Tag Archives: reviews

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.

Six Tips for the Young Arts Journalist

30 Sep

Image courtesy of NS Newsflash, under a Creative Commons Licence

So, you want to be an arts journalist. You want to write about the arts, interview influential people and perhaps even travel the world in search of all things culture-related. So, before you go out into the world, and start trying to make a name for yourself as a promising new writer, here are a few things that you need to know. I know that some of them sound very obvious to most of us, but believe me, some people need to be told these things.

Leave Your Ego At The Door

Even if you’ve studied journalism in some form already, had work experience at a paper, or even, managed the holy grail and got some money for your writing, your ego can and will be your downfall. Writing is obviously a very useful talent to have in the industry, but listening and having respect for others is too.

This means that when your editor asks you for something, you do it.

This means that if you attend a show, gig or screening, you are a representative of your publication, you need to be on your best behaviour.

This also means that you should be polite to people you deal with, such as press officers PRs, editors and other writers. Being rude will give you a bad reputation, and also make people less likely to want to work with you.

Be Persistent

In journalism, persistence is key. Editors are very, very busy people; our inboxes fill up quickly with emails, and so if you’ve emailed someone looking for work, or pitching a piece, don’t be afraid to send them a follow-up email. The same goes for PRs and press officers; if you’re waiting on a response to a ticket request, get back in touch and ask for confirmation.

It once took me 17 emails and a phone call to arrange and confirm an email with a director, so if you don’t receive a response to your initial email, keep trying.

Listen to Feedback

Some editors will give you feedback on your work, others will not. If you are lucky enough to receive feedback on your copy, then listen to it. As an editor, having a writer that refuses to listen to feedback about their work, and who continues to make the same errors over and over again, is extremely frustrating.

Editors don’t have the time to keep correcting the same errors in a writer’s copy time and time again; they want writers that will listen to feedback.

Be Reliable

Like persistence, reliability is another skill that any young journalist should have. This means turning to shows/gigs/events/interviews on time, and then submitting copy by the deadline.

Turning up to something that you are meant to cover late, or indeed, failing to turn up at all destroys any trust your editor may have in you. Similarly, attending an event and then not submitting copy will blacklist you from that publication, and perhaps others.

Editors like to talk to one another, and if you behave poorly for one editor, others will hear about it, trust me.

Pay Attention to the Word Count

Word counts exist for a reason, and for print publications, they exist in order to make sure that the piece will fit into its allocated space without messing up the entire page its set to be printed on.

Although online journalism is obviously different to print, word counts are just as important for online publications as well. This means that you stick to the word count, so if an editor as for a 300 word review, the review needs to be 300 words, not 200, and most certainly not 600.

Speaking from an editor’s perspective, receiving an email that begins with the words “I know it’s over the word count but…” is infuriating. Learn how to self-edit, it’s a skill that will never leave you once you’ve mastered it. So don’t be lazy, stick to the word count.

Never, Ever Plagiarise 

Plagiarism is another word for ripping off or copying other people’s work. Plagiarism, while not illegal, is highly immoral and a very serious problem in journalism. Being caught plagiarising can and will end your career as a journalist, as no editor or publication will work with any journalist who is caught passing off other people’s work as their own.

It’s a despicable and unforgivable thing to do, and there is never any excuse for it. Do yourself a favour, and never let yourself and your publication down by doing it – ignorance is not an excuse.

Again, I realise I may be preaching to the converted here, but spreading the word about these problems will help tackle the common issues that young journalists and their editors will face.

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.

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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