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The Theatre Critic’s Guide to Life

24 Nov

Do you want to be a theatre critic? Do you have dreams of visiting local, national or even international theatres and writing about what you see? You do? Well, that’s great, it really is. But first of all, I need to give you some advice to get you through the first few years of reviewing.

You Are Going to Miss a Few Meals

I know, everyone gets hungry, but one thing that unites all critics in all forms of arts criticism, is our poor eating habits. Running from show to show, or legging it from your day job early in order to jump on a train to take you to a theatre in another city, leaves you with very little time to grab something to eat.

Food in train stations, as we all know, is far too expensive, so try not to waste your money on sweaty cheese sandwiches and lacklustre pasta salads from well-known chain stores, and bring something with you. A packed lunch (or dinner) may seem a bit naff, but trust me, when you’re on a train, with no money and horrendous stomach cramps after not having eaten anything for the best part of a day, you will thank yourself for making that packed lunch. Trust me.

You May Not Always Want to Write

It’s a sad fact of any writer’s life that there will be days when they find that they have nothing to say about the show that they’ve just seen. It happens to us all. It could be that the production didn’t inspire you, it could be that you thought the piece was pretty average, or it could be that you’re just having a bad day. When this happens, don’t panic, you are by no means alone, calm down, give yourself a break for an hour, and find something to say. Never forget that deadlines can be a source of great inspiration, and desperation.

You Will Suffer a Crisis of Confidence

At several points in my writing career, I have wondered if anyone out there actually reads my reviews, or finds what I say interesting. When I started work as the The Journal‘s Theatre Editor in 2009, I never got any comments on my reviews, bar spam for, oh, I don’t know, handbags, or shoes, and so, I convinced myself that nobody, absolutely nobody, was reading what I was writing. I know now that this wasn’t true; my Dad was reading my reviews, as were other people; they just weren’t commenting on them. Don’t mistake a lack of comments for a lack of interest.

You Will Meet Obnoxious People

Obnoxious people are everywhere, but when you meet one in the theatre world, it can seem impossible to escape from their self-indulgent behaviour and general arrogance. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that not every person you’ll meet will be a nice person; you just have to deal with this. You might meet a particularly unpleasant critic or two, you might somehow end up on some actor or director’s kill list for writing a negative review, but learn to laugh at these people, having a sense of humour when reviewing is vital.

Not Everyone Will Agree With You 

You could absolutely hate a show, you could write and publish a very negative review, but find that someone else you reviewed it on the same night absolutely loved it. This is the magic of reviewing; having a difference of opinion, and this is what sparks most spats between critics and directors/producers/actors and the like. If someone disagrees with you, great, we live in a democracy where people can voice their opinions freely, accept it, after all, that’s why you are free to express your opinions.

However, if the person, or people who disagree with your review start resorting to personal attacks on you, your writing, your character, or your publication, when responding to your review, leave it. Don’t answer back – you will be surprised how many of these commenters are connected to the show, either because they’re in it, or because they know someone who is. I’ve seen PR agencies for shows writing abusive comments under reviews – and what trapped them was their IP address. So please, for your own sanity, don’t feed the trolls.

You Will Make Mistakes, But You Must Learn From Them

In an ideal world, every journalist would get their copy right every time; every piece of information would be correct and verified, every quote would be correctly attributed and every actor name would be spelt correctly. But, this doesn’t always happen, and tiredness, deadlines and other factors can seriously affect the quality of a critic’s copy.

So, accept that at some point you will make a mistake, and when you do, learn from it. Because trust me, the first time you realise that you misspelt an actor/director’s name in your review, you will never, ever forget that horrible sinking feeling.

Some People Will Do Anything to Discredit You

The sad fact of reviewing is that people only like critics when they agree with or enjoy what they have written. The rest of the time, our work can be so easily dismissed by those who disagree with us. Don’t be surprised to find that some people will do anything to attempt to discredit your review, such as go through your tweets, find your Facebook profile, question your credentials, your experience and even, your reasons for writing the review.

There have been incidents where false accusations have been made against critics, and two that I know of have involved critics being accused of being drunk while reviewing a certain show. One of these instances involved two critics I know, who had arrived early for a show, and both had a bottle of beer at the theatre bar before the show began. Someone later contacted their editors, and accused them of being drunk in an attempt to discredit their work. This didn’t work, and as we all know, having a single bottle of beer, or glass of wine before a show isn’t illegal, after all, booze is something that comes with most press nights. Just remember that if you want to have a drink on a press night, not to have too many.

You Will Never Stop Learning

I studied theatre for four years at university, I learned so much about theatre from around the world, and I have seen countless productions and performances for the last 5 years. But, like all good critics, I am constantly learning about theatre, reviewing, journalism, in fact, good journalists never stop learning about the field they are working in. Open your mind, keep and open mind, and never stop reading, writing, reviewing and meeting new people in the industry.

You Will Have a Lot of Fun

While reviewing might seem like a thankless task, it really isn’t, after all, you get to experience the good, the bad and the ugly of theatre while witnessing performances and productions that you could be talking about for years to come. Yes, you may come up against some difficult people, and you may have to sit through some terrible, terrible theatre, but there is so much fun to be had as a theatre critic. So, never, ever give up, keep writing, because theatre criticism needs new, fresh, inspiring and knowledgeable writers.

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Theatre Criticism Will Eat Itself

27 Sep

The last few weeks have been really very interesting. I published a blog post called ‘Trash and the Libel Case, or How to Piss Off a Theatre Critic’ on Sunday evening. The blog described my treatment at the hands of a difficult company that performed at the Fringe last month, and for many reasons, I decided not to name the company involved. By Monday evening, thanks to retweets and word of mouth, the blog had been read thousands of times, and many people, from performers, to fellow critics to PRs and journalists had contacted me to tell me their thoughts on the blog, and share similar experiences.

I was and I still am surprised and overwhelmed by the positive response that the blog got from performers, critics, PRs and so many others. Some people said I was brave for writing and publishing it and others told me of similar experiences that they’d found themselves in, either as a journalist or as a performer. To everyone that took the time to share their stories with me, and support me during that time, whether it was by email, on Twitter or even just by commenting on my blog, thank you. You’ve made me feel so much better and given me the support I needed. I will try to respond to everyone, but it’s going to take some time!

However, obviously, there were criticisms of the blog; the most common of which was my decision to not name the company or the individuals involved. Other criticisms aimed at the blog post were things like: the length of my blog, my actions towards the theatre company at the time and general spelling and grammatical errors (to the gentleman who offered to point these errors out to me, thank you).

But there was one comment that I really wanted to address.  This question was raised by the actor, Guy Masterson, who told me that I went too far in my original review by mentioning that the show didn’t have the rights to perform the sketches from the TV show that it was emulating. He asked me if I believed that it was in my “remit as a reviewer to research and to point out that the show was unauthorised?” Before adding that he believed that “… a critic has a far greater responsibility than merely offering “opinion”. Their review should be a balanced, considered, comparative work of criticism, not merely an opinion. This requires the acquisition of experience and knowledge and careful wording to assure that any opinion is couched correctly and fairly and constructively.”

To answer Guy’s first point: Yes, I believe any reviewer worth reading should research the show that they are reviewing. This gives the reviewer, and therefore, the reader, an insight into the background of the company, of the play, the playwright and the director. Research helps a critic better understand a certain artist’s body of work, whilst giving their own review more authority and power. Research gives a reader the chance to find out related and useful information about the show the reviewer was writing about. For Sunshine Inc’s show, I felt I had a duty to inform anyone who read my review about the show’s main issue, which was the lack of authorisation.

As for his question about reviews being more than opinion, I feel that a reviewer gives their opinion on every aspect of a show that they are critiquing. So, when you read a review, you are, in effect, reading one person’s opinion. However, most reviewers’ opinions are based on years of experience of theatre, art, music, film and any other cultural art form. So as well as reading another person’s opinion, you are reading writing influenced by years of passion, craft and knowledge. Of course, all reviewers and publications are different, and therefore, standards of writing, fairness and constructiveness will differ. This doesn’t mean that one critic’s opinion and review is less valid than another’s – far from it, in fact – every reviewer writes differently, which is part of the magic of the critical game.

But the critical game is changing; reviewing is more accessible now than it has ever been, which is means that criticism has become more open to those that might not have been able to take part in it before. More reviewers means more reviews, and more reviews means more star ratings and more star ratings means more, tired disagreements about the use of star ratings. Some publications, such as The Stage and Total Theatre don’t use them, whereas others, such as The Guardian, The Skinny and The Public Reviews do. However, despite the fact that many publications do use stars in their reviews, there are those who disagree with the star rating system, and want to abolish the system, such as Masterson, who has created a Facebook group ‘Forum for Abolishment of Review Stars at Fringe’.

I must admit to not having a strong opinion on star ratings; I can see why some people have issues with them, and why some people continue to use them. Star ratings are a way of summing up a show’s quality quickly and concisely, they are an indicator of quality, of standard, and perhaps, most importantly, of value for the reader. However, I do not agree with removing star ratings at just one arts festival, speaking as a reviewer, and indeed an audience member, the stars are a welcome guide to the best and the worst of the Fringe.

However, modern criticism is not just about stars, it’s about the ideas we share, the performances we review and most importantly, the way we write. The critical voice has, and should be respected, regardless of where that reviewer has come from, or who they are writing for, or whether their publication is online, print or staffed by volunteers. The sad fact is that lots of reviewers are taking pay cuts, being made redundant, or even forced to work for free.

The critical circle should be welcoming, approachable and united; times are tough, so let’s not make them any more difficult. Change can and must happen, the evolution of theatre criticism, and indeed, criticism in general, is essential to our survival, and will stop criticism becoming merely a pastime of the privileged and the well-connected.

Arts journalism is changing, like the rest of the journalism industry is growing and developing into something completely different. Theatre Criticism is not just part of this change, it could lead it, as Exeunt’s experiment with Pinterest Theatre Reviews have revealed – we are innovative, and we are hard working. We just have to work together with tools at our disposal, such as social media, online publications and better accessibility, but we need to find a way to use them together.

KNUT

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