Tag Archives: Theatre Criticism

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.

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.

Why Your EdFringe PR Campaign Sucks

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

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

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

But I’m Only at the Fringe for Three Days

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

But I Want to Party Hard

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

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

But The Fringe is Too Big

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

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

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

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

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

How Do I Make My Voice Heard?

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

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

How Should I Submit My PR?

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

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

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

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

What About Social Media?

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

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

Do Not Do Any Of These Things in Your PR Campaign

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

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

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

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

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.

What I Learned About Theatre Criticism in 2012

27 Dec

The Critic

This year has really flown by. It seems like last week I was preparing for the Fringe and now, suddenly, here I am, sitting in my living room, surrounded by Christmas chocolates, wondering what the Hell happened this year. So, in the spirit of reflection, procrastination and a slice of goodwill, here are the vital lessons I learned about theatre criticism this year.

You Will Never Be Popular

There’s one thing I can confidently say about being a theatre critic; you will have  a very interesting relationship with those around you. Directors, actors, the public and even theatre FOH staff may not like you. Unless you’ve done something really personal to offend them, don’t sweat it, this is part of the job. If you write something people agree with, they will celebrate you; if you write a piece that they disagree with, then they will probably dismiss you. Your name will be celebrated by some, but unfortunately, it will become mud in some circles – accept it, wear it as a badge of honour, but don’t let it get you down.

Arguments on Twitter Are Never a Good Idea

I love Twitter – it’s probably my favourite social network – and while I don’t update my Twitter feed daily, I’m on the site every day, sometimes several times a day. But, like social networks, it has its downside, in fact, it has many downsides at times.  The 140 character limit of a tweet can be frustratingly limited, and we’re all guilty of leaping to the wrong conclusions because of one misunderstood tweet from time to time. So, even though so-called ‘Twitter spats’ can be very, very funny to read, they are nowhere as fun to be involved in – especially if you’re on the receiving end of another person’s unrestrained and completely unexpected bile. If you find yourself being drawn into a Twitter spat, don’t rise to anything, keep a clear head, and a sense of humour.

Nasty Critics Get Nowhere

Have you ever had to work with, or had the misfortune of being around a nasty person? Someone who thought nothing of being rude about other people in order to make themselves seem better by comparison? Well, some people seem to think that this is the way forward in theatre criticism. All too often, I have seen new critics attempt to ruffle feathers by writing very harsh, or downright rude reviews – this doesn’t get you very far, it gives you a bad reputation, and it makes you seem bitter. Don’t do this. The way to make your mark is by writing good reviews and being a reliable writer, you want to make friends and influence people, not be rude and alienate them.

Other Critics Will Irritate You

Believe it or not, critics are people too. And just like every other human beings, we are as irrational and emotional and as fallible as everyone else on the planet. This year was the year that I really managed to get out there and meet lots of critics; from established critics, to brand new critics, to up-and-coming critics, and I learned something new from all of them. However, as with every vocation, it’s almost impossible to get on with everyone, and some critics will naturally clash. Why? Because we are human; we share our opinions, we don’t always agree with each other’s opinions, and we have to work together in very confined spaces. So, accept that people will annoy you, and accept that you probably annoy other people too, and for the sake of a quiet life, try to avoid the ones you don’t get on with, they’re probably not really worth getting annoyed about.

Content is King

Sure, some publications will get read regardless of the quality of their content; perhaps the best example of this is The Daily Mail, but please excuse the cliché for a moment, because content is king for critics. We have to get our facts right first time, we must be impartial, fair, and we have to make our points with care our signature style. Everyone’s got a different way of writing, and that’s what’s really beautiful about the critical game – we’re all very distinctive in our own way. But remember, when writing reviews to research the production, question its themes and direction and write well. Believe me, editors and readers always remember the critics that write well.

Online Publications Will Be the Future (In the Future)

The people that lament the apparent death of print journalism (see below) and it is true that the industry is losing more money every year; we haven’t quite worked out how to make money from online journalism just yet. Yes, some publications, like The Times, have a paywall, and Newsweek recently ended their print edition to go online only, but the recent death of The Daily,Rupert Murdoch’s paid news app for the iPadproves that while demand for quality online journalism is high, we haven’t quite found a way to make real, sustainable and regular money from it.

