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Session one: Medium, Objects and Manner - The Rudiments of Criticism

New Writing South

Allan Sutherland and Joe Bidder

A group of disabled writers were invited by New Writing South and DAO (Disability Arts Online) to a series of seminars to develop skills in critical writing and gain an understanding of its role within the world of news media and publications. The masterclasses took place at the Women Artists' Slide Library in London.

Contributors to the Masterclass

Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic since the early 1980s, writing for The Guardian, Independent, New Statesman, The Stage and Evening Standard, amongst others. Prior to that she was a press officer for the RSC, National Theatres, The Round House and Royal Ballet and administrator with various other arts organisations. She was a founder member of City Limits and was Health Editor for Women's Realm. For the past twelve years she has been the London theatre critic and feature writer for the Glasgow Herald. She currently contributes to the London theatre websites, and Rogues and Vagabonds. For the past ten years she has been a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London and guest tutor at other universities. She has also given workshops in theatre criticism to colleges, schools and on the National Theatre's new writing and young people's Connections programme. Publications include The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths, a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber's Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. She has also contributed various articles to academic magazines and books, particularly on the subject of women and theatre.

Allan Sutherland has been one of the most passionate voices on the UK disability scene for twenty years, as writer, journalist, stand-up comic and performance poet. He was once described as the first political stand-up on the disability arts circuit. His book Disabled We Stand (1981) won awards in the UK and the US and is still required reading on some university courses. His Radio 4 play Inmates, set in a long-stay institution for disabled people, won a Raspberry Ripple award. He is also the leading historian of the UK Disability Arts movement, about which he has written widely. As Director of Disability Arts think-tank the Edward Lear Foundation, he advises the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive and is leading the project to create an oral history of disability arts.

Mark Shenton is theatre critic for the Sunday Express, contributing editor to, and writes a daily blog for the The Stage's website. He also contributes to BBC London as theatre critic for its website, and broadcasts for its radio and TV divisions. He has hosted regular platform performances at the National Theatre and is co-author of Harden's Theatregoers' Handbook.

New Writing South's focus is to develop an environment in the south-east in which creative writers and new writing can flourish. We do this by identifying and nurturing talent, by working creatively with writers and by building partnerships to encourage a new writing economy in the region. New Writing South has three hundred and fifty writer members, from Oxford to Canterbury, and is supported in its aims by Arts Council South East and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Jamie Beddard, representing Arts Council London, opened the discussion by saying that he felt there had been a need for this kind of master class for at least ten years. He went on to say that, “as an actor with a long track record of performance in shows for Graeae Theatre Company, I never received a bad review. I won't feel I have made it as an actor until I've had a bad review. I know the only reason it hasn't happened is because I'm a disabled person.”

In the introduction the group gave some of their key reasons for being at the seminar. There were a range of responses: a desire to learn how to be critical without being damning; how to develop a style; how to get through the glass ceiling that surrounds disability arts; how to break into publishing reviews outside of the disability world; a better appreciation of what makes good writing; what is required of a critic; what, if anything makes being a critic different for a disabled person; and finally simply to receive feedback.

DAO (Disability Arts Online) hopes that the following transcript will serve as a useful resource for disabled writers with an interest in writing critique both within and beyond the field of Disability Arts. It provides some of the basic rules as well as ideas about what disabled writers, specifically, have to offer the mainstream news media. It also provides tips on how to get published based on experience of writing for the press over the course of many years.

General principles

Carole Woddis described some basic principles of writing reviews. As important as objectivity is, we are always a product of where we are from. That will always make itself known in our writing somewhere. It is vital to remember that an individual's viewpoint is a vehicle for getting an opinion across and for finding a personal voice.

Carole reassured us that in spite of 25 years of having her work published by the mainstream press, she still has doubts every time she sits down to write. With the best will to be fresher and more humorous, you can only do what comes naturally. Remember to breathe. If you relax as you write this will transfer itself through your hands and into the keys. Read your work out loud to test if the writing springs off the page.

Before sitting down to write, first decide on the position you are going to take. The opening tone of what you say is all important. Be clear on your standpoint in the first paragraph and finish with a strong ending - a quote, an insight, a conclusion which will open the reader's mind, or heart, in some way.

Begin by summing up the plot of the play, or main theme of the dance piece or exhibition.

Think of your review as a top and a tail, with a sandwich in between. Remember you are attempting to take your reader into the event. Be topical. Think about the readership of the publication you are writing for. The amount of words you have been given will determine the style of the piece.

Remember a review should be written as soon as possible after the event - and should ideally not take more than 30 minutes. Formulate your review during the event or performance. Refrain from using jargon. Use a good thesaurus to avoid repetition. For clarity, keep sentences short. Write in the present tense. Use a variety of adjectives, similes, and metaphors.

Bear in mind the four main tenets of criticism: description; exposition; narrative and argument.

Always keep the programme or publicity sheet for the event until the review is written. Context and details of the event in question, are all important: e.g. names of performers, venue etc. Background information gives authority.

