Lyn Gardner’s not dead. She’s not even retiring. In fact, having been let go as theatre critic with The Guardian, she is probably going to continue much as she has done, one of British theatre’s most popular voices, just in different circumstances for a different publication.
She deserves every sympathy, of course. It is truly a trauma to be laid off, as anyone who has been through it can attest, more so when it’s a job you clearly love, dedicate yourself fully to and achieve great things with. It screws up your life plans, it screws up your bank balance, it screws up your sense of self. Our hearts go out to her as they would to any journo (or other worker) shown the door through no fault of their own. It stinks.
But this isn’t about Lyn Gardner, the flesh and blood person, for whom we can all feel sorry. This is about St. Lyn, the mythical figure now being conjured up on Twitter, the brave, lone crusader standing between us and a return to the theatrical Dark Ages, a heroic task she can seemingly only perform from the pages of The Guardian.
For an industry supposedly full of creativity and open-mindedness, this reaction is not displaying much imagination or a willingness to embrace change.
Horrific though it seems for some to contemplate, maybe the future of arts journalism doesn’t lie with The Guardian, a general interest monolith from the last millennium, known to be in financial trouble.
The meltdown now underway might have less to do with realistic concerns about Lyn Gardner’s personal future or the health of the theatre sector in general and more to do with symbolic attachment to The Guardian as a bulwark against the Daily Mail/dead white males/insert bogeyman here. The fear is so real, people haven’t even waited for a statement from The Guardian. Yes, this seems a weird decision, but we currently have no info to go on, other than a brief statement about “new voices”. For all we know, maybe Billington’s next? Maybe soon they’ll be dispensing freelance opportunities right, left and centre (in which case I expect to see the same solidarity I now see in evidence). But why wait to find out, eh? The Natural Order of Things has been disrupted and protests must be made, among them hyperbolic suggestions that it’s game over for people of colour in theatre and that the patriarchy has silenced women again (at the fucking Guardian? Are you serious?)
Let’s consider the possibility this *is* it for Fringe theatre at The Guardian? In which case – fuck ’em. Are they irreplaceable? I’d suggest not. It’s noticeable how many of the twitter tributes have been artists saying “Lyn gave me my first review”, “Lyn understood my work like no other critic”, “Lyn championed us”. Absent are the voices of actual audiences saying “Lyn Gardner turned me on to theatre”, “I bought tickets to everything Lyn Gardner recommended”. That’s not to slight her impact or the way she made careers. But it does suggest that the industry may be more attached to “Lyn Gardner in The Guardian” than the general public. How people hear about and get interested in shows is a complex and fluid thing. Maybe “Lyn Gardner in The Guardian” was how you sold shows in the noughties and 2010s. Maybe “Lyn Gardner on her blog” will be how you do it in the 2020s or who knows? Maybe it’ll be a combination of individual specialist websites or a publication that doesn’t yet exist.
There’s much talk about how Lyn Gardner promoted a diverse and inclusive theatre sector and sought out work beyond the mainstream and beyond London. Fabulous. More power to her. No doubt she’ll keep doing that.
How about the theatre sector now return the favour? Embrace a diverse and inclusive critical sector, and seek out critics beyond the mainstream and beyond London, not just whoever happens to be writing for The Guardian at any one time.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of British writers doing what Lyn does. Not necessarily with the same expertise and profile, not in a publication the size of The Guardian, but they’re out there, slogging their way round the provinces, sitting in damp Fringe basements, looking to champion the overlooked. More often than not they’re not even paid for it. Lyn Gardner is not the only person that sets foot beyond the West End. Some reviewers (whisper it) don’t even set foot in the West End.
*You*, the theatremakers, help to formulate the critical environment by who you quote on your posters, who you retweet, who you advertise with (if indeed you’re big enough to do so). Every time you’re sniffy about bloggers, every time you retweet the broadsheets and ignore anything else, every Londoncentric statement you make (and there are a lot around, especially in this case), you’re putting power into the hand of international media companies, who don’t give a shit about the arts, and taking it away from the people who do this because they believe in it. In fact, every time you’ve celebrated Lyn Gardner at The Guardian, you’ve basically done the equivalent of coming to the Fringe, going to the Pleasance and giving five stars to a household name company. It might be the right assessment of what you see in front of you, but you’re doing the opposite of what you’re praising her for.
So what are you going to do now? Are you going to angrily tweet Katharine Viner and protest a fait accompli or are you going to seek out a regional blogger who sounds like they talk good theatrical sense? When you cancel that Guardian subscription, what are you going to do with it? Sure, chuck a few quid to The Stage and continue to read Lyn, but why not help out someone else too? And I’m not talking about us at The Wee Review. We’d appreciate your readership but we don’t pester you for money. Yet. There’s plenty of people out there with Patreons who’d value the price of a coffee a lot more than The Guardian would.
The world has not ended. I have no doubt we in Scotland will see Lyn Gardner back at the Fringe this year, doing what she always does, only in a slightly different capacity. I sincerely hope the loss of work is not going to leave her on her uppers like redundancy can do, and that she doesn’t feel it’s a judgement on her work, as sometimes it does. But can the theatre sector please regain some perspective? Share your sympathy on a personal level, of course, but think more imaginatively about “what this all means”. As with the Quentin Letts furore the other week, the supposedly bold and adventurous theatre sector is once again showing itself to be insular and frightened. To quote Gardner herself, “a theatre culture that fears to give offence is a theatre culture that is bland & moribund.” In this case, we have a theatre culture that simply fears, and will end up equally bland and moribund.