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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.

 

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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.

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

The Greatest Theatre Story Never Told

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

Image by Andrea Minoia, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Surviving Bad Theatre

5 Dec
Image by boltron- used under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by boltron- used under a Creative Commons Licence

Once, during a particularly bad piece of theatre, a critic friend of mine, who was bored past the point of tears, decided to count the number of ceiling tiles in the auditorium. I can’t remember the exact amount of tiles, but it was an impressive number – it even made it into his review – but more recently, Lyn Gardner’s latest and excellent piece on the unique agony of watching bad theatre has got me thinking about how to survive a night of terrible theatrics.

I’ve walked out of show twice. The first time was during a Lithuanian production that was performed during the Baltic Theatre Festival in Riga, Latvia in 2011. It involved a lot of shouting. A LOT OF SHOUTING. At the interval, the group I was in met up, pulled the similar unimpressed expression, and made the unanimous decision to leave.

The second time was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012, and that was because the show was awful, and I mean, really awful. The only thing going for it was that it was dinner theatre, so at least I wasn’t hungry, but after two hours of cringeworthy attempts at comedy, and after realising that the show was running half an hour longer than it said it would, and after making eyes at the exit for, oh, most of the ‘performance’, me and my editor decided to make a run for it. Once we made our Sheepish Great Escape, a strange thing happened, other people followed our lead, perhaps buoyed by the realisation that yes, it was possible to leave before the end.

But in four years of semi-professional reviewing and six years of reviewing in total, why have I only ever walked out of two shows? Am I too trusting? Am I too optimistic? Or am I worried that my credibility could be questioned if I leave a show too early?

If I’m honest, it’s a mix of all three. While there is nothing that can physically stop me from leaving, bar being in the middle of the aisle, surrounded on either side by audience members with bad knees and an even worse attitude, the thought of leaving the theatre too early fills me with a kind of dread. In some ways, I must be a sucker for punishment, as I often find myself thinking that “Oh, it’ll get better in the second act…” and then when the inevitable terrible second act begins, I curse my eternal optimism, and gaze longingly at the door.

I can remember once, sitting next to the then-boyfriend of a friend of mine, during a particularly tedious production of Testing the Echo at the Traverse Theatre. I was fidgeting, desperate for it to end, and I found to my surprise that he was too. I longed to turn round and whisper to him that it was ok, I was also finding it really rather dull, but I was bound by two things: politeness and the reviewer’s code. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of knowing I had a kindred spirit in the auditorium, but I couldn’t tell them, so we had to sit there, in silent discomfort.

So, what is it about live performance that makes it difficult for me and indeed, others, to walk out? While I usually attend the theatre in my role as a critic, which can be pretty binding, theatre walkouts in general, as far as I have seen, tend to be few and far between. Is this need to endure bad theatre a typically British phenomenon? Are we worried about offending those on stage and our contemporaries in the audience?

It’s easy to walk out of a cinema, you can leave a gig without too many problems, some people like heckling both good and bad comedians, although I’ve never understood why, and pressing stop on a bad DVD, before using it as a  coaster until the end of time seems perfectly logical. But with theatre, why can’t I feel more confident about walking out of a bad show? Because I’m there to do a job, not a well-paid job, but a job none the less.

I think one of the greatest untruths about critics is that we love a bad show. While negative reviews can be easier to write, no critic I know would willingly invest their time in a poor production. If we’re going to review a show, any show in fact, we want it to be good, and if it isn’t good, then we want it to be short.

That’s all we want, or even need, we are a simple breed, really, because time is really important to us. Those few hours we spend squirming in the auditorium could be spent writing, with our families, pitching to editors, and dare I say it, at this time of year, Christmas shopping.

However, time is important to everyone, so, have you ever watched a piece of theatre until the bitter end? Or have you walked out voicing your disgust? I could use a few tips on what to do, or how to cope, so let me know your advice in the comments.

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.

Critics and the Theatre Industry

2 Mar
Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

The thing about being a theatre critic, or a critic of any art form, is that you can often feel like you’re standing in front of a locked door,  trying to find a way to get in. For example, you may give a show a very positive review only to have your work ignored by the PR team, who choose reviews from a bigger publication over yours. When you write for a smaller, or less established publication, you are the smallest fish in the biggest pond, a pond that only becomes more vast when thoughtless PRs make comments like: “Oh, glad you’re all here, but just to let you know we were really hoping for FAMOUS SUCCESSFUL CRITIC to come along.” And yes, this did happen to a friend of mine as they stood in the foyer of a theatre, with other local critics waiting to review a show.

