Your questions answered by theatre critic Fiona Mountford!

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Hello everyone, and thank you so much for your most interesting questions. They have certainly got me thinking in this hot weather. Let’s hope that my brain doesn’t melt while I try to answer them…

To give you an idea of why I might be qualified to answer you, my name is Fiona and for 17 years I was Theatre Critic for the newspaper the London Evening Standard. This meant that I went to the theatre around five times every week, sometimes more, to watch a show and then to write a review afterwards. My record in a single week is eight shows! I saw all types of theatre, from drama to comedy to musicals to pantomime to circus, in many languages. The Shakespeare play Macbeth in Dutch, anyone? Seen it!

What gave you the inspiration to get into the arts?
appreciative_hurricane, Hammond Junior School

What gave me the inspiration to get into the arts? Well, it all started with my parents, my Dad in particular, who was a great lover of books, film and theatre. He encouraged these passions in me and, given that I had already decided I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up, it was an easy decision to make to want to write about the arts. Above all, I love stories, gripping, detailed and engaging stories about people’s lives and communities and the arts provides these in abundance. I love settling down and being presented with a group of characters entirely new to me and immersing myself in their lives and joys and problems. Where would we all be without stories? Infinitely poorer in imagination and terribly lacking in feeling towards our fellow human beings, that’s where.

What have you been doing during lockdown?
artistic_opinion, Arnhem Wharf Primary School

Ooh, fine question, artistic_opinion. During lockdown there has been no theatre and because of the rules around social distancing and gathering in inside spaces it looks as though there won’t be any for some considerable time to come. This is a very worrying moment for theatre in this country; it unfortunately seems as though a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. So I have been writing articles on other aspects of culture, such as television, and articles on a wider range of themes about society today. I have been re-watching some of my all-time favourite films and television series and reminding myself what it was about them that I found so inspirational. It’s healthy, I find, to remind myself from time to time why I do what I do. Away from work, I have found a lot of solace from pottering about in my garden – my rose bushes look particularly fine this year, if I say so myself – and from making lemon drizzle cakes and delivering them as surprise ‘cheer-up presents’ to friends.

How did you get into your job?
outstanding_turkey, Hammond Junior School

Thank you, outstanding_turkey, for asking about how I got into my job. It was something of a roundabout route, as for many years I was determined to be a football writer. I started writing for an Arsenal (sorry, any Spurs fans reading this!) fanzine when I was a teenager and from there formed a connection with the sports desk of the Daily Telegraph newspaper. I was Sports Editor of my university newspaper, but also wrote a lot about film as well. After university, I decided that I wanted to work in the arts instead of sport and so managed to wangle myself a transfer from the Daily Telegraph sports section to the arts section. There I was given my first chance to write a theatre review, my stern editor was pleased with it and my fate was sealed. Much as I love film, I find it so much more stimulating to write about a live performance that is happening right there in front of you. You can watch the same film in any cinema anywhere in the world, but this particular group of live actors in this particular theatre production is a unique experience in a specific location. Even if they do the play all over again tomorrow, it won’t be precisely the same in every minute detail as you have watched tonight. That to me is a quality to be cherished.

Much as I love film, I find it so much more stimulating to write about a live performance that is happening right there in front of you. You can watch the same film in any cinema anywhere in the world, but this particular group of live actors in this particular theatre production is a unique experience in a specific location.

Fiona Mountford

Did you want to go into the arts when you were younger?
accurate_octopus, Whyteleafe School B

Accurate_octopus, thank you for your question. I always loved the arts when I was younger, but for quite some time – see above in my response to outstanding_turkey – I thought that I would write about football while keeping my deep love of film and theatre for my spare time. But gradually my views on this shifted about and I reversed the two different spheres, turning the arts into my work and going to football matches in my spare time. Don’t forget that no decision is ever final and set in stone, especially when you’re young. That’s what’s so exciting (and, let’s be honest, sometimes frightening): you can change your opinion, move on, branch out and explore new options. I bet you don’t think exactly the same way about some things now as you did when you were, say, eight. Life is big and rich and exciting and, occasionally, frightening.

How has art changed since the coronavirus outbreak?
submitted on Twitter from a student following our home-learning resources (@RajaniSanjay9)

Your child’s question is a fine one, Sanjay. Like all our lives, art has changed almost beyond measure during the Coronavirus outbreak, for the stark but simple reason that audiences haven’t been able to get to venues to see it! All theatres had their last performances on Saturday March 14th – I went to a matinée that very day, suspecting that it would be my last theatre visit in quite some while – and don’t know as yet when they will be able to open again. Think of any show you have seen and I bet the image will be of a stage bustling with people. How can we do that while still maintaining social distancing? The simple answer is that we can’t. Some theatres have put recordings of old shows online, which has been lovely for weary theatre fans, but is no substitute for the actual thing. Having to keep all the actors and members of backstage teams two metres apart from each other has meant that it has also been impossible to record films and television shows: you might have read that they have started to run out of pre-recorded episodes of EastEnders! With the easing of lockdown restrictions there is some glimmer of hope for the restarting of our culture.

Thank you all very much. It has been a pleasure to share these thoughts with you.

Thank you very much to Fiona for her excellent answers. We hope you've enjoyed reading them!

What do you think would be the best part of reviewing theatre productions as a job? Add your thoughts below!

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