Tag Archives: Edinburgh Fringe

Plugging Project: Kabarett

This post will involve a little less introspection than usual and a hell of a lot more plugging. I have an event coming up that I’m quite excited about…

On Saturday 27th July I’ll be taking part in Project: Kabarett, a fundraiser for an amazing immersive Weimar experience. It’s the brainchild of Susanna Mulvihill, who plays Madeleine Smith in Tightlaced’s production of I Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards, and it’ll be opening at Summerhall in January 2014 – but first we need to find the money.

The show itself, properly titled 1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett, will bring together Edinburgh-based artists from all sorts of disciplines and many of the people who are currently working on the project will be taking part in the fundraiser on the 27th. I don’t know the whole line-up at the moment, but I know about a handful of the performers and can assure you that it’ll be an eclectic mix and a great night for £10!

We’ve got three short plays from me, Susanna and Tightlaced Resident Writer Fiona McDonald (who was recently longlisted for the James Tait Black Award, so we’re all even prouder of her talent than usual). We’ve got Miss Fi and the Lost Head Band, Eleanor Morton, Colin Hoult, Tom Watton, Hazel DuBourdieu and a sneak preview of song of the music for 1933! We’ll also be giving you a chance to win a variety of interesting prizes, ranging from Fringe tickets to a custom-written short play.

Susanna and I also have our first outing as Chanson et le Chat, taking on a few operatic favourites and hopefully winning. It’ll be the first opportunity anyone has had to hear me sing in public since 2005 (I think), so it’s a combination of nerve-wracking and exhilarating for me… and possibly for the audience! Our programme consists of Mozart, Offenbach, Rossini and the inevitable Delibes, and we’ve been having a great time getting them into shape.

So if you fancy an evening of appreciating and supporting Edinburgh’s local talent before the world arrives on our doorstep for the Festivals, the trick is to contact sporadicmusic@gmail.com to book tickets! Please come. You’ll love it.

 

And of course, there’ll be an over-long introspective post about the return to singing at some point between now and the 27th… I wouldn’t dream of doing this or anything else without a little bit of angst.


Writing Creepie Stool

Yes, it’s that time of year already… The Fringe is poised and ready to pounce, snapping us up in its five star fangs yet again. It’s no secret that I have a love/hate relationship (weighted in favour of love, but the hate can’t be ignored) with the theatrical behemoth that takes up residence on the Royal Mile every August. As it gets closer, no doubt there’ll be posts from me about its irritations and imperfections. However, at present I have reason to love it and to celebrate.

This year I wrote my first commissioned piece for the Fringe. It’s called Creepie Stool, and it’s part of the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. They commissioned two new plays from Edinburgh writers on the theme of sectarianism. I was one of those writers, Jen Adam was the other – her play is called Kiss, Cuddle, Torture. It’s a lovely feeling, being asked to write a play rather than starting by writing one and then shopping it around in the hope that you’ll find someone who wants to stage it, or producing it yourself. However, it’s really weird writing a play to a specific brief.

I’m used to writing to a brief in other styles. When I ghostwrite fiction, the briefs are often very specific. There are particular formulae I’m usually asked to use within the genres in which I specialise. They’re not the same stories that I choose to write when I have no-one to answer to but myself, and the characters don’t make the same choices that they would if their fictional world was governed only by me. My job is to put flesh on pre-existing bones.

When I write plays, on the other hand, there are no pre-existing bones. I create the skeleton myself. Plays happen when I have an idea that rattles around in my head for long enough that I can’t ignore it. I start writing for the same reason that oysters start coating bits of grit in mucus – not with the intention of creating a pearl that someone might someday value, but simply to get this fucking sharp thing to stop irritating me. I don’t go looking for bits of grit. They just find their way in.

Starting work on a play without the bit of grit was a strange experience. I knew I had to write a play, I knew it had to be about sectarianism and I knew I had to deliver it by a particular date. You would think that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, considering that I was brought up by a Glaswegian Protestant and a Glaswegian Catholic. But there are two problems with that. First, Singing I’m No A Billy, He’s A Tim has already been written. Second, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my Mum’s death and the ninth anniversary of my Dad’s. Anything that takes me too close to the world they grew up in… no. Not just now. That way madness lies.