Sometimes you’re popular; the phone never stops ringing, the emails never stop dropping into your inbox, and these emails are quickly joined by follow-up emails, checking that you received the first email. Sometimes your website crashes because of the sheer number of people trying to get on it to read reviews and get your email address to tell you about another show that you have to review. Other times, friends you haven’t seen or heard from for a while will leap out of the ether, inviting you to review their new show, saying, ” We must catch up, it’s been too long!” only for your enthusiastic response to go unnoticed; calls are missed, texts are forgotten, and back into the ether they go. You have no idea how much we critics suffer, I mean, really.

I’m being dramatic here, but the truth is, that being a critic can be a lonely existence sometimes; spending long nights in front of the computer, trying to write your seventh review of the day, is necessary, it’s what we signed up for when we took the first step on the broken cobbled road that leads to becoming a critic. But that doesn’t mean that these nights are easy, or enjoyable, and sometimes they can be pretty isolating – have you ever stayed up so late that nobody else seems to be on Twitter? It’s very odd.

While I can’t speak for other critics, I put everything I have at that moment into my reviews, but even then, I have off days. I’ve had days where summing up a simple synopsis takes too long, and days when my writing is so poor, and so utterly unreadable that I’m begging my editor for a late pass so I can attempt to completely rewrite the piece. I’ve had weeks when the prospect of writing another review fills me with dread, when writer’s block has had me staring at a blank word document wondering what the Hell I am doing and why on earth I keep doing this to myself.

I’ve had days when comments on my work have made me glad I chose this path, and days when a simple error on a review, or an omitted piece of information has The Reader completely doubting me, my work and my reasons for reviewing. As a reviewer you get used to the angry commenter’s cry of, “Oh, what do you know, you’re just a failed and bitter director/actor/producer/playwright.” Although, from experience, I’ve found the commenters that are the most vicious and the most personal in their insults of a critic are usually connected to the show that I’ve reviewed – whether they are directly involved with the show in some way, or they are related to someone in the production.

That is not to say critics are infallible, because no one is. It’s impossible to never make mistakes. Errors can range from spelling and grammatical errors, to factual howlers and even, wait for it, a lack of writing talent. Every critic has a different style; you get the A.A. Gills of the world who seem to delight taking cruel swipes at those in the spotlight (remember what he said about Professor Mary Beard?) There are others who specialise in schmoozing; the ‘Star Fuckers’, who slither up to actors and directors to tell them facetiously how wonderful they are, and how much they enjoyed their work, before desperately attempting to become part of their entourage. One of my biggest pet peeves is the critic who just wants to see shows for free, because for these critics, their writing is just an afterthought – these are the critics that give the rest of us a bad name. The ones that don’t fact check, make sweeping statements, offend the director and the actors with their poor words, the ones that arrive late to shows, the ones that are rude to press officers, PRs and FOH staff. I have no time for these people, and frankly, neither should anyone in the industry, this is not the way to move criticism forward.

So, this morning, I read, with interest, Jethro Compton’s Angry Young Man blog post, in which he argued passionately that the relationship between the media and the theatre industry must change, and I whole-heartedly agree. Although I believe that when Mr Compton refers to ‘Edinburgh’ in the post he means the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and not just the city itself, and that being an unprofessional writer doesn’t automatically mean that you are a bad writer. I could be defined as not being professional, simply because I don’t get a regular income from my writing, something which my bank account likes to remind me. Yet, I would say that my writing style is more professional than amateur.

The theatre industry critics need each other in order to survive, and as a new generation of theatre makers and arts journalists are swelling the ranks on either side, we must come to a mutual understanding of our intertwined industries. Criticism, for me, comes out of my respect and love of the arts; I don’t want to see anyone fail, I simply want to see them creating pieces that they, and by extension, I, can be proud of.

I am an Angry Young Woman, and critics and theatre practitioners both work in industries where our errors, failures and other issues are played out in public, so let’s break down the barriers and smash open the locked doors that sit between us and let’s get the theatre industry and the press working together, so that we can all start yelling, and yelling together about the ongoing issues that affect the media and the arts.

Seven Tips for the Theatregoer Or Sit Down, Shut Up and Quit Moving

9 Dec

Theatre Audience

I go to the theatre quite a lot, and so, I’m pretty familiar with certain rules in the theatre. Other theatregoers, however, aren’t always as familiar with these rules as I am. Which, to be blunt, is rather annoying to other theatregoers, the actors, the director and the theatre staff, and so, in the spirit of Christmas, a bit of fun, and my own sanity, here are my seven tips for every theatregoer.

Be On Time

Shows start at a certain time, and this time is on your ticket. If you arrive at the theatre late, then there is a chance that you might not be allowed into the auditorium as your late arrival could disrupt the performance. Most theatres have a latecomers policy – you can find this on your ticket – so make sure you’re familiar with that venue’s particular policy.

If you are running late, it’s an idea to phone ahead and see if the theatre will let you in later, or perhaps even if they could stall the show’s starting time by a few minutes for you – this is rare, but it does happen.

However, if you are late, and the theatre staff let you in after the show starts, and you have to ask people to stand up so you can get to your seat, then be polite and extremely apologetic. Believe me, other theatregoers don’t appreciate latecomers any more than the actors/director/venue staff do.

Find Your Seat 

Now, I know the quality of seating somewhat varied between theatres, and sometimes it isn’t entirely clear where your seat is, but this is why theatres have signs and ushers; to show you where you should be sitting. If you’re ever unsure, ask. Don’t just sit down on the first seat you find; sitting in someone else’s seat is a sure-fire way to make you very unpopular very quickly. Find your seat and then sit in it.

Be Considerate

Theatres can be very cramped places, which is funny, considering that they are designed for people to flock to and enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, they are very sociable places, but you need to be considerate of others’ personal space at all times. So, if someone needs to squeeze past you to get to their seat, stand up so that they can get to their seat quickly.

The auditorium isn’t your living room, so if you have your belongings strewn all over the floor, pick them up so the person squeezing past you doesn’t have to make their journey any more precarious. It’s only polite and have you ever had to struggle to climb over somebody else’s bags while trying to make your way to your seat? It’s difficult, isn’t it? It’s also not very graceful, and takes more time to do. So don’t sit there, and shift your legs slightly to one side, that’s lazy and unhelpful – stand up, smile and get out of their way.

Similarly, if you are the person trying to squeeze past, say phrases like: “Excuse me, please.” when you need someone to move so you can get to your seat and “Thank you very much, that’s very good of you.” when someone moves for you – you’d be amazed how many people forget these basic and very necessary utterances. Be polite and appreciative in both the auditorium and the bar, which can get very busy during the interval, so don’t forget your manners, please.

Switch off your phone

By ‘switch off your phone’, I mean don’t just put it on silent; switch it off, put it back in your bag, or your pocket and don’t look at it for the entirety of the performance, you can do this, it is possible. Also, switch it off when you arrive at the venue, not when you’re told to by staff, or just before the curtain goes up.

Theatre is about escape, it’s where you can lose yourself in another world, it’s a place where your phone and your social life are not important. Don’t even think about checking your phone for messages during the show, a silent phone still lights up when used, and that light is not only instantly noticeable  but also really very bright and annoying, so leave it in your bag.

Be silent

That thing on your face – your mouth – close it. Stop making noises, stop talking to your best mate or whoever you’re at the theatre with about that dress an actor is wearing, or how funny that joke was. Silently close your mouth, and let not a sound come out of it unless you need to cough, sneeze or if something utterly amazing or distressing happens on stage.

The same applied to bringing in food –  only do this if you have to. Trust me, if it’s not the noise of you trying to rip open a packet of Maltesers with all the grace and artistry of a starving elephant attempting to open a Kilner jar full of peanuts, it’s the unimaginable noise that a single Werther’s Original makes when it’s being slowly unwrapped. Unwrapping it slowly doesn’t make it any quieter. So, if you must bring in food, (and I don’t think you need to) then please have it to hand and opened before the curtain goes up.

Be still

Is there any reason for you to be fidgeting? No? Then sit still. It seems like some people can’t watch a film or a show without fiddling with something on their person, such as a work pass, a necklace, their hair, or a really pretty, but far too noisy bracelet.

What some people forget, is that when they go to the theatre or even the cinema, is that fidgeting isn’t necessary in public. I once saw a woman take off one of her sandals and then proceed pick at the dry skin on her feet during an Edinburgh Fringe show; she did it for so long that a little pile of dead skin formed on the floor, which being a Fringe venue, also happened to be the stage. She had no idea she was doing it, it just seemed to be a bit of a habit for her, regardless of where she was.

So stop playing with stuff, chewing your nails, stroking your hair, picking at your feet and mucking about with your keys/lanyard/loud jewellery and be still, it’s very distracting.

