A new strand to Theatre Royal Winchester’s learning and participation work sees young people developing their skills as theatre critics, says Carl Woodward.

Image of group of young critics
Participants in the Young Critics scheme

Dominic Parkes Photography

The media landscape is changing faster than ever as there is such a wealth of opportunities to write and be heard, but the challenge is whether young critics can actually make a living in a landscape where a new wave of online platforms contest the territory of traditional print reviews. One immutable fact remains: whatever the mechanism for theatre criticism and reviewing, a critical culture is essential to stimulate interest in the arts and to keep audiences alert to the diversity of productions in the capital and across the country.

At Theatre Royal Winchester we have launched our own Young Critics scheme, an opportunity for aspiring critics aged 18 to 25 to participate in masterclasses with some of the foremost figures in theatre criticism and journalism. As a freelance theatre practitioner I have delivered a variety of community and education projects and believe that theatre should engage people through different methods. So the scheme is a new strand to our learning and participation work in association with A Younger Theatre.

To me it was logical to provide a learning opportunity to educate, inspire and inform young people and to uncover new talent

This project is financially sustainable and doesn't rely on any funding streams, though we are exploring sponsorship to continue in the long term. The £60 participant fee covers the running costs and we have been fortunate that most critics were willing to contribute to their own expenses. We don't want anyone to miss out due to financial constraints so we have bursaries available for those in receipt of means-tested benefits.

To me it was logical to provide a learning opportunity to educate, inspire and inform young people and to uncover new talent. Participant Charlotte Nelson from Chandlers Ford in Hampshire, said: “I signed up because I see a lot of musical theatre and write reviews for my blog but they weren’t to a professional standard. I am hoping the course will expand my writing skills.” Another participant Bethany Rimmer from Evesham, said: “To my knowledge there’s currently nothing else like this available. It’s exciting to know that there are people out there who care about the future of criticism and who want to help nurture those who are enthusiastic about the industry. The workshops so far have been insightful, and it's a valuable opportunity to get feedback on our writing.”

The arts thrive in a climate of provocative debate, so the primary aim of the scheme is to develop new reviewers, broaden critical writing at a grassroots level and afford participants the opportunity to hear first hand from the experts. They have the opportunity to see three shows across the south west of England and receive feedback on their reviews.

Lyn Gardner, one of our team of experienced critics, said: “I’m delighted to be taking part in the scheme. It’s terrific to see a theatre encouraging young people not just to engage with performance but to think and write about it too. Supporting a critical culture is good for theatre as a transferable skill that can be applied in many areas of life.”

Following a successful pilot and overwhelming response from the industry, we are extending the project into our summer season and looking at expanding its reach across the region in partnership with other key venues. The Southern Daily Echo and Big Issue South West have agreed to publish reviews so the future looks bright for the next generation.

Carl Woodward is Youth Theatre Manager at the Theatre Royal Winchester.

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