Tag Archives: Arts Journalist

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.

 

The 26 Best Things About Being an Arts Journalist Today

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

Image by Esther Vargas, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Having the opportunity to experience new work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 25 Worst Things About Being an Arts Journalist Today

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

Image by Thomas Leuthard, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Downright cynicism. About everything. Ever.

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

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

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

12. Exhaustion from having 2 or more jobs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24. Your publication running out of budget.

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

Seven Terrible Things People Have Asked Me About Arts Journalism

3 Feb
Image by cranky messiah, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by cranky messiah, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

“Ah, ha! You’re unemployed then?”

What I Said Then:

“No, I have a job, and I do this in my free time to build up my portfolio.”

What I Say Now:

“No, this is my job.”

“So, you go to a show and write about whether it’s good or not. Is that what you do?”

What I Said Then:

“Well, actually there’s a lot more to it than that..”

What I Say Now:

“Yes. Jealous, much?”

Yes, but, if you’re an arts critic, why don’t you review actual ART?”

What I Said Then:

“Well, I wasn’t trained to review visual art.”

What I Say Now:

“The phrase ‘The Arts’ is an umbrella term for many creative industries, however, I’m not particularly interested in visual art, so I don’t write about it.”

“How do you make any money?”

What I Said Then:

“Well, it is possible, and there is money to be made from arts criticism, I’m sure.”

What I Say Now:

“I have other jobs.”

“What are you really going to do with your life?”

What I Said Then:

“…..”

What I Say Now:

“Spend the rest of it avoiding you.”

“Are you going to move to London?”

What I Said Then:

“London? LONDON? London is big and scary! No way!”

What I Say Now:

“That is something I will have to consider in the future.”

“What will you do when your editor asks you to write a positive review of something, regardless of how you feel about it?”

What I Said Then:

“What are you talking about? That doesn’t happen.”

What I Say Now:

“I would refuse. That isn’t who I am.”

The 10 Commandments of the Successful Critic

15 Jun
Candle by clemetchene used under a Creative Commons License

Candle by clemetchene used under a Creative Commons License

1. I am the Editor, thy employer. Thou shalt turn up to the performance/show/film/gig that thou art reviewing on time, wherein thou shalt be able to arrive calm, content and able to review the piece in question.

2. Thou shalt research the work that thou art reviewing, be it the previous work of the performers/actors/director/writer, so that thou shalt know what thou is talking about, and won’t give the impression that thou art talking out of thy ass.

3. Thou shalt act as a respectable member of thy’s publication team when reviewing. This includes not overdoing it with the free alcohol and then embarrassing oneself because of said alcohol.

4. Thou shalt file copy on time and within the word limit.

5. Thou shalt not steal work from another writer, be they living or dead and pass it off as thine own. Plagiarism will be discovered, and thou will only set thyself back by ripping off the intellectual property of others.

6. Thou shalt be respectful to venue staff, including FOH staff, PR people and press officers.

7. Thou shalt write about more than the performance; thou shalt consider the cultural, political, social and historical context of a piece. Criticism must move beyond the tired “It looked nice, it was acted well” narrative.

8. Thou shalt write with brevity and clarity; why write a 20 word filler sentence when a simple 10 words will do?

9. Thou shalt proofread thy’s own work before sending it to thou’s editor.

10. Thou shalt be prepared to listen to constructive criticism of thine work, and thou shalt take this criticism to heart.

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