Get Out

If you’re not enjoying the show, grab your stuff, stand up and leave the theatre quietly. There are other people there who would like to keep watching the show, so by all means, leave, no one is stopping you. Don’t sit there moaning about the show, or trying to distract yourself with your phone, shut up, stand up and get out of the theatre.

Trash Interviews Stewart Pringle

26 Nov

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I saw Theatre of the Damned’s As Ye Sow at the Pleasance Dome, and since then, I have been fascinated by the power and terror of Grand Guignol theatre, a genre which originated in Paris in the late 19th century.

A few weeks ago, I contacted Stewart Pringle, the Co-Artistic Director of Theatre of the Damned, who specialise in recreating the drama of the Grand Guignol, and asked if he would be interested in an email interview discussing the genre, and its legacy. He agreed, and here is the interview, republished in full.

Tell me about Theatre of the Damned, when did you become involved with the company? And why?

Theatre of the Damned was formed by my long-time collaborator Tom Richards and myself when we began to look for theatre projects to work on post-university. We’d staged an evening of Grand Guignol pieces in our final year at Oxford, and thought the genre and form was something which had great and untapped potential.

We started out by re-staging two of the short plays from our earlier production, and have grown from there to look at the wider Grand Guignol, as well as horror onstage considered more generally.

Theatre of the Damned now produces roughly two shows per year, as well as producing the London Horror Festival, which is a festival of new theatre and performance that sees companies from across the country come together to explore the possibilities of horror on stage.

Your emphasis is on the horror plays of the Grand Guignol, why did you decide to recreate this particular type of theatre?

I think it appealed to us because it was so rarely staged, because it opened up the possibility of attracting new audiences who may not usually consider going to the theatre, and because it can create such a visceral, immediate response from its audience.

The Grand Guignol itself was a fascinating development in theatre history, and can claim credit for being one of the wellsprings of European Naturalism, so we found it interesting from a historical point of view too.

Why do you think Grand Guignol was so popular with French audiences?

Well it wasn’t just French audiences, people came from all over the world to visit the Grand Guignol, it was a major tourist destination. But I think there was something in the liberalism of the French press and the lack of theatrical censorship that meant that the boundaries between high and low culture, between the ‘lower elements’ of society and artistic representation, were far more permeable than in, say, England.

You’ve got Zola and Husymans happily writing about prostitution, black magic and murder in their novels, you’ve got incredibly gruesome accounts of murders and mayhem in the press, and all of this made its way inexorably to the stage. At first it found its way to the Theatre Libre (the theatre of Naturalism that was the direct predecessor to the Grand Guignol) in its ‘Rosso’ plays, which were often adaptations of recent grisly news reports, and then eventually in the Grand Guignol itself, where things could take an even more fantastical and violent turn. The Grand Guignol staged similarly violent and salacious acts as the Theatre Libre, but without the necessity of verisimilitude to contemporary life. Writers could let their imaginations run amok.

Was there a genre in Grand Guignol that appears to have been performed more than any other, such as ghost stories, body horror, murder/morality plays?

It changed a lot over the years. The Grand Guignol was around for over 6 decades, and went under a lot of management changes. In general it was the more gruesome pieces which brought in the crowds, and the most famous pieces now (Kiss Goodnight, Crime in a Madhouse, The Kiss of Blood, all of which are revived semi-regularly in the UK) were often the most popular then. There weren’t many supernatural stories, though there were a high number of ‘mad scientist’ pieces, plays which explored the dark side of scientific experimentation. It’s a reflection of the high-speed of scientific advancement, the sense that morality could get left behind. It’s Frankenstein stuff.

You can find out a lot more about the Grand Guignol in both its Paris and short-lived London versions from Richard Hand and Mike Wilson’s two excellent books on the subject (available from Amazon, well worth a buy).

Grand Guignol was a highly influential medium of theatre, do you think it influenced horror (cinematic, theatrical) in other countries to a certain degree?

Absolutely. The greatest legacy of Grand Guignol is without a single doubt cinematic. Early horror cinema often took cues from it (unsurprising as a young James Whale actually performed in London’s Grand Guignol, as did early horror movie stalwart Todd Slaughter), and it’s a fair summation that the rise of Hammer Horror films had a lot to do with declining box office at the Grand Guignol.

The cinema offered far glossier and more accessible horrors than the old Parisian theatre, which by the 60′s had become a rickety and artistically bankrupt affair. It’s ironic, as it was the full-blooded horrors of the Grand Guignol which paved the way for Hammer in the first place.

Michael Billington recently said that “Theatre shocks but rarely scares”. Do you agree or disagree?

I agree entirely, though I think there is more genuinely frightening theatre than ever before. Michael doesn’t really attend much horror theatre (we’ve certainly never spotted him at any of our shows), but there still isn’t all that much out there. There’s also still a conception that to ‘frighten’ is a lower aim than to ‘outrage’, and I’m not really sure I have an opinion on that.

I certainly think there’s room for horror theatre which challenges intellectually or that aims for something more lasting than a quick thrill in the dark, something that scares and provokes, but it’s a tough thing to do and very rarely successful. I hope we’ve done some work that comes close to achieving that, but it’s an ongoing process.

In the UK, horror theatre seems to revolve around the ghost story (The Woman in Black, Mary Rose, Haunting Julia) do you think there’s room for improvement/more of an exploration of the genre?

I’m a big fan of ghost stories, so I don’t see it as a problem. I think The Woman in Black is a pretty wonderful bit of pastiche, and a lot of my favourite horror stories are the Victorian and Edwardian hauntings. I love M R James and Saki and the Dickens stories like The Signalman.

There is room for more exploration of the genre though, and the increased popularity of Grand Guignol revivals over recent years has seen a lot more variation in theatrical horror. With the London Horror Festival we try to encourage companies which are looking beyond the obvious, and this year we had amazing new work by Dave Florez, which treaded the line between drama and horror, and plenty of shows blending horror with comedy.

What should good horror theatre do? Unnerve the audience? Have a moral lesson at the heart of it?

Definitely the first, definitely not the second. Moral lessons are dismal things at the best of times, and one of the nice things about horror is that either it’s pure fantasy, or it exists in a sort of amoral universe where the innocent are as likely to suffer as the guilty.
Good horror theatre should involve the audience in the characters or the situation, just like any other genre of theatre. It should probably frighten, unnerve, disturb or horrify as well, but if it doesn’t grab the audience then it’s not going to be very effective, no matter how many horrible surprises and special effects you cram into it.

Do you have a favourite Grand Guignol play? If so, why?

Definitely Crime in a Madhouse (Un Crime Dans une Maison de Fous) by Andre De Lorde and Alfred Binet. It’s a classic psychological horror about a young girl trapped in a very strange asylum. The setup it brilliant, all creepy doctors and stern nuns, and the payoff is truly disturbing and utterly bizarre. There’s an almost surrealist aspect to its conclusion, its concatenation of eyeballs and nature imagery, and its odd fragmented language. We’ve produced it three times and we’re still finding hidden depths and resonances.

What scares you the most in theatre?

I’m quite easily scared, so it doesn’t take much. I was pretty frightened in The Woman In Black when I first saw it, and even a little jumpy in Ghost Stories (which I thought was a lot of fun). To be honest though, the most terrifying things I’ve seen haven’t been horror at all. I think there are moments in say Constellations by Nick Payne or And No More Shall We Part by Tom Holloway are utterly horrifying. Loss is the purest horror, loss of a loved one, loss of sanity or memory. It’s something we’ve looked at a bit in a piece like As Ye Sow (EdFringe 2012) and we’ll be looking at it again next year with our next piece. Finding the point where real-life horrors touch the supernatural, I think that’s a rich seam for exploration.

Is there a particular horror play that you’d love to stage, and haven’t been able to?

We want to stage Dracula. We have our own adaptation that was put together in 2011, but it needs a lot of money and one hell of a big theatre, so it’s got to be held back for now. One day…

You also produce the London Horror Festival – a celebration of horror theatre, what can visitors expect at the festival?

Well, this year we had a great selection. We had new writing, comedy, lectures on the science of a zombie invasion, a talk by the two world experts on the Grand Guignol, the finale of the Stage Fright radio horror competition hosted by Richard O’Brien, one man shows, an immersive musical at Wilton’s and loads more. Next year we’re planning to go even bigger with the event, and we’re in the process of reaching out to venues for 2013. So watch this space, basically!

What does Theatre of the Damned and the London Horror Festival hope to achieve in 2013?

Our new theatre piece The Ghost Hunter will be premiering in a work-in-progress form at the Tristan Bates in January, and we’re going to continue developing that throughout the year with the aim of taking it to EdFringe in August. And we’ve just begun work on a much, much larger project, a new musical, that we’re hoping to stage in an early version next Halloween. All very exciting, so hope to see you there!

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