Beware of locality bias

Angel of the North + Newcastle United Shirt + six bottle of Brown Ale

A good formula for a Tyneside-based play? Not as much as you think.

So, the Fringe season has begun. In Brighton, Edinburgh and the smaller fringes, hundreds of groups will be showing the world what they have to offer, without any vetting committees dictating what you can and can’t perform. That’s how it should be, but one effect of this is that some of these shows will be turkeys.

And this raises an obvious question: why do so many people take poor productions to the fringe? Similarly, why are so many performers expecting their big break with something that’s only average? The easy answer is to say that these groups didn’t bother with hard work, should have known how bad it was, and brought it on themselves. But I think that’s a lazy answer. With the exception of some student productions (who can treat the Fringe as a holiday), do you really think these groups willingly gamble thousands of pounds without thinking very carefully if it’s going to pay off? Of course not. In which case, how are so many groups getting this wrong?

Well, after a long time watching others in action and a short time having a go myself, I’ve come up with a theory I call “locality bias”. There’s a lot of variations of this, but the basic principle works as follows: All other things being equal, the more local your audience is to your play, the more favourable their reaction will be. This theory also applies to reviewers and script readers. One extreme example is that a school puts on Grease to a mediocre standard, even compared to other schools, but the audience dominated by doting parents still think it’s wonderful. But there’s no way that audience would be so complimentary if it was another school in another town.

Locality bias isn’t always a bad thing, and sometimes it can work to your advantage. But when it goes wrong, it can go very badly wrong. So here is a list of things to beware of, and what you can do about it.

Why locality bias is dangerous

Now, if you’re a doting parent who’s just watched your darlings in the aforementioned production of Grease, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. They’ve worked hard, why shouldn’t they have their moment of glory? If that’s the case, you can safely stop reading this now, provided a school play is as high as your expectations go. Likewise for anyone putting on a village hall production, a safe-bet mainstream amdram play, or a bit of fun for you and your mates. If, however, you are settings your sights higher than this – and I hope this is the case if you’re reading this blog – you need to be careful about this.

There are, broadly speaking, two problems with locality bias: it can make you overestimate how popular your play is, and it gets harder to pick up useful feedback from a performance. There are numerous ways this can go wrong, but here are a few examples:

  • You put on a student/amateur play, and fill up your 40-seat theatre, or the upstairs room of your pub. They laugh at all the jokes, applaud and whoop and the end, and everyone tells you how good it was. Fantastic! So you hire a bigger theatre, reach out to a wider audience, and learn the hard way that once you’re outside your immediate circle, suddenly no-one’s that interested.
  • You write a play for a competition. Before submitting it, you get some friends together for a read-through (like pretty much every script room advises you to do). They all tell you what a good play it is. In reality, however, there are some flaws in it which no-one picks up, be it through politeness, inexperience, or just rose-tinted enthusiasm. The play gets nowhere. Could it have done better? You will never know.
  • Your play has lots of local references, and your audience loved it. Buoyed with confidence, you send off the script all over the country, and maybe even get it performed. Unfortunately, what your original audience loved was your local references, not the actual play. Elsewhere, where people couldn’t give two hoots about about the Durham Market Place saga, interest evaporates to zero. (Even decent professional plays sometimes suffer this fate.)
  • You took your play to an amateur one-act festival, the adjudicator was full of admiration for your writing, and you feel good about yourself. Had you gone to several different evenings, you might have noticed that the adjudicator was giving glowing reviews to all new writing, from the highly promising to the utter tripe. (When the performance and not the writing is the competitive part of the festival, it makes sense to over-praise the writing so that these groups keep coming back.) But you didn’t, so you fail to realise how unremarkable that endorsement was.
  • You watch a play at the local regional professional theatre. The local papers are beside themselves with praise, and you mistakenly assume this is a shining example of what makes a good play. (Reviews from local papers need treating with extreme caution. They naturally want to give their support to local theatres, but this often comes at the expense of any critical scrutiny.)

 

Richard Stamp says:

“I’d add, bias works both ways. I’ve seen some great work in Brighton that’s been overlooked because of history & expectations.”

Lots of different things that can go wrong here, but all share a common theme. The harsh reality is that your play is probably not as good as other people’s feedback suggests. That is something you ignore at your peril. The worst possible outcome is that you wildly over-estimate how good your play is based on artificially positive feedback, and take it to the Edinburgh Fringe. By the time you discover how mediocre your play really is, you’ve got a handful of lukewarm reviews, a failure to stand out from all the other hundreds of plays, and an article on some cocky theatre blog about all these terrible fringe plays with some thinly-veiled references to yours. Oh, and a bill for thousands of pounds.

Does a bill for thousands appeal to you? No? Then read on.

What you can do about it

Now that I’ve shattered your confidence and you’re feeling depressed, let’s move on to how you can deal with this problem. Annoyingly, the only way to avoid locality bias completely is to never show your scripts to anyone. Assuming this option doesn’t appeal to you, the other option is to live with it. You will need to take into account that positive-sounding feedback may be artificially skewed in your favour, and adjust your plans accordingly.

There is no straightforward way of addressing locality bias, but the following things might help:

  • Manage your expectations. As a rule of the thumb, every step you take away from your home base makes it harder for your play to succeed. It is harder to get an audience’s approval from a public performance than a friends-dominated scratch night. A play that went down well on public performance in a local theatre will still have a tougher time on the fringe scene (unless you already live there). It’s very difficult to predict what the effect will be – if it’s an excellent production you won’t need to worry about this – but don’t assume it will be a smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe just because it was a smash hit in your home town. Speaking of the Edinburgh Fringe …
  • Don’t go straight to the Edinburgh Fringe, at least not without a very good reason. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again, and again, and again): do a smaller fringe like Brighton or Buxton first. That will give you an idea of whether you can stand out from the crowd away from home without the big gamble of Edinburgh. No hard and fast rule for when a play can be declared Edfringe-ready, but if you can get 4- or 5-star reviews from publications that also do Edinburgh, that’s a good sign. I think the only circumstances I can think of where I’d advise going straight to Edinburgh are if 1) you’ve got the backing of a high-profile theatre behind you, or 2) you’re a student production who’s not too bothered about the outcome as long as you have fun.
  • Get professional feedback (if you can). Professional feedback has the advantage that it’s largely immune to the “didn’t-everyone-do-well” mindset. No-one’s feedback is authoritative, and sometimes you have to ignore the feedback you were given (I know I have), but they’re a lot more likely to highlight weaknesses in your script than well-meaning friends, family and local theatre-goers. The bad news: it’s near-impossible to get this kind of feedback now. Useful things like Live Theatre’s reading service have been discontinued, there’s this stupid attitude amongst many readers that feedback is a privilege reserved for writers who are already doing well, and there’s an equally stupid attitude that feedback is worthless unless accompanied by spoon-fed instructions of what to do about the problems (which they don’t have time to give you – or at least, that’s their excuse for keeping you in the dark). Opportunities for professional feedback are far and few between (apart from paid feedback – which is expensive for questionable benefit – I will return to this another day). But anything you can get from professional feedback – even a single sentence stating why they didn’t like your script – helps you build a picture of what is and isn’t working it in a way that read-throughs with friends and family can’t.
  • Make it clear you want people to be honest on what they thought. The default assumption in polite society is that when friends and family ask you what you think of their latest venture, you say how wonderful it was regardless. Unfortunately, this is taken to an extreme and it’s usually considered polite not to mention the major flaw half-way through your play that urgently needs addressing in case it hurts your feelings. Far better, apparently, to keep you deluded into thinking your play is fine. You can’t entirely stop this practice, but you can minimise it by making it clear that you want to know what people didn’t like. Your feelings ought to be able to withstand criticism. If not, well, you’re doomed anyway.
  • Value your (constructive) critics. For all your efforts to tell ask people to to be honest, chances are most people will ignore that and continue saying “Ooh that was good” regardless. Only a precious few will attempt to offer any sort of constructive criticism – and precious they are. Those who have previously given you both positive and negative comments about your work are the first people whose opinions you should seek. Try to have a range of constructive critics rather than just one. If only one person highlights something he/she didn’t like, you have no idea whether or not this is only one person’s preference. But if you’ve several people independently highlighting the same fault, that’s a strong sign you need to put it right. (Make sure your critics are constructive ones though – anyone who is relentlessly negative should be ignored.)
  • Find out which of your plays people like the best. For the rest of your friends, family and audience who shy away from constructive criticism, they’re still good for one thing. Try to work out if any particular play of yours more popular than the others. A straightforward question of “Which one did you like best?” is fine; if they keep bringing up the same play without you asking, that’s even better. There’s no guarantee their favourite is that great a play – it might only be the best out of a mediocre lot – but if you’re thinking of taking a play to a fringe, it helps to know what’s the strongest thing you’ve got to offer. (Similarly, asking people which bits of a play they liked can give you a clue what’s working out and what isn’t.)
  • Be prepared to critically assess your own work. It might be that, in spite of all your efforts, the only person who is offering critical analysis of your play is you. Normally, I don’t like the practice of marking your own homework, but if it’s either that or no marking at all, that’s what you’ve got to do.
  • Don’t shoehorn local references into your play. You might think that with local theatres being so keen on local references, you’ll increase your chances of a production by sticking in as many of them as possible. However, in my experience, nearly everyone else does that. This means you have little or no advantage locally, and as for theatres further afield – forget it. By all means use local references if that’s suits your style of writing, but don’t shove them into the play for the sake of it. It won’t pay.
  • Ignore reviews in local papers (unless they are capable of passing critical comment)One final tip: do not mindlessly model your writing on plays at your local professional theatre on the premise that good reviews = good play = you should do the same. You shouldn’t be imitating other people’s styles on the basis of reviews anyway, but local paper reviews are the worst reason of all. These reviews are usually unreserved sycophantic farces. Even when play after play sinks without trace, the way they go on about them you’d think they’d watched a string of Olivier nominees. If you must choose subjects and styles based on what’s getting good reviews, choose reviews from papers that aren’t afraid to say what they didn’t like as well as what they did. (Obvious exception: local papers reviewing the Edinburgh/Brighton fringe are pretty safe bets.)

As you can see, these solutions are more complicated that the problems they are supposed to solve. Ultimately, telling the difference between what’s good and what people say is good is a thoroughly inexact science, where no single method suits everyone, and it’s up to you to find your own solution – a bit like writing itself. But if you are aware of locality bias, then that’s an important first step to getting your answer.

And now the good news …

Right, so I’ve given you a whole load of reasons why your play might not be as good as people think, and followed it up with tips that won’t necessarily work. Not exactly inspiring, is it? Well, it’s not all bad news. Sometimes, locality bias is a good thing, and you can even work it to your advantage. As I said, it’s great if you’re doing something like a school play or a village hall production – that last thing you want is an audience with the same expectations as the Royal National Theatre. But even if you’re not, there’s a number of ways locality bias can help you get started:

  • A supportive audience is good for your morale. Putting on any kind of play is a hugely stressful experience. For the first few times, at least, it is a lot easier on yourself if you know your audience is going to be appreciative of your efforts, even if it doesn’t work out. Even if your audience is hopeless at telling you what you could be doing better, the fact that you’ve been able to stage the play at all gives you a chance to observe for yourself what’s working out and what isn’t.
  • A supportive audience is good for your cast’s morale. Don’t forget that your cast needs to enjoy the experience too. They are probably giving up their time cheaply or for free. If so, it will be the thought of an appreciative audience that keeps them going. For this reason, you should be thankful for a favourable audience.
  • Local audiences are more forgiving of mistakes. Everybody writes a dud at least once, and the less experience you have, the more likely this is to happen. But once useful side-effect of the “didn’t-they-try-hard” mentality is that people don’t expect things to be perfect. They make allowances for things that don’t work out, and they’re more likely to give you a second chance if it all goes pear-shaped. You won’t necessarily get that in a larger-scale professional production, and you certainly won’t get that at a fringe. Believe me, you want to get your mistakes out of the way on home turf.
  • It gives you a fair chance against the big players. The bane of every aspiring writer is theatre groups who believe that you can only get decent ticket revenue from well-known plays in Samuel French’s catalogue. It’s true to say that, all other things bring equal, if your play is up against a Noël Coward, Noël Coward is probably going to win. But all other things are not equal. In your home town, you have on your side good will for playgoers who would love to see a local lad / local lass come through. Combining this with the absence of extortionate royalties that published plays charge nowadays, a  locally-written play isn’t such a bad financial option.
  • It’s a good opportunity if you’re into researching issues of local interest. Lazy references to local landmarks and football teams isn’t going to help your chances, but if you’re prepared to do some proper work and research something in detail, that’s a different matter. Plays that go into depth on local interest (particularly local history) have a good record of being popular with both audiences and theatres (provided the play itself is good). In fact, if you’re really good at this, you can even use this to get a foothold in other places. Research in depth something of interest in another place, write a good play about it, and bob’s your uncle. That may sound like a long shot, but this method has been known to work.

If I can summarise all this advice on locality bias, it’s simply that you need to know it exists. How you deal with it is largely up to you. If you can work it to your advantage, great. If not, one way or the other you need to avoid falling foul of unduly good feedback. These tips might help you, or something else might help you instead. But the worst thing you can do about locality bias is ignore it. If you accept the good things people say about your plays without question, you will regret it later.



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