Tag Archives: Theatre Criticism

A theatremaker’s plea: do shut up

I know better than to waste my time arguing with lazy clickbait articles. I do. It’s just… sometimes I can’t resist.

The piece of lazy clickbait in question is this article in The Telegraph, courtesy of Douglas McPherson. He is a theatre critic. In the theatre he toils not, neither does he spin, as someone once said. Yet he has a great deal to say about funding – specifically, that it should not come from the state.

He does not advocate an American-style system where the arts are dependent on philanthropy, you understand. He thinks that letting artists keep more of the money they make through tax breaks is the answer. Which is a lovely idea, except he doesn’t address the question of where the earnings of which they are to keep more should come from. Presumably they are supposed to come from the infallible commercial model, which McPherson believes is the key to producing great work.

In twenty years of reviewing, McPherson cannot recall a single subsidised show that he considered good. Not one. I thought I might have a look through his old reviews and find out whether this assertion was reflected in his critiques of subsidised and commercial productions. Unfortunately, for someone who boasts two decades of regular contributions to The Stage, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, his reviews are remarkably hard to find. I’ve turned up his circus blog, several circus-related articles (mostly arguing in favour of live animals in circus acts), his romance writing alter ego… but in terms of reviews, I can only find references to the ones he wrote for What’s On, which aren’t archived online, and a couple of music reviews for The Telegraph. So I suppose we’ll just have to trust him on this one. Not a single good subsidised show in all that time. How hard that must have been for him, considering how much subsidised work a critic sees.

Commercial theatre, on the other hand, has filled McPherson’s days with joy. Commercial work is “new, vibrant, exciting and creative” – and entirely divorced from state subsidy. What utter nonsense this is. Subsidised and commercial theatre are not two discrete entities. They overlap. What happens in one influences the other.

Let’s have an example. David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers’ production of Calendar Girls was a massive financial success. (Let’s not argue about whether it was an artistic success or simply a way to cash in on the film’s success – let’s just assume for the moment that McPherson is correct and that it was, like other commercial work, new, vibrant, exciting and creative.) It toured from 2009 – 2012, with advance ticket sales of more than £1.7 million. It became the UK’s most successful touring play and grossed over £35 million. Amateur performance rights are now available so the play continues to generate income even when there isn’t a production on tour.

A triumph for commercial theatre, right? But of course, the story of that wildly successful tour doesn’t begin with Pugh and Rogers. The writer, Tim Firth, cut his teeth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a subsidised house. His first major success, Neville’s Island, was commissioned by the SJT. More than half of the women featured in the original cast spent their early years honing their craft in subsidised rep, national companies and the RSC. The theatre at which Calendar Girls first opened was Chichester Festival Theatre, also a subsidised house. Can it really be argued that this commercial success existed “without any need for government help”?

McPherson’s argument that subsidised theatre does not concentrate on “producing work the public might actually want to see” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has The Woman in Black, which originated at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, run for quarter of a century because no-one wanted to see it? Or The Mousetrap, now 63 years old, which came to the West End after opening at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham? Do more recent shows like War Horse (National Theatre) and Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland) tour the world without any demand for tickets? Or would McPherson suggest that people are somehow being coerced into purchasing tickets, then turning up out of politeness when really they would rather be anywhere else?

It’s all very well to say that if these shows are so successful, they should be self-sustaining. But that misunderstands the nature of theatre. Yes, some shows can become successful enough to meet the immense costs involved in putting them on. But it’s unrealistic to expect that every show will achieve this. There has to be some middle ground between the smash hits and the complete flops, because that’s where development happens.

The artists who created Black Watch and War Horse had full careers behind them. Those shows are the results of years spent developing craft and technique in subsidised theatres. Would they ever have existed, let alone become the massive hits that they were, without John Tiffany and Marianne Elliott being nurtured by venues like the Traverse or the Royal Exchange? Theatremakers don’t approach each show in isolation. Every new project benefits from all your previous experience. All the things you’ve learned on previous shows, every success and failure you’ve ever had – they all inform the work you do. The failures are as important a part of a theatremaker’s development as the successes, and it is subsidised theatre, not commercial, that offers greater freedom to fail. This is not a question of “subsidising the mediocre” – which I would agree we ought not to do – but of allowing artistic risks to be taken. I don’t know which commercial work he’s been seeing, but it’s not generally known for its risk-taking.

