and every show that expended the time, money and energy of their team to make a name for themselves in Edinburgh (or indeed for any of the world’s performing arts festivals) the time has come to rethink the journalist link in the arts chain.
All photos by the author.
The Week: The Sad Decline of Journalism
The Art Newspaper: Why Arts Journalism Matters: Because Art Matters
Edinburgh Fringe: Fringe Guide for Media
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