Q&A with Lyn Gardner on #Lynsnextstep, Stagedoor and Reviewing Theatre

The next piece in London Student’s series about non-acting professions within the theatre industry is a Question and Answer with Lyn Gardner. Lyn reviewed for the Guardian for twenty-three years and now joins Stagedoor in a new editorial role that allows her to write about the newest developments in theatre. Anthony Walker-Cook exchanged questions with Lyn about her new role, theatre reviewing today and some of her most memorable shows.

AWC Could you talk a little about Stagedoor and your decision to join the group?
LG Stagedoor is an app, and a very clever one. It provides a comprehensive guide to London Theatre. If it’s on, it will almost certainly be listed on Stagedoor, so you can find out about a big West End show but also about what a new experimental company is doing in a non-theatre space. In this sense, there is nothing else like it – and there’s a lot of other features too, which I think have the potential to shape the way audiences connect with theatre in an enormously positive way.
For example, people can use it to follow their favourite theatres and companies and keep up to date with what they are up to. They can write their own short reviews and collect them in their own theatre journal, like a more sophisticated way of collecting ticket stubs. It allows users to curate their own theatre-going, whilst also helping people discover new things by making suggestions about what you might like. I suppose it might be described a bit as if it is doing for theatre what Spotify has done for music.
From my perspective, the fact that it is a digital platform is important. It offers me a flexibility to write about the kind of theatre I love most. At a time when old media is increasingly reducing its commitment to theatre, Stagedoor is fighting not just its own corner but theatre’s corner as an artform too.

Have you any long-term projects/plans you are willing to share?
Well I’m busy with Stagedoor and my regular work with The Stage. I have also just joined Digital Theatre +, in part because I think that arts education and its demise in schools and universities is one of the scandals of our time. Oh, and I’m editing the third book in my Rose Campion series for children published by Nosy Crow and about dark goings on in a Victorian music hall.

How has theatre criticism changed over the past ten years?
Oddly, not as much as it should have done. Theatre has changed enormously over the last 20 years, but theatre criticism is still largely conducted as it was in 18th century coffee houses. Change is over-due not just in the way theatre is written about but also who writes about theatre. As theatre becomes more diverse it needs critics who reflect that diversity.

Despite projects like NTLive and Digital Theatre+, what more needs to be done to make productions accessible outside of London?

There is lots of fantastic theatre taking place outside of London and I reckon that rather than screening shows from London theatre out into the regions we should do it the other way around. It’s starting to happen—Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George 111 is being live screened from Nottingham—but there needs to be more. London is just one part of the theatre ecology.

In a comment for The Stage you said your time at the Guardian ‘allowed me to plough a particular furrow where I have been able to investigate what theatre might be and where it might happen and that’s been immensely rewarding.’ In the long term, where do you think theatre ‘might happen’?

The exciting thing is that it can happen anywhere. I have seen shows in cupboards, tree houses, tunnels, private houses, roof-tops and out on the streets so that the everyday spectacle of life is disrupted, and you don’t know what is part of the show and what isn’t.

How vital is an online resource – like Stagedoor– for theatre criticism, but in what ways should they also try to improve?
It’s important not just for theatre criticism but also for theatre itself because it reminds users that there is lots of different kinds of theatre out there and it encourages them to be braver in what they choose to see. You only discover you like something if you try it. For many venues it also makes booking incredibly easy. Improvements? Of course, I’d like to see it nation-wide but it’s a young start-up, so it has to be one step at a time.

How does Stagedoor encourage audiences to get involved with theatre criticism?
It empowers them to be part of a wider conversation about theatre and gives them a platform where they can express their opinions. In the past the only people who have been able to express their opinion about theatre were professional critics who were likely to be Oxbridge educated, white, middle class men. Criticism helps shift theatre culture on so the more people writing about it from many different backgrounds the better.

As to your career, why do you review theatre?

Because while a lot of theatre is just so-so, not particularly good and not particularly bad, when it is good there is nothing like it. Every time I see a really great theatre show I get a hormone rush and it feels like falling in love for the first time.

You are known and respected as a champion of fringe theatre – what do you enjoy about this ‘genre’ (for want of a better word)?
Who wouldn’t want to see and champion the new, the experimental and the exciting? I love getting a glimpse of the future and the London Fringe is a good way to discover it.

‘Every time I see a really great theatre show I get a hormone rush and it feels like falling in love for the first time.’ Lyn Gardner joins Stagedoor.

Could you provide a few recent examples you saw recently wherein you saw ‘a glimpse of the future’?
Boys at the New Diorama and Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale at Camden People’s Theatre were both excellent. Bullet Tongue is another – but there’s also some really innovative stuff happening on bigger stages too at the moment, like the marvellous Company on the West End.

What are the biggest challenges that you think the theatre industry will go through in the coming ten years?

There are lots of challenges ahead, particularly around funding as that has been hit by a double whammy of cuts to Arts Council funding and also cuts from local authorities. We need to keep arguing for arts funding, not least because it is a good financial investment for the government because of what theatre gives back to the Treasury. But I think we need to look for other models too and there are lots of young people out there doing just that. I’m an optimist.

As a critic, when might you give a one-star review?
Peter Pan El Musical; Menopause the Musical; Dora the Explorer Live on Stage. Google those titles with my name and you will find all you need to know.

What, for you, is a five-star show?
I am delighted to say that at Stagedoor I won’t be giving star ratings any more, as I think they’re reductive. They’re great if you want to buy a new fridge. But for art? Please!

What are the three best things you have seen on stage?
It changes all the time. But almost anything by Kneehigh. I love Katie Mitchell’s work. Simon McBurney and Complicite are favourites too. And I am a fan of Robert Icke’s work.

What are you most imminently looking forward to seeing?
Tim Etchells’ That Night Follows Day at the Southbank, The Tell-Tale Heart at the NT, the Convert at the Young Vic, Sweat at the Donmar, the London International Mime Festival, which is a great way to kick off the New Year with something wild and wonderful, and the Vault Festival, always a good way to glimpse the future.

Finally, if there was one show you could go to again and experience it as if seeing it for the first time again, what would it be and why?
An impossible choice, it’s like trying to get me to choose between chocolate and cake. But a show that glimmers and shimmers in my mind is Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult.

Many thanks to Lyn for taking the time to answer our questions and to Chloe Nelkin PR for organising. The Stagedoor app is currently used by over 35,000 theatre lovers and can be easily downloaded: https://stagedoorapp.com

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk @AntWalker_Cook

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