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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

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.

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?

PR Post Mortem: The Best of EdFringe – Part Two

22 Aug
Image by Manic Street Preacher, shared under a Creative Commons License

Image by Manic Street Preacher, shared under a Creative Commons License

As the Edinburgh Festival Fringe draws to a weary close, I’ve been busy not just reviewing, but also compiling the very best (read, worst, definitely the worst) of the EdFringe PRs that I’ve received over the last few weeks.

So, without further ado, here is PR Post Mortem: Best of EdFringe Part Two:

What’s My Name?

Hi guys! [Um, hello. That’s uh, that’s not my name.]

Just a little message letting you know our brand-new comedy, [Show Name] is currently in a run [In a run? Where’s it going? What charity is it running for?] at the Fringe until 24th August. We’d love it if you could come along and review us! [Exclamation Mark]

Seems a strange time to email, but I’ve only been switched on to your publication [And what publication is that?] and I really liked having a peruse through your site. [Say my publication’s name. Say MY name.]

Hope to see you there, if you can make it! [Why did you put an exclamation mark here?] Don’t hesitate to get in touch via phone or email.

Peas & lurve, [WHAT]

PR Numpty

Journalists Live in Scotland, Too

Hi Amy,

I just wanted to get in touch to see whether you still have reviewers at the Edinburgh Fringe this week? [Well, I live here, so yes, I do.]

I just wanted to make a couple of recommendations for review [I have a feeling these recommendations will be biased] if any of your team would be available, these are [Show Name and Show Name]

I’ve attached press releases for more info [Oh Goody] on these as well as a list of all the shows I am looking after in case the others should be of interest also.

Thanks and best wishes,

PR Numpty

Review Our Amazing Something

Hi Amy, [Hello!]

We are working on this amazing online piece which is taking place on Monday [Great, what is this piece?] throughout the day and I wondered if there is any way of putting a link to it on your site at all? [You want me to link to a project I know nothing about?] Or if one of your reviewers would be interested in spending the day with it? [Spending the day with it? What is it?]

[Website Link]

Hope all’s fine and dandy. [Well no, it’s not because this email tells me sweet Fanny Adams about your ‘amazing online piece’.]

Px [A kiss? Oh no, wait a minute, I remember this guy – it’s 22 attachments guy!]

Well, If You Say Please…

Pleasereview these shows … [Pleaseuse spaces]

Thank you! [Wait, that’s it?!]

Mx [Another kiss? Why I outta…]

[The show details were below the text of the email. No, thank you.]

Not An EdFringe PR, But…

Hi – I thought your readers may be interested…please let me know! [You know nothing about my readers]

As the Carnival approaches this week on August 25, I thought you might like to use this great interactive infographic [Oh no, not another infographic] from [Promotional Business Gift Website, yes, that’s right, a PROMOTIONAL BUSINESS GIFT WEBSITE]

Since its inception in 1966, the Notting Hill Carnival, held in August annually, has grown into the largest street festival in Europe. Did you know that a record 1.5 million people attended in 2012 and it brought nearly £100 million to the London/UK economy? [No, and I don’t care]

· History of the event: Was originally a ‘Caribbean Carnival’ aimed a smoothing over race relations following the Notting Hill race riots the previous year. [A ‘Caribbean Carnival’, eh?]

· Entertainment/Celebrity Elements: High-profile artists such as Eddie Grant, Wyclef Jean, Courtney Pine, Jamiroquai and Burning Spear have participated [Yes, I know what the Notting Hill Carnival is, thanks]

· Top Trends in Food: Caribbean street food is one of the highlights of Notting Hill Carnival dating back to its roots. Turkish, Chinese and Indian are also popular. [Am I eating the food? Will I get to eat the food? No? Well then, I don’t care]

· View the graphic: To learn more…[Nope. Nope. Nope.]