I considered various other options. There’s sectarian violence and discrimination all over the world. You’d think that it would be easy to find some where other than Scotland and write about the situation there. I didn’t, because sectarian issues tend to be incredibly complex and I would need more than a couple of months to do sufficient research to write anything that did justice to the places and people involved. The best I could have done would have been something trite, shallow and general, the kind of play that can do nothing more than reassure my fellow Guardian-reading lefties that we all know that sectarian violence is A Bad Thing. I needed to start from a position of actually knowing something.

So I looked to history. I’ve been an amateur history nut for most of my life. I can date it back to my first trip to Linlithgow Palace, when my dad started telling me stories about Mary, Queen of Scots and I realised that “the past” was a massive repository of my favourite thing: stories.  As I grew up and began to think critically I realised that history was not something fixed and known, it was open to interpretation and revision. It wasn’t pretty and orderly, and it certainly wasn’t some kind of golden age where everyone was better behaved than they are now.

The “golden age” attitude to the past came to annoy me more and more. When I worked as a tour guide I began to see how many people thought that anything that happened before 1960 was a BBC costume drama, the kind where the good end happily and the bad unhappily (give or take the occasional tragedy, where the unhappy demise of someone good is ultimately redeemed by the dignity and beauty of their death). I listened to people bemoaning the stupidity and selfishness of people in the present with increasing vexation. You think that people were more intelligent, more faithful, more honourable a hundred years ago, or a thousand? READ MORE. THINK MORE. Check out the Greeks moaning about how stupid and selfish people had become. I came to the conclusion that people, collectively, remain more or less the same. Values and influences change, but I think we remain more or less the same bundles of chemicals and impulses no matter when or where we live. (Then again, most of the confusion in my life has been caused by thinking – hoping – that other people are more or less similar to me, so what do I know? Still, I have yet to see anything that convinces me that people living centuries ago were fundamentally different to people today, so I stand by it.)

So how did this generate an idea for the play? Well, I am particularly interested in people’s need for a common enemy. Some years ago I did a Lifelong Learning course studying witchcraft in early modern Scotland, where I learned how little the persecution of “witches” had to do with witchcraft and how much it had to do with anti-Catholic sentiments and tension between the old faith and the comparatively recent adoption of Calvinism. I found it interesting, but I didn’t dig into the details too deeply at that point.

When I went looking for the Sectarian conflict that would prompt the play, I began thinking about how little I knew about  Calvinism. It’s a religion that had a profound influence on the country I grew up in, and yet I couldn’t have explained its basic beliefs.  I knew far more about the Church of England than the Church of Scotland – score one for Religious Education in Scottish schools! I knew a little about the Covenanters’ War, enough to understand that 17th century Scottish people had issues with Charles I and it was something to do with religious strife,  but I couldn’t have told you how the whole thing got started. I wondered whether the play might be lurking somewhere in the depths of that conflict, so I started digging.

That’s what led me to Jenny Geddes. In 1637 she got quite upset at the introduction of a new Book of Common Prayer. Charles I had been advised that the Scots weren’t going to like it, but he wasn’t a great one for listening to advice. Jenny thought it sounded a bit too much like Mass, so she picked up the stool she was sitting on and threw it at the minister of St Giles. A three-day riot ensued. Shortly afterwards, the National Covenant was created and signed, and the Coventanters’ War began.I started exploring Jenny’s motives. What got her so angry that day? What was she afraid of? What were the influences that got her to the point where she felt so strongly about what she was hearing?

Then I needed to find some other characters for her to interact with. There’s not a lot to go on, historically. Jenny Geddes didn’t have a well documented life. So I imagined her employer, the woman whose seat Jenny was being paid to keep in church that day. And I gave her a maidservant, because I wanted three women with different social status. I made a few basic decisions about what they would be, engineering their characteristics to allow for conflicts of interest and personality, and off I went.

In terms of research, this was a very difficult play to write. Even now that it’s written, I still don’t feel like I’ve completely got my head round it. If I hadn’t had a deadline, it would probably have become one of those plays that I rework for years and never show to anyone because it’s not exactly right yet. I’ve done my damnedest to get the historical context right, but I know I set myself an impossible task. Which makes me quite glad that I didn’t try to write a play about a present day culture that I don’t understand from the inside. At least I know that I won’t accidentally make things worse for Jenny Geddes, upset 17th century Scots by misrepresenting them, or trivialise an ongoing conflict.

Does that mean the play isn’t relevant? I don’t think so. We have a hell of a lot to learn from history. We don’t, as a society, because we reduce history to a Sunday teatime drama or a narrowly focused and horribly dry subject at school. I’m well aware that some people will come to see this play, take one look at the costumes and decide that it can’t possibly have anything to say about the world we live in today. All I can do is hope they’ll spot the similarities between 17th century people attacking a church because they considered Catholics a threat and 21st century people attacking mosques because they consider Muslims a threat.

The play is being directed by Jasmin Egner and has a fantastic cast; Angela Milton, Debbie Cannon and Belle Jones. I can’t wait to see what they’ll make of it. They’re intelligent, sensitive people and I trust them, which is great because now I have to leave it in their hands. My only involvement now is to throw research resources their way and try not to pester them. In the meantime, I am off to write a play that no-one asked me to write, with no brief at all, about what will happen when social media eventually turns on us all…


Picking up from roughly where we left off…

Hello blog, it’s been a while. May is always a bit of a crazy month. I’m not sure whether this is to do with seasonal shift or whether it’s a pattern I learned at school when it was always exam season, but the anxiety and depression always seem to squeeze a little bit tighter in May. It was also the Month of Many Deadlines, so between one thing and another I didn’t get anywhere near WordPress. But here I am now. Hello again.

There are plenty of things I’ve been meaning to write about, but I’ve been in the grip of depressive thinking recently. I get to the stage where I can’t face writing about anything because I’ve got the Demon in my head telling me that no-one is remotely interested and there’s no point in writing. My energy diminishes, so the act of writing out my thoughts becomes considerably harder (I am eternally grateful that I had solid plans to work from for my freelance gigs). It’s a significant danger sign for me, because I am always in the mood to pick apart my own psyche unless I’m getting depressed, and I have to be quite far gone before I lose the will to write.

Which brings me, by means of a completely seamless and not at all clunky segue, to the subject of a quote I see doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s attributed to Dorothy Parker, but I have no idea whether this is accurate and I am being too lazy to check. It goes like this “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Apparently many of my writer/aspiring writer friends agree with this, at least to the point where they’ll re-post it. I see an extreme version of this sentiment in some of my ghostwriting clients, who want their name on a book without the hassle of actually writing it. For me, it’s the other way round. I love writing. I really enjoy the actual process of stringing words together and typing them into my laptop, watching the word count rack up. Writing longhand is even better. There is something so incredibly beautiful about putting ink on a page. I like the sensation of forming letters, I like watching the ink turn from wet to dry. I never write with cheap ballpoints if I can avoid it,  because it’s a waste of an experience. Gel pens, fountain pens, rollerballs – those are delicious to write with. When I learned that my husband had a favourite type of pen, my heart skipped a beat.

When I write, my brain calms down a bit. My head no longer feels like a browser window with dozens of tabs open. My focus narrows. I never get as far as a single tab, whether literally or metaphorically, unless I’m in hyperfocus, but I get closer than when I’m not writing. I create a playlist for each project or I put on a film or a series with the right voices to help me get absorbed in the task. I don’t answer the phone (any excuse). I feel more settled.

Then I finish whatever I’m writing. That’s when we ditch the calm and move onto the storm. Goodbye enjoyable act of crafting words, hello maelstrom of self-doubt and anxiety. That’s when I have to actually read whatever I’ve written and see all the flaws and clunky bits staring back at me. It’s horrible. It’s so much easier when you just don’t finish things, which is why I have a “Bits and Pieces” folder. All my favourite stuff is in there. The half-formed ideas that live in that folder are the best ideas, because I haven’t got round to destroying them yet.

I get over it, of course. When I’m writing for other people I don’t have the luxury of all this anxiety. When it comes to my own work, I freak out a bit more. Especially when I write plays, because then I have to hear what I’ve written at some point. Then I sit in the audience and second-guess the reactions of everyone around me. I do all the things I tell everyone else not to do, like measuring the reactions my piece gets against anything else I’ve seen recently and trying to work out whether I think audiences are the best people to assess my work or whether I think they’ll enjoy anything that’s dressed up the right way. It’s fun. My demons get some healthy (for them) exercise. I get to question the extent to which the demons really live in my head and to what extent they’re part of the tortured artist persona that I love and loathe in shifting measure. (Some days it feels like actual mental health torment, some days it just feels like I’m a bit of a wanker. Both statements are true. Sometimes concurrently. Like I said, fun.)

If I were able to skip straight to “having written” without the actual writing bit, I couldn’t do it. All the anguish and none of the good stuff where I spend days in front of the keyboard, wandering the internet to find the music and snippets that keep my brain ticking over, doing stuff with words? Hell no. The angst! I can only imagine.

The next post will be more upbeat. I wrote a play for the Fringe – my first commissioned play, I get paid for it and everything – and now that it’s had a couple of drafts and there are actors involved I’m starting to like it again.  There are things I’d like to say about it, and I should get in practise before August rolls around and I have to start telling people to go and see it.


Plugs and theatre politics

Next week one of my short plays is being produced by Black Dingo as part of the company’s launch event. Information can be found by clicking here.

I’ve got a lot of time for Black Dingo. This is a production company that aims to provide a really valuable resource for grassroots theatremakers – a one stop shop where you can be matched up with the collaborators you need to make your project happen, and where basic production elements like modular sets and multi-purpose lights are available at prices that are realistic on fringe budgets.

It’s an ambitious project and a real labour of love on the part of the company’s director, David McFarlane. I’m not only excited about it because one of my plays is being put on, but because this kind of enterprise is what gives me hope for grassroots theatre.

Black Dingo is part of the growing number of fringe theatre companies who not only want to create excellent theatre, but who feel strongly about treating the professionals involved in a fair and ethical manner, who look for ways to make production costs more manageable so that more of a show’s budget can go towards payment of artists. It’s a company that understands the value of exchange, of shared resources and of thinking beyond the next production or individual ambitions.

It’s a starting point, and quite a good one. There are plenty of us who see that the old fringe theatre model is not sustainable, but that’s not to say that we’ve figured out the perfect new model to replace it. There is no Fair, Ethical and Financially Viable Fringe Theatre for Dummies. It’s a process, not a fait accompli. But it’s a fascinating and exciting process to be part of, and it’s a hell of a lot more rewarding than just sitting around lamenting the failure of the current model to thrive.

Theatre politics aside, Black Dingo has an interesting and mixed programme in store. My contribution is Lost Love, a play about a SatNav that falls in love with its owner with deadly consequences. It’s part of the Shots triple bill, along with Eros and Psyche by Hope Whitmore and David’s own play Sanctuary. You can see these on 8 and 11 October at The Granary in Leith.

There’s also a double bill of Texan comedy from James McLure – Laundry & Bourbon and Lone Star. I’ve seen both of these pieces in rehearsal and can’t wait to see the finished shows. The writing is really snappy and both casts are handling the balance between pathos and humour adeptly. And if you fancy something more serious, there’s Grace Under Pressure. I don’t know much about that one, but I do know that the title role is played by my lovely friend and frequent collaborator Danielle Farrow, which is usually a good sign that it’ll be worth watching!

Once we’ve got the opening night out of the way I’ll tell you the story behind Lost Love and save future undergraduates a bit of hassle by supplying the biographical reading myself…


Devoted & Disgruntled Follow-Up Edinburgh:The Mega Report

You’ll find my report on yesterday’s Open Space meeting here… Or if you’d rather read it right here on WordPress, look beneath the cut.  Continue reading


An Invitation

A short post today, because I’m full of the cold and barely know my own name so coherent content is beyond me.

