What I’ve learned from six years of theatre blogging

Holy shit, six years. Don’t I have anything better to do? But as WordPress has been keen to remind me, that’s how long I’ve been running this blog. Three years ago, I wrote What I’ve learned from three years of theatre blogging. It’s interesting for me to read my old articles, but looking at this now, there’s nothing where I’ve really changed my mind.

But now I’ve made it to six years (and I vigorously deny all those vicious rumours that I planned to do this for five years but I never got round to it), it’s a good time to add some new things. Some of them things I was close to learning anyway – on or two, however, are eye-openers, and not in a good way.

Let’s go.

1: You have responsibilities

When I started doing this on a whim back in 2012, the last thing I imagined is that this would actually matter. Most plays, I just assumed, got plenty of “proper” reviews, and mine would be added to the pile. The most difference I thought this would make is that it would provide some constructive feedback that performers would be free to heed or ignore as they pleased.

What I hadn’t realised was how rare a commodity a review is. Outside of productions programmed by major theatres, it’s difficult to get any kind of coverage. Your review in a self-published blog may be the only one. It could be the only source of constructive feedback a group gets. You could be the only evidence a group has when making an arts council grant. It could spell the difference with whether or not other review publications give them a chance in the future.

In short, you have more power than you think, and with this, you have more responsibility than you think. It’s very important that you’re fair. You should be aiming to be fair anyway on principle, but you must realise that if you use your position irresponsibly, this has real-life consequences that affect real performers.

Most of this list will have some sort of bearing on your responsibilities as a blogger. Things like …

2: Regional theatre is very hierarchical

This has been an ongoing bugbear of mine as long as I’ve had this blog, but as time has gone on, the more cynical I’ve grown. Live Theatre and Northern Stage dominate the theatre scene in the north-east. Their own in-house productions get the most attention in the region; theatre groups programmed into their main and studio spaces come next. Alphabetti Theatre has done a bit to decentralise power, but with just one stage it can only do so much. Worse, the cultural venues outside of Newcastle are more interested in programming artists who’ve risen to prominence through the two Newcastle giants than developing their own talent. (Some theatres say they’re making an effort to support local talent, but I’ll believe that when I see results.)

I can’t entirely blame them for things being this way – without the two giants, it’s hard to see how the region’s theatre could compete with London. What I’m increasingly observing, however, is how hierarchical the media coverage is. This pattern exists throughout local papers, local arts publications right down self-published blogs. With a few honourable exceptions, both the amount media coverage and the favourability of it is very strongly linked to the status of the venue you’re programmed into.

I have a theory as to the underlying problem: it’s that too many arts writers are scared to express views against prevailing consensus – that is too much like having the “wrong” opinion. The safe and easy things is to just assume that if a major regional theatre produced or programmed it, it must be good. That, I suspect, is why many previews and reviews read like a rehash of the press release. But the more reviewers do the safe and easy thing, the more it entrenches the power of the big players, with smaller groups who can’t get programmed getting ignored in favour of the big ones who can.

If there’s one thing I’d urge freelance bloggers to do, it’s to give the smaller players a fair chance against the big ones. The big regional theatres do a lot of good things, but they should not be cultural gatekeepers. If you do nothing but acts a their PR wing, that’s what you’ll promote.

3: London is a very different blogging scene

As everyone knows, London has a disproportionate amount of theatre, and a disproportionate amount of funding. I will write my thoughts on regional disparities another time, but I agree with the majority view that it’s unhealthy. There is one good thing about London though: it’s not dominated by a handful of big theatres like most cities are. Instead, there’s dozens of theatres at every level, from massive West End, to mid-scale new writing theatres, to small fringe-style venues, all competing for audiences. With so many theatres having different tastes, fitting in by going along with one theatre’s programming choices doesn’t work. That’s my theory anyway.

Whatever the reason, London bloggers and reviewers are a lot more independently-minded than most the their regional counterparts. I guess giving the thumbs down to a flagship production of a London theatre doesn’t come across as anti-London when there’s another 99 to choose from. London bloggers are a lot more numerous – anecdotally, I’m told there’s a cluster of bloggers around Manchester, but apart from that they’re a very rare breed in the regions.

