I think people are in danger of getting a little prissy about the qualifications to be a theatre critic. Obviously, you need a passion for the medium, a vision of its potential and the capacity to communicate. But I've come to feel that critics, myself included, have been recruited from too narrow a stratum. We still, mostly, tend to be English Lit graduates who may have dabbled in literary journalism, or even had a go at directing or writing plays, before moving on to a seat in the stalls. Nothing wrong with that. But, for several reasons, I've come to believe that a knowledge of public affairs and life's larger crises is also a useful attibute for a critic.This comes in response to news that WMD-sniffer Judith Miller will review theater for the Tablet, which reminds me that economics reporter Catherine Rampell is now moonlighting at the NY Times theater desk. I do have mixed (and not entirely disinterested) feelings about the way newspaper folk are shuffled around from the sports desk to the features desk, from clothes to food to the city beat, but I think Billington's following point merits consideration:
One obvious reason is that theatre is changing. It increasingly tackles big issues: global warming, economic collapse, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It therefore seems logical that journalists with some knowledge of geopolitical tensions should bring their experience to the critical table...I'm not saying it's a job for anyone: it requires dedication, stamina and what the late Bob Robinson called "a willigness to have your evenings ruined". I'm simply suggesting that, as theatre engages increasingly with the public world, a critic has to be alert to politics, economics and foreign affairs as well as having a capacity for aesthetic judgment. "What do they of cricket know who only cricket know?" CLR James famously asked. You could apply exactly the same question to theatre.It is a good question, and it makes me think that having a small child around the home (even a small child with a taste for cast albums, I can't think why) is a great reminder that there's a life outside the theater. Lord knows mine, at least, has profoundly changed the cost-benefit equation of a ruined night.