Writer, Critic, Reviewer, Spy

23 Nov
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Image by Justin Jensen, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

It started, as these things so often do, with an email.

“I’ve had an email from a solicitor about you…” chirped my editor.

The walls started closing in.

“Oh God no!” screamed a voice in my head, “You’re getting sued for real this time, head for the hills, go live in a cave, you’re absolutely fucked!” shrieked the voices of my deepest, darkest thoughts fears.

I looked at the email again, gazing at the words that my lovely editor had typed a few minutes before.

“..details below.” He added.

I replied and we gossiped for a while. Unsolicited emails from solicitors are rarely welcome, we agreed, and they are not to be trusted, we reasoned.

I scrolled down to read the original message.

My jaw clenched.

The email was from a solicitor who worked for a local firm. He couldn’t give me too much detail at this stage, he said, but he wanted to speak to me regarding a review I’d written some time before, and he specifically wanted to know more about the physical condition of an actor that had made some kind of injury claim against his client.

“Do you have a number which I could contact you on this afternoon or tomorrow afternoon in order to briefly discuss this matter?”

My jaw clenched again.

The actor and the name of the show hadn’t been supplied, but surely, my review of the show was enough? What had I said about this actor to make this solicitor take interest in me?

I’m used to people cutting and pasting bits of my review to be used on posters; I’ve had people email me asking me to justify my reviews. I’ve worked with editors who have eviscerated my words to make my reviews more positive, and sometimes, more negative.

These are all things that happen, these are things that I can handle, but a solicitor asking me questions about an unnamed actor for an anonymous client? That’s new. It puts me in an awkward position; not commentator, not critic, but informer; spy.

Feeling uncomfortable, I emailed the solicitor, asking for the name of the play. I briefly considered ignoring their request, but I knew that if I did, they would just keep emailing my editor, until they got an answer.

They replied quickly, giving me the name of the show and the actor. I remembered the show; it had been performed over 18 months before, but I had to think about the actor. I recognised their name, but had they been in that play?

I dug out and re-read my review. I’d written half a sentence about the actor, praising their brief appearance on the stage in what had been a minuscule role (they only appeared in the second act).

I contacted other critics, had this happened to them?

No, said one. Never, not in all my years of reviewing.

This sounds well dodgy, said another, avoid at all costs.

Why are they contacting you? Said a third critic.

That puts you in an awkward position, They concluded.

I’ve always said that I write for the reader, but who is the reader? I always assumed that they were a theatregoer, but what if there was something more sinister behind that? A critic, by nature, is an observer, so their loyalty is to their publication and its readers. If I do this, I can’t claim to be neutral.

I closed my eyes and I saw a snake in the grass. I watched the blades part as it slithered through an overgrown garden towards me. He was the snake. If I agreed to a phone call, he would coil himself around me and I would be his.

I opened my eyes and typed a quick response.

“Unfortunately, I cannot expand upon what I have said in my review, and as I have no knowledge of this actor beyond that, I cannot help you on this occasion.”

He replied within minutes:

“Should you decide that you remember the performance of [REDACTED] on this occasion, I would be looking to ask you some brief questions as to [THEIR] range of movement and your general impressions as to [THEIR] physical state during that performance. This should take no more than 10 or 15 minutes over the phone.”

He just needs 10 -15 minutes.

He wants me to spy on someone I don’t know. He wants me to be biased against this person.

I cannot and will not do that.

“Please feel free to contact me should you wish to discuss matters further, and I hope you have a nice day.”

I closed my eyes and watched the snake slither into the undergrowth.

I opened my eyes.

I closed my email.

I had a wonderful day.


Every thought I had watching Waiting for Godot

23 Sep


Waiting for Godot image by Mike Steele

Waiting for Godot image by Mike Steele


Ooh, what a set. I’ll take some notes.

The woman next to me is a fidget.

Writing, writing, writing.

The woman next to me is far too interested in my notebook.

Curtain up, hurrah!

I’m going to call the woman next to me Valerie.


Oh no, it’s one of those mesh curtain things. I hope the whole show isn’t behind this.

Did I spell that right?

Ah, good.

Oh, Valerie, do stop your fidgeting.

Writing. Scrawl. I hope I can read this later.

Valerie, this is MY notebook. Please stop trying to lean into me to read it.

Valerie. Valerie. I need the arm to rest on, please just move slightly.

Valerie…Valerie…if you could just share the….Valerie…

Look, there’s Bill Paterson.

Ha, ha. My old flatmate said Bill Paterson’s Scottish accent was the worst she’d heard.


Oh, Brian, lovely Brian with the twinkly eyes.

My flatmate didn’t think he was Scottish.

Bill Paterson! Not Scottish!

I laughed.

Where’s the line about the bicycle wheels?

“You haven’t got a bicycle!” Brilliant.


Oh, that’s Endgame. I like Waiting for Godot better than Endgame, sorry, Samuel.

Well, I like Endgame, I saw the Theatre Workshop production of it.


You know, this is a really lovely set.

What happened to Theatre Workshop?

Oooh, it’s him fae that thing.

I know him, I know him. So many faces, so many plays, but I know him.

It’s whatshisname.

He looks like the guy that played Scrooge in the NTS’ A Christmas Carol.


That’s because he is the guy that played Scrooge in the NTS’ A Christmas Carol.

Great monologue, Scroogey!

Valerie, your lack of spatial awareness is tiring.

This is just sublime.

Oh no, bad cough.

Oh God no, I’m coughing through the lines and I can’t stop.

Stop coughing.

