Tag Archives: Review

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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In the absence of criticism

29 May

Image by Kristina Alexanderson, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Kristina Alexanderson, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

What does a critic do when they’re not reviewing? Does the clock stop for a critic when the house lights go up and the review is written and filed? 

I used to imagine that a critic’s downtime consisted of accosting strangers in the street; booming about the latest release, “DID YOU SEE THAT FILM? I SAW IT DID YOU READ MY REVIEW?” before hurling themselves at the nearest window and licking the glass for sustenance.

Or maybe, I wondered, maybe the stoic critic simply segues back into reality after the telephone on their desk suddenly starts shrieking into life after days of silence?

Last year, I took some time off reviewing; there was no big announcement, no fanfare, just a final review for the foreseeable future and a quick and quiet goodbye. After five years of writing about theatre, film and anything else, on top of having a day job and at sometimes, more than one day job, life got in the way and I had to stop. Just for a bit.

A few years ago, the mere thought of not reviewing anything, would have filled me with dread. “But I’ll miss that awesome new play!” A voice in my head would shriek. “I have a responsibility to write about this!” Cried another, while another repeatedly whispered, “But what of the festivals? What of the festivals?” What, indeed.

But when I stopped reviewing (I even missed the Fringe) the funniest thing happened; nothing. I didn’t experience that familiar feeling of FOMO, I didn’t feel the guilt for the evenings that I wasn’t at the theatre, or the cinema, or the pop-up venue of the month. Putting down my notebook didn’t cause the sky to rain blood, or buildings to crumble or society to end. I felt this sense of freedom I haven’t felt in a long time.

And it was wonderful.

It felt good to be absent for just a little while. For so long, I’d concentrated on becoming a writer, on networking and writing and looking for new opportunities that I forgot to enjoy what I was doing. I didn’t like writing my reviews and they weren’t fun to read. I was burned out, fed up.

So, I gave myself a break, I did other things; I prepared to go freelance, I took bags and bags of clothes, CDs, DVDs and VHS to the charity shop. I started getting my life in order and most importantly, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

In a few weeks my daughter will celebrate her first birthday and I am looking forward to the Fringe for the first time in a while. I’ve tried to review one or two things a month since the start of the year, but August will be a real test for me. A wonderful, wonderful test.

Excuse me, I’m off to lick some windows until I get some Fringe PRs.

How To Get Reviewed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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

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

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

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

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

A Note on Reviews

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

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

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

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

Prepare Now

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

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

Have Something to Say

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

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

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

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

Press Release Etiquette

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

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

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

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

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

Be Human

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

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

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

Twit to Woo?

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

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

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

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

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

 The Follow-Up

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

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

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

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.”

My Failed New Year’s Resolutions

8 Jan

Image by elycefeliz, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

I love New Year. I love the fireworks, the celebrations and the sense of optimism that comes with the dawning of each new calendar year.

But I absolutely suck at sticking to my New Year’s resolutions.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried; for a while my only resolution was to not make a resolution, and I stuck to that for a while. I’m also lucky in that I don’t fall into the usual resolutions of stopping smoking or drinking, because I don’t smoke and I very rarely drink.

But when I look back at the resolutions I’ve neglected to achieve over the last few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that they failed, not because I didn’t try, but because they weren’t the right resolutions for me at the time.

Resolution One: Lose Some Weight, Fatty

I was quite skinny when I was younger. In fact, I was so skinny that I never realised just how skinny I was until I wasn’t that skinny any more. Your body, like your personality, changes over time, and while I’m not a size 8, I’m still a healthy weight for my size.

In fact, I’m happier now in my body than I ever was before, and while some bits could do with firming up, and I fantasise about having Linda Hamilton Terminator 2-esque biceps, it won’t happen overnight, and that’s ok. I’ll continue eating healthily and working at my physical day job, that’ll do for now.

Resolution Two: Stop Procrastinating…Tomorrow….No, Today

“Procrastination,” my mother once declared, “’tis the thief of time!” and she was right. I procrastinate too much, I live in my head too much, I think about doing something for too long when I should just do it. Case in point: I thought about blogging for four years before I actually did anything about it.