I have a number of problems with how London theatre works, but the non-hierarchical nature is something they get right. It may be more comforting to only cover hand-picked productions by regional theatres and say they’re all awesome, but it’s London that dominates the ultra-competitive Edinburgh Fringe. We should learn from this.

4: Bloggers are easier to lean on

The blogging scene in London, however, is not perfect. One thing that set alarm bells ringing a couple of years ago was the National Theatre’s announcement to give press tickets to bloggers, to cheers from the blogging community. Why alarm bells? Because this accompanied an announcement of removing plus ones from newspaper reviewers, which suspiciously followed a series of poorly-reviewed plays. Rufus Norris has since backed down on the plus ones stunt (instead pursuing the far better solution of, um, producing good plays), but the precedent that a theatre could withdraw press tickets in response to bad reviews so easily was worrying. With so many London bloggers, and a limited number of expensive press tickets to hand out, what’s to say the National wouldn’t have used comps as a reward for good reviews?

However, bloggers outside of London are far from immune from being leaned on. Some regional theatres actively have a cohort of in-house theatre bloggers reviewing their shows, but the fine print of these schemes often means they have the right to edit or refuse to publish reviews of insufficient quality. Do you trust that to mean anything other that suppressing unfavourable verdicts? I certainly don’t. Even without these shennangins, the best way of building an audience for a theatre blog is for a big theatre to tell everyone about your review – much more likely if it always reads like a five-star.

Bloggers, I feel, have a choice between popularity and integrity. I hope I’ve always chosen the latter, but integrity is not cheap when you say what you think.

5: There’s what reviewers say, and what reviewers really think

Doing your job properly might not earn as many pageviews or Twitter followers as saying everything is awesome, but it can earn you the respect of other reviewers. There’s quite a few perks to this: they take you seriously on what you think is good, and you get inside knowledge of what they think is good. The perk I hadn’t realised, however, is that you get to find out what reviewers really think of plays. It’s not that reviewers lie about what they thought of plays in reviews – I’ve never known this to happen – but I have been surprised how much is not made public.

To be fair, this doesn’t have much to do with the deferential culture towards big regional theatres I’ve described. (It happens occasionally, but not much.) More often, it’s smaller groups and smaller fringes who get let off the hook (particularly youth groups, which is understandable). Or sometimes the reviewer disagrees with mainstream consensus but doesn’t want an argument over it. I’m part of this myself, of course. With the exception of the biggest productions, I don’t review plays where I’ve nothing positive to say, because I don’t want an argument either, but I’ve found more people do this that I expected.

Whatever the motives, it is surprising to find out what doesn’t make it into reviews. I’m not telling you who really thinks what about which play (at least, not without a large bribe), but it’s interesting when you find out. Seems I’m not the only person who has the secret “How the hell did that get five stars?” award.

6: You never know what will be read the most

It is very difficult to predict what will get the most attention on a theatre blog. Even a glowing review picked up and publicised by a big theatre company may only get a couple of dozen views. Very occasionally, I correctly guess what will get a lot of traffic – for instance, the People’s Theatre’s production of Breaking the Code got booming stats thanks to the praise in the review and a strong local following – but most of the time the ones that perform the best are the ones I couldn’t have predicted. 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting is my most viewed article even even though it was one of the first things I wrote when I had barely any following. My articles on including actors with disabilities and the possibility of a breakaway London comedy festival from the Edinburgh fringe got a huge amount of views after being picked up by Northern Broadsides and Richard Herring respectively.

Some people might have more sophisticated strategies for writing articles to get views, but I’ve always written for myself and anyone else who wants to read it. All I can suggest is taking care with all your articles. You never know which one will be your centrepiece – you don’t want it to be the one you’re embarrassed you wrote.

7: You never know what will be controversial

This surprised me to learn this, but on the other end of the scale, it’s difficult to guess what pisses people off. I avoid writing bad reviews, but I do write about controversial issues (particularly when it’s my bugbear of censorship), and sometimes I have absolutely laid into certain organisations, or certain individuals. And yet my most critical articles have never even attracted a response, either from the subject or their supporters. I have had responses from articles with more measured criticisms, including an implied legal threat from Kate Smurthwaite. (Incidentally, there are further chapters to her beahviour that I haven’t bothered covering, but she’s basically abandoned any pretence of supporting free speech.)