When writing reviews you need to remember to include: Title, performers' names, venue, direction, lighting, costume, music, actors' performances; any themes; summary of plot; how visual aspects work or not; what the artist's intention was. Make clear which publication you are writing for. Be clear on whether you would recommend the event or not. Make reference to access considerations, making clear why you are including those comments.

Tips on getting published

Without a track record a way in is to keep writing reviews, publishing blogs, and to send them to editors unsolicited. If an editor has a space to fill, they just may publish a writer who has no track record.

A review should be 300-400 words. Postal copy will go unopened. Everybody works on email, so find out the convention the paper uses for email addresses and phone up the paper for the name of the arts editor.

While the role of the professional critic is under threat, the role of reader reviews is growing. Papers like London Lite publish reader reviews all the time. The Independent has a space where you can write your own review on their website. More and more comment is being provided via Blogs and online publications.

Application of the basic principles to Disability Arts

Allan Sutherland led a discussion on what a disabled writer can bring to the table of critique.

What can disabled critics deliver that mainstream critics cannot?

As disabled people and as people with experience of disability arts, we have a unique contribution to make. Context is all-important. We are in the situation where despite 25 years of disability arts, mainstream reviews frequently lack a knowledge of context. It remains the case that no mainstream critic reviewing disability arts has come to it with an understanding of what has gone before in the world of disability arts.

We are not breaking new ground as a movement. It is important to remember that although individual artists may break new ground within their work, we are no longer a fledgling movement. When reviewing work we have to ask ourselves how much of what we are experiencing reveals something that is different to what has gone before. Alongside that question we should ask ourselves how much the work builds upon or relates to work that has happened previously.

What is the context for reviews of disability arts within the disability press?

Reviews within the disability press, historically, have offered little criticism outside of the disability perspective. It has often been the case that disability reviewers don't know about anything else but disability arts and the reviews have been blinkered as a result.

As important as it is for critics to be contextualising to a disabled audience, it is very important that reviews look at how the work fits into other discussions. While dealing with experience in disability, different artists take their influences from many different sources. Nothing sits solely within its own context. On an artistic level, a really important part of a critic's job is to reflect on those strands. As well as conferring authority on what you say, it also allows room for development, if discussion around work looks at how it draws on other influences e.g. feminist art.

How has criticism of disability arts changed in recent years?

Generally, disability arts has often been misrepresented, to one extreme or another, outside of the disability field. Until recent developments (arguably the DDA) the disability arts movement largely saw itself as a lobbying movement. As a result it focussed on issues of confidence, pride and self-acceptance. Speaking from his experience of producing and editing Disability Arts in London Magazine through the latter half of the 1990s, Colin Hambrook talked about how any criticism of a disabled artist's work, within the publication, was often met with opposition. Reviews which took a critical stance, no matter how constructive, were seen as a betrayal, unless the criticism reflected a disability viewpoint.

If no-one is ever prepared to say, “this is wrong”, you are not getting any feedback. One way that disabled people fall behind, particularly if they have been through special schooling, is that they don't get pushed as hard. It is very common for disabled people to be patronised. You may experience it as an ego massage, but it offers no feedback for development of your skills as an artist. You are not being given any information about what works and what doesn't.

How do we go about making critical comment?

It is a measure of confidence that any group within the arts and literary world accepts that criticism is vital to their development as artists. Times have changed and DAIL Magazine's new incarnation as

How do artists want their work to be received?

One of disability arts' biggest strengths is that it covers all artforms. However this can also be a weakness in that some artforms - e.g. the world of fiction and novels, has no category for disability arts. One way of influencing how your work gets defined by critics, as an artist, is to develop a relationship with editors. It is only by trusting your own opinion and making it known to editors that they will have the opportunity to sit up and take notice.

Should we as critics be asking the question,“Is this disability arts?”

Whether, or not, disability is relevant to the disabled artist's work, it is important to acknowledge that our culture has for centuries hidden disability as something shameful. It is complex, partly because disability represents such a wide range of experience. Within that experience though, there is a familiarity with oppression that is common to all.

Having a discussion about, “What is disability arts?” helps our ideas to evolve. The move from being seen as a movement within a ghetto to being seen as existent within the mainstream is all-important. Within this transition, it is essential that disabled critics see their role as being to facilitate the changing notion of how disability arts is seen by artists and their audiences.

What is the role of the disabled critic in reviewing mainstream productions?

As an example of a mainstream performance, in which the press reviews failed to acknowledge the way it used impairment, Carole Woddis cited a production at Edinburgh of Ibsen's Dollshouse. Mabou Mines Theatre Company cast all the male parts with short actors and all the female parts with tall actresses.

Allan Sutherland felt that rather than being disability arts, this is an example of the use of impairment as metaphor. He likened it to Werner Herzog's film Even Dwarfs Started Small. As an aside he told the story of the film's showing at the London Film Festival which led to an incident where the director got beaten up by people with restricted growth. Subsequently when Allan organised the Carry on Cripple season in 1981 with Steve Dwoskin, the National Film Theatre took seriously the idea that disabled people might be angry if they didn't provide good access.