Of course McPherson has thought of this, and he has an ingenious solution – “Companies can create new or experimental work in fringe venues on a profit-share basis without funding.” I would have hoped that someone claiming twenty years’ experience of writing about theatre would be more knowledgeable about the many, many problems that plague this model. Alas, it appears he is not.

Profit-share is a euphemism for “unpaid”. We all know this – well, at least those of us who actually make theatre know it. Very, very occasionally you’ll get something out of it, but the most likely outcome is that your fringe show will make no profit. This is because fringe venues cost money, and rehearsal venues cost money, and set, props and costumes cost money, and hiring a tech costs money, and hiring in extra lights to supplement the venue’s extremely basic rig costs money, and PR costs money, and insurance costs money, and PRS licenses cost money.

All of these costs add up. You’re looking at thousands of pounds to stage your show, even without paying people. Even if you rehearse in someone’s living room and have no set and source all your costumes from your own wardrobe, even if you can get a technician to give you a freebie, even if you reduce your costs to nothing but the venue, it’s still expensive. You are still unlikely to recoup your costs from ticket sales alone, because the chances are that your completely unheard-of show won’t play to packed houses from the very start. The chances are that you won’t play to packed houses at all, unless you get well-timed stellar reviews and/or exceptionally good word of mouth.

Getting good reviews on the fringe isn’t simply a matter of doing a good play, of course. Several London publications won’t review fringe shows unless they do a three week run, so if you can only afford, say, a week’s try-out run at the White Bear then tough luck. If you’re in an outlying venue there will be critics who just won’t travel. I’ve seen several excellent shows at the Rosemary Branch, for example, but trying to drag reviewers to a venue that doesn’t have a tube station within 10 minutes’ walk can be blood from a stone. Aim for a more central/better connected venue and you might find it easier to attract critics, but you’ll also pay more, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get reviewed early enough in your run for a five star rating to bring in enough punters to cover your costs – let alone make that fabled profit that you were going to share.

So if profit-share means unpaid, who can afford to do it? For a little while, it’s possible to work unpaid while supporting yourself with one or more day jobs and, usually, a growing mountain of debt. It’s a fast route to burn-out, but it can be done for a bit. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive spouse or family or trust fund, you can do it indefinitely. Perhaps Douglas McPherson doesn’t consider it a problem that unpaid work turns fringe theatre into the playground of the affluent. I, on the other hand, do. Theatre benefits from a diverse range of influences, and that’s much easier to achieve if it’s possible for people from all walks of life to make it their career rather than leaving it to be a hobby for the wealthy.

Quite apart from practical considerations about whether it’s even possible to pay people making theatre on the fringe, there’s the question of why we ought to. Theatre is beneficial to the UK’s economy, bringing in an estimated £2 for every £1 of subsidy. That’s not all direct income through ticket sales – people having a night at the theatre also buy dinner, buy drinks, take buses and trains and taxis, pay to park their cars nearby, pay for hotel rooms if they’ve travelled for the sake of seeing the show. There’s so much more to it than just tickets. But if we treat early career and experimental work as mere dilettantism, the standard of the work made will plummet and the public’s willingness to pay to see theatre will follow.

However, the economic argument for theatre is not the only one, nor is it the most important. We ought to value theatre because, quite simply, culture is important. Culture enhances our lives, gives us the capacity and tools for self-reflection as individuals and as a society, encourages empathy, stretches us intellectually, educates us emotionally, challenges us, baffles us and entertains us. It’s how we make more of ourselves. This isn’t just about the people who practice professionally – subsidising the arts is about recognising the importance of culture. It’s about making it available to those who are able to engage with it directly, and letting its influence spread through commercial work with a wider reach so that it affects those who can’t or won’t engage with it directly. To think only in terms of direct engagement is reductive and simplistic.

It’s true that there are flaws in the way that arts funding is dealt with across the UK. There are plenty. But what Douglas McPherson suggests is not the answer. It’s the prating of an armchair artist, and ought to be treated as such.


A lengthy round-up of what people are saying about CSstooshie now

Creative Scotland is the arts blogger’s gift that keeps on giving. How appropriate, as we head into the festive season. But there are gifts and gifts, and this one feels like one of those annoying noisy battery-devouring things where once you start playing, you somehow can’t stop.

