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Q&A: Lyn Gardner Talks Truth To Power with Jeremy Goldstein, About Falling in Love with Theatre and Her Latest Children's Book

Lyn Gardner is among the world’s most influential theatre critics. Fuelled by a seemingly endless passion and curiosity for the form, she is to theatre at the Guardian what the legendary critic Pauline Kael was to film at The New Yorker Magazine. 

It’s hard to imagine what British theatre would look like without a near lifetime of Lyn's witty and insightful reviews, and her uniquely original and hugely influential voice championing the new, largely absent from mainstream media.      

Lyn has been reviewing and writing about my shows since 2002, and more than any other writer, her words have helped me and countless other artists and producers develop our voice and identity, whilst affording the work the kind of profile and platform that commands attention.  Her most recent blog on my Truth to Power Café in December not only gave me a great deal of confidence in the work, but it opened doors to future development in ways I could only dream about. 

Last week I was lucky enough to catch up with Lyn to ask her a few questions about her life and work, Brexit (of course) and her latest children’s book, which is a total delight, Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone

Jeremy Goldstein: Where did it all start and what have you learnt along the way?

Lyn Gardner: I certainly never set out to be a theatre critic. There may be some theatre critics who are born clutching a pen, notebook and a massive desire to see Hamlet thirty-five times but I reckon most of us are accidental critics who stumble into the job. 

As a child I loved acting, in particular the possibility it allowed for being whoever you wanted. It’s something I explore in my Rose Campion series of books for children which are set in a Victorian music hall, a place that is a great leveller, where rich and poor rub shoulders, and which gives people the freedom to choose their own identity. 

By the time I was at university I was directing more than I was acting and I would probably have become a theatre director if I had known how to go about it and had any female role models. Apart from Joan Littlewood, the only woman director I knew of was Buzz Goodbody and she had killed herself while working with the RSC.

I had done some journalism at university, and shortly after I left college I was lucky enough to get involved in the start of City Limits, a co-operative founded by the striking staff of Time Out in 1981, where I got to write theatre reviews. 

One of the things I’ve learned along the way is to remember that writing a review is not an exam. There is no right or wrong answer. All you can try to do as a critic is to keep an open mind, try and be a midwife not a gate-keeper, respond with your heart as much as your head, and always be honest in your response.  Write what you really think and feel, not what you think you ought to think and feel. 

Jeremy: What moves you as a theatre-goer, and what excites you when you see an artist/show you like?

Lyn: When it comes to theatre I’m a bit like that kid with their nose pressed up against the sweetshop window and wanting it all. Lots of theatre-goers (and critics too) decide that they like one genre or another. They think of themselves as live art aficionados but sneer at musicals, or will go and see immersive theatre but wouldn’t dream of booking for a well-made play or Shakespeare. I will quite happily see circus at the matinee, a Simon Stephens play at the Royal Court in the evening, and then take in a spot of cabaret. 

I often think I have the best job in the world, because although we are often loathed to admit that a lot of theatre and performance is just so-so, not particularly good or very bad, when you do see an astonishing show it is like falling in love with theatre for the very first time. There is an exhilarating rush of hormones and excitement. How many people do a job where they get to fall in love maybe half a dozen times a year?

Jeremy: When I first saw Angels in America at the National in 1994, it changed my life. Is there a production that changed yours, and why?

Lyn: There are lots of productions that I recall with pleasure such as Kneehigh’s The Red Shoes and Tristan and Yseult, Wildworks’ outdoor show, Souterrain, or seeing Pina Bausch company for the first time.  Shockheaded Peter, produced by Michael Morris would be high on my list, as would seeing Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in a disused school off the Embankment when nobody had heard of Punchdrunk.  I have affection for so many shows in the London International Festival of Theatre that from the early 1980s was showing us that there was a whole big world of theatre out there that we on our little island knew very little about even as we sat smugly congratulating ourselves that our theatre was the best in the world. Gregory Burke and John Tiffany’s Black Watch for the National Theatre of Scotland was a revelation, and both National Theatre Wales’ The Passion and The Sultan’s Elephant, produced by Artichoke, were influential on my thinking about what theatre can be, it’s function in wider society and issues around diversity and access.

Jeremy: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve experienced in theatre in the last 20 years?

Lyn: British theatre has changed beyond all recognition in the last 20 years, and it’s all for the good. Theatre once meant plays, now it means many different boundary-busting things. Sometimes when I have reviewed a cross art-form piece or a show that takes the form of a one on one encounter, people ask me: “is that really theatre?” I always think that is the wrong question. The really interesting question is “what is it that theatre might be?” Why place restrictions and limits on what an art form can be and try and police it? Oh and another—and very welcome—change is that artists and critics are much more in dialogue with each other. That is beneficial to all. We really are all on the same side.

Jeremy: Given that money isn’t always the answer, can austerity be good for the arts?

Lyn: Austerity isn’t good for anybody and that includes the arts. There is a vast difference between an artist imagining a project and then realising it with the amount of money it requires or producing it on the amount of money that it has been possible to raise.