My eyes are watering, I can feel sweat on the back of my neck, I need to cough.



Cough. Cough. Cough.

Cough. Cough. Cough.

I seem to have made Valerie uncomfortable.


I’m dying, Valerie. I’m dying and I’m taking you with me.

End of first act.

Interval! INTERVAL.


I apologise for my coughing to the man on the other side of me.

I’m not apologising to Valerie.

Valerie can go swing on something.

After her ice cream.

The second act.

I have a large glass of water.

And a small glass of champagne.

Plastic glasses, one in each hand.

Valerie has taken the full arm rest.

The full thing.

On you go, Valerie, help yourself. I have champagne.

I see shoes. A pair of shoes centre stage.

They belong to Bill ‘Worst Scottish Accent Ever’ Paterson.

The funny thing is, my old flatmate wasn’t Scottish.

She was from Bradford.

No coughs yet.

Water. Champagne. Champagne. Water. Water. Water.

I’m trying to remember. When I read this play….when I read this play….

What happens next?

I remember now.

Him, yes. They return.

The hat.

The hat.

Oh my God, how could I forget about the hat scene?

The hat scene. The fucking hat…

Valerie. We are not going to be friends if you keep encroaching on my personal space.



I’m going.

I’m going.

He’s going. He says he’s going.

I wish Valerie would go.

Waiting for Godot to appear.

Where is Godot?

Where is Godot?

The same place as Valerie’s manners.

God, I hope Godot has manners.

The small boy. The promise.

The curtain.

They bow.

The people behind me are shouting bravo.

If they throw roses at the stage I will lose my shit.


No roses. Lights up.

“That was MARVELLOUS!”

A voice somewhere behind me.



The aisle stands, turns, shuffles. stops.

Oh for fuck’s sake Valerie, what is it?

Valerie. Why are you stopping Valerie? The whole theatre is behind us.

The aisle waits for Valerie.

I see a gap. Opportunity.

I run.

The stairs.

The bar.

The doors.

The cold night air.

It is over.

Yes, it is.

I never want it to end.

I know.

I know.



Trash Interviews Death on the Fringe

7 Aug

Death on the Fringe 2015

Death on the Fringe 2015

A few weeks ago, I emailed the ever-patient and super-organised Rob Peacock of Death on the Fringe (and TVBomb’s Editor) to ask for an interview. I promised him a feature called, “Let’s get drunk and talk about death”, I promised booze, I promised awesome questions, I promised a timely interview for their launch on the 7th of August.

Then the Fringe began and all my plans fell apart. So here is a totally sober email interview about death, dying, living and The Smiths.

So, Rob, let’s celebrate our sobriety and talk about death, specifically, Death on the Fringe. What is it and why did you get involved?

Death on the Fringe is a series of shows taking place in August that look at death and dying from different perspectives – some serious, some comical – but all designed to make you think, hopefully not in a morbid way, about the inevitable. It’s part of the Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief initiative, run by the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, which aims to get people in Scotland to be more open about death so that they are better able to plan and to support those going through the bereavement process.

I got involved because I know the folks at the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, and they know I like organising and promoting events! Plus, I have a side to me that feels at home with the darker side of life, as anyone who’s seen my music collection can testify, so I was keen to be involved. Together we came up with the idea of Death on the Fringe. We ran the first one last year, and are planning this one to be bigger and better.

Jack Rooke Good Grief

Jack Rooke Good Grief, performing at the DOTF Launch tonight

What’s happening at the launch tonight?At the launch, guests get to seewee samples of some of the shows – we have the musicians of Fiesta de losMuertos, comedy storyteller Jack Rooke, actors from the show Holly & Ivy and much more besides.We’re very grateful that Professor Scott Murray, Chair of Primary Palliative Care at the University, has agreed to host the event in the historic anatomy lecture theatre at the Med Quad. He, in fact, is one of our performers! He is part of a lecture series we’re organising at St John’s Church on Princes Street, where he’ll be comparing Africa and Scotland and asking which is a better place to die.

One of the reasons that I wanted to find out more about Death on the Fringe is because death is such a bloody good subject, loads of Fringe shows mention it, but no one seems to want to talk about death itself. Why do you think it’s still a subject that we (people in the UK) just don’t want to dwell on?

You’re right. I think it is a very British, or maybe an Anglo-Saxon, thing. If you look at other cultures, there’s much more outward display of grief, and discussion and memorialisation of the dead – things like Mexican Day of the Dead, on which the Fiesta de los Muertos show is based, and traditional Irish wakes. There’s a whole social history dissertation working out why that might be, but we all know that the stereotype of the British stiff upper lip is at least partly grounded in reality. Someone dies and “I’m sorry to hear that” and an embarrassed expression is often all that’s expected and offered. To me, the more it’s talked about and discussed, the better prepared people can be. Bereavement can be very isolating, and reluctance to talk does not necessary help. It’s also important to talk to friends and family about what they want to happen. End-of-life care, funerals, legacies – the time to talk and plan is now, not in the traumatic situation of a sudden death or after a terminal illness diagnosis.


A Gambler's Guide to Dying, part of DOTF

A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, part of DOTF


Death can be a morbid subject matter, but what’s really refreshing about this festival within a festival is that there’s a really eclectic mix of shows and performances on the programme, what can people expect from the shows this year?

A bit of everything! If you want the nitty-gritty – tales from the frontline, as it were – our lectures are being done by prominent thinkers, academics and practitioners who’ve got some very interesting thoughts on the subject. If you want something reflective, we’re doing two free evenings at Sweet venues featuring poets, storytellers and musicians which I’m really looking forward to. There’s moving drama, like Broken Biscuits, based on a soldier’s death in Afghanistan, and also straight out silly stuff, like The Ascension of Mrs Leech, an old lady who meets her Maker and decides to show him a thing or two!