Perhaps that’s just me. I’m a bit tired and at an annoying stage of the editing process, and I’m being driven slowly (well, not very slowly) mad by the endless DIY noises from our downstairs neighbours. It’s not the greatest of moods to be in as I sit by the phone and internet waiting for news from Pitlochry, where Creative Scotland’s board has been meeting.

In case you’ve been living in a cave, let me make sure you’re up to speed – Andrew Dixon, Creative Scotland’s CEO, has resigned. He’ll be leaving at the end of January. The senior management team will be reporting to Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board, until a new CEO is appointed.

I don’t envy anyone the task of appointing Andrew Dixon’s replacement. This decision will speak volumes about whether Creative Scotland plans to do more than pay lip service to the concerns expressed by the artistic community. If Dixon is not replaced by someone who is prepared to address the ideological issues that lie at the heart of this dilemma, there will have been no point in his head rolling in the first place. My great fear is that the resignation of the CEO could be treated as a solution to the problem rather than a symptom of it. Resignations should be about clearing the way for someone better equipped to do the job, not about making a sacrifice to appease angry artists.

Whether Creative Scotland itself is changed from within or dismantled to start again, radical change is required. That takes time and sustained effort, and it’s a lot less dramatic and entertaining than a flurry of resignations and calls for revolution. It also takes a lot of talking and figuring out what our collective priorities are and how to realise the things we want.

I’ve seen several people re-posting Joyce McMillan’s column on the subject.  There are some excellent points about how public spending is perceived as a problem and its recipients as scroungers, not just where the arts are concerned but throughout our society, and about the dangers of treating the arts as a business. However, there’s a point at the end that I strongly disagree with and believe points to an equally troublesome way of thinking:

So far as the arts is concerned, the aim of a well-run funding body should be to identify those who have shown the capacity to create great work, and to give them the support that will set them free.

I don’t deny that this should be a part of what our national funding body does, but it should not be the whole of it or even its primary aim. Focus so heavily on those who are established enough to have demonstrated their “capacity to create great work” and you will drive emerging talent away, forcing new artists to go wherever the opportunities are – and once they’ve built up their contacts and reputations there, we may not get them back. Scotland’s emerging artists shouldn’t have to leave to seek their fortune because their own country is too blinkered to pay attention to anything that hasn’t already had the seal of approval elsewhere.

That need for approval is in itself a bit of a problem. Who decides what counts as “the capacity to create great work” and by what criteria? Joyce acknowledges that there is no conclusive answer, but I worry that the path she suggest leads to taking ‘greatness’ at face value. Shakespeare was a great writer, but is every single thing he wrote therefore great? I would argue that there’s a world of a difference between, say, Othello (which I’ll defend to the death as a great play) and The Winter’s Tale (which I’ll defend to the death as an example of how even Shakespeare has off days). The National Theatre of Scotland produced Black Watch, photos from which get trotted out at the top of every article about excellence in Scottish culture – but is this a somewhat lazy use of stock photos, or should it be raising questions about whether the NTS has been producing ‘great’ work since? If it hasn’t, should that be something that’s addressed in its funding? And if it has… well, surely there must be some photos from The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart or Macbeth kicking around somewhere? If we’re going to use the term “creative brilliance” and suggest that it be the main criterion by which funding is decided, we have to be very careful about how often and when and why we use it and also how we frame it, or we degenerate swiftly into ‘this is excellent because everyone says so and everyone knows it’ and risk excluding anything that doesn’t already fit that criterion.

I’m also concerned that this way of thinking does not allow for freedom to fail. If the pressure is on to make sure that all your work is ‘great’ work, where does that leave experimental work? Again, artists drawn to experiment will have no choice but to go elsewhere, to countries where the value of their work is understood. Countries like, for example, Germany – the very country Joyce cites as an example of getting your approach to the arts right. While making cuts to other parts of their national budget, they have increased arts spending by 8%. This is a testament to the difference between British and German attitudes towards the arts, but it’s important to remember that these differences aren’t just about money – Germany has (in theatre and opera at least) a completely different attitude to artist development, allowing for nurturing of emerging and mid-level artists as well as their more established counterparts. It is reassuring to see Germany taking such a step, but Scotland has a long way to go before it’s in a position to do the same because it would require a huge change in how people relate to the arts in the first place.

Elsewhere on the net, we’ve got thoughts from Pete Wishart, formerly of Runrig, currently Westminster Spokesperson for Home Affairs and Culture, Media and Sport. This is the gist of his argument:

Our creative industries are one of the major drivers of our economy and they have to be looked after, supported and nurtured.

Never mind all that silly self-reflection as a society, profound influence on people’s lives, education and civilising influence, the important thing is CULTURE = £££££!! Let’s get those artists arting, there’s gold in them thar hills!

In order to maintain our “cultural footprint”, whatever one of those may be, we apparently need to “develop our own distinct product”. You know, I find that deeply sinister. We’re supposed to make work that reflects some kind of bureaucratically-decided agenda, work that can be exported in a pretty tartan package with a Visit Scotland sticker slapped across it? That’s not art, that’s marketing material at best and propaganda at worst. If there’s a distinctive flavour to the work produced by a particular country, let that be something that grows organically as a response to shared influences and concerns.

I had to laugh at his suggestion that Creative Scotland has a role to play in getting artists to engage with the internet. We are talking about the same Creative Scotland, right? The one I’m talking about is the one with the horribly-designed website and fairly inept use of social media. Most artists are actually pretty web-savvy these days. We have to be. Most of us don’t have hefty salaries to rely on, and making self-employment viable relies increasingly on being good at using the internet.

On to another voice – Kevin Williamson’s this time, over at Bella Caledonia. (These are in no particular order, by the way, just as I happen to come across the open tabs on my browser.) This is where I started to find things really, really interesting. Kevin, like Kenneth Roy over at The Scottish Review, makes some excellent points about the lack of engagement or understanding from government. Since Creative Scotland serves policies that are decided at government level, surely Fiona Hyslop should be getting involved with all of this? Yet following her instruction to Creative Scotland to sort itself out, she has been conspicuously quiet. I asked whether she was planning to attend either Artists’ Open Space or the Tramway World Cafe and got a response saying she couldn’t as she would be busy promoting Scottish culture in India, which felt a wee bit like the cart being put before the horse and made me wonder whether the seriousness of this issue is clearly understood. (NB: While I’ve been writing this I understand Ms Hyslop has made some comments on the report from the board meeting. They seem to be pretty generic suggestions that artists and Creative Scotland should be nice to each other. If I come across anything else I’ll edit it in.)

And finally, there’s a strange contribution from The Commonty, a creative practice collective in the South West. I’m not entirely sure what this letter is trying to say beyond “we like Creative Scotland”. It’s all a bit vague, with a lot of talk about “initiatives”, “delivery of… Creative Scotland’s remit”, “real impact” and “strategic direction” and nothing more specific (for instance, examples of the projects Creative Scotland has backed and what “impact” they have had, or what the “specific realities of life in rural Scotland” might be). The assertion that “the overall momentum of change is in the right direction” would carry more weight if we had any idea what that actually meant.

There’s some complaint about the way this letter was reported in the national press, but to be honest I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. It’s nice to hear that there are some happy artists in Dumfries & Galloway and it’s good to give credit where it’s due, but this is a discussion about how Creative Scotland treats artists, not regions. Of course it met with a slightly bemused response. It’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. It’s not about whether it fits the national press’ story, it’s about the fact that in this particular conversation, the letter is a non sequitur.

 

And now the statement from the board has been released, so I’m going to go and have a look at that. At first glance I can see that they’re planning to do away with “strategic commissioning”, which seems to me like a step in the right direction – let’s hope that the rest of it turns out to be full of change for the better. No doubt there’ll be more Creative Scotland posts to come, but I’d like to think that they’ll be hopeful ones. I much prefer being optimistic to being weary.

It looks like this is Creative Scotland admitting they got things wrong and promising change. Let’s hope!


Open Space Invitation

The details of the Artists’ Open Space on the 26th are now finalised and you can click here to register for it. It’s free to attend, but there’s a limit the number of people who’ll fit in the room so best to register.

Please spread the word. And please come if you can. The Open Space, like everything else in life, belongs to the people who turn up…


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. 


Disheartened & Dejected: Reflections on a Reflection Meeting

Deep in the labyrinth that is Creative Scotland’s website lay the announcement of an open meeting to discuss the recent Theatre Sector Review. I only heard about it through social media and then found the details with a bit of creative googling. Maybe this explains why the turnout wasn’t higher. It wasn’t bad, but for something that matters to so many theatremakers, it should have been higher.

The production values weren’t bad, I’ll give them that – the meeting took place in a huge, fancy-looking room, all plate glass and white walls. The tea came in proper crockery. The couches in the waiting area are colour co-ordinated with the Visitors’ badges. It looks slick.

Yet for all its professional appearance, the meeting got off to a late and somewhat rambling start. Indeed, it was never clearly stated what the purpose of the meeting was. To ‘reflect’ on the Report, yes – and yet that’s the one thing we were never actually permitted to do.

Without being given an opportunity to discuss it as a complete group, we were messily divided into three sub-groups. Despite the presence of at least four Creative Scotland staff, only two of the three groups had anyone facilitating, which suggests either a failure to organise properly or a certain indecision as to how things should be run. I’m all for discussion with no facilitator – you know, ‘open’ discussion – and it would have been simple enough for the CS staff to have watched and listened and taken note of what was being said.

In fact, this might have been a much better way to do things. In the first place, it would have resolved the issue of taking minutes, since the CS staff could have done that. Instead, volunteers were required from each group to take responsibility for minuting the discussion, typing it up and sending it in. As anyone who has ever taken minutes will tell you, there’s a knack to minuting effectively without being left out of the discussion, and it seemed to me rather unfair to ask people who had come to join the discussion to take on this task, especially as it means typing it up in their own time.

In the second, if Creative Scotland had simply been facilitating a discussion between theatremakers it would have felt less… guarded? Contrived? Slippery? There was something problematic about the way questions about the report itself were dismissed and any attempt at wider discussion shut down. We were there to agree with the report in broad terms, supply a few nifty soundbites and allow the box marked “Public Consultation” to be ticked. Linking Creative Scotland directly with the report was strictly forbidden – it’s a report commissioned by Creative Scotland, it’s not their report. Why the need to make that distinction? Why distance themselves from the report unless they don’t trust it, and if they don’t trust it why steer us away from any in-depth discussion?

It was all the more conspicuous when we were refused clarification of other terms. The Report makes mention of a desired “20% growth”. When I asked what this meant I was told it referred to a 20% growth in “resources”. Is it just me, or is that basically the corporate synonym for “stuff”? Likewise, when I asked why “new work” was taken as being one of the “great things about Scottish theatre” without any explanation on interrogation of the term, I was told “We’d rather not go back over the report”. Right. So anything new is good, the fact that Scotland makes new work somehow makes us different to pretty much everywhere else and we’re supposed to accept all this without question or comment.

For added irony, the conversation moved on to a discussion of quality and how we measure and feedback on it. If this meeting was anything to go by, it would seem Creative Scotland plans to measure it by taking a unilateral decision on whether something is a good thing or not, then sticking by it without further evaluation. I really hope that’s not the case, but an organisation that has been so roundly criticised for its lack of clarity and failure to engage in any meaningful way with the artistic community might want to take a little more care over the way it presents itself. However sincere and well-meaning CS may be, they can’t afford to pay no attention to anything that makes them appear otherwise.

It’s infuriating to find yourself in a room with so many creative, intelligent people who all have plenty to say (and I’m not just talking about airing our funding grievances), then to be unable to have a proper conversation with them because you’re trapped in a discussion which is so tightly controlled that it feels almost scripted. It made me long for another Devoted & Disgruntled session, where conversations are free and self-governing. We’re not little children who are incapable of sticking to the point unless we’re properly marshalled. The conversations at D&D were remarkably non-chaotic. They achieved a lot. It felt like we were making progress. Perhaps that was because we weren’t spending our time on corporate jargon and keeping everything ‘on message’.

By the end of the session I felt upset and vaguely angry. I found myself wondering how I can ever make any headway in this industry if it means penetrating the Byzantine workings of organisations such as Creative Scotland. And yet I’m not the only person who feels this way. There are plenty of practitioners out there who find CS confusing and stressful. Some of them speak up. Some of them don’t, because you mustn’t upset the people who write the cheques. Personally, I’d rather trust the individuals at Creative Scotland to be mature, sensible people who can take criticism and learn from it, adjusting how they engage with artists if necessary.

I strongly believe that we need more communication with Creative Scotland – more discussion, less corporate jargon, more trust on both sides. Perhaps the first thing we need to do, before we spend more time going round in circles having unproductive, box-ticking discussions, is learn to talk to each other.


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.