Tag Archives: reviewing

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.

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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 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.

Trash and The Libel Case Or, How to Piss Off a Theatre Critic

9 Sep

I updated this blog for the first time in nearly three months last week, but I couldn’t update again without discussing the tale of my recent experience of dealing with a very difficult company at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This encounter was very unpleasant, stressful and infuriating. Despite my anger, I’ve decided not to name the company involved, but for the purposes of this blog I will refer to them as Sunshine Inc.

This was my fourth year of reviewing during the Fringe and my first experience of being a Fringe editor, as I took up the post of Scotland Editor at The Public Reviews in May. In the midst of sorting through the thousands of Edinburgh Fringe PRs I received, my editor, John, forwarded me a PR for a Fringe show, suggesting that we book tickets and make a fun evening of it. The show was being performed by Sunshine Inc, and was presented as a two-hour long interactive comedy show, that involved actors impersonating characters from a famous TV comedy.

I booked the tickets for the show through their internal PR contact, a woman I’ll call Melina, who, I have to stress was very polite, helpful and friendly at the beginning. I did have to move the tickets by one day because of a scheduling clash, but again, Melina was very accommodating, and both myself and John were very much looking forward to the evening.

The show, however, was not like we expected, and we quickly realised that while the characters in the piece were designed to look and sound like the TV characters – they dressed similarly, and they even used their famous one-liners – this was where the similarities to the TV show ended. The evening consisted of these actors using new and ‘original’ content instead of established sketches from the TV programme, which wasn’t what I was expecting. Suffice to say, I didn’t enjoy Sunshine Inc’s offering, and I wrote what was I felt was a negative, yet honest and fair review, which was published on The Public Reviews website shortly after. In my review, I stated that the show was “unauthorised” as when I researched the show, I found a number of articles and quotes from the makers of the TV show saying that the show had not been authorised by them. Quotes from Sunshine Inc’s Managing Director, Francis, revealed that he hadn’t contacted the makers of TV programme to ask for permission to use the characters. Furthermore, on Sunshine Inc’s website they stated in the small print that their work had no association with the makers of the original TV show. So, with this information to hand, I mentioned in the review that the show was unauthorised.

A few days after the review was published, Melina emailed me to ask if we had any feedback on the show, and I replied with a link to the review, along with a brief response explaining that I hadn’t enjoyed the evening, but thanking her for inviting me and John along.

Melina’s response was interesting, to say the least; she emailed me back almost immediately and asked for the details of our “Managing Director” stating that there were points in my review that were of “great concern”. I responded, explaining that John, my editor, was the best person to contact and included his email address.

However, Melina emailed me again to ask for John’s mobile number, but because John was reviewing throughout the day, I was unwilling to share his phone number without his consent, or without him knowing what was going on. I decided not to respond to her email immediately, and concentrated on getting in touch with John to explain the situation.

As I tried to get hold of John, however, Melina continued emailing me demanding John’s phone number, saying that Sunshine Inc’s managing director, Francis, wanted to speak to him. Again I didn’t reply to her emails as I was concentrating on getting in touch with John. However, Milena’s emails continued, and she then began demanding that I remove the review from the website “immediately”. She also claimed that the show was authorised, yet didn’t say by who, and didn’t produce any evidence of this authorisation. When that failed to elicit a response from me, she further claimed that my review was “lies” and was therefore “libel” and again demanded I take the review down “immediately”, or they “would take legal action'”.

After reading these emails, John asked Milena to send him an email detailing her concerns, and to also highlight what parts of the review that she and Francis believed to be libellous. He further asked her to include the evidence of their authorisation so that we could address their concerns. Milena, however, ignored this, and emailed me again, telling me to take down the review before they took legal action. I replied, repeating what John had said, and also stressing that we couldn’t help them until they told us what issues they had with my review. I also asked her to send me evidence of authorisation, and asked for specifics, including the details of who exactly had authorised the show, such as the TV channel, the production company or the show’s writers.

Milena responded, ignoring my request, offering no evidence of authorisation, and further accusing me of trying to discredit the company, alleging that I had something against Sunshine Inc. This is untrue; I had never heard of Sunshine Inc until John forwarded me their Fringe PR in May. After reading this email, and following legal advice, I was told not to respond to any further emails from either Milena, Francis or any other representative of Sunshine Inc, as they had stated they were taking legal action, and could use our emails against us in the future. The lawyer also assured us that if they really were taking legal action, we’d be hearing from their lawyer, and not them, as they would also be told not to contact us for the same reasons.

However, despite my silence, Milena continued to email me throughout the day, and her emails became steadily more aggressive and more bizarre. John even forwarded me an email that Milena had sent to him, alleging that I was involved with a rival theatre company, naming the founder of that company, a woman I shall call Julie, and stating that this company had a “history of malicious intent” against Sunshine Inc. Incidentally, when Milena emailed John with this allegation, she inadvertently libelled me and Julie by alleging we were working together. These emails culminated in Milena taking a screenshot of my Twitter account, stating that the nature of my tweets regarding their show, which had been written after the review had been published, showed my negative review had been “premeditated” and that they were “taking further action”. They further accused me of “gross unprofessionalism”.