What kind of reactions have you had when pitching the festival? Were people on the whole, quite accepting, or did you find that some people were a little uncomfortable with the ‘Let’s talk openly about dying’ message?

Performers have, to a man and woman, been very keen to be on board. They’re all very supportive of the idea. In fact, the reason a lot of them are doing shows are the same reasons we do the Good Life Good Death Good Grief campaign. A few shows we approached turned us down, but that was more to do with existing marketing arrangements than anything to do with the subject matter.

Amongst my friends, I think there’s a sense of “what’s all this death stuff he’s always going on about?” but some of them are coming along to the launch tonight, so we’ll see what they think after that!

Unsurprisingly, for a festival concerned with death and dying, there seems to be a lot about the bit before; life itself. Would you say that this festival could be classed as uplifting, thought-provoking, or maybe even, life affirming?

Definitely. It’s why the initiative this forms part of is called Good Life Good Death Good Grief. There’s three things there, and we don’t want people dwelling on the last two at the expense of the first one. Hopefully, preparedness and acceptance of death can help people value and cherish life. We hope the shows in the festival reflect this.

For example, one of our returning performers is Lynn Ruth Miller, an 81-year-old comedian from America, whose shows reflect upon a lifetime of experience. Last year her show was called “Not Dead Yet” which gives you an idea of where she’s coming from. She didn’t start stand-up until she was in her 70s, sold up and moved to the UK aged 80, and this year was nominated for Old Comedian of the Year. If that doesn’t show people life is for living, I don’t know what will.

As well as life, the other emotion that comes out of this festival is love. Not a fear of death, or uncertainty about the unknown, but complete love for carers, family members, that sort of thing. Does that make sense?

Yes, without wanting to sound cheesy, it’s what life’s about really isn’t it – love for your fellow-man or woman. We’re all on this lump of rock for three score years and ten (or hopefully a little more) and it’s not always fun, it’s not always pretty, sometimes it’s downright scary. But whatever your background and belief, you can afford to show a little love for others, especially when they’re at the crossroads of life and death, or going through that with someone else.

This is a festival within a festival that runs for the whole of the Fringe, is there anything similar taking place at different times of the year if someone is looking for support or advice?

There certainly is. We’re here year round. Death is for life, not just for August. Anyone interested in finding out more ought to take a look at the Good Life Good Death Good Grief website – http://www.goodlifedeathgrief.org.uk/
Also, keep an eye out in November, when we’re organising a Scotland-wide festival called To Absent Friends. It’s a chance for everyone to remember the loved ones they’ve lost. There’ll be events around the country, and we’ll be offering ideas and opportunities for people to remember loved ones in their own personal way.

Rob Peacock, bringer of DOTF, fan of The Smiths

Rob Peacock, bringer of DOTF, fan of The Smiths

Lastly, as we’re talking about our own mortality, Rob, has this festival got you thinking about organising your funeral arrangements? I quite like Hunter S. Thompson’s idea of getting fired out of a cannon. Or getting buried at sea, I don’t know why.
For me, it’s all about the music. If anyone tries playing Angels or some such, I will be rising from my grave to haunt them. A select bunch of friends have an e-mail from me with a list of songs and hymns I want playing – Death Is Not The End by Nick Cave, a bit of Elgar. I also asked two of them to play The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” as I’m lowered into the grave. “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head….” I might let them get away with not playing that one, but that’s reminded me, I better check they’ve filed the e-mail somewhere safe…

Trash Interviews Chris Hislop

8 Jul
Chris Hislop, image by Flavia Fraser-Cannon

Chris Hislop, image by Flavia Fraser-Cannon

The subject of Arts PR fascinates me and as a writer, I’ve seen my fair share of good and bad examples of it. But, for years, I’ve longed to interview an Arts PR and find out what it is that they do exactly, why they do it and find out what happens on the other side of the divide.

Luckily, Chris Hislop, a former critic and Arts PR, readily agreed to an interview when I approached him. Here is the interview published below in full, which covers star ratings, changing career from a critic to a PR and the monster that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

You’ve been a playwright, actor, director, reviewer, editor and many other things within the theatre industry, what was it that made you make the leap from arts journalism to arts PR?

It’s the only thing I was any good at! No seriously – I’ve been working in theatre for over 10 years and I’ve struggled to find that job that a) I’m really good at and b) can sustain my life financially.

I was never a truly dab hand at the acting or directing, and whilst I loved reviewing and editing it wasn’t really sustainable. PR is the only place I have found both of those.

What was it that made you go into arts PR specifically? Was it a case of the right opportunity coming up at the right time? Or a case of fuck it, why not try this?

After losing a job as an editor, I was desperate – and a PR I knew needed a new assistant. It was a field I’d dabbled in before, so I thought it might be a good fit. There was an element of “fuck it, I need a job, I have a baby on the way”, but luckily it worked out very well – I didn’t expect it to go so well, but I think I’ve finally found a very natural calling for me in the theatre landscape.

You’ve worked within a PR agency and as an independent PR afterwards, how do these two worlds compare?

Chalk and cheese. Agency work didn’t suit me at all – while there’s an obvious excitement in working for huge clients (my first official event was at the Big Brother House!!), there’s a lot of focus on the brand and image of the PR company, on being seen to do things a certain way… it felt a lot like it was more about dressing up and going to posh events than about the art. More than a little bit snooty. And everything so corporate – branded giveaways, company colours, letterheads – all felt so fake.