If you plan to use the infographic we would love to know and ask that you please attribute a link to [Promotional Business Gift Website, who clearly want a link more than anything else]

Thanks,

PR Numpty

What They Did Right

  • Two of the PRs used my name
  • That seems to be it

What They Did Wrong

  • Exclamation marks – why?
  • Not knowing that me and most of my writers are based in Edinburgh
  • Not using my name
  • Not using the publication’s name
  • Unclear/undefined projects
  • Kisses – we are NOT friends
  • Lack of spaces
  • Begging me to review shows
  • 22 attachment guy getting in touch again
  • INFOGRAPHIC

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!

Shit EdFringe Critics Say

6 Aug
Image by jontintinjordan used under a Creative Commons License

Image by jontintinjordan used under a Creative Commons License

 

1. Why did I decide to review six shows today?

2. Why did I book a show that starts before 10am?

3. Let’s meet for coffee.

4. (During a press night) I will try to see your show.

5. Where is the press office?

6. Have my tickets been confirmed yet?

7. I have a show in five minutes.

8. I’ve not had any coffee today.

9. Hello, my name is [name] and I’ve got some tickets to collect for [show name].

10. (To a flyerer) No, thank you.

11. (To a really good flyerer) I will do my best to see your show.

12. (To another critic) Seen anything good?

13. Are you on Twitter?

14. Can I have a large latte, please?

15. I’m starving, I didn’t eat breakfast/lunch/dinner. (Sometimes all three)

16. Hello, can you tell me where [venue name] is, please?

17. What day is it?

18. I’m so tired.

19. I have no money.

20. Let’s go to the bar.

21. MORE COFFEE, PLEASE.

PR Post Mortem: The Best of EdFringe – Part One

4 Aug
EdFringe Flyerer 2010 Image By  used under a Creative Commons Licence

EdFringe Flyerer 2010 By <p&p> Image Used Under a Creative Commons License

Since the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (or as some people insist on calling it, ‘Edinburgh’, like nothing else happens in the city for the rest of the year, like it’s a more modern version of Brigadoon, without Vincent Minnelli’s somewhat skewed vision of Scotland) has come around again, it’s time to analyse the best, the worst and the unforgettable in Edinburgh fringe PRs.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the very first PR Post Mortem dedicated to the wonders of the EdFringe PR.

I would Like You to Interview My Penis

Hello [Hi!]

Talented character comedian my penis is available for interview if you are interested.  [Chronically underpaid journalist is unsure if this is a character? Or…an actual, like, wang?]

After years on the sketch circuit my penis [ACTUAL WANG ALERT! ACTUAL WANG ALERT!] is hoping to finally get his big break in my Edinburgh show Wrong Way and is looking for press opportunities. [So, this IS a pitch for an interview with a real penis]

I am e-mailing you on behalf of my penis [Oh dear] as he is very shy [Oh Gawd], so if you would like to speak with my penis [Wang!] it would have to be via e-mail. [I will not be ordered around by a penis]

Me and my penis look forward to hearing from you. [Can penises hear? What’s the plural or penis? Penai? Peen?]

HD

I Can Haz Attachments?

Hi Amy, [‘Sup?]

I hope you are well. [You’ve caught me at that awkward moment between TV series. Game of Thrones is finished, but Breaking Bad hasn’t started yet. What’s a girl to do?]

I just wanted to ensure that you had our press releases for this year’s shows. [EdFringe shows? EIF shows?]

Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything further at all. [That sounds fair enough, I’ll go read your sign off]

px [A kiss? On the first email?]

[Oh, there’s a couple of attachments.]

[That’s more than a couple of attachments.]

[There’s more than 10 attachments]

[There are 22 separate attachments.]

[Why would you do that? What have I done to deserve this?]

Short and Sweet

Hello, [Howdy]

I have attached a ‘media release’, I hope you find it interesting. [Um, thank you?]

Thank you [You’re welcome, but who are you?]

Geoff W [Ah, Geoff, that’s great. What can I help…is that it?]

 

I Know You, I Know I Know You

Dear Amy, [Hello there!]