Inevitably when there is a shortfall both the art and the artists suffer. Often it’s the latter who go without pay and there is nothing romantic about being an artist starving in a garret.  We should pay artists and pay them properly.

However, although the funding climate is tightening I am optimistic about a rising generation of theatre-makers who unlike many who went before them aren’t just trying to get on the funding ladder and stay there but are looking at different ways to create and fund work. That often means making collaborations and partnerships with those outside of the arts sector and looking beyond traditional funding streams. I reckon we will see more companies working in the realm of social enterprise and working with councils and the voluntary sector. Those who look beyond the arts funding box will be the survivors.

Jeremy: What would improve our theatre ecology?

Lyn: A universal living wage. If, as some suggest, forty per cent of jobs will be automated in the next thirty years’ creativity will become crucial to people’s well-being. We will need artists more than ever to help imagine the future. In the shorter term the obvious things that would improve our theatre ecology is greater diversity, so it’s not just the rich and privileged who can even think about making theatre. We could change that over-night if we focussed on arts education in schools so increasing access to the arts, and if every single person in any position of power in British theatre decided that today and everyday thereafter they would work with someone who doesn’t look like them, sound like them, come from the same background as them or tell the same stories as them. 

Another thing that would improve the ecology would be more generosity and remembering that genuine collaboration is not about worrying what you and your organisation might get out of it but prioritising what your collaborators get out of it. It’s like linking out, not in.

Jeremy: What do you think the impact of Brexit will be on the arts?

Lyn: There will be less money for UK projects because we will lose access to European funds. Already the drop in the pound has had a negative effect on the buying power of UK festivals wanting to bring work from abroad here. But the fact we are leaving Europe means that there are even greater responsibilities from UK artists and those working in Europe to build bridges. In an odd way it could lead to stronger links in some instances because people will have to work harder to ensure those links rather than taking them for granted. The effect of Europe on British theatre practice and aesthetic has been substantial over the last 20 years. What we don’t want is for British theatre to go back to being parochial, inward-looking and insular.  

Jeremy: Are we losing the ability to empathise and what impact is this having on our theatre culture?

Lyn: Lots of people have pointed to an increasing empathy deficit in society and it makes the arts more important than ever because as Richard Eyre has observed: “Change begins with understanding and understanding begins by identifying oneself with another person: in a word, empathy. The arts enable us to put ourselves in the minds, eyes, ears and hearts of other human beings.” Scientific evidence suggests that effect is increased when we don’t just watch but also participate. It’s why theatre with and not just theatre for is important.

Jeremy: Why do you think arts journalism and criticism is under threat, and what can we do to support it?

Lyn: To some degree arts journalism, particularly theatre criticism is in a better state than it has been during the last thirty years. When I began writing about theatre in the 1980s there were less than twenty people writing about theatre and most of them were white, middle class Oxbridge educated men. We now have a much greater diversity of voices and a great deal more writing about theatre in all its glorious forms and not just writing about the mainstream. That’s good. What is less good is the challenge faced by those writers and bloggers to get paid for their writing. 

It’s also problematic that the cultural and technological shifts that have taken place mean that mainstream media no longer has a viable business model. That means it goes chasing clicks and as long as it does that it will cut arts coverage because good arts journalism is never going to be clickbait journalism. 

It does need a rethink on the part of arts journalism producers and consumers and that includes the theatre industry itself. The latter have got used to getting content for free but if they really value quality arts journalism then they will have to accept that it has to be paid for in one way or another. That’s whether it’s the Guardian or an individual theatre blogger trying to get support via Patreon or other means.

Jeremy: What inspired you to write children’s books?

Lyn: It really came out of reading a lot of children’s books with my children. I’m obsessed with fairy tales and my first two novels, ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Out of the Woods’, were a fairy tale mash-up. I’ve got a series set about a girl called Olivia who was raised in a circus and who finds herself at a London stage school and the world of West End theatre, and the latest is the Rose Campion series which begins with Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret and is about a foundling brought up in a Victorian music hall that has more than a touch of Wilton’s Music Hall about it. I love the world of music hall in all its rich, gaudy glory and Campion’s is full of wonders, giving ordinary people a chance to dream. Its what theatre can do today too. We all need a chance to dream.

Jeremy: As you know my company is London Artists Projects with a mission to speak truth to power for audiences who hunger for live and authentic moments of joy, beauty, and meaning. What does speaking truth to power mean to you?

Lyn: One of the things I love about your ‘Truth to Power Café’ is the way it gives everyone a voice, and challenges the notion of who can take the stage and speak, and who is allowed a voice. Power manifests itself in many ways and the only way to hold that power to account is to keep questioning it and the structures that keep privilege in place. It’s the same mechanism whether it’s politicians or those who run our theatre institutions.

 

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner is available through and published by Nosy Crow.

London Artists Projects autumn/winter programme will be announced shortly.