However, I will say that I think that experience was very much coloured by the particular agency I was working for – I have since spent a lot of time with other PRs, some of which do agency work, and found that this is more about this particular PR than the industry as a whole. I would generalise that independents move more quickly, can be more interactive and flexible, and I much, MUCH prefer it.

Before you were a PR, what did you think PRs did all day, and how does this compare to your experience as a PR?

It’s almost exactly as you might expect. Lots and lots and lots of emails and phone calls, plenty of time in meetings, lots of visiting rehearsals and getting stuck in, and one or two press nights a week with copious drinking.

It’s fulfilled everything I expected it to – the only thing that surprised me was how lonely it can be when you’re spending days working without meetings or anything, and then it’s much like other work-from-home jobs – you, a laptop, a cup of tea, and that’s it.

In our email correspondence, you said a really interesting phrase, ‘The dark side of PR’, in regards to your experience when you started in the industry. Can you expand on that? Is this something that you feel is present within the whole industry? 

I think there’s a “dark side” to most industries – there’s good practices and bad practices everywhere. PR has a reputation as a “dark art” because it’s a bit mysterious – people don’t really know what a PR actually does, or whether it’s predominantly skill or a well-maintained little black book of contacts that you’re buying. It’s also incredibly hard to quantify, yet is always paid handsomely. It’s very easy to abuse all of those qualities.

And that’s where this “dark side” comes in – it’s very easy for bad practices to become a modus operandi. For example, I maintain a low price structure, and charge less than £1000 per project on principle – I don’t raise prices for companies that might be able to afford more, but I do reduce if companies can’t afford me but the work sounds good, I have time and they clearly need the help. I could easily hike prices up and do less work, but that’s not what this is about for me.

However, a PR can easily stiff a humongous cultural boondoggle with money coming out of their ears for large sums of money, and then try and charge the same to the lowly fringe/Off West End/touring show – and because people don’t know any better, they assume that’s the going rate and just pay it.

And that’s just one example – there are so many others: individual PRs hiring other PRs to form an agency but employing them as freelance to avoid minimum wage and benefits, bosses bad-mouthing their juniors to make themselves look good (because image is everything), blatant lying about work done because it’s so difficult to track, slagging off clients behind their backs, slagging off other PRs (even calling them “the enemy”), sending colleagues to meetings/events because you “can’t be bothered”… I’ve seen all of these and, when called on it, the reaction is always the same – “it’s what everyone else does”.

Which, thankfully, isn’t true – there are plenty of brilliant PRs out there. There are people who work tirelessly, who focus on the art and the criticism and the line where they engage, who talk to each other and are friendly, even polite when it comes to swapping clients… Nobody’s perfect all of the time, but luckily there are plenty of people out there separating the wheat from the chaff and then talking to each other (and their clients) about it.

So, long answer but yes – there is a “dark side”, but it gets uncovered. People come and go in this industry quickly.

What’s really funny is that PRs and journalists are so similar; PRs want reviews for their clients, journalists want to publish reviews in their publications, so we have a shared goal, in a way. But it seems that we can rub each other up the wrong way. Why do you think that is?

I think the goals are similar, but not same: a journalist wants to review/preview the hottest, most exciting new thing that’s going to get their publication bought/read, and the PR is trying to convince the journalist that their latest client IS that hottest, most exciting new thing – whether they actually are or not! I think there’s quite a widespread belief that PRs are quite disingenuous – whatever their client says, they parrot, regardless of whether it’s true or not. And I think this is partially true – all the PR has is what the client says about the show, or previous work they’ve experienced.

This is why I try not to give value judgements of a show I’m working on before I’ve seen it – and I always wait until press night to watch a full run for exactly that reason. If it’s shit, I can’t keep pitching it well!

I think journalists also like to think (and rightly so, in some cases) that they are cultural arbiters – they know what’s going to be good. So someone telling them what’s going to be good will always rub them up the wrong way – no need to explore or have spent 30 years doing this, some yahoo PR will send you everything you need to know to write a short news item and suddenly even the smallest, most inexperienced reporter can replicate your insight.

It’s no surprise that PR has flourished as journalism/media has become much more complicated and multi-platform – with such a scattered way of engaging with the press, do you need more members of the press, or more people to get your story to the last few journalists left?

I can’t go any further without asking this question, how did it feel to suddenly go from being the reviewer to being the promoter?

Very strange! I used lots of phrases like “switching sides” and “defecting” when I did because that’s how it felt – like I was betraying the profession and joining the other side. It feels less like us-and-them now – a couple of months was enough to see that, actually, the work is much the same, just who you’re writing your copy for is different. And I miss being as opinionated as I used to be ;)

Did you have any misgivings about making the transition from critic to PR?

Not really – it felt like a natural progression, once the dust had settled. At the time, I just needed to support my family – and the speed and comfort with which I took to it was more than enough to banish any lingering worries.

Journalism is changing and while theatre bloggers are becoming increasingly visible and respected, there seems to be another side of the coin, sites that pop up overnight, unscrupulous writers, people with little media training and no idea of press ethics, people with some kind of ‘agenda’, the list goes on. As a PR, how do you choose who to approach and why?

On the whole, I give everyone a fair try – in the end, the more coverage I secure for my client, the happier everyone is. But if it becomes clear that certain sites are operating under dubious circumstances, or just not run very professionally, they tend to fall off my list. It’s very hard to tell these days which is which – but normally working with the same editors most days will give you a good idea which one to work with and which ones to avoid.

