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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.

Good.

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

End of first act.

Interval! INTERVAL.

Good.

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.

Valerie.

VALERIE.

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.

“BRAVO! BRAVO!”

No roses. Lights up.

“That was MARVELLOUS!”

A voice somewhere behind me.

“JUST MARVELLOUS!”

BRAVO. BRAVO. BRAVO.

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.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

The Things an EdFringe PR Cannot Do and Other Observations by an Absent Critic

27 Aug
Image by Anne, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Anne, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe finished yesterday, on Bank Holiday Monday, which meant, as Edinburgh regulars like John Fleming know, that all the shops in the city were open, but all the banks were closed. Welcome to Edinburgh, we do things differently in August.

This year, I also decided to do things differently by taking a year out from the Fringe after five consecutive years of reviewing at the festival. I popped a quick “I won’t be at the Fringe, sorry” notice on my Contact Me page, and cleared my diary for the entire month of August for the first time since 2009. It felt good.

Despite the much-needed break, my absence gave me a mild case of the fear of missing out, and so, I often sauntered through Bristo Square, Fringe Central, North Bridge et al, to see what was going on. On one of these trips, I met my friend Beryl for coffee. There are two things that you need to know about my dear Beryl: Beryl is not their real name but they are A Very Good Theatre PR.

“The thing is, ” began Beryl, after inhaling her colourful cardboard cup of frothy, overpriced coffee, “that a lot of the national critics have stayed away from the Fringe this year, which some clients are finding very hard to accept.”

“I have this one client; they have a great show, they’ve had consistently good reviews, but they want the national press in, and I can’t contact journalists who aren’t at the Fringe and have no intention of coming to the Fringe.”

The lack of well-established broadsheet publications at this year’s festival has not gone unnoticed, and some of the biggest names in theatre criticism, such as Ian Shuttleworth and Mark Shenton have chosen to stay at home.

“But, they just won’t listen.” Continued Beryl. “I’ve sent them emails carefully explaining why the National press aren’t coming to review them. If they hadn’t had any reviews then I would understands, but they’ve had over 10 reviewers so far, and that’s still not good enough. In fact, they’ve started demanding that I do things that I just can’t do, it’s not my job and it’s not how PR works.”

“What kind of things?” I asked, cradling my own freakishly expensive cup of joe, “I’m impressed that you’ve managed to get 10 separate publications to review their show, that’s incredible! There are people at this festival that dream of getting just one review!”

Beryl gazed miserably into her spent cup of corporate pick-me-up and explained: “Most of our contact has been via email, but the other day the producer phoned me, he’d just finished reading The Scotsman‘s review of the show and he didn’t like that they’d given it 3 stars.”

“You need to phone The Scotsman,” he said, “and get them to change it to 4 stars.”

“That isn’t how it works!” I cried.

“I know,” sighed Beryl, “I tried to explain How It Works, but he was having none of it. He also didn’t like it when he ‘discovered’ that the reviewer was – shock horror – a freelance journalist – not a staff writer and that they were – gasp – only 24.”

“I explained that the writer, despite the mortal sin of being younger than 25, was, in fact, a well-respected critic and an award-winning reviewer who writes for several national publications, but he still wasn’t happy.”

“And they haven’t paid me.”

I slammed my coffee down. “So, in a festival of 3,193 shows, performed in 299 venues, in a year when critics seem to be abandoning the Fringe, you and you alone, have managed to convince 10 critics to review this one show, and they haven’t paid you?”

Beryl nodded. “They paid a deposit but they were meant to pay the first instalment on the 1st of August, which they haven’t. I’ve been emailing the producer about it, and he’s ignored me.”

A few days later, I sent Beryl a text message to ask if the producer had coughed up the money.

“Nope.” She replied, “But I did get a phone call saying the lighting designer hadn’t been paid and the producer had given them my number…go figure.”

Beryl, like I said earlier, is A Very Good Theatre PR. But even Very Good Theatre PRs can’t control reviewers because reviewers have free will whether we like it or not.

You can control the show, you can control advertising and you can control yourself, but you cannot control the reviews.

There will always be things that your PR cannot do, so don’t demand the impossible and pay your staff, for God’s sake, because bad press travels fast before, during and after the Fringe.

How To Get Reviewed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

5 Jun
2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe image by zoetnet, shared under a Creative Common Licence

2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe image by zoetnet, shared under a Creative Common Licence

Hold on to your hats, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is nigh! After months of anticipation, the long-awaited official launch of the Fringe takes place today in Scotland’s rather dreich capital city.

For years, the Fringe has been known as the place where some of the world’s most popular comedians, theatre companies, playwrights and directors were officially ‘discovered’, and because of this, thousands of people flock to the city every year, hoping to be the next big thing. They want to get those coveted critical bums on seats and nab a five-star review.

The Fringe, as we all know, is the world’s biggest arts and culture festival, so, how do you approach a critic and (hopefully) convince them to review your show?

A Note on Reviews

Before I discuss the finer points of Contacting a Reviewer 101, I have to explain the role of the critic, because I’ve found that some practitioners and PRs seem to be unsure about what it is that critics are supposed to do.

As we all know, critics write reviews, this is a given, but a review is like an omen; it can either be good or bad. A critic will not write a positive review just because they’ve been invited to a show; they will write a review based on their experience and it will (or should) be published in a timely fashion.

The critic is under no obligation to write either a good or a bad review, they are under obligation to write a truthful review that is helpful to the audience. The critic is loyal only to the reader; not to the venue, director, actor or playwright.

Therefore, if you want coverage that is uniformly positive and says exactly what you want it to say, then it’s better to buy an ad. If you want a reviewer’s professional opinion on your show, that you can then use in your publicity material, email the editor. Otherwise, contact the advertising department and pay for an advert.

Prepare Now

One of the more frustrating experiences for a Fringe critic is being contacted about a show that they would have really liked to review – after the Fringe has begun. This is because by then, their reviewing schedule has been confirmed and it’s highly unlikely that the critic will be able to fit the show into their itinerary.

You are much more likely to get a reviewer into your show if you contact them before the festival. I’ve been getting Fringe PRs since late April, but an editor friend of mine got her first one in February. So, if you’ve not started contacting the journalists you want to target yet, then do it as soon as possible, while the nation’s critics are thinking about their reviewing schedule.

Have Something to Say

When I worked in online PR, I often had to write press releases that weren’t newsworthy. I know, I hated it too. This was because we had clients that wanted a certain number of press releases written and submitted every month and so, I had to find something, if anything, to say about the client and their products that would (hopefully) appeal to journalists.

I did this by trying to find a newsworthy angle on the story or client. Sometimes it was because there was a breaking news story that had something to do with their industry, sometimes it was because something impressive had happened within the company, but whatever I chose to write about, it had to be newsworthy.

Journalists are always looking for newsworthy releases, we’re forever searching for a different angle to write about on the pressing issues of today. Not only do we need this news, we need to be the first to report it, so we want an exclusive. We want to get some exceptional information before our rivals and we have to be able to shout about it.

Everyone has a story; what makes your show, your company, your production stand out? Why should a critic review, or even preview your show before the Fringe as opposed to a rival piece in the same venue? Find your angle, find your voice, find your audience.

Press Release Etiquette

When it comes to press releases, everyone’s different. But, most critics I know agree on one thing; please don’t attach your PR as a PDF.

PDFs are great –  if you don’t want to copy and paste information from them or edit them in any way. So, if I’m trying to copy and paste your listings information to put it in my calendar or spreadsheet, the nature of a PDF means that I can’t do that.

However, attachments in general can trigger the wrath of a million fiery suns in even the most patient of critics. Some don’t download properly, they can contain viruses and some just aren’t compatible with the software on a journalist’s computer. So, instead of attaching anything, or adding a link to an external site in order to view your PR, copy and paste it into the body of your email; this saves time and effort later on.

If you are sending press releases for more than one show, then send one email per show, so that the email can be found quickly if needed. Also, it’s really helpful to put the name of the show, the venue and the dates in the subject of the email. If you do this, your PR will be a beacon of hope in a very overwhelmed journalist’s inbox. And please, don’t be the asshole that sends 22 attachments in one email.

Remember to check, double-check and triple check your listings information, such as dates, times and venue, a small hiccup here can have big consequences. You might find this Arts PR post that I wrote after the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe helpful.

Be Human

In our digital age, it’s become far too easy to forget that the critics are actually people. I know we can have this reputation of being utterly terrifying, humourless, otherworldly sods who are only happy when we’re feasting on the broken dreams of Fringe casualties, but underneath that, we are human.

One of the things about being Homo sapiens is that we respond to being spoken to like living, breathing entities. We don’t want a generic email that doesn’t start with a greeting, demands a review, or fires the same promotional message at us repeatedly. We want to be able to read about the people and the passion at the heart of the project.

You don’t have to write a critic a novel detailing why you’re inviting them to your show, but you can personalise your email. This takes time, but it makes your email stand out. And let me tell you, when all the emails you’ve received that day have been overly promotional, full of horrendous PR buzzwords and have been devoid of any human emotion, getting a brief email that simply begins with a greeting and your name makes you sit up and pay attention.

Twit to Woo?

Social media is marvellous, isn’t it? It allows you to find and contact almost anyone, which means it’s a great place to reach out to a critic or publication. However, while social networking sites like Twitter will help you find the right people to invite to your show, I could caution against using it as a pitching tool.

The reason for this is simple: anything you put on social media is in the public domain, which means that everybody can read it, unless you have a private account. However, when you’re contacting a journalist, especially if you have an exclusive about your show, the open nature of social media means that your news will no longer be an exclusive, because everyone will have read about it online first.

Too often, Twitter accounts fire out the same promotional tweet to journalists and not only does it ensure that your news gets lost in the ether, it also looks lazy, so if you can’t be bothered to reach out properly, why should the critic go to see your show?

Feel free to make first contact on social media; follow the journalist’s account, say a quick hello and ask the critic if you can send them a PR, but don’t take up too much of their time. Social media is often treated like a platform for broadcasting, but it’s really for being sociable and engaging. You can also chat to the critic, be friendly and focus on building a long-term professional relationship with them, not just a filthy and unremarkable #EdFringe quickie. The contacts you make this year will remember you next year.

During the Fringe it’s nice to have somewhere to escape, to vent, and that’s what I use my Twitter account (*cough* @trashtaylor *cough*) for. Remember that the critic will have had lots of messages from other people trying to get them to review them too, so take it easy, you are in their space, be nice, be polite and have fun. Also, don’t forget that you are representing your show on social media, so don’t say anything stupid.

 The Follow-Up

One part of the process that some people rely on too heavily is the follow-up. While it’s understandable that someone may be anxious that their PR hasn’t reached its recipients, please rest assured that it has been received and it has been read. You can always email again, but ask yourself, do you have anything else to add, such as a piece of news, or the addition of extra dates?

Sending the same PR again is unnecessary, because you’ll just be repeating yourself. Today, I got a second email about a Fringe production and then a tweet from the show’s producer within a very short length of time, both of which told me nothing new about the piece. Don’t be the annoying person who constantly emails and calls publications; it won’t make critics magically find space for your show in their already packed schedules.

Is there anything else you really want to know? Is this year your first Fringe? Why not comment below and tell me?

The 26 Best Things About Being an Arts Journalist Today

18 May
Image by Esther Vargas, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Esther Vargas, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

1. Seeing/hearing the latest work from some of your favourite artists.

2. Discovering artists you might never have heard of through your work.

3. Meeting like-minded people, including fantastic writers and editors.

4. Creating lasting relationships with PR people, press officers and venues.

5. Being given the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best and most respected artists.

6. Having the freedom to research, write and pitch pieces daily.

7. Being able to combine your love of writing with your passion for the arts.

8. Receiving exclusive news of season launches, new ventures and coveted arts programmes before the general public.

9. Having the opportunity to experience new work.

10. Creating lasting memories of work you love (or hate).

11. Having people ask you for recommendations, because they respect your opinion.

12. Meeting talented artists who genuinely love what they do.

13. Having the chance to recognise talented artists who genuinely love what they do.

14. Seeing the world through the experiences and work of different artists and performers.

15. The pride of seeing your review quoted on a poster/DVD cover/social media/online

16. Writing about the arts, just for the love of writing about the arts.

17. The feeling of being completely absorbed in another, artificial world created by artists.

18. Being able to escape the pressures of everyday life for a few blissful hours in a cinema/theatre/venue.

19. Creating a lasting record of some of the best (and worst) work from some of the world’s best (and worst) artists.

20. Being able to champion the work that you truly love.

21. Dictating how you get to spend your time and what performances you review, because your time is precious.

22. The thrill of reading about a new project from a great artist and counting down the days until you can go to see it.

23. Planning your cultural calendar around some of the world’s best festivals, events, seasons and projects.

24. Free interval drinks (my favourite is orange juice, yes, really).

25. Press launches that serve coffee. Praise be to coffee.

26. Being thanked for writing a review/interview, or just being thanked for what you do.

The 25 Worst Things About Being an Arts Journalist Today

12 May
Image by Thomas Leuthard, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Thomas Leuthard, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

1. Knowing that you could not exist without the arts, but the arts could exist without you on some level.

2. The realisation that you are only ever as good as our last piece, and that last article you wrote wasn’t so great.

3. Finding out what you will only ever be as good as another arts journalist’s last piece, and they really fucked up on that one.

4. The assumption that your words have killed dreams/careers/films/plays/bands stone dead.

5. The constant fear that your words have, in fact, ended the career of a promising director/actor/playwright/writer/musician.

6. The never-ending misunderstandings about what it is that you actually write about, because the umbrella term ‘the arts’ means different things to different people.

For example, if you were to mention that you’re an arts journalist in public, the chances are that somebody in the vicinity will demand your opinion on their latest painting or exhibition, which leads to an awkward conversation where you have to explain that you don’t actually review ‘visual art’, or whatever it is that they do, and that if they’d let you finish your bloody sentence then this awkward conversation would never have happened.

(Obviously, being polite, you will never say the last part of that sentence out loud, but you’ll be screaming it inside your head. Repeatedly. With lots of swear words.)

7. Knowing that you can’t always review the things that you want to, due to time, money and editorial pressure. This will sometimes lead to only the big films/plays/bands getting written about, which is neither right nor fair.

8. Downright cynicism. About everything. Ever.

9. Genuine hunger for the arts being replaced by genuine hunger for food, because you don’t have any money left after paying your bills, thanks to your meagre earnings.

10. The comments on our reviews/previews/articles. The horror. The horror.

11. Juggling your arts journalism work with another job. Sometimes two other jobs.

12. Exhaustion from having 2 or more jobs.

13. Frustration from having far too many jobs and not enough time to dedicate to arts journalism.

14. Knowing, that by not being able to spend enough time on your arts journalism work, that you are disappointing people, including yourself.

15. That nagging sensation that what you do isn’t actually journalism at all and is probably more like PR. An inkling that isn’t helped by this famous quote from George Orwell.

16. The realisation that you will never be able to write as well as George Orwell, and that he probably wouldn’t have liked you very much, anyway.

17. Finding out that a potential writing opportunity is unpaid, but will be great for your portfolio/exposure/experience, according to the editor, who gets paid to get people to work for free.

18. Knowing that your bank will not actually take payment in the form of exposure in lieu of actual cash, even though you assured them that said exposure could lead to paid work “…in the future”.

19. Seeing that other, inexperienced writers will take that unpaid work, thus enabling those companies that can and should pay their workers get away with not paying them.

20. Repeatedly and mysteriously dropping off press distribution lists, which means that you have to sign up to the same press distribution list every few months.

21. Missing exclusives and other important news because you are no longer on said press distribution list for some reason.

22. Being added to distribution lists that you most certainly didn’t sign up to, because someone got hold of your email address.

23. Receiving a badly written, poorly researched and completely unsuitable PR from a PR company, and knowing that the person that wrote it makes at least twice your yearly salary.

24. Your publication running out of budget.

25. Your publication running out of space, because they have to sell more ads now.

Trash’s 20 Arts Criticism Tenets

15 Jan
Image by GabeWW, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by HeyGabe, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

1. Sit down and shut the fuck up.

2. Your phone is not important during a performance.

3. Separate your personal feelings about an artist from their work. Love the art, hate the artist.

4. Write for the reader.

5. Listen to criticism of your work, but brush off the abuse.

6. Stay humble, no one wants to work with an asshole.

7. Be passionate about your work.

8. Fact check, fact check, oh dear Lord, fact check.

9. The only thing that should restrict your review is the word count.

10. A good critic can work around any word count,.

11. Going to a performance with an open mind and no expectations can lead to great experiences.

12. Remember that a review is not a stagnant piece of prose; it is a fluid work, it adapts, evolves and grows as you do.

13. Resisting change is futile.

14. Refusing to travel to “the regions” to see “regional work” will be your downfall.

15. Pay attention to what you’re reviewing; an alarming amount of ‘critics’ don’t.

16. Don’t write about yourself; the reader wants to read about the show, not your memories.

17. However, if you have a very relevant story to share, then by all means, share it. Just make sure that it’s relevant to the piece.

18. If you attempt to write a review that spends more time discussing how attractive or unattractive you find the actors in the piece, then you shouldn’t be a journalist, let alone a reviewer.

19. Try to keep on top of your emails, because some people will only email you once.

20. Don’t draw attention to yourself while you’re working. It’s off-putting to performers and it makes you look like a tool.

Life After Libel

1 Oct
Image by Tofutti break, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by tofutti break, used under a Creative Commons Licence

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ll probably be very familiar with my Edinburgh Fringe Festival tale of terror from last year, where I was threatened with libel by an entertainment company for writing a negative review of their show. The full story is here, if you don’t know it, or need to read it again. It’s a long story, so grab a cup of tea or something and get comfortable.

I didn’t have a great time at the Fringe last year; the run up to August was long and disappointing. I’d been unsuccessful in getting work with a publication that I’d worked for in 2010 and 2011, and my emails and applications to other publications mostly went unanswered. However, last year, instead of just being a critic, I was an editor too, and I had to deal with a couple of other issues as well. I wasn’t just managing writers, I was booking tickets, reviewing, editing and uploading reviews. I was actively solving problems. if there was an issue with a review, I had to deal with it. Fringe 2012 was my first Fringe as an editor, and it was the proverbial baptism by fire.

On the day of the libel threats it was really sunny and warm; one of those lovely Edinburgh Fringe Festival summer days. I was at home uploading reviews when the barrage of emails that culminated – quite quickly – in threats of legal action began dropping into my inbox with frightening regularity. From that day, until a few weeks after the Fringe, I found myself preoccupied with fear. “What if they take me to court?” “What if the site has to close down?” “What if I lose my house?”  “What if I never work again?” “What if the actors never work again?” “What if this is the beginning of the new McLibel?” “What if this case goes on to break the record for being the longest running libel case, ever?”

Obviously, these emails were designed to get me thinking these depressing thoughts, and despite them revealing their ignorance early on, as libel is called defamation under Scottish Law, and despite being told to ignore them, and not take any notice of their increasingly bizarre statements and accusations, I couldn’t clear my head.

I would go out to review a show, and wonder if someone from that company was sitting in the audience with me. I would go home to my computer and find their emails safely nestled in with much nicer emails from my writers and PRs. Their threats continued. They took screenshots of my Twitter account and sent them to my editor in a piss-poor attempt to discredit me. If my phone rang and I didn’t recognise the number displayed, I wouldn’t answer. What if it was them? At least once, it was. It seemed like they were everywhere, just waiting for me to slip up.

When the Fringe ended, I was so glad. The end of August meant the end of their nonsense, and I thought that I could get back to something resembling normality pretty quickly. But their emails continued sporadically, falling into my editor’s inbox whenever we thought they’d vanished for good. I was frazzled and I felt cheated; I’d missed out on my usual Fringe experience, and I was so angry. How dare they think legal threats are an appropriate reaction to a bad review? But most of all, I was exhausted. I’d gone back to my day job mid-festival, and the demands of that, coupled with the Fringe and the added issue of the libel threat hanging over my head, it was all just too much. I’d had enough.

I felt like my mind was full of cotton wool; I couldn’t feel much about anything. Announcement of a new production? Nothing. A new project at work? Nada. Try to read a book? Not a sausage. I’d go to press nights  and then stagger home and fail to get my opinion of a play in a word document. I fell behind on work and struggled to get it finished. What had been my passion began to feel like a chore.

I stopped enjoying writing. I’d been writing for three years, slowly building up contacts and creating opportunities for myself. I felt no shame emailing people I’d never met before and offering to write for their publication. I’d been so hungry to move on, to improve my work and create my dream career.

Now I wasn’t as hungry; it was like I didn’t want to write ever again. Every time I sat down at my computer, I’d find myself making excuses, procrastinating more than ever before and looking for other things to do. After all, why should I write when there is this thing called Grumpy Cat?

I lost all my confidence in my work, and writing became more and more difficult. When I went to the theatre I would sit in the stalls and feel so disconnected from what was happening on stage, even though I saw some very good pieces after the Fringe. I could see and hear everything that was going on, but it just wasn’t speaking to me, it was like I was behind a sheet of glass; I was there, but I wasn’t. And all the time there was this voice inside my head saying: “You’re not supposed to be here. This place is not for you.”

When I got home, I would sit at and stare my laptop and will the words to come; I could hear them in my head, I could see them in my mind, but as soon as I switched on my computer, they vanished, and all that was left was that voice: “What do you think you’re doing? No one reads this stuff anyway, and when they do, they’ll threaten to sue. Who do you think you are, a theatre critic?”

In an attempt to put the situation behind me, I published the blog post about the libel threats and harassment, but I never thought it would be as popular as it became. My blog was very, very new, and aside from one post about the lack of money in journalism and a few film reviews, there was nothing on it. I had no loyal readership; hardly anyone visited my blog because it was really boring.

And yet, when the post went live on that Sunday evening in September just over a year ago, it got noticed. The story quickly grew legs and scuttled across the globe, it got into all the nooks and crannies of the internet, successfully spreading my experience to like-minded people far and wide. The post was mine, the words were my own, but the story quickly became something that I had no control over, and suddenly, it was no longer mine. Which was scary, but it led to lovely messages from people from all over the world, who wanted to express their outrage, horror and similar stories. I was contacted by people offering much-needed advice, and crucially, by someone who could help put an end to the situation.

After the post went viral, I half-expected to get a pleading email from the company, begging me to take the blog post down, or maybe even an even angrier email, slamming my lack of professionalism, or something to that effect. I never did. To this day, the company have never responded to my blog post and they have never apologised for their threats, their accusations, or their own libellous statements concerning the non-existent ‘conspiracy’ that they concocted between me and the woman I called ‘Julie’ in my original post.

I’d love to say that this situation forced them to change their attitude, but from what I’ve heard about them since, and from what I’ve seen that they’ve published online, it hasn’t.

I was, and I still am, overwhelmed by the amount of support that came my way from my family, friends and even people I’d never met last year. They say that you know who your friends are in a crisis, I know who they are now, and I am still very grateful for all the support I received from them during this time.

I can’t lie; I did come very, very close to packing it all in – reviewing, editing, the lot. But one day, I got up, I fired up my laptop and I started writing. I’m still building up my confidence in my writing again, and blogging has been a great help throughout all of this. After all, the best way to become a good and confident writer is to get your head down and write, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Crying in the Theatre

17 Sep
Image by JoeyBLS Photography, Shared Under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by JoeyBLS Photography, Shared Under a Creative Commons Licence

I was inspired to write this post after reading A Girl In the Dark’s wonderful piece, Crying On the Tube.

As Edinburgh doesn’t have a subway, and because I’ve never cried on the bus, I decided to write about the two times that I’ve cried, and I mean, the two times that I’ve really cried, in the theatre.

I’ve experienced a lot of different reactions to theatrical performances over the last few years, from giggling myself silly at the antics of Late Night Gimp Fight, to being incandescent with rage at Ontroerend Goed’s Audience. Good theatre should evoke a reaction from the audience, and even I am not immune to its power.

The first time a production turned me into a snotty, sobbing, heaving wreck was when I reviewed Jo Clifford’s Every Onea piece about death and grief that was based on the loss of Clifford’s beloved wife, Susie. The play looks at the death of the main character – a wife and mother – and examines at the impact of the bereavement from all sides, including that of the deceased.

As you might expect, it’s a highly emotional play, not just because of the subject matter, but also because the play was based on a true story, which made it more powerful. I saw the play six months after a good friend of mine had died suddenly, needlessly and far too young. In normal circumstances, six months is a long time, but when you’re grieving you’re on a different schedule to everyone else; you’re constantly trying to catch up in a race that you will never win.

As we neared the end of the first act, I could hear a few sniffles around me, as theatregoers doted about the auditorium cried. I remember that I had tears in my eyes then, too. By the end of the second act, it sounded like every single person in the auditorium was sobbing into their programme, including me. I cried, my then-partner cried, and the air in the building was heavy with sadness. The production created a mass outpouring of public grief, and we sobbed together as a collective. We cried and let go of some of the pain that we’d all been carrying.

It was cathartic. It was beautiful. It was liberating.

The second time was later that same year and occurred a few months after I had split up with my long-term partner. It was October, and I was trying to watch a production of Carrie’s War, and forget about the recent breakup. It’s quite a light-hearted play, but it has an underlying sense of guilt that resonated with me. I was sitting in the stalls and I was aware that the chair next to me, the chair my now ex-partner would have normally sat in, with his hand on my knee, was empty. In fact, the chair next to that chair was also empty, and so was the chair next to that one. In a theatre where everyone else was packed in like sardines, I nearly had half the row to myself.

These days I would be quite happy about having half a row to myself, but on that day I was unbearably alone in a venue where I had never attended without my ex-partner before. That night, as I sat isolated in the auditorium, the realisation that they weren’t there, that they were never going to be there hit me like a fist. I had failed because I walked away from the life we had built together. I had failed because I couldn’t fix our problems. I had failed because I was a failure.

I started crying over all that I’d lost in the past year; one of my oldest friends, my partner, my home and everything that I’d worked hard to create. I cried throughout the first act of the play, but managed to pull myself together for the interval, where I sat as still as possible and tried to look like someone who hadn’t been crying for an hour. Because if you sit still enough, I reasoned, no one can see you and if they can’t see you, they can’t ask why you’re crying.

As the second act began, and grateful for the darkness, I continued leaking hot, stinging tears sporadically like an old, cracked sponge. When the show finished, I left the theatre and I cried all the way home, taking the back streets so I could to avoid anyone and everyone on the walk to my cold flat that was now home. But that flat could never be home for me, because it was full of boxes that I couldn’t bring myself to unpack.

In fact, a lot of those boxes remained unpacked, because I moved from that flat to another one, and then on to the place I now call home. The place where I began to empty those boxes and grieve.

It was cathartic. It was beautiful. It was liberating.

Next time I cry in the theatre, I won’t be hiding it, I’ll just remember to pack some tissues in my bag. If you’ve ever been inconsolable because of a piece of theatre, let me know, I’d love to hear your story.

Shit EdFringe Critics Never Say

8 Aug
Image by Camilla Hoel, used under a Creative Commons License

Image by Camilla Hoel, used under a Creative Commons License

1. That company sent me 5 different versions of the same PR! How helpful.

2. I will absolutely be at your show.

3. I just love the sound of the phone ringing. Constantly ringing.

4. Look at all the lie-ins I get to have this week!

5. Deadlines don’t matter at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

6. Excuse me, please, I’m in a rush to get to my venue and you are in the way. Thank you so much!

7. I’ve had enough coffee for today.

8. Oh, I had such a good night’s sleep last night. I feel so well-rested.

9. Of course you can have my number.

10. I have so much free time on my hands!

11. No coffee for me, thanks.

12. Nothing cheers me up more than an email with 22 attachments.

13. I don’t mind you playing with your phone during the performance at all.

14. Are you on Google+?

15. You can never have too many flyers.

16. I’m not hungry.

17. Everything is going to plan.

18. Someone’s written a comment below my review. I love my fans!

19. I’m glad that person keeps calling me asking for a review, it really keep me on my toes.

20. I haven’t been rushing around this year at all.

21. Look at all this money I’m getting paid!

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