I never got round to writing a post about my experiences at Devoted & Disgruntled. It was at the end of July, which meant that by the time I’d got my thoughts together I had no time to write about them. The moment for going into detail may have passed, but the short version is this: it was fantastic.

My expectations were not high. I was expecting apathy, a small turnout, a fair bit of moaning, little by way of solutions, lots of walking on eggshells. I’d also never been to an Open Space meeting before, and to be honest I was suspicious of the promise of open, self-governing discussion. I expected to get their and find that everything would be unsubtly guided and that there would still be right and wrong answers according to someone’s agenda. This probably tells you quite a bit about the things I fear and some of the experiences that have left their mark on me along the way – future posts, every one…

So imagine my surprise when I got there and found out that the meeting was everything it promised to be. It honestly was facilitated, not led. The meeting set the broad question “What are we going to do about theatre?” and under that banner, we were at liberty to call discussions on whatever we wanted. The range was massive, from the role of Creative Scotland to the role of ushers, from being a mid-career artist to how we were all feeling midway through the second day.

Everything felt very free. We could move from group to group, speak freely, tweet freely. There were no rules, just a few guidelines for how to get the most out of it – and those guidelines were focused on permission, not restriction.

It’s amazing what a difference that makes to someone like me. Tell me what I’m not allowed to do and I’ll immediately get annoyed and start kicking against the rules. Give me freedom to do as I like and I’m much better behaved. I suspect that’s true of many, perhaps even most artists.  We’re not really ‘rules’ people on the whole, are we? (Again, future posts…) Perhaps greater freedom rather than greater regulation is the thing that will help us find creative solutions to the problems facing the theatre industry.

I didn’t want the weekend to end. I was overwhelmed, over-stimulated, exhausted and energised all at once. All I wanted to do was rest for a bit and then start up again. That’s how I found myself speaking up in the closing circle and offering Tightlaced’s rehearsal studio as a space for a follow-up. I’d love to think that we might be able to have regular satellite groups, but one thing at a time.

So this is an open invitation to anyone who wants to come to the follow-up meeting. You don’t have to have been at the weekend in July. You just have to want to come. Here are the details:

Date: Sunday 16 September

Time: 10.00 – 19.00 (You can come and go as you please. I recommend bringing a packed lunch if you’re coming for the full day.)

Place: Studio G21, Art’s Complex, 151 London Road, EH7 6AE. Click here for directions/buses.

Click here for the link to the Facebook event, which you can join and distribute as you please. 


A long response to a short post about spoilers

Apparently I’m in the mood to respond to other people’s thoughts these days. It’s a bit of a post-Fringe thing – I spend August completely wrapped up in the Fringe, unable to conceive of a world outside of Edinburgh, then it ends and  I realise that there’s a month of non-Fringe content out there on the interwebs. September starts with a massive catch-up on what else has been happening out there.

Mark at Only the Sangfroid has written a really interesting post on spoilers. Can’t be bothered clicking links? Here’s my recap: People moan about reading/seeing spoilers for their favourite films and TV shows because apparently the plot twists are the things that keep them interested. Mark suggests that if the plot twists are all that’s keeping you engaged, there’s a problem – it should be possible to be gripped by a well-known story as long as the storytelling is sufficiently skilful. If we’re so caught up in plot twists and the etiquette of not spoiling them, discussion of the themes, issues and execution is curtailed.

The short response: I agree. I’ve never really understood people who believe that spoilers ruin everything. If you are someone who feels that way I’d be very happy to hear from you, because I’m always up for reading someone else’s insights – but be warned, there may be spoilers further on in this post. I don’t know what for, because I haven’t written the rest yet – check the tags if you’re bothered. What I do know is that they won’t be behind a cut.

Personally, I love spoilers. They let me know what I’ve got to look forward to. I’m perfectly happy to know what the plot twists will be, because what I don’t know is how they will be realised.