I also think, though, that this is the way journalism is headed – opinionated single writers with little editorial control, so the above problems will just become more prevalent. It’s really a question of quality – if the writing’s good, it’s hard to be too judgemental!

What would you say the biggest challenge is when you’re trying to get those all-elusive critical bums on seats? 

The big national newspapers. They’re all collapsing in terms of sales, trying to plug that hole with an online presence that has to be free, thus brings in no revenue except advertising, and the inches spent on arts coverage is shrinking daily. Unless it’s the West End or very high-profile, getting a national in is very difficult indeed.

The bizarre thing is, it’s not as if a national review actually helps that much in bringing in an audience – local papers and industry-specifics like The Stage have a much better audience return, but that’s what the clients always want – nationals.

What’s the quickest way for a client to piss off their PR?

Assume they know better than you do. I’m not saying I always know better (FAR from it), but there are industry practices that come and go, and producers often blithely assume, even though they’ve hired someone who specialises in this area, that they know better. This is where PR being the “dark art” bites PRs in the ass.

Some fun examples – the producer emailing/phoning/tweeting at high-profile journalists who’ve already responded to a press release, hoping that a personal, not-at-all embarrassing prostration will help them get that elusive review; the producer rewriting the press release because “your copy was too sales-y” and then journalists contacting you asking what the copy means; the producer angrily telling you that the journalist’s review is “wrong” (because it’s bad) and asking you to call the editor… and that’s all this week!

In the same vein, what do some journalists do that really piss off PRs?

It’s hard to get pissed off with journos – they’re working for next to nothing, so everything they do is a huge boon. I find that journalists who’ve been around the block a bit can be a little tetchy about whether they’ll have to sit next to bloggers, but that’s more them bemoaning their failing industry than moaning at you.

I think it’s editorial inaccuracy that really grinds my gears – when a review is published with the wrong title, or the lead actor’s name is wrong. It drives the entire company mad and makes me feel pernickety when I contact them about it. No one wins.

Kate Copstick made a really good point on the Grouchy Club podcast recently when discussing reviews. To paraphrase, she feels that a lot of people think that they are entitled to a review at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Is this something that you’ve come across with a client, or a potential client, and if so, how do you deal with it?

All of the time! That isn’t just an Edinburgh problem at all… I think I’ll answer this with an example, as it really proves the point:

A recent pitch for work saw me being interviewed, and the client said that the main thing they wanted was a Guardian review. Everything else came second – The Guardian was all that she really wanted. I explained that we can certainly pitch for The Guardian, but in the meantime I would also focus on widespread blogger support, as they have a large shared audience, and local newspapers/TV etc. as that seems to do more for audiences. This client wouldn’t have it – it’s The Guardian or nothing! – so I didn’t get the contract.

That client then found another PR (who promised The Guardian, evidently). The show had little blogger support, little local support, but The Guardian did come – after months of pleading emails, tweets and general hand-wringing. And they hated it.

Did they hate it because they didn’t like the show, or because they were badgering into attending? Hard to say. But this producer’s sense of entitlement lost her a paying audience, the respect of her peers, and she paid a fortune for the second PR – for nothing.

Obviously, that’s an extreme example – but yes, feeling like you’re entitled to be seen because you’re making an effort is catastrophic. If you feel entitled to be reviewed, hire a PR – they’re going to stand you the best chance of being covered, but don’t think that you’re special. There’s over 3,500 shows this year – nobody’s THAT special.

If one of your clients was unhappy with a review of their work, what would you do to help them?

I’m a big believer in owning your bad reviews – unless you’re working in a nice big theatre with an excellent reputation, most of your audience is going to be friends, friends of friends and people who read reviews of Off West End/Fringe plays – that’s not a humongous cohort. You need to make sure that everyone in that grouping knows about your show, knows that it’s happening, and knows that you believe in it. That you care about it.

If The Stage turns around, gives it 1 star and says it’s awful – own it. Post it on social media. Make it a clarion call to all of your friends – “The Stage slagged off my play – what do you think?” That will get you more audience than you might think. Rally your supporters – and get them to rally their supporters to come down and support you. You’d be surprised how well that works :)

I have to ask; star ratings: yay or nay? 

Yay – it’s an easily digestible shorthand that is a huge boon to marketing (there’s on 140 characters in a tweet!). It’s reductive, but so is a review – it’s just LESS reductive. It’s an easy way to get one person’s opinion – worth your time or not? It also depends on your audience – if you’re writing short online reviews with lots of punk and panache – star rate. If you’re writing a 1000-2000 word think-piece that eruditely examines the piece – there’s no need.


In a similar way, how do you feel about the much-maligned three-star review? Are they good, or do they get unfairly maligned by performers, PRs, etc?

The problem with 3 stars is that it means absolutely nothing. Is the show good? Sort of. Bits work. It’s fine. It’s the kinda of endorsement that has completely the opposite effect – it makes the show sound boring. It didn’t get you passionate about it or angry with it. It didn’t engage or interest you enough to care.

But it does also have a place – there are plenty of shows that fall into that category. Shows that are perfectly grand, but there’s nothing really stirring about them. The problem isn’t that the 3 star review exists – it’s that 3 star shows exist.

What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face as a PR, and how did you overcome it?

Going independent. Agency work may have had its problems, but it was secure. I told myself that I would accept a large pay cut and work with my partner at the time to make ends meet – but also set myself the goal of exceeding my previous employer in terms of clients and income by operating more fairly, engaging with artists directly and just being nicer and less back-biting.