Our paths have crossed at the Fringe before [Nope] (I think we may first have been introduced by REDACTED?) [We were not introduced by REDACTED because I have never actually met REDACTED, so definitely nope]. Are you covering the festival this year? [I live here, so yes.]

I am returning this year with three really strong shows [Super]– all from acclaimed companies (two of which are returning to Edinburgh following hugely well received recent shows) and with interesting concepts. I’d love to know if you would be interested in previewing these in some way. [Ok]

[This section redacted to protect the shows, which do sound really strong, I agree.]

Do let me know if there is something we can do together, if you’d like to book in to review, or if you need any more information. [I’ve got all I need, thanks.]

Best wishes,
PR Person

[After I got this email, I found out that this PR person had sent the exact same email to an editor I know. However, this editor was not at the Fringe last year, and had also never met REDACTED. Sneaky.]

Perhaps the Politest PR Yet

Hi Amy, [Hi!]

Hope I’m not breaking protocol by sending this through [Protocol? What’s that?] but we would like to invite you to see and review my company’s show at this years Fringe. [That’s very polite, thank you]

Thank you in advance for your time: [Girly squeal!] please see below for our press release for our devised production [REDACTED] We are performing every day and we would be delighted if you could make it. [Since you have been so polite, I would be delighted if you would have me]

Please do get in touch with any info, image or interview requests. We love to chat, It would be great to hear from you. [Another girly squeal, you know why? Because it’s NICE TO BE NICE]

All the best,

Nice PR Person

Once, Twice, Three Times a PR

Dear Amy [Hello!]

It’s a pleasure [Give yourself over to absolute, pleasure] to send you the press release for my 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show, [REDACTED].

[Short and sweet, but that’s alright]

Best wishes

Person Doing Their Own PR

Dear Amy [Hello again]

I have pleasure [How much pleasure are you getting from this?] in sending you the press release for my Edinburgh Fringe 2013 solo show, [REDACTED].

[This was the same PR just with a different show name. I feel dirty.]

Best wishes

Person Doing Their Own PR

Dear Amy [Oh, it’s you]

I’m delighted [You’re delighted this time are you? Great!] to send you the press release about my new album launch and Edinburgh Fringe crowd funding project. [Well, at least it’s not about another show]

Best wishes

Person Doing Their Own PR

What They Did Right

  • Most PRs began with my name
  • One of the PRs was very, very polite
  • The Penis PR is just unforgettable

What They Did Wrong

  • Not giving me enough information in the email – this is the one chance you get to personalise your introduction and give the reviewer and idea of who you are, what you are offering, and why the journalist should care
  • Sending the exact same PR twice, followed by another, very similar, PR. It’s pretty lazy, and not very pleasurable either.
  • Why 22 attachments? WHY?

Post Mortem Recommendations

  • Be nice
  • Have an unusual/memorable angle to your pitch
  • Don’t be shy
  • Take the time to write a different email for each show or event
  • DON’T ADD 22 SEPARATE ATTACHMENTS TO YOUR EMAIL

Seven Tips for the First-Time EdFringe Critic

25 Jul
EdFringe 2010

EdFringe Photo by DaveMcKFlit, used under a Creative Commons Licence

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is nearly upon us! Posters are already appearing all over the city, venues are creaking into life, and performers from far and wide are descending on Auld Reekie at an almost unnerving speed.

I often read guides to the Fringe that were written for and by performers, audience members and marketing types. However, I feel that it would be remiss not to not give first-time EdFringe Critics, and critics who aren’t familiar with the city, a bit of guidance for their Festival debut, since it can be a very busy, very strange, but very fun time.

So, without any further introduction, here is my guide on how to survive the Fringe as a new critic.

1. Paper and Pen Are Your Friend

Yes, before we had computers, we had pen and paper, and things were a lot simpler if you ask me.