I know I’m not alone in procrastinating, which is reassuring, but whilst I have looked at other ways of working, such as the Pomodoro Technique and blocking access to Facebook and Twitter while working, my mind needs to wander.

While I may not be able to stop procrastinating altogether, I can deal with it in better ways; such as allowing myself breaks, getting into a better work at home routine and changing my attitude towards tasks that have to be done. As someone once said to me, “You have to stop thinking that you should do something, and instead start thinking that you need, want or wish to do something.” This advice has made a big difference to just about every aspect of my life.

Resolution Three: Go Back to University

Around this time last year, I blogged about my quest to get back into higher education after graduating nearly four years previously. This year marks five years since that fateful day when I put on a big, silly gown, got all nervous, shook Sir Tom Farmer’s hand and got my degree, and I’m still no closer to going back to university.

In fact, if anything, I’m a little more conflicted about the whole thing; it’s expensive, you’re not guaranteed a job, and there are lots of journalists that say that postgraduate degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. All the advice I’ve had about getting into the media has been pretty contradictory, and while some still insist that experience, not qualifications, matter, I’ve noticed that an alarming number of media job adverts begin with the terrifying statement: “You will have a journalism qualification.”

So, what next? In the next few months, I aim to find out more about funding and bursaries and see if there’s anything that I would be suitable for. I can also do a much less expensive, but very respected NCTJ Course in my own time, which would give me that elusive journalism qualification without the £6,000+ price tag.

Resolution Four: Learn to Drive

I’ve been meaning to learn to drive since I was 17. I’m now 28, and although I have a provisional driving license and I once owned a car with my former partner (it was a purple VW Golf MK3, affectionately referred to as Reggie, I loved that car) I’ve never had a driving lesson.

There are many reasons for this; procrastination, sheer laziness, expense and the fact that Edinburgh’s bus service is really very good, so, logically, when would I actually drive? Still, I need to learn to drive because it’s an important skill to have on my CV, it would allow me greater freedom to travel around the country and beyond, and at nearly 30, sitting behind the wheel of a parked car going “Vroom! Vroom!” Just doesn’t do it for me any more.

Resolution Five: Read More

I used to love reading. I’d read into the early hours of the morning and then read again the next day. My parents would buy me a small pile of books every Christmas, thinking they would last me until March and then despair when they realised that I’d read them all by New Year.

But then, I went to university, and I wasn’t allowed to read for fun. My degree, while a drama course, was more academic than practical, and we had to read at least three plays a week, combined with several dull critical theory texts. Have you ever read Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author? It makes an interesting point, but it’s turgid; it’s worse than Sunset Song and Highland River, both of which I had to read in High School, and both of which keep popping up on Scotland’s greatest books lists, much to my utter disgust.

And if you think about it, reading a play is a very different experience to watching a play. Just as reading a book because someone in authority says you must read it takes all the fun out of the experience.

So, I got bored with reading, and all these years later, I still struggle to finish a book, because I get distracted. I have got better; last year, I read the entire Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy, and I’m halfway through Mark Kermode’s latest, and really very good tome, Hatchet Job. After that, I’m going to read all the A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin, so I’m getting there.

Resolution Six: Go to the Theatre/Cinema For Fun!

For years, going to the theatre and the cinema has been work for me – I’m there to review after all – and so, I go there in full critic mode, complete with notebook and eagerness to ‘read’ the work.

Sometimes it’s hard to get out of this mindset, and I have to re-learn how to enjoy going to the theatre or the cinema as a regular audience member, not some poor arts hack with a bashed notebook. The experience needs be an escape again for me, as it should be for everyone else, and I need to stop getting so annoyed by badly behaved audiences.

Resolution Seven: Stop Getting Annoyed by Badly Behaved Audiences

Hey, I’ll stop getting annoyed when they learn how to behave.

Life After Libel

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

Image by tofutti break, used under a Creative Commons Licence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, You Got a Bad Review…

17 Aug
Image by pressthebigredbutton, used under a Creative Commons License

Image by pressthebigredbutton, used under a Creative Commons License

“I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.”

– Dorothy Parker

The human animal is a fallible beast; we are hypocritical, egotistical, emotional and vulnerable. We don’t like being criticised, and when we are, we get defensive.

If you got a bad review, or a review that you’re not entirely happy with at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, or if you got a bad review anywhere else; I’m sorry you got a bad review. I’m sorry you’re angry, and I’m sorry you’re disappointed.

So, what do you do when faced with a bad review of your work? Here are some ideas that will help you feel better and perhaps even work a bad review to your advantage – without pissing off the writer/publication.

Get Someone Else to Read the Review

One of the first pieces of advice that I’m going to give you is after you’ve read a negative review of your show or your performance, then ask someone close to you to read it.

Getting another person’s perspective on the review can allow you to look at the article in a different light; it could make that sentence that you felt was pretty damning seem reasonable, it could point out if you’ve actually misread something.

Sometimes even just talking to people about your bad review can be helpful, and also cathartic, so speak to someone you trust and get their perspective on the review, it could really help make you feel better.

Contact the Publication

You have every right to contact a publication and ask for a mistake to be corrected. Minor errors, such as spelling mistakes, factual errors, etc, can be easily corrected, and most publications and editors will be more than happy to correct them when they are pointed out.

Case in point; I reviewed a production of Wondrous Flitting, a Lyceum Fringe production, in August 2010. In my admittedly negative review, I said that the show was a co-production between the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the Traverse Theatre, because while it was a Lyceum production, it was staged at the Traverse.

A day after it was published, one of the Lyceum’s press officers sent me a very polite email, informing me that Wondrous Flitting was not a co-production, it had been created solely by the Lyceum, and was only staged at the Traverse. As soon as I was informed of my error, I corrected it, and apologised to the Lyceum, who very graciously accepted my apology, and didn’t even mention the fact that the review was a negative one.

I had made a simple error, they informed me politely, and I was happy to change it, because errors like that are not only embarrassing for the company, but embarrassing for the journalist too.

When to Ask For More

There are instances when a company may be within their rights to ask for the publication to review the show again, either by sending the original reviewer, or a different writer.

For example, last year, I was contacted by an editor that I know well, he asked me if I would be able to review a show that another critic had reviewed a few days previously.

This critic had arrived 15 minutes late to a show, and for reasons known only to them, be it deadlines, or the wrath of the editor (who is actually a very nice man) they decided to write a review of the show despite missing so much of the piece.

The first 15 minutes of this show, or indeed, any show, is very important; it introduces the characters, and explains the way the show is structured. The critic missed this, and wrote a very negative review, which the performer was understandably not happy about. They complained about the review, and the editor decided to send a reviewer that they could trust, which in this case was me.

When Not to Contact

If you have legitimate reasons for contacting a publication to complain about a review, such as the errors listed above, and you ask politely, then any good editor will go out of their way to help you and to attempt to make the situation better for both you and them.

However, not liking a review isn’t grounds for asking for another reviewer to be sent to the production. You have every right to have a grumble about a bad review, and you always have the right to reply, but ask yourself whether complaining about a review is the right thing to do.

For example, if a critic mentions that a piece feels under-rehearsed, or that the scene changes are awkward, or a line was forgotten, or there were technical issues, and these things did happen, then that’s something you have to accept.

Here is a list of legitimate complaints that I, and other critics I know have received from productions about reviews we’ve written, they range from the reasonable to the odd, and some are pretty eye-opening.

  • The actor that complained about a review because the director had died while the play was in rehearsals, and stated that the review would upset the director’s widow.
  • The director that complained that the reviewer had said an actor was wearing white gloves, when they were wearing black gloves. They threatened legal action because of this.
  • The PR that complained one year after the review had been published, claiming that the reviewer had “obviously come in during a preview” and they would never have allowed the reviewer to come in so early. The reviewer had booked a press ticket which had been confirmed by that same PR.
  • The actor who complained that a negative review named her, and a handful of other actors in a production that they were no longer involved in. It turned out that the company hadn’t updated their publicity materials since the cast change.

The L Word

In a perfect world, the threat of libel would be used sparingly, because everyone would get along and nothing nasty or incorrect would be written about anyone, anywhere, ever.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, and libel exists to protect people from having vicious lies spread about them in print or online. The threat of libel should always be a last resort if neither party can come to a satisfactory conclusion. Yet, there are more and more stories of companies threatening journalists with libel over reviews. It happened to me last year, it happened to a critic I know this year – on Twitter, no less – and it’s a deeply worrying trend.

The only advice I can give on the subject of libel is this; if you react defensively and threaten legal action against a publication, then you will get a defensive reaction in turn. They will seek legal advice, they will be advised not to engage with you, and all communications will cease.  Is this what you want? Probably not, especially if you’re only complaining about a misspelling, or the writer saying an actor wore a pair of white gloves instead of black gloves.  Libel should never be used in this way.

Does It Really Matter?

If you get one bad review, then you have to ask yourself; does this review really matter to me in the long run?

Should you pay attention to a bad review? Will one bad review haunt you forever? Will it follow you around various countries and festivals for the rest of your days? No, but your reaction to it just might, so look at the bigger picture, you got a reviewer in, you got a review published, you can either choose to ignore it, or add it to your flyers and posters ironically.

How you react to a bad review is up to you, just remember, the reviewer is critiquing your show, not you personally.

Shit EdFringe Critics Never Say

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

Image by Camilla Hoel, used under a Creative Commons License

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

2. I will absolutely be at your show.

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

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

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

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

7. I’ve had enough coffee for today.

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

9. Of course you can have my number.

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

11. No coffee for me, thanks.

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

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

14. Are you on Google+?

15. You can never have too many flyers.

16. I’m not hungry.

17. Everything is going to plan.

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

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

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

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

Shit EdFringe Critics Say

6 Aug
Image by jontintinjordan used under a Creative Commons License

Image by jontintinjordan used under a Creative Commons License

 

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

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

3. Let’s meet for coffee.

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

5. Where is the press office?

6. Have my tickets been confirmed yet?

7. I have a show in five minutes.

8. I’ve not had any coffee today.

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

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

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

12. (To another critic) Seen anything good?

13. Are you on Twitter?

14. Can I have a large latte, please?

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

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

17. What day is it?

18. I’m so tired.

19. I have no money.

20. Let’s go to the bar.

21. MORE COFFEE, PLEASE.

Why Your EdFringe PR Campaign Sucks

3 Jun
Fringe Posters image by Daveybot, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Fringe Posters image by Daveybot, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

If you’re a performer or part of a theatre company that’s handling your own PR campaign at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, perhaps for the first time, there are three things that form the basis of any Edinburgh Festival Fringe PR campaign; discipline, research and hard work. I know, that’s pretty obvious, but while the Edinburgh Fringe is presented as a fun and unmissable festival (it is) it’s also a bit like a sewer; what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

But I’m Only at the Fringe for Three Days

Three days? That’s brilliant! Shorter runs at the Fringe are becoming quite popular for various reasons, and the length of your run doesn’t limit your PR campaign. Get in there early, contact journalists; send them an exclusive invite to your first show and promote the Hell out of it.

But I Want to Party Hard

While it may look like the Fringe is one big party, the reality is that the festival is hard work for everyone involved in the Fringe. For performers handling their own PR, the Fringe presents an almost unique experience in terms of promotion.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is one of the biggest, if not the biggest arts festival in the world; this year a record 2,871 shows will be performed by 24,107 artists in 273 venues across Edinburgh. The number of shows at this year’s Fringe has increased by 6.5% compared to last year. So, if you want to party, do it in moderation, you have a job to do.

But The Fringe is Too Big

As the Fringe grows, so do the opportunities for marketing a show and producing a strong and unforgettable Fringe PR campaign. A bigger Fringe means more journalists, more publications, more blogs, more audience members, more venues. It means more work to publicise a show successfully.

