An Interview with Andrew Haydon…

I recently interviewed Andrew Haydon; freelance theatre critic behind the hugely successful (and turning 10 years old!) blog: Postcards from the Gods. He had some interesting opinions regarding the authority of theatre criticism, and the cessation of Lyn Gardner’s blog deal with The Guardian. 

In theatre criticism, is a newspaper critic more ‘authoritative’ than a theatre blogger? Why?

Well, the short answer is: depends on the critic, depends on the blogger, and – to an extent –  depends what they’re writing about.

I mean, “an authority” almost has two meanings:

1) A person who is assumed to know an awful lot.

2) A person really does know an awful lot.

I think if you say “The Theatre Critic of The Times” to people, it will sound more “authoritative” than “Theatre blogger Andrew Haydon”.  Am I more of “an authority” on theatre than American parliamentary sketch writer Ann Treneman, who was given the job of Times Theatre Critic a year or so ago?  It’s possible that I am.  (It’s equally possible that I’m not.)  But she’s definitely got the title that confers “authority” on whatever she feels like typing, even if she turns out to know very little.

And it’s worth remembering as well that newspapers aren’t necessarily interested in having an “authoritative” critic. Indeed, I think some newspapers (naming no Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times names) actively mistrust critics who seem too fond of the medium.  The point of critics, from a newspaper editor’s point of view, might only be to spice up the culture pages with a bit of entertaining spite.

How do you feel about the cessation of Lyn Gardner’s blog deal with The Guardian?

Short answer: *obviously* it’s a catastrophe.

Long answer: well, the long answer could probably run to a whole blog of my own, so I’ll try to do the condensed long-er version…

It is without question a terrible, terrible step backwards for the Guardian to cancel 150 of “Lyn Gardner’s Theatre Blog”s a year.

It is terrible, because it had a unique place in both British theatre and journalism: it was the only mainstream media platform that gave a critic enough space to say whatever they wanted, to explore any issue of their choosing, to open up a forum for the industry, without having to turn it into a cosily packaged “feature,” preview, puff piece or interview. But the resulting discussions happened – in theory – in front of the general public; conducted for the benefit of the general reader.

That said, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the point in September 2012 when the Guardian essentially cut the Guardian Theatre Blog and replaced it with Lyn Gardner’s Theatre Blog. (And it’s partly a self-interested thing, as it basically meant that it was much harder for freelancers to get blog pieces accepted by the Guardian thereafter…)  Although, really, there were losses *AND* gains due to that change of format. This time there are fewer [no] likely benefits. It just sets theatre-journalism-in-the-mainstream-press back to 2005.  Although perhaps the changes and improvements that it seeded have now flowered/blossomed/borne fruit, etc.

Do you think your readers trust your word over the likes of publications like Exeunt, which have a variety of writers?

I have literally never once thought about that before. I mean, I hope my readers trust my word.

(Which is a completely different thing to thinking I’m right.)  Trust my word *over* Exeunt’s?  Hmm.  Well, if they’re *my* readers, then: yes; I hope they trust both my word *and* my taste over whatever scoundrel Exeunt sends to review a particular thing. Unless the scoundrel happens to agree with me, that is.

I mean, I guess the thing people get from Postcards is a fixed perspective.  It’s always me.  My mind thinks in a certain way, and my tastes are pretty consistent (if perhaps still leaving room to surprise people from time to time – like that time I liked a musical which wasn’t even in German…).  I guess that breeds a certain sort of, well, if not trust, then inevitability, at least…

The downside of being a solo-blogger (although I have written for Exeunt and etc. anyway, so it’s a bit of a false binary), though, is that there is no external source of authority for you to point to.  There’s no editor who’s commissioned you to write a particular thing because they think you’re good enough to write for their magazine.  Instead, you’re just some person who decided that on their own.  (Which is fine. Results can vary. But by the same token, how else would anyone ever get better?)

(In practice; the above doesn’t especially apply to me, as *I* had been writing for the multi-authored review site CultureWars.org, albeit *very sporadically* for about seven years by the time I started Postcards. And I’d been the editor of Noises Off at NSDF for four years. In fact, blimey, I’d even had a book that I edited published by Oberon before I started Postcards…)

How do you think theatre blogging has changed since you began ten years ago? 

Actually, this directly leads on from the above.  Essentially, “blogging” only really started at all –  certainly as a mainstream(-ish) pursuit – after I’d started reviewing theatre. Even after I’d started reviewing theatre *online*.

And that is a big difference between the “first wave of theatre bloggers” – people like Chris Goode, David Eldridge, Natasha Tripney, Alex F/Swift, Dan Bye, Andy Field and myself – and *now* is: we weren’t all 21. Like, the technology arrived for the first time, and a completely disparate group of people discovered it and started using it. I was 31 when I started Postcards, I think Chris Goode must have been 35/36 when he started Thompson’s.  David Eldridge too, perhaps?  (And, outside the UK, George Hunka and Alison Croggan – two hugely influential early theatre bloggers – must have been at least 40 or so around 2007).  Now it feels impossible that people who already have an established career in theatre would suddenly to write a blog. I mean, Imagine if Rob Icke or Lucy Prebble just started blogging tomorrow!  (I mean, HOW GREAT! I wish they would. But they probably won’t…)

And I think the sorts of things that “Theatre Blogs” *are* has changed too, now.  I think that first wave that I mentioned were more like “theatre people” *blogging* about stuff.  Postcards didn’t start out completely dedicated to theatre. I used to do other bits and pieces too.  Now I hardly ever do.  And the discursive/”feature-style” pieces I do write are maybe a bit more formal now, or at least, are less sprawling than they used to be. I hope.

It’s interesting thinking about it, though.  Particularly in the light of Matt Trueman’s much-pilloried piece about “where have all the bloggers gone?” that he wrote late last year.  I wrote a similar piece (not “where are the bloggers?” but “haven’t we now covered *everything*?”) in December 2007.  And the most hilarious thing is; I was probably right, give or take.   The subsequent nine years of Theatre Blogging has basically/arguably all been tiny intricate improvements on pretty much exactly the same sorts of things that were identified and anatomised in the first six months of people blogging about theatre, but with the world and theatre changing (if usually at a glacial pace) around them.

Another interesting change (well, interesting to me), is the landscape in which blogs sit. When we started, I guess the internet was much, much emptier.  And then, one of the first things that happened, when I started Postcards, is that *everyone* (“everyone”) who had a theatre blog also started writing blogs for the Guardian’s Theatre Blog.  I remember people worrying in 2008 that the Guardian Theatre Blog had pretty much killed theatre blogging because it had hoovered up all the contributors, but didn’t give them enough lee-way to write in the way that actually made them good.  But, against that, I do wonder if the Guardian’s emphasis on outward-facing-ness, and a bit of discipline re: subject and wordcount weren’t also useful…

But, yes. I think “What a Theatre Blog is” is now a much more formula-ised thing, based on everyone looking at everyone else’s and essentially creating an almost unconscious “template” by gradually, en masse, knocking off the outlying elements of prior blogs, until they now look not unlike the Review and/or Feature (+ interview, + preview) format of MSM arts pages.  (Although fewer interviews. Almost no one will ever do transcribing for fun.)


 

Thanks so much to Andrew for taking the time to talk to me!

You can find him here:

http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk

@Postcards_Gods (Twitter)

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