Anyway, always take a notebook and pen with you wherever you go – if your iPad/laptop/smartphone freezes or runs out of battery, they will be useful. A notebook will allow you to make inconspicuous notes in the auditorium – have you ever seen someone making notes on a phone or an iPad during a performance? I have, and not only is it extremely rude, it’s also pretty idiotic. Don’t be that person.

2. D.K.Y = Don’t Kill Yourself

I’m not saying the Fringe will drive you to suicide, all I’m saying is, don’t book too many shows on one day. Remember, the downside to seeing several shows in one day is that you will have to write a review for each of them. When it gets to 5am, and you still have reviews to write, but you can’t for the life of you remember what that piece you saw at 2pm was about, then you’re in trouble.

Know your limits, don’t burnout.

3. Be Nice

During the Fringe you will meet lots of different people; but it’s a very busy period, and so these people will be stressed, just like you. As a journalist, you are viewed as a representative of your publication, so, it’s a good idea to be nice.

Be nice to other journalists. Be nice to bar staff. Be nice to venue staff. Be nice to press staff. If you’re rude to people, you will get a bad reputation and people will not want to work with you. I worked for years in retail, and as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, it’s really not very nice to be shouted at.

So, if something goes wrong, if a ticket isn’t where it should be, or phone calls are not being answered, be polite, but firm. People are more likely to help a critic that says “I really need to see this show, is there any way that you can fit me into this performance?” rather than the “What do you mean my ticket isn’t there? DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

You are a critic, you are not a god.

4. The Royal Mile

Unless you want to move at a pace that would make the average snail blush, and get weighed down by an insane amount of flyers, avoid The Royal Mile.

It’s a lovely street, and if you must visit it, go early in the morning, for after around 10am, it fills with performers, more performers, flyerers and by passers who have no sense of space, time or an idea of what walking in a straight line entails.

5. Princes Street

Ok, so this isn’t probably the most important piece of information I can give you about the Fringe, but there is a big street in Edinburgh City Centre, it’s full of shops, it’s very famous, and it’s called Princes Street.

I’ll say it again, Princes Street. It’s masculine, there is no extra ‘s’. However, far too many people call it “Princess Street”, this is incorrect. If you ask for directions to “Princess Street” I am not going to give you any, because no such street exists in the city. Please, call it Princes Street.

6. Give Yourself Extra Travelling Time

During any other Month in Edinburgh, getting from somewhere like the Grassmarket to North Bridge takes around 5-10 minutes, depending on your route.

However, during August, this will take double that, because of the sheer amount of people trying to do the same thing. In fact, I once missed getting to a show at the Underbelly in the Grassmarket – by a minute, no exaggeration – because it had taken me so long to get from The Spaces @ Surgeons’ Hall to the Underbelly (a trip that takes literally no time at all) because of all the people in my way.

The staff were really very apologetic; they’d just closed the doors, and they led onto the stage, so I really would be interrupting the performance, and so, with a heavy heart, I had to phone my editor, and let them know that I couldn’t see the show. They were surprisingly ok about it, but it was embarrassing for me, it was unprofessional, and as the show went on to get great reviews, I missed out on a really strong show.

7. Sit Near the Door

I’ve been reviewing the Fringe since 2009 and if you can take away one piece of advice from me, please, sit near the door when you’re at a Fringe show.

Why? This means you can slip out of the show quicker – be that when it finishes, or earlier. There is no shame in leaving a bad Fringe show early, just do it quietly and without drawing any attention to yourself.

There have been more than a few occasions when, during a particularly bad show, I have lamented my choice of seat, as leaving the venue would involve having to cross the stage, and do some kind of walk of shame out the door. I don’t have the balls to do that yet. I have sat through a lot of bad theatre.

I have only ever walked out of one Fringe show, and that was because it was running over by half an hour and showed no signs of stopping. It was also the worst show I’d ever seen in 5 years of reviewing, so that had something to do with it.

Have I missed anything out? Is there anything else you would like to know? Get in touch and let me know!

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