It means that your Fringe PR campaign must be as important as all other Fringe preparation. Think about all the work you have put into your show so far: the planning, the auditions, the creating of sets, costumes, the booking of a venue, the organisation of Fringe accommodation. Why should PR take a back seat?

So, I Just Shout Loud Enough and I’ll Get Reviewed?

It’s often said that the person who shouts the loudest has the most influential voice in the room, but for the Fringe, and for wider PR, I would argue that having the right voice, rather than the loudest voice is more desirable to journalists.

There is so much ‘noise’ generated by PRs and performers during the Fringe; journalists will be getting promotional messages fired at them daily, so, you have to find a way to make your voice more noticeable and most of all, more inviting to them.

How Do I Make My Voice Heard?

You need to target the right journalists, the right publications, and promote what it is about your show, your piece that will appeal to them. If your show is a political piece, are there journalists who specialise in reviewing and previewing political theatre? Is there a specific publication that tailors to your target audience?

Make a list of your Unique Selling Points (USPs) such as, if this is your first year at the Fringe,  are you performing the world première of your show? What is it that you can offer journalists the competition can’t offer them? Why should they choose you over the thousands of other artists at the festival? Why do you want a journalist to review your show? Once you are clear about this, then you will find it easier to put together your PR campaign.

How Should I Submit My PR?

Once the PR is written and the right journalists have been identified, how will you submit your PR? Will you post it if you have the publication’s address? It’s not as immediate as email, but some journalists prefer it. If you’re unsure, contact the journalist or publication and ask.

If you email it, do you attach it as a separate document, or copy and paste it into the body of the email? Personally, I prefer the copy and paste method, which means I’m not constantly downloading documents. Remember that it needs to be easy for a journalist to find your PR during the busy festival period, so use the show name, venue and company name in the subject line of your email.

Many journalists, especially me and Thom Didbin from Annuals of Edinburgh Stage will thank you for doing this.

How will you begin your communication? A “Hello” is always nice. Seriously, say “Hi”, try to engage with the journalist – good PR is about building lasting relationships, if you get along with a journalist one year, they will remember you the next and might be more likely to see your shows in the future.

What About Social Media?

Social media now forms a pretty big part of any Fringe campaign, and so contacting journalists through this medium, in my opinion, is fine, you just to get your approach right. Start talking to the journalist before the start of the Fringe, build up a rapport; don’t be all promotional all the time.

Simply tweeting a journalist you’ve never spoken to before and asking them to “Please RT” a promotional tweet about your show is lazy – talk to them, don’t just use them as a mouthpiece for your work.

Do Not Do Any Of These Things in Your PR Campaign

Below is a list of suggestions for things not to do when you’re handling your own PR campaign during the Fringe, outside of the Fringe and in general. Personalising your email goes a long, long way.

  1. Email a press release with the subject line ‘Press Release’
  2. Send out a mass email beginning with: ‘Dear EdFringe Reviewer/Promoter/Press Officer/VIP/Broadcaster/Supporter
  3. Send out an email that begins with “Dear Chesney” when the editor’s name is Bella
  4. Constantly email and phone the office of a magazine/newspaper demanding that they review your show
  5. Tweet the same invite verbatim to at least 25 reviewers or publications in a row
  6. Email the same PR multiple times
  7. Email an ‘extended’ PR which gives no new information
  8. Email a PR that gives the wrong start time/the wrong date/the wrong director/the wrong actor/the wrong venue
  9. Write a PR that starts with your star ratings and reviews
  10. Write a PR that uses lots and lots of different colours, fonts, sizes and is not clearly formatted
  11. Write a PR that doesn’t begin with a greeting, but ends with an email signature
  12. Not using bcc in marketing emails
  13. Get the publication name wrong
  14. Issue a demand, not an invitation
  15. Not say thank you to a reviewer or publication for a good review
  16. Send more than one press release per email
  17. Threaten to sue over a bad review – this will not work out well for anybody

Whether this is your first Fringe or your tenth, PR is an important part of your preparation and so, it’s important to keep on top of it, and don’t leave it to chance.

Have you got any advice for companies doing their own EdFringe PR? Get in touch and let me know.

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