Print is Not Dead

Just a few years ago, traditional print journalism was in its prime, and online journalism was seen as more of a support to the print format. Now, of course, online has overtaken print, and many commentators, pundits, journalists and writers have been quick to cry that print journalism, for the most part, is dead. I disagree, there is still a market for print journalism – a lot of magazines can only work in the print format – and a lot of people prefer them. It’s true, publishers, even some leading ones, are losing money – but the presses are still printing our daily, weekly and monthly magazines. In fact, until every company stops churning out a print version of their publication, then the medium is very much alive.

Know Your Worth

When you take your first wobbly steps on the sticky path towards becoming a recognised, respected and paid theatre critic, you will have to do some work for free. This is a great way to start building up your portfolio and getting your name out there, and the good thing about building up your portfolio this way, is that there are always lots of websites looking for voluntary writers. However, the bad thing about this situation is that there are always websites looking for unpaid writers. Like I said before, we’re still trying to find a way to make money from online journalism, and so, many websites and editors can’t pay their writers, because there is no money. This is true for a number of sites, but some sites can and do, pay their writers, but often use voluntary writers too. It’s important to know your worth, though, and don’t get stuck doing unpaid work for years and years or for the sake of ‘getting a link back to your blog’ or ‘having your name published’. Get some writing work, get some experience, and then start looking for ways to get money for your work if you can.

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.

Money and Change: A Young Journalist’s Lament

3 Sep

Image

When I started training to be a theatre critic in 2007, theatre criticism, the internet and digital media were very different. Print was still the primary place for all things theatre criticism related, and indeed, journalism, while online was seen as a younger, but less important sidekick to the newspaper industry.

When I graduated in 2009, theatre criticism, and indeed journalism as an industry, was already changing; content was increasingly being published online, and independent websites were starting to rival the output of more established printed magazines. But perhaps, most importantly, in 2009, the credit crunch of 2007/2008 had become a full-blown recession, leading to redundancies, the closure of newspapers and publishers and fewer opportunities for both young and established journalists. For a new journalist, like me, who needed experience, working for free was a very real and very real way to get into the industry.

In 2012, journalism is still evolving; while some newspapers, such as The Times, The Sunday Times in the UK and The New York Times in the US have put their online content behind a paywall. However, they are fighting against increasingly popular and considerably newer websites, who continue to put their content out for free. While a paywall may be the way forward, and a way for revenue-starved newspapers to increase their circulation and make some money from their websites, many readers, writers, journalists and editors disagree on the use of them.

But the conundrum remains – how can journalists start making money from online content? How much to charge? How often to charge for access to online content? And perhaps most importantly, how do readers feel about paying for accessing news websites?

I always knew that journalism wasn’t well paid, and so, the desire to write and inform outweighed any ideas I might have once have had about making more than £25,000 a year. Although I’ve continued to work for free since graduating, primarily because paid opportunities are very slim if you have no contacts in the industry, I’ve still managed to make a total of £190 from my writing since then. However, this figure is from three separate commissions over three years and in the meantime, in the hope of being noticed, I’ve continued to write for free. I’ve also paid for all travel, food and other expenses during time, so, in that sense, some remuneration would be fair, if not deserved. But until some changes are made across the board and every newspaper decides how they can make money from online, more and more writers will have to continue to work for nothing.

Photo by Images_of_money under Creative Commons Licence

KNUT

DIY or DIE

Deeply Fascinating

Thoughts on contemporary performance

Lili La Scala

a collection of words and pictures

The Arabic Apprentice

A native English speaker's attempts to master Arabic

Stroppy Editor

Minding other people’s language. A lot.

Keren Nicol

Thoughts from an arts marketer living in in Scotland. Not always about arts marketing

EYELASHROAMING

A blog by Ashleigh Young. A burning wreck

monica byrne

writer . playwright . artist . activist . traveler

Grey Carnivals

Close, but no cigar

Captain Awkward

Advice. Staircase Wit. Faux Pas. Movies.

Planet Edinburgh

Strange and exotic anecdotes from the planet Edinburgh

Benjamin Studebaker

Yet Another Attempt to Make the World a Better Place by Writing Things

Annalisa Barbieri

Writer and broadcaster

%d bloggers like this: