What I’ve learned from three years of theatre blogging

Bloody hell. Three years since I did my very first blog post. Back then, I started it off on a whim, got a trickle of pageviews, and that was about it. Now I get a lot more visitors, I am known to other reviewers, some of my reviews do the rounds, I can get press tickets to reviews and – for some reason – an old review I wrote of Absurd Person Singular seem to have become a port of call for gazillions of GCSE English students as a set text. Over time, the scope of this blog has also changed. Originally, it was only going to be reviews, but over time this is expanded to include recommendations, tips (for both punters and performers) and comment articles, all of which have ranged from next to no attention to raising a lot of eyebrows.

Anyway, to mark three years, I’ve update my About Me section with two new pages: What Chrisontheatre is, and What Chrisontheatre is not. They’re quite detailed, but it covers a lot of things I learnt about theatre blogging, and what expectations there are (and which expectations I will and won’t live up to.) But to cover the important points there, plus a few other observations I’ve made since I began:

1: Don’t expect to get it right the first time

You might think that if all you’re doing is writing reviews, you can’t go wrong, can you? After all, an opinion is an opinion? How can you get opinions wrong? However, reality isn’t so simple. You’ve got to be readable to a wider audience, not just yourself. You’ve got to keep their attention. You need to be disciplined enough to avoid waffling over minor points. You need to learn to be concise. These are things should expect to learn as you go along. When I read some of my early reviews today, I wince when I see how much waffling and digression there is. But that’s okay, because that hopefully means I’ve learned and improved. You should expect the same experience.

2: Building a blog audience takes a long time

I’ll be upfront. For the first year or so, my pageviews were so embarrassingly low I wondered why I was bothering. Unless you are lucky enough to already have a big following of social media, you can expect the same start. (Some blogging sites will appear to show a lot of hits from a word go, but the bad news is they are almost certainly not people reading your posts. Most “hits” are automated downloads from bots for search engines. Sorry.) There are ways that you can get more attention and build up a following, but there’s really just two things you need. Time. And patience. And you need a lot of both. So if you’re not prepared for the long haul, you might want to question whether it’s worth starting in the first place. But the good news is that my pageviews now are least five times as much as they were in my first year. Speaking of pageviews …

3: You develop an unhealthy obsession with web stats

… or at least I do. I know you should really think that it doesn’t matter how many people see your blog, and it’s just there for anyone who wants it yadda yadda – but I confess, every time a post gets tweeted, or retweeted, or otherwise gets picked up, I’m sitting there in front of my blog stats, refreshing every few minutes, obsessing over how many pageviews I get. Christ, I’m turning into Zoella.

But before you think the fate of every theatre blogger is to stare at the web stats all day, let’s move on to a few words of encouragement.

4: Theatre blogs matter (or at least someone thinks so)

This is something that genuinely surprised me. I’d just assumed that writing reviews on a self-published blog would be an indulgence. I might get the odd person reading it, they might be interested into my thoughts on what did or didn’t work out, but I didn’t expect anyone to take serious notice of blogs such as mine. Well, it seem that the big theatres think people do. Almost all of them now have marketing teams who seek out these sorts of reviews, along with favourite comments on Facebook and Twitter, and do their best to promote them. Presumably someone thinks it sells to show good reviews from ordinary people, and not just theatre critics.

But, I’ve found, the place where self-published blogs really matter is at festival fringes. There are a lot of publications, mostly online ones, that try to review as many shows as possible at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes – but the sheer number of shows out there means they can’t review them all. Which means that some acts turn to self-published theatre blogs for their publicity. I must confess I’m a bit sceptical about the effectiveness of this – for all Joe Public knows, a glowing blog review could be written by a mate of the director, and it’s difficult to prove it isn’t – but clearly someone thinks this works, because I find my reviews of fringe plays promoted far more than those of local plays.

There is one area, however, where I can say theatre blogs definitely can help you. If you get yourself known by the bigger reviewers (e.g. those from ThreeWeeks, Broadway Baby, Fringe Review, Fringe Guru etc.), they take your opinions seriously. So if you invite me to review a play and I like it, I can pass on my praise to the bigger names. And if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll give you the same praise I did.

5: Theatre bloggers can get free press tickets

Yes, apparently complimentary press tickets extends to bloggers. I don’t actively pursue free tickets myself, but I do get the odd free ticket to the odd Edinburgh Fringe show. However, I know of other bloggers who are a lot more pro-active and contact venues asking for press tickets – and they get them. More evidence, it seems, that theatres think theatre bloggers do them a favour. I’ve even semi-blagged my way into various press areas at the Edinburgh Fringe, but I can’t vouch that works for everyone.

I’m not massively interested in securing complimentary tickets myself – I’m more interested in building a blog audience – but I do tend to treat theatres that offer them more favourably. I won’t let a freebie influence my review, but a press ticket will probably persuade me to go and see a play that I would otherwise have given a miss. And if I was planning to go anyway, I’ll make a point of trying to see it earlier in the run so that a good review will be of more use. Details here if you’re thinking of inviting me.

6: There’s the rise of “in-house” blogs

One other effect of the arts industry liking blogs as a means of publicity is the proliferation of blogs they start. Not sure if it’s a recent thing, or it’s been around longer and I’ve only just noticed, but off-hand I can think of Live Theatre’s official blog, Cuckoo Reviews, and North East Reviews. All of these have different functions (Cuckoo Reviews, for instance, is primarily about supporting young people wishing to go into arts journalism), and – as far as I can tell – all of them are open as to who backs them. But what they all have in common is that they are all backed by publicly-funded organisations who have in interests in supporting subsidised theatre in one way or another.

I must say, I’m a little sceptical about this practice. When the people who have editorial control over a blog have interests in the success of the plays being reviewed, it’s difficult to know how impartial the reviews really are. Even if the people in charge genuinely want their reviewers to write whatever they like, it’s surely going to have an influence on the reviewers. Very few people are willing to bite that hand that feeds them. Now, maybe there are safeguards in place to make sure this doesn’t happen – and I’ve love any of these sites to convince me so – but this isn’t the direction I want to go in myself. I’d consider contributing in other ways if asked, but when it comes to reviews, I want my full independence.

7: Very few critical reviews are written on theatre blogs

In fairness to the in-house blogs I’ve just mentioned, they aren’t the only people who say everything’s great. It seems standard for most blogs I read. Some bloggers seems to be enthusiasts eager to support everything their local theatres do. Some bloggers are PR people who stay in PR mode when writing about what they’ve seen. And I’m sure there’s other reasons too. Mind you, local papers aren’t usually any better. Obviously, they want to champion their local theatres, but often praise becomes farcical. (Of course, I can’t really count myself out of this – I usually have a rule that if I can’t say something good about a play, I won’t review it at all.)

That said, there aren’t many incentives to write a negative review. If you’re after lots of visitors to your blog – and let’s be honest, who isn’t? – the best way is to write good things about groups who pick it up and link to your blog. You’re less likely to get comps to your local theatre if you give the thumbs down half the time – there’s plenty of other tamer bloggers they can invite instead. With negative reviews seemingly such a thankless job, I can see why it’s tempting to sound a bit like this. I sometimes think that as a theatre blogger, you have a choice between popularity or integrity – it’s much harder to have both.

There is one exception: sometimes, when a play bombs and nice write-ups from bloggers can’t save it, a negative review can earn you respect – provided you are constructive. Few people are impressed by someone kicking performers when they’re down and rubbishing everything, but if you write a thoughtful review of what went wrong, what went right, and what could have been done better, that can actually gain you respect.

8: It’s tricky doing reviews if you’re a performer yourself

You might think that my policy of not publishing bad reviews gets me off the hook for all sorts of awkwardness. So did I. In reality, however, it’s not that simple, especially when you’re reviewing other fringe performers. Once they know who you are, they notice if you haven’t written a review of a play you saw, and they’ll wonder why. Once or twice, I have managed to dodge this question with one excuse or another, but I am dreading the day when I go to a small venue like Alphabetti doing a flagship production – and it turns out to be awful. When I saw The Frights last month, I was genuinely relieved it turned out to be good. I dread to think the positions I’d have been in had it been awful.

Then there’s the issue of reviewing people you might work with. I set myself a rule I wouldn’t review friends or people I’m working with, but again, this has proved tricky to manage in practice. The big problem is that some of the bigger fringe companies are also venue managers – and on three occasions so far, venues that I’m interested in using myself. So far, no-one in this position has produced an awful play – but sooner or later that’s going to happen somewhere. I learnt the hard way that even the performers I have the most respect for can produce something disappointing without warning. And I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens.

It’s little wonder that some reviewers choose to review anonymously through the fringe reviewing publications to avoid raising eyebrows. I prefer to always be open about who I am and what I’m saying, and performers do bring a useful perspective that other reviewers can’t. But if you’re a performer, you’ve got to be prepared for these difficulties.

9: Reviewing is a good way of improving your own work

There is, however, one big advantage to being a performer/reviewer: you get to learn a lot. Anyone who’s slogged through theatre-making will know that nobody gets it right the first time. Everybody makes mistakes, and the sooner you can learn from your mistakes, the better. But it’s better if you can avoid making these mistakes in the first place. And if someone else makes that mistake first and you can learn not to do the same, all the better.

Reviewing is a good way of seeing for yourself what works and what doesn’t before you try it yourself. Obviously it can’t teach you everything (what goes on backstage and in rehearsals, for example, is something you’ll have to learn for yourself), but it can teach you a lot. Even if review writing isn’t your thing, I would urge all would-be performers to see as many plays as they can and compose reviews, whether on paper or just in your head. If it what good, what did you like about it? If it was bad, what went wrong? Can you avoid making the same mistakes? The more acts you see, there more of a pattern you’ll find emerge. Some mistakes keep getting made over and over again. Some things you like will be common practice and easier to do than you might think. But you’ve got see these plays yourself, and be fair, objective and thoughtful.

And one final thing for the performers I review …

If I’ve given you a glowing review, well done. If I didn’t like it, better luck next time. Either way, no-one’s verdict is definitive. Whether it’s just a random punter filling in an audience feedback card, or Alfred Hickling himself, all reviews are one person’s opinion. Some people might know stagecraft better than others, but the bottom line is if they liked a play, they liked it, and if they didn’t, they didn’t. No amount of enlightenment makes one person’s verdict more authoritative than someone else’s. But even when reviewers disagree on an overall verdict, you’ll be surprised how much agreement there can be between the reviewers. Often reviewers will like the same bits, dislike the same bits, but differ on whether the good bit outweighs the bad bits. Of they’ll agree on the good bits and bad bits, but it will come down to one particular artistic decision that everyone either either loves or hates.

So the advice I would give to any performer is to seek out as wide a range of feedback as possible, be it newspaper reviews, blogs like this one, tweets or just comments made in the theatre bar. If I didn’t like your play and everyone else did, you can safely ignore me. But as well as a general thumbs up or thumbs down, you should look at the details of the reviews. Which bits of the play did people like? Which bits didn’t they like? It might be that they disagree, in which case, well, stick with what you’re doing, you can’t please everyone. But if most people are praising the same thing, or criticising the same thing, that is a reliable indication of what you’re doing right or wrong. Take that seriously.

Will chrisontheatre still be around in another three years? I hope so. Will I still think the same things about theatre blogging. Who knows? It’s been an unpredictable business, and what I learn in the next three years is anyone’s guess.

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