For example, I love watching Dexter. I watched the first three seasons, then while I was waiting for season 4 to come out on DVD I read a few spoilers so I knew that Rita gets killed by Trinity. (I did say there would be spoilers. If your life is now ruined, my sympathy is limited.) Later on I introduced my husband to the show. When we were halfway through season 4, season 5 came out on DVD… with the announcement of Rita’s death right there in the blurb on the back. So it’s a good thing that neither of us is that concerned about knowing the facts in advance.

However, as much as I love Dexter, it’s one of those programmes that I love for what it could be more than for what it is. When it’s good it’s bloody awesome. And when is it good? For my money, it’s good when it’s exploring the boundaries between right and wrong, testing the limits of the characters’ personal codes, challenging the viewer to think about how far they identify with different characters’ behaviour and what that says about them.

When it’s bad? Well, it’s not so much that it’s horrid. The production values are still high. It’s ok. But it deserves to be so much better than ok, because the potential is there. Dexter being ‘ok’ is like your highly intelligent child getting a C. Yet it frequently happens, because plot twists are prized higher than character development. Seriously, are LaGuerta and Angel married or not this week? Is anything actually going to happen with the trophy-collecting intern girl or are we done with that? Was it actually a storyline that I just don’t remember because I was too busy not giving a damn about peripheral characters that haven’t been developed in any way? Which personality will Deb be wearing today, now that the writers no longer seem to be concerned with her original character?

Venerating all things plot-driven also leads to failure to appreciate character studies. What’s wrong with exploring a character in depth, learning what drives them, letting ourselves be affected and maybe unsettled by our commonalities with and differences from them? Really good writing creates layered, fascinating characters. There’s no reason why this can’t be coupled with excellent production values to create something compelling.

To me, this is one of the major differences between the flash-bang-wallop of entertainment and the complexity of art. I like to be entertained. I like art. I like things that do both. I don’t think I’m unique or even slightly unusual in this. Perhaps I’m just insanely optimistic, but I actually believe that audiences are capable of appreciating intelligent entertainment. Excellent ideas, insight and writing coupled with excellent performances – the ingredients for good art – combined with enough plot to make good entertainment.

It’s an obvious point to make, but it’s true – this is why we’re still doing Shakespeare all these centuries later. Macbeth? Plot-tastic. There’s plenty going on – chance (or maybe not) meetings with witches, more murders than you can shake a stick at, sticks being shaken at Dunsinane, climactic battles. It is the stuff of blockbusters.

It’s also a gorgeous study of the desire for power and its effects, of the destruction of a couple by a terrible secret, of a man who was one of the good guys and ends up a tyrant. It’s packed with subtle, psychologically layered characters, and they make it interesting. Without them, or at least without their depth and development, the story is just a sequence of events, many of which happen off stage.

Perhaps character development was originally necessary because locations shoots and CGI were beyond the budget of the King’s Men, but we shouldn’t consider them any less important now that we’re able to set Macbeth’s final battle against a backdrop of Dunsinane in flames and collapsing into a volcano while the earth gets sucked into a black hole. Isn’t there some room for car chases between soliloquies, or vice versa?

But I digress. The thing about Macbeth is that we all know how it ends (or at least we should). I don’t count it as a spoiler if I tell you that Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies or that Macduff eventually kills Macbeth himself. Does this make it any less compelling? It shouldn’t, if it’s being done well. If we trust the material to stand on its own two feet, trust the actors to do their job and explore the complexity of their character, trust the audience to follow lines that are more than three sentences long, it can still have you on the edge of your seat. You should still find yourself wanting to call out to Macbeth not to trust the witches or listen to his wife, just as much as you should want to yell at Ned Stark not to try the reasonable approach on Cersei Lannister. If the work has been done to get you to invest in the character, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of action going on to make you care about what happens to them.

The reason I use Macbeth as an example is because he’s the protagonist in a tragedy, which means audiences went in knowing that things weren’t going to end well for him. I’m going to steer clear of calling him a tragic hero because I know it’s debatable whether he actually has a tragic flaw or not, but he’s definitely the protagonist and it’s definitely a tragedy. Original audiences, seeing Macbeth’s hands covered in Duncan’s blood, would not have supposed that the play would end with him and his wife gazing contentedly at their first grandchild. Macbeth is fucked. They knew it, we know it. The only questions are how it happens and what we learn along the way.

Nowadays it’s difficult to use dramatic inevitability without being accused of being formulaic. I think that’s often a mistake. Formulaic plots can provide an excellent structure within which to explore and/or subvert our expectations of characters. They allow developing writers to build up an understanding of how plot twists and moments of epiphany can be earned rather than shoehorned in as Deus ex Machina. Recognisable structures give audiences a familiar base which can be a stepping-off point for exploring the unfamiliar, which is why we continue to tell fairy tales and reinvent them as we get older.

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them” is a cliche that everyone who has ever been a young artist will have hated at some point. It’s all the more annoying for being true. That’s why I’m particularly curious about creative people who hate spoilers and won’t discuss films, books and TV shows for fear of them. I find myself wondering whether that’s reflected in their own work – do they then understand the structures they’re working within or against? Do they want to understand them, or is a refusal to embrace the spoilers indicative of a wider unwillingness to learn the rules? Or at least to identify them – I’ve never been a fan of ‘learning the rules’ but when it comes to narrative structure and storytelling it didn’t feel like that, it just felt like learning the names for things I’ve always understood intuitively.

I honestly don’t know. But I do agree with Mark that there are certain dangers in allowing other people’s wish to remain unspoiled to dominate discussions of arts and entertainment, and I know that I’d like to hear other people’s views on this. Do spoilers ruin things for you? Do you tune out if the plot twists aren’t coming thick and fast? Do character studies leave you cold? And if you’re an artist yourself, how does your attitude towards these things tie in with the work you create?

 


Reviewing a review of reviews, both as reviewer and reviewed

First things first – I strongly recommend reading this post by the excellent Jenni Gould: http://rantingjen.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/arts-journalism-where-did-it-go-wrong/

Don’t want to click the link? Let me give you a precis: The Fringe is full of untrained reviewers churning out masses of reviews, and Ms Gould suggests that we should be holding ourselves to higher standards because “many of the companies involved have worked tirelessly for months and it’s true that maybe their shows are far from worthy of five stars. What they are worthy of is a proficient review whether good or bad”.

I agree. Completely. Whole-heartedly. I loved her article so much that it prompted me to write this long-promised post about my views on reviewing. So here goes…

We’ve already covered the fact that I’m an artist in other posts. Indeed, I never shut up about it. I write, direct, perform and do whatever else ignites my interest. I’ve been on the receiving end of my fair share of reviews, good and bad.

I also write reviews. Unlike Jenni, I’m not trained – we did the same degree but with different specialisms. However, while I’m not a trained journalist, I am a trained director and writer, and it’s that training that informs my reviews and makes me think that peer review should be a much more common part of artistic life.

Too often I hear people saying “oh, reviews are just an opinion”. This is often true, but it shouldn’t be. Reviews aren’t meant to be a simple knee-jerk reaction. If that’s all you’re capable of expressing, you have no business reviewing. Yes, we all have opinions on the things we see, but there’s a world of a difference between a show you dislike and a bad show. I’ve seen plenty of good, sound, well-constructed shows that I personally did not like. Perhaps I didn’t care for the subject matter or the writing wasn’t to my taste, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well acted, skilfully directed, cleverly lit. I’ve also seen shows that were frankly sloppy in their construction, but where the infectious energy of the cast overcame technical weakness to create an enjoyable experience.

You might wonder “well, if you loved it/hated it, what do the reasons matter? Why are you overthinking everything?” Well, that’s because overthinking things is what I do and I love it. More importantly, simply accepting “I loved it” or “I hated it” is fine if you’re just seeing a show for your own enjoyment, but if you’re supposed to write something about it you’re going to need a bit more material than that, which brings us neatly to the question…

Who are you writing for? Personally, I try to write reviews that you can read as an audience member trying to decide where to spend your money, or as a company member looking for feedback that will help you to develop your practice. For the benefit of potential audience members I try to give a flavour of the show and some indication of what you can expect to see. I consider whether I would have been happy to pay my own money to see it and whether it resembles its advertising blurb and images. I give warnings where I can about poor sightlines or audibility, or whether you should stay out of the front row if you don’t like interaction.

I’ve had people question whether reviews should really be written with the performing companies in mind, but I am adamant that they should. It’s to everyone’s benefit for theatre companies to receive some technical assessment from an outside source. When you’ve created a show you’re far too close to it to have a clear view. The value of opinions from friends and family depends entirely on how truthful they’re willing to be, and there’s a strong chance that they’ll be people who lack the technical training to dissect your show in any detail. So who is left? Reviewers.

I really try hard to make sure my technical criticism is accurate and clear. No doubt there will have been people who read my reviews and feel that I’ve misunderstood their play entirely, at which point the best thing to do is read other reviews and see if you can detect other reviewers having similar misunderstandings or whether it’s just me. Perhaps there was a point you were trying to make with the thing I’ve criticised, but if everyone’s missing the point it needs to be clarified. If only one reviewer is, you probably don’t need to worry too much.

Of course, this level of detail is difficult to provide when you’re reviewing for some of the Fringe publications. I started out writing for ThreeWeeks, where you get 120 words. It’s a great exercise in precision and taught me how to write concisely. It can be very frustrating knowing that you can’t go into detail about your thoughts, but it’s a very useful discipline because you are forced to choose your points carefully.

Now I write for Edinburgh Spotlight, where I have 300 – 500 words to play with. More often than not, I come in closer to 300 because I’m in the habit of choosing what I believe to be the most important points and not overloading the review. It still feels luxuriously long, but I know that’s only because I learned to discipline my thoughts years ago so that I wouldn’t need 500 words to write a review that felt worthwhile to me.

I’ve been reading plenty of reviews this year, and I’m horrified by the lack of content in many of them. 120 words or more to say nothing of any value, just a kneejerk reaction followed by some waffling, usually designed to make the reviewer sound intelligent. (This never works, by the way – especially when you throw in a lot of fancy words that you don’t actually understand.) Yet we place such value on these reviews, even though they’re written in such a throwaway manner. So what can we do (apart from the obvious  Train Your Journos)?

Simple: Artists review each other. We’re supposed to be communicators, so let’s do it. One of the things I love about writing for Edinburgh Spotlight is that many of the reviewers are also artists in their own right. We know how tiny the theatre world is, so we all take pains to make sure our reviews are fair and balanced and constructive. If you want to give something a negative review you know it might (and probably will) come back to haunt you sooner or later, so you express views you can defend and explain rather than simply sticking the boot in. There’s a real temptation when reviewing to succumb to the lure of one’s own wit, to use a deliciously vicious phrase that might actually be a bit harsher than the piece deserves but you’re so taken with your own cleverness that it’s hard to resist. The more you have at stake – by which I mean, ‘the more likely you are to find yourself working with the subject of your barbed humour someday’ – the less likely you are to give in.

This is not to say that people who are not artists but solely critics are incapable of giving balanced views. There’s plenty of room for people reviewing solely from an audience point of view, although I would say that it’s doubly important for these people to have a certain amount of training in how to express their views, whether they’re writing for fringe review websites or the broadsheets.

It’s also an extremely useful discipline for artists to get used to thinking critically about each other’s work. We need to know how to give each other feedback and communicate with one another. I notice an alarming tendency to conflate ‘feedback’ and ‘criticism’ with ‘bashing’ – indeed, I quit a popular online theatre forum because I couldn’t stand to read one more post asserting that anything more critical than outright sycophancy is ‘bashing’ (yes, I appreciate the irony of leaving a discussion forum and then saying we should be able to communicate – let’s communicate elsewhere, all right?). Artists can’t work in a vacuum, and we can’t rely solely on print media where we’re being critiqued by professional critics rather than fellow artists who understand our discipline from the inside. Learning to trust is a good thing. Learning to speak truthfully yet not offensively is a good thing. Putting our art form before our egos is definitely a good thing.

Critical skills aren’t just for journalists – let’s ALL take Jenni Gould’s advice and up our game.