Tag Archives: Theatre Critic

Trash’s 20 Arts Criticism Tenets

15 Jan
Image by GabeWW, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by HeyGabe, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

1. Sit down and shut the fuck up.

2. Your phone is not important during a performance.

3. Separate your personal feelings about an artist from their work. Love the art, hate the artist.

4. Write for the reader.

5. Listen to criticism of your work, but brush off the abuse.

6. Stay humble, no one wants to work with an asshole.

7. Be passionate about your work.

8. Fact check, fact check, oh dear Lord, fact check.

9. The only thing that should restrict your review is the word count.

10. A good critic can work around any word count,.

11. Going to a performance with an open mind and no expectations can lead to great experiences.

12. Remember that a review is not a stagnant piece of prose; it is a fluid work, it adapts, evolves and grows as you do.

13. Resisting change is futile.

14. Refusing to travel to “the regions” to see “regional work” will be your downfall.

15. Pay attention to what you’re reviewing; an alarming amount of ‘critics’ don’t.

16. Don’t write about yourself; the reader wants to read about the show, not your memories.

17. However, if you have a very relevant story to share, then by all means, share it. Just make sure that it’s relevant to the piece.

18. If you attempt to write a review that spends more time discussing how attractive or unattractive you find the actors in the piece, then you shouldn’t be a journalist, let alone a reviewer.

19. Try to keep on top of your emails, because some people will only email you once.

20. Don’t draw attention to yourself while you’re working. It’s off-putting to performers and it makes you look like a tool.

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Surviving Bad Theatre

5 Dec
Image by boltron- used under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by boltron- used under a Creative Commons Licence

Once, during a particularly bad piece of theatre, a critic friend of mine, who was bored past the point of tears, decided to count the number of ceiling tiles in the auditorium. I can’t remember the exact amount of tiles, but it was an impressive number – it even made it into his review – but more recently, Lyn Gardner’s latest and excellent piece on the unique agony of watching bad theatre has got me thinking about how to survive a night of terrible theatrics.

I’ve walked out of show twice. The first time was during a Lithuanian production that was performed during the Baltic Theatre Festival in Riga, Latvia in 2011. It involved a lot of shouting. A LOT OF SHOUTING. At the interval, the group I was in met up, pulled the similar unimpressed expression, and made the unanimous decision to leave.

The second time was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012, and that was because the show was awful, and I mean, really awful. The only thing going for it was that it was dinner theatre, so at least I wasn’t hungry, but after two hours of cringeworthy attempts at comedy, and after realising that the show was running half an hour longer than it said it would, and after making eyes at the exit for, oh, most of the ‘performance’, me and my editor decided to make a run for it. Once we made our Sheepish Great Escape, a strange thing happened, other people followed our lead, perhaps buoyed by the realisation that yes, it was possible to leave before the end.

But in four years of semi-professional reviewing and six years of reviewing in total, why have I only ever walked out of two shows? Am I too trusting? Am I too optimistic? Or am I worried that my credibility could be questioned if I leave a show too early?

If I’m honest, it’s a mix of all three. While there is nothing that can physically stop me from leaving, bar being in the middle of the aisle, surrounded on either side by audience members with bad knees and an even worse attitude, the thought of leaving the theatre too early fills me with a kind of dread. In some ways, I must be a sucker for punishment, as I often find myself thinking that “Oh, it’ll get better in the second act…” and then when the inevitable terrible second act begins, I curse my eternal optimism, and gaze longingly at the door.

I can remember once, sitting next to the then-boyfriend of a friend of mine, during a particularly tedious production of Testing the Echo at the Traverse Theatre. I was fidgeting, desperate for it to end, and I found to my surprise that he was too. I longed to turn round and whisper to him that it was ok, I was also finding it really rather dull, but I was bound by two things: politeness and the reviewer’s code. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of knowing I had a kindred spirit in the auditorium, but I couldn’t tell them, so we had to sit there, in silent discomfort.

So, what is it about live performance that makes it difficult for me and indeed, others, to walk out? While I usually attend the theatre in my role as a critic, which can be pretty binding, theatre walkouts in general, as far as I have seen, tend to be few and far between. Is this need to endure bad theatre a typically British phenomenon? Are we worried about offending those on stage and our contemporaries in the audience?

It’s easy to walk out of a cinema, you can leave a gig without too many problems, some people like heckling both good and bad comedians, although I’ve never understood why, and pressing stop on a bad DVD, before using it as a  coaster until the end of time seems perfectly logical. But with theatre, why can’t I feel more confident about walking out of a bad show? Because I’m there to do a job, not a well-paid job, but a job none the less.

I think one of the greatest untruths about critics is that we love a bad show. While negative reviews can be easier to write, no critic I know would willingly invest their time in a poor production. If we’re going to review a show, any show in fact, we want it to be good, and if it isn’t good, then we want it to be short.

That’s all we want, or even need, we are a simple breed, really, because time is really important to us. Those few hours we spend squirming in the auditorium could be spent writing, with our families, pitching to editors, and dare I say it, at this time of year, Christmas shopping.

However, time is important to everyone, so, have you ever watched a piece of theatre until the bitter end? Or have you walked out voicing your disgust? I could use a few tips on what to do, or how to cope, so let me know your advice in the comments.

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.

Critics and the Theatre Industry

2 Mar
Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

The thing about being a theatre critic, or a critic of any art form, is that you can often feel like you’re standing in front of a locked door,  trying to find a way to get in. For example, you may give a show a very positive review only to have your work ignored by the PR team, who choose reviews from a bigger publication over yours. When you write for a smaller, or less established publication, you are the smallest fish in the biggest pond, a pond that only becomes more vast when thoughtless PRs make comments like: “Oh, glad you’re all here, but just to let you know we were really hoping for FAMOUS SUCCESSFUL CRITIC to come along.” And yes, this did happen to a friend of mine as they stood in the foyer of a theatre, with other local critics waiting to review a show.

Sometimes you’re popular; the phone never stops ringing, the emails never stop dropping into your inbox, and these emails are quickly joined by follow-up emails, checking that you received the first email. Sometimes your website crashes because of the sheer number of people trying to get on it to read reviews and get your email address to tell you about another show that you have to review. Other times, friends you haven’t seen or heard from for a while will leap out of the ether, inviting you to review their new show, saying, ” We must catch up, it’s been too long!” only for your enthusiastic response to go unnoticed; calls are missed, texts are forgotten, and back into the ether they go. You have no idea how much we critics suffer, I mean, really.

I’m being dramatic here, but the truth is, that being a critic can be a lonely existence sometimes; spending long nights in front of the computer, trying to write your seventh review of the day, is necessary, it’s what we signed up for when we took the first step on the broken cobbled road that leads to becoming a critic. But that doesn’t mean that these nights are easy, or enjoyable, and sometimes they can be pretty isolating – have you ever stayed up so late that nobody else seems to be on Twitter? It’s very odd.

While I can’t speak for other critics, I put everything I have at that moment into my reviews, but even then, I have off days. I’ve had days where summing up a simple synopsis takes too long, and days when my writing is so poor, and so utterly unreadable that I’m begging my editor for a late pass so I can attempt to completely rewrite the piece. I’ve had weeks when the prospect of writing another review fills me with dread, when writer’s block has had me staring at a blank word document wondering what the Hell I am doing and why on earth I keep doing this to myself.

I’ve had days when comments on my work have made me glad I chose this path, and days when a simple error on a review, or an omitted piece of information has The Reader completely doubting me, my work and my reasons for reviewing. As a reviewer you get used to the angry commenter’s cry of, “Oh, what do you know, you’re just a failed and bitter director/actor/producer/playwright.” Although, from experience, I’ve found the commenters that are the most vicious and the most personal in their insults of a critic are usually connected to the show that I’ve reviewed – whether they are directly involved with the show in some way, or they are related to someone in the production.

That is not to say critics are infallible, because no one is. It’s impossible to never make mistakes. Errors can range from spelling and grammatical errors, to factual howlers and even, wait for it, a lack of writing talent. Every critic has a different style; you get the A.A. Gills of the world who seem to delight taking cruel swipes at those in the spotlight (remember what he said about Professor Mary Beard?) There are others who specialise in schmoozing; the ‘Star Fuckers’, who slither up to actors and directors to tell them facetiously how wonderful they are, and how much they enjoyed their work, before desperately attempting to become part of their entourage. One of my biggest pet peeves is the critic who just wants to see shows for free, because for these critics, their writing is just an afterthought – these are the critics that give the rest of us a bad name. The ones that don’t fact check, make sweeping statements, offend the director and the actors with their poor words, the ones that arrive late to shows, the ones that are rude to press officers, PRs and FOH staff. I have no time for these people, and frankly, neither should anyone in the industry, this is not the way to move criticism forward.

So, this morning, I read, with interest, Jethro Compton’s Angry Young Man blog post, in which he argued passionately that the relationship between the media and the theatre industry must change, and I whole-heartedly agree. Although I believe that when Mr Compton refers to ‘Edinburgh’ in the post he means the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and not just the city itself, and that being an unprofessional writer doesn’t automatically mean that you are a bad writer. I could be defined as not being professional, simply because I don’t get a regular income from my writing, something which my bank account likes to remind me. Yet, I would say that my writing style is more professional than amateur.

The theatre industry critics need each other in order to survive, and as a new generation of theatre makers and arts journalists are swelling the ranks on either side, we must come to a mutual understanding of our intertwined industries. Criticism, for me, comes out of my respect and love of the arts; I don’t want to see anyone fail, I simply want to see them creating pieces that they, and by extension, I, can be proud of.

I am an Angry Young Woman, and critics and theatre practitioners both work in industries where our errors, failures and other issues are played out in public, so let’s break down the barriers and smash open the locked doors that sit between us and let’s get the theatre industry and the press working together, so that we can all start yelling, and yelling together about the ongoing issues that affect the media and the arts.

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.

Of Pen Names and Pseudonyms

28 Sep

In the age of new media, how do we value anonymity? Does using a pen name devalue journalism? The recent publication of a review written by a critic using a pen name ignited a debate between critics and performers on the need for pseudonyms in criticism. Some said that anonymous reviews “…completely negate the credibility of your magazine”, whilst others dismissed the practice as “cowardly”.

So, are anonymous reviews ever okay? Yes. I believe that using a false name does not mean a writer is peddling false information or an untruthful review, and using an assumed name doesn’t mean that a writer doesn’t stand by their work. In fact, I have two writers that use pen names as a way to separate their reviewing lives from their everyday lives and future careers. I understand why they do this, and I’ve always been very open with venues and editors about their assumed names.

A professional writer’s reasons for choosing anonymity over a recognisable byline aren’t due to nefarious reasons or ulterior motives. Pen names have long been part of the journalism industry; in the 18th and 19th century, it was very common for journalists to produce pieces under a different name. In fact, George Bernard Shaw began his career working as a music critic for The Star, using the pseudonym, Corno di Bassetto. Similarly, as a young student, Arthur Miller wrote criticism under the name Matt Wayne and Anthony Burgess was a pseudonym based on the writer’s birth name, John Anthony Burgess Wilson.

Obviously the growth of the internet has made anonymous critics, whether they are existing critics or the public, commonplace However, those that choose not to reveal their names when writing reviews aren’t trolling. Their lack of identity doesn’t mean that they lack morals or basic journalism training; their reasons for staying anonymous are many and are often very personal.

For example, a writer might choose to write under another name because an established journalist already uses their name. I’ve never used a pen name, however, in the future, I might have to use one, because there is already a journalist called Amy Taylor, and using another name, or simply using my initials might end any confusion between the two of us.

Another reason would be that the writer has a name that is hard to pronounce or spell, so simplifying it would make them easier to search for online, and also make their name much easier for editors and readers alike to remember. Or a writer may want to give themselves a new name in order to improve or make their birth name more suitable to their vocation. After all, would you rather read an essay by an author called Thomas Lanier Williams III or Tennessee Williams?

Some writers choose a pen name to end the limitations of their name, or begin to write pieces in a different style, or about a different subject. In 1977, Steven King, fearing he would oversaturate the horror novel market by publishing too many books in one year, began writing  under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. His alter ego was ‘killed off’ very suddenly in 1985, when an intrepid book store clerk uncovered Bachman’s real identity.

Similarly, Iain Banks, who wrote the horror novels The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, uses the name Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels, in order to define his separate writing identities.

Anonymity might be part of their work, such as if the writer regularly writes about real life stories. For example, Gizmodo UK’s police blogger uses the pseudonym Matt Delito when writing about his job in the police force. While he never names his colleagues or the people he arrests in his work, his position has to be anonymous in order to protect him and the cases he works on. If he were to be ‘unmasked’ his job, his livelihood, his cases and perhaps even his life could be put in danger. Gizmodo informs the reader that Delito is a pseudonym via a disclaimer, as do most publications that carry this type of content.

In the world of criticism, content is king. But are we putting too much emphasis on bylines? Are we putting author credit above the quality of our own content? Producing a review that is rich, readable and above all authoritative, is what every critic strives for, and indeed, it’s what every reader wants to see. Consistency, like writing high-quality and engaging content is also vital. If a writer uses just one pseudonym regularly throughout their career, their pen name will be established, and that name will become a familiar feature in the industry that they write about.

Some writers choose to be transparent about their pen names, such as the novelist Nora Roberts, has also written novels under the name J.D. Robb. Her tactic of being open about her pen name makes her seem more versatile to her readers. But for some critics and other writers, transparency is not something that they can commit to, for various reasons. Anonymity can be and is a very valuable tool for some critics, for some it is a way of getting noticed, and for others, it’s simply a way of keeping a part of their lives personal.

So do anonymous reviews ruin a magazine’s reputation? It depends on the content, and the writer’s reasons for being anonymous. But in terms of theatre criticism, it would take a very, very poorly written review written by a critic under a pseudonym to do that. As for them being cowardly, with journalism becoming tougher to get into, more and more writers may take on part-time, or perhaps even full-time work in order to make ends meet. Are they cowardly, or a fact of life as a writer? Are writers truly aware of how prevalent pen names are in the creative industries? Perhaps we should all start being more transparent about the use of pen names in journalism, in order to end the stigma that seems to surround them in the 21st century? We are, as a species, naturally suspicious of secrecy, but we need to embrace the pseudonym once again, especially in journalism, because pen names aren’t just part of the industry, they’re one of the many reasons that journalism has thrived.

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.

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