This type of representation of disability begs some big questions about how disability gets used. It is important for disabled critics to take on that role as, generally speaking, no mainstream critic will regard the question of whether or not the way disability is depicted is exploitative, as relevant for discussion. The Press are not as familiar with ideas about a precedent around disability as they are around race or gender. If a play could be considered to be racist, critics would be aware that they have to deal with those issues.

How to become a mainstream critic

Mark Shenton gave a talk on what makes a good critic and how - considering that there is no formal training for the job - you get to be one.

Mark read law at Cambridge. As a student he got immersed in the theatre in a city, where there was plenty of opportunity to have reviews published. In fact, Mark went on to say that three well-known critics of his generation went through his same college. Mark talked about his passion for the theatre - and musicals in particular. He goes to the theatre 5 times a week, but still only sees perhaps 50 per cent of all shows that are put on.

To get your reviews published you have to persuade the editor that you have something to say and it is worth them paying for it. Perseverance is a big part of it. There are only 15 national papers, which leaves precious little opportunity for anyone new to break in. It is also the case that no single job pays a living wage, which makes it important to juggle writing for many different publications. Mark's passion for theatre has taken him around the world in his role as a critic. However, he has only been working full-time as a freelance critic for five years. Before that he ran a branch of the press association and worked within management as his day job. Every critic has an individual story. There is no given route in. The papers tend to use the same critics over many years. Michael Billington, for example, has been reviewing for The Guardian for 35 years whilst Benedict Nightingale has been on The Times for 25 years. Mark recently wrote his Stage Blog on the subject of Nick Hytner's controversial comment describing the theatre reviewing fraternity as made up of dead white males. However, over the last ten years, many more women journalists have become established critics. There are several female number ones (leading critics), eg. Georgina Brown for the Mail on Sunday and Lyn Gardner, who is The Guardian's Queen of the Fringe. There are still no Black, Asian or Disabled critics, within the mainstream press.

Practicalities of theatre criticism

A key thing to remember is that no single reviewer is ever completely right. Every one has their own opinion and the contradiction between critics is what keeps the arts pages lively. The star-rating has become a short-hand in critical language, for critics themselves, as much as their readership. This has come about because often you will only have 500 words a week to cover up to five or six openings. To have 250 words on one show is quite a luxury. But you have to weigh this up with the fact that papers frequently don't employ a theatre critic at all.

Theatre and theatre criticism goes in and out of fashion. Currently The Sunday Telegraph and Daily Mail give the role of theatre criticism to gossip columnists. Whilst being good journalists they are not qualified to give any authority about the theatre. There is no means-tested training, but you can tell, from what they say, whether the writer is steeped in the world of theatre, or not.

You have to gauge the readership for the journal you are writing for. The Sunday Express, for example has a very general audience. You can't assume your readership will have even basic knowledge e.g. the plot of Hamlet. For this kind of review the best you can relay is a sense of occasion and to give the show either a thumbs up, or a thumbs down.

At the other end of the spectrum will demand up to 600 words on a single show. The ideal length is between 350-400 words where you can say something without being overburdened. The Stage asks for 250 words per show. Generally, you have to be rigorous with National papers, who will cut your copy down if you go over the word count, but will have more of a lee-way with Industry journals like The Stage. You can make assumptions that a trade audience such as The Stage or will have a greater depth of knowledge about theatre.

You don't ever come to a play with a blank slate, because so much tends to be written about the show before you get to the first night. It can often be up to three weeks after the preview that the critic gets to see the show. Inevitably much gets published on bulletin boards and through PR. In fact the job of PR is to get as much copy out there to minimise the effect of reviews. It is difficult to come to your own conclusions if you have seen or heard others' opinions. A side issue is that often Mark will have interviewed actors before reviewing the show, so will have an angle on it, from them. Doing feature work is necessary, so it is not possible to always come to writing a review uninformed. The answer is that you have to try to be as unbiased as you can.

Inevitably you always bring your previous feelings about an actor, or director etc. to any given review. The best you can do is to be as honest as you can, at any given point. If there is an actor you dislike, you have to be upfront about it.

Expectation will often play a key part. And it is important to remember that you will be proved wrong as many times as you are proved right. Theatre is always a unique event, so when you get asked, “did you see the same show?” the answer is always in the negative.

As a journalist you are there first and foremost to report the event. However, it is important to provide your judgement, with some qualification. Many writers are curmudgeons, but if they write well, they can be blissfully entertaining. Writing well is a subjective call. Humour plays an important part, but it comes down to the style you adopt.

Firstly you have to write for the editor, whilst bearing the reader and yourself in mind. Occasionally you'll know you are happy with what you have written, but the downfall is that mostly you will not receive any kind of response from editors or readers. You work in a vacuum a lot of the time and only know you're being read when the phone rings and you get a commission

The main thing is to persevere. You will constantly be knocked back. There is no substitute for passion. Others will notice if you do care about the work you are doing. The perspective you are coming from provides an all-important sensibility for your opinion.