I contacted the Fringe Media Office to ask for advice about the situation. To my surprise, they told me that they were aware of what was happening, as Sunshine Inc had contacted them earlier that day. They told me that in a phone call that lasted around an hour, both Milena and Francis had spoken to Fringe media officers, demanding that the Fringe use their “considerable power” to force John and me to remove the review from The Public Reviews. The Fringe Media Office refused, as they don’t possess that power, nor do they want to.

A few days later, someone from Sunshine Inc called my mobile, but I let the call go straight to answer phone. They didn’t leave a message, and luckily, they haven’t tried to phone me since. Their emails, however, continued until the end of the Fringe, as they emailed John on several occasions to ask for the details of our “Managing Director” and for an address, so they could send an “official letter of complaint.” Eventually, John emailed them back, explaining that we had no managing director, we had no official address as we are online media, and that the best way to get in touch was to email him with specific concerns. Which, irritatingly enough, was what we asked them to do weeks earlier, when they had first made legal threats. They responded, asking “Who owns and runs The Public Reviews?” To which John explained that he did, and we haven’t heard from them since.

This happened during the second week of the Fringe, and while I like to consider myself as an experienced and confident reviewer, this incident shook me to the core. It made me question myself, my writing, my abilities and my voice, and was an extra stress during an already incredibly stressful time. I trained in art journalism for two years at university, and I have worked hard for the last three years since graduating to establish myself as an honest, objective and constructive critic. While I have had my fair share of abuse because of my reviews, this is the first time that I have been threatened with legal action for what I have written. I researched the piece thoroughly, as I do with every review I write, and I wrote a truthful and accurate review.

What’s very interesting, however, is that Sunshine Inc had one other reviewer attend the show, who also gave them a negative review. I have spoken to the editor of that publication, and they have not been contacted by anyone from Sunshine Inc. Recently, I made contact with one of the writers of the TV show, who confirmed that Sunshine Inc had never received authorisation from him to use his characters in their show.

Reviews are, essentially, the reviewer’s opinion, and as with any thing else in life, opinions will differ on almost many subjects, especially when it comes to performance. People are entitled to disagree with critical opinion, just as they are entitled to disagree with popular opinion. However, threats of legal action, and the intimidation, bullying and harassment of journalists simply because someone disagrees with what they have written, are immoral, unethical and odious. I cannot and will not be treated this way, by a company that are so desperate to undermine my authority and my review that they are prepared to not only accuse me of libel, but also in turn, libel both me and Julie in email correspondence. I have no idea if Milena and Francis have threatened journalists before, but judging by how quickly they threatened me with legal action, I would hazard a guess that this probably isn’t the first time that they’ve done this.

My advice to any company that is disappointed with a review is to see what they can take from it. If the review is constructive, then there will be something positive in there that you can learn from. If the reviewer has made an error, such as a spelling error, or got the name of an actor wrong, then feel free to contact them and tell them. Journalists, like all human beings, are fallible, and often work to very tight deadlines, especially during Fringe time. Tight deadlines, full schedules and many, many sleepless nights can lead to mistakes in copy. Editors are often very happy to correct inaccuracies when contacted.

However, a difference in opinion is simply a difference in opinion. Libel law exists to protect people who have been libelled and who have had very unfair things said about them in print. It does not exist to prosecute journalists who give a show a negative review, and it most certainly was not created to be used as a threat designed to intimidate journalists, editors and bloggers. Libel is a very, very damaging word and process, it comes with responsibility and should only be used if there is an actual case for libel proceedings. Journalists are busy people. Journalists are especially busy during the Fringe; we don’t even have the time to respond to the most basic emails during August, let alone waste precious hours and even days, dealing with baseless and utterly false allegations against us. I am very angry that I had to devote what little time I had during the Fringe to Sunshine Inc, because it cut into my reviewing schedule, which meant that I couldn’t attend the shows that I really, really wanted to review.

So to all journalists and bloggers: familiarise yourself with UK media law; study it until you can recite it. Join the NUJ – they have lots of lawyers who can deal with threats like this on your behalf. Stand your ground, don’t give into intimidation, bullying and aggressive, underhand tactics by “companies” like Sunshine Inc.

To all the people who supported me during this difficult time, including John and Glen at The Public Reviews, my close friends and family, the Fringe Media Office, Liam Rudden of The Edinburgh Evening News, Nick Awde of The Stage, and the CATS panel, including Michael Cox, Joyce McMillan, Mary Brennan, Allan Radcliffe, Mark Brown, Neil Cooper, Mark Fisher, Thom Dibdin and Gareth K. Vile: thank you. Your words and advice were of great comfort, and I’m so glad that you took the time to listen to me and support me last month.

And finally, to Sunshine Inc, I will say this: journalists communicate with one another. This means that if you threaten a writer or a publication with legal proceedings, other writers will hear about it. Once others learn about your treatment of journalists, it damages your reputation more than any negative review ever could. Some might say that’s ironic, but to me, that’s poetic justice.

Update: Following a request from Interactive Theatre International (formerly Interactive Theatre Australia) I am happy to confirm that the show and company in this blog have no connection with Interactive Theatre International or their show, Faulty Towers The Dining Experience which was performed at B’est Restaurant at this year’s Fringe.

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