Big ambitions, with the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t succeed at all of them – which I think is how one writes a vision statement! The tussling with the previous agency at first was fierce, but has now died down – and I’m certainly earning more than I did being an underpaid minion.

I feel like I’m doing everything I set out to do, and being rewarded for it fairly – but the challenge now is to keep that going!

At the moment, it seems like the only way for young people to get their foot in the door of the arts, be it PR, performing, writing, directing, etc, is to do unpaid or poorly-paid internships. How do you feel about this practice? 

Let’s talk brass tacks – there aren’t that many jobs in the arts. There never have been, and as budgets and grants reduce, they’ll become even fewer. An entirely generation was sold that going to university and studying the arts would get you a job in the arts – and it’s turned out not to be true. Actors are sold this in drama schools every day – that there’s plenty of work out there for them. It’s a lie.

So when you have an armada of young people who desperately want arts jobs but have no cash to employ them, what do you do? Employ them for cheap, or nothing at all – it’s all worked like clockwork, although I don’t think there’s a shadowy overlord anywhere cackling maniacally – I think it’s just down to some very bad education policies in the mid-80s.

But aside from that – it’s an unpleasant reality that many arts jobs are earned by virtue of spending some time working for free. And I think the real arbiter here needs to be the person accepting this kind of work in the first place.

If you’re working for free for a company that GENUINELY can’t afford you and you’re doing work that you value – I say go for it. If even one of those points doesn’t apply – stand your ground and demand something. Is someone getting richer from your free time? Is there no way to create a salary for you? Is the work even any good? You need to ask yourself all of these questions to even consider this kind of work – because if it isn’t, the people employing you aren’t people you want to be associated with in the first place.

I realise that this question might be a little odd, and I don’t mean it to sound disrespectful, but do you think theatre companies need to hire a PR company? Should they shell out big bucks for a big name agency? Go for someone like you? Or do their own thing?

Unequivocally. PR being handled by non-PRs is embarrassing to watch – the rules change every day, sites and editors come and go so quickly that, unless you’re spending every day at the coalface, you’re not going to know how to even begin to approach journalists.

Now, I don’t believe that bigger money means a better PR – it’s about equivalence. Is the PR you’re hiring working at the level that you do – similar theatres and companies? Frequently? Then they’ll know who to pitch your show to. Is the PR you’re hiring working with a lot of different people? How many at one time? Are the shows always the same? Is there going to be a problem with overlap? Then find someone who isn’t, or talk to the PR about it – they can’t be in two places at once or email the same journalist 6 different releases on the same day – who’s getting the short shrift?

As a side note – this is a particular problem in Edinburgh. I’m handling 8, but they’re all different – Shakespeare, modern, kids shows… But if your PR is handling 25 new writing shows, you’re gonna get lost.

Scout them out. Ask other producers/arts professionals you know for suggestions. You’re hiring this person – it should be someone you can get on with, someone who you can trust, and someone who looks right for the job. Don’t just go with the first person you meet – take your time, interview properly. How they make time for the interview and how amenable they are to making your life easier is a good indicator of how much of their time your worth.

Ask about how they work – ask about practices, who they would approach for your show and how. Of course, I’m in favour of PRs like myself – one-man bands generally are busier but won’t fob off your work on an underpaid assistant who only works 11-2 Wednesdays to Fridays.

Generally speaking, you should be hiring someone who understands you, how you work, and your plans. Someone who shares in your desire to see the show put up (send them a script – see how many of them actually read it!). Someone who you click with.

That being said – PRs are professional shysters. They specialise in getting on with people quickly and well, so look out for the common techniques: mirroring (where they imitate your body language); NLP (using language to make it sound like they’re brilliant and they understand); wearing sexy/revealing clothing (yes, seriously); not to mention outright flirting, accent mimicry and a thousand other little tricks. The fact that you get on immediately might just be how they operate. And this is said as someone who does all of these – well, not quite all (I look terrible in a push-up bra).

What advice would you have for anyone doing their own PR at the Fringe or elsewhere?

Oh heavens – I could go into endless dos and don’ts, but I think, if you can’t afford a PR, the main thing you need to consider is what it is about what you’re doing that’s interesting. And be brutal with yourself – challenge your beliefs that something may or may not be interesting.

Ask friends, both industry and non-industry – you want both to attend. Come up with one main argument – this is the main focus of your release. Then TELL EVERYONE. Contact everyone you know who is a journalist, knows a journalist, once shared a lift with a journalist – if you don’t tell anyone your show is on, why on Earth would they come and see it?

Full details of Chris Hislop’s clients, including the shows that he’s working with at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, can be found at his website, www.chrishislop.com

Losing The Arches Further Erodes Glasgow’s Identity

12 Jun


A beautiful post about a horrible situation.

Originally posted on Keren Nicol:

West Nile Street runs through the City Centre from Cowcaddens in the north, to Argyle Street at the heart of the city. On a good day, I can do the length of it in one pedal revolution on my bike on my way to work from the west end to the Gorbals. Those days are brilliant.


In recent months, a lot of new businesses have opened up on the street, including a major new office block backed on to the beautiful old Odeon cinema, which looks less and less beautiful with every passing day that it’s lain empty. It’s looking like a ‘real’ city.


Today, on my return journey I had a difficult cycle uphill on West Nile Street, pausing to allow a car to overtake me before turning left right in front of me, as the few provisions made for cyclists are largely ignored, and cycling in Glasgow’s city…

View original 524 more words

In the absence of criticism

29 May

Image by Kristina Alexanderson, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Kristina Alexanderson, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

What does a critic do when they’re not reviewing? Does the clock stop for a critic when the house lights go up and the review is written and filed? 

I used to imagine that a critic’s downtime consisted of accosting strangers in the street; booming about the latest release, “DID YOU SEE THAT FILM? I SAW IT DID YOU READ MY REVIEW?” before hurling themselves at the nearest window and licking the glass for sustenance.

Or maybe, I wondered, maybe the stoic critic simply segues back into reality after the telephone on their desk suddenly starts shrieking into life after days of silence?

Last year, I took some time off reviewing; there was no big announcement, no fanfare, just a final review for the foreseeable future and a quick and quiet goodbye. After five years of writing about theatre, film and anything else, on top of having a day job and at sometimes, more than one day job, life got in the way and I had to stop. Just for a bit.

A few years ago, the mere thought of not reviewing anything, would have filled me with dread. “But I’ll miss that awesome new play!” A voice in my head would shriek. “I have a responsibility to write about this!” Cried another, while another repeatedly whispered, “But what of the festivals? What of the festivals?” What, indeed.

But when I stopped reviewing (I even missed the Fringe) the funniest thing happened; nothing. I didn’t experience that familiar feeling of FOMO, I didn’t feel the guilt for the evenings that I wasn’t at the theatre, or the cinema, or the pop-up venue of the month. Putting down my notebook didn’t cause the sky to rain blood, or buildings to crumble or society to end. I felt this sense of freedom I haven’t felt in a long time.

And it was wonderful.

It felt good to be absent for just a little while. For so long, I’d concentrated on becoming a writer, on networking and writing and looking for new opportunities that I forgot to enjoy what I was doing. I didn’t like writing my reviews and they weren’t fun to read. I was burned out, fed up.

So, I gave myself a break, I did other things; I prepared to go freelance, I took bags and bags of clothes, CDs, DVDs and VHS to the charity shop. I started getting my life in order and most importantly, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

In a few weeks my daughter will celebrate her first birthday and I am looking forward to the Fringe for the first time in a while. I’ve tried to review one or two things a month since the start of the year, but August will be a real test for me. A wonderful, wonderful test.

Excuse me, I’m off to lick some windows until I get some Fringe PRs.

Five types of flats that should be worn on the Cannes red carpet

19 May
Image by Chris Goldberg, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Chris Goldberg, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Some women were turned away from a red carpet screening of the critically acclaimed film, Carol at the Cannes International Film Festival earlier this week, because, according to reports, they were wearing flat shoes. Quelle horreur!

While some news reports are claiming that this isn’t true and the director of the festival, Thierry Fremaux, has claimed the reports are “baseless”, the internet outrage machine continues to cry out in indignation and whisper of a mysterious dress code.

However, in an industry where sexism and ageism are rife, where every detail of a woman’s face, skin, hair, weight, clothes, shoes and demeanour are dissected and consumed by all, have we really reached the point where only high heels will do? Of course not; flat shoes can be worn anywhere, in fact, here are five pairs of flat shoes that don’t just have to be worn, they need to be worn on the Cannes red carpet next year.


Image by Cintia Regina, shared under a Creative Commons Licence


They’re comfortable, they’re oh-so-easy to slip on, so why oh why can’t the female stars that saunter down the red carpet next year do so to the plastic soundtrack of the flip-flop’s onomatopoeic warble if they want to? Because, who knows? After their debut on the Cannes red carpet, the world could be praying for flip-flop weather.

Image by Robb1e, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Robb1e, shared under a Creative Commons Licence


Sure, the weather in Cannes is beautiful right now, but what about tomorrow? There could be flash floods or a light drizzle, good Lord, what if it snows? The movers and shakers of the film world could all catch a chill!

That would never do. Wellies must be an essential part of the Cannes International Film Festival if they aren’t already. All colours and styles accepted. Animal prints are not only approved but actively encouraged.

Image by ro rro, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by ro rro, shared under a Creative Commons Licence


Are you a fan of Vans? Sketchers? How about DCs? In the new Cannes dress code ALL are welcome on the red carpet. Got a big premiere to go to? Forgo the Christian Louboutins and back away from the Manolo Blahniks; it’s all about multicoloured hi tops, canvas, shoelaces and sports casual in the French Riviera.

If you’ve ever been turned away from a night club because you were wearing trainers, whip out a pair of your best bad boys and watch the crowds part as you make your grand entrance on that red rectangle of destiny.

Image by Pink Sherbert Photography, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Pink Sherbert Photography, shared under a Creative Commons Licence


Durable, comfortable Crocs are the shoes of choice for everyone from toddlers to the stylistically-challenged fashionista. Bright and colourful as well as tough and breathable, some styles of this iconic clog are designed to not even look like Crocs (so I’m told). Extra attention will be lavished on all guests who rock up in their Crocs while wearing socks.

Image by thebristolkid, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by thebristolkid, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Dr Martens

Nothing says “Take my damn picture” like a film star wearing a pair of Dr Martens’ finest ankle boots. The pundits wouldn’t need to ask “Who are you wearing?” because, girl, it’ll be damn obvious who you’re wearing and why.

You wouldn’t mess with anyone wearing them; press junkets would last ten minutes and Q&A’s would become a thing of the past in the Cannes Film Festival of the future.

Special consideration will be given to those attendees that choose to accessorise their DMs with paint, glitter and spikes.



6 May
Image by CGP Grey, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by CGP Grey, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

I can’t sleep

because I’m thinking about tomorrow.

I can’t eat

because I’m thinking about tomorrow.

I can’t forget

because I’m thinking about tomorrow.

and I’m remembering when I voted for what I believed in

when I bought the the hype and the T-Shirt too

and I put the X in the wrong box

so I’m thinking about tomorrow

and how the poor are punished for not being rich and the rich tell us that it’s all the immigrants fault and the banks still aren’t regulated, and zero hours contracts are acceptable and a man who married a millionaire’s daughter insists that he can live on £53 a week and another guy with a pint is trying to pretend he’s just like us and the disabled are being forced to work and the dying are living in fear of hunger and people with spare rooms are

hounded hounded hounded

and now people are dead, and Sure Start centres and maternity units are closing and you can’t even go to a tribunal about losing your job because they’ll charge you for the privilege, and your hungry, you’re just so hungry, and no one understands, and they tell you it’s all your fault, and you chose this life, and your children are starving, because the rent has gone up and they’re still telling you that it’s your fault and there are no jobs and you are

hounded hounded hounded

Because someone like me, an idiot like me made the wrong choice and voted for the wrong party, who went back on their promises and failed to protect the vulnerable and I honestly thought I was doing the right thing, because I believed the hype and I made sure I voted, but I went to for the wrong party, and I put the X in the wrong box and it’s election time tomorrow

and I can’t sleep

because I’m thinking about tomorrow

and I can’t eat

because I’m thinking about tomorrow.

and I forget

because I’m thinking about to tomorrow

and they’re telling me to vote what I believe in

and I don’t know what that is anymore

Britain: For the Love of God, Please Stop David Cameron

6 May

Originally posted on Benjamin Studebaker:

On May 7 (this Thursday), Britain has a general election. I care deeply about British politics–I did my BA over there and will return to do my PhD there this fall. But more importantly, David Cameron’s government has managed the country’s economy with stunning fecklessness, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do my part to point this out.

View original 1,608 more words

The Greatest Theatre Story Never Told

17 Mar
Image by Andrea Minoia, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Andrea Minoia, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

It was late 2008. I had just come out of the theatre and I was late. I was meant to be at my Granny’s house for dinner and I was still late. By the time I got there, Granny was already plating up dinner; I forget what it was, probably meat of some description – beef olives, perhaps? – and vegetables. Tatties, green beans, maybe it was butter beans. It was possibly butter beans.

I was late because I had been at the King’s Theatre to see the Wednesday matinee of Equus, starring Alfie Allen. The theatre was on the other side of the city and rush hour traffic, combined with my own relaxed attitude to timekeeping had made me late. Granny didn’t mind though, she never minded.

My Granny’s house has a hatch between the kitchen and living room, and so, Granny was standing in the kitchen, pot in hand, plates staring up at her, waiting for the meat, tatties and possibly-butter beans and I was standing in the living room, leaning through the hatch.

“Sorry I was late, Granny, I was coming from Tollcross because I was at the theatre…” I began.

“Oh, the King’s Theatre!” She said, “Me and your Grandpa used to go there quite a lot.”

I nodded; I knew that my Grandpa had been a fan of the theatre. In fact, some of my scripts and books, including The Orestia, had come from his collection.

“What did you see?” Granny asked, as she spooned the mysterious meat and possibly-butter beans onto the empty plates.

“I went to see Equus with some friends from uni…” I began.

“Oh yes, Equus. Me and your Grandpa went to see that in the 70s at the King’s Theatre. It must have been the original tour.”

I smiled. I go to see a play at a specific theatre and it turns out that my grandparents saw the original tour of the play in the very same theatre,  30 years previously. What are the odds? I started wondering if maybe we’d sat in the same row, maybe even the same seats, when I heard my Granny say.

“There’s a lot of nudity in Equus isn’t there?”

“Um, yes -” Oh no, I thought, what is she getting at?

“I’ll never forget the nudity when we went to see Equus.” Continued Granny,. She was looking up at me now, her eyes shining with a kind of mischief, or maybe a touch of nostalgia. “I remember the lead actor – I can’t remember his name – he had the smallest penis I’ve ever seen.”

My jaw dropped. My Granny, my dear old Granny, my 87-year-old grandmother, the lovely, kind lady who made fudge and knitted and tutted loudly at the six o’clock news, was talking about cocks. Actual willies. OHGOD.

I felt my skin burning, I was so stunned I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak.  This was excruciating.

“I mean, it was like a baby’s penis!” She said, exploding with laughter at the memory of this tiny theatrical todger. I stared at the plate, looking at the possibly-butter beans, she went quiet. I felt my body relax and I started picking my jaw off the floor.

“It must have been very cold up there. Was this actor better endowed?*” she asked, with a wonderful wry smile that said, I may be 87, but I’m not as innocent as you may think, my dear.

She put the pot down, story over,dinner ready, granddaughter traumatised.

“I…I wouldn’t know, Granny.” I said, gazing at my feet. my feet were suddenly very interesting, look at them there, on the floor, being feet. Wow, feet are really awesome.

We ate our dinner in Granny’s warm house and chatted about the usual things: uni, work, home. After the meal, I stayed for a cup of tea and everything was as normal, the cheeky glint in her eyes was gone, but a beautiful spark remained. I never looked at her in the same way again, she was loving and caring and full of surprises.

My Granny died last month, aged 95. And because she is gone, her house is cold. The hatch where I watched her cook is empty and the kitchen where she baked is still. This story was a bit risqué for her eulogy, so I thought that the best way to honour her was to share this story online, where it and she, will live on forever.

*Yes, Alfie Allen was very impressive, I can tell you.



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