But things that have attracted absolute vitriol in response are the articles I thought were quite inoffensive. When there was the row in Christmas 2015 over who stole whose ideas for the Ladybird parody books, I started off suggesting that as the authors of the two competing book has mutually benefited from the controversy, maybe it was time to put it behind them – work together if they can bear it, if not, draw a line and move on. Oh boy, how naive I was. I couldn’t believe how aggressive the responses were, both in responses and on social media. Looking back, I now think there may have been a bit of history behind this between Miriam Elia and the Penguin fanboys. (Her books are pretty unflattering about a certain brand of left-wingers who look down on the people they’re supposed to champion, and my guess is that Mr Thorpe-Tracey and Ms. Raeside thought she meant people like them and reacted angrily.) Irrespective, I decided “right, fuck this” and wrote a follow-up supporting the side who weren’t behaving like twats.

Anyway, I guess the lesson leaned from this is to always do fact-checking before you write anything remotely critical of anyone. I have a long-standing belief that arguments are usually won by people who check evidence first and decide their views later; and arguments are usually lost by people who decide their views first and look for evidence later. Just be aware that you could be hauled on on anything you write. Don’t claim anything as fact that you can’t back up when challenged.

8: Culture policing is a thing

This next thing I’ve learned is the thing that disappoints me the most. Some reviewers, I’ve discovered, aren’t interested in telling the wider world whether a play is worth seeing. Instead, it’s all about moral grandstanding. This was going on before I got wind of it, but support for this practice has increased since 2016 for the obvious reason. It’s called “cultural activism”, and it’s almost like the idea is that Donald Trump will be brought down by the knowledge that UK artists and reviewers don’t like him. In the worst cases, anything deemed to promote the “wrong” ideas – or even failure to takes sides when required – is punished with a bad review. See the “dishonourable mention” section of my 2016 Edinburgh Roundup for two example I witnessed – the fact that both groups slated for anti-diversity actively support diversity initiatives makes it even more stupid.

I should make clear that I support free speech, and if you want to judge plays on insufferable moralising instead of artistic merit, that’s your right to do so. What is not acceptable is trying to pass off the latter as the former. With any review publication using star ratings, people reasonably expect the rating to reflect whether it’s any good, and yet some reviewers use it as a political scorecard. Reassuringly, amongst the Edinburgh Fringe publications they are still only a minority, with zero offenders detected by Fringepig in 2017. Less reassuringly, I’m seeing a lot more tolerance for this practice amongst independent bloggers, especially in London. Most distressingly, some of the worst offenders displaying the most intolerance for anyone who deviates from their moral absolutism are people who are supposed to be promoting debate and discussion.

I still believe this will pass. What I’m seeing now has uncomfortable parallels with the Red Scare. 2010s hysteria has a long way to go to catch up with 1950s hysteria, but it’s different ideology, same tactics. But the authoritarians lost back then, I believe they will lose again, as they pick fights with more and more people, and more and more people have to fight back. But it will be unpredictable how we get there. It could fizzle out quietly or come to a head. Whatever happens, we all need to be prepared.

9: Bloggers qualify for press passes at Edinburgh

Now that I’ve moved into depressing stuff, let’s get back to something more positive. The Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve discovered, is a supportive environment for freelance bloggers. The bar you need to clear to be accredited press isn’t a very high one – my web stats aren’t anything impressive, but I qualify.*

* There are actually two levels of press pass. The higher one, which I don’t qualify for, gets you press tickets from the Edinburgh Fringe. However, I’m told this makes little difference in practice. Most reviewers arrange their press tickets with the performers or the venues, not the fringe box office.

In principle, all press accreditation does is get you a badge. You may therefore wonder what’s the points of doing all this paperwork for a piece of plastic. But you’d be surprised, whilst the badge doesn’t entitle you do anything, in practice it’s a very useful thing to have. I have been offered comp tickets solely because of the badge. Most of my press comps come from groups who contact me before the fringe, and you don’t need a press pass for that, but it helps – often the paperwork fails to reach the box office, but if you have a press pass and an e-mail on your smartphone, that’s usually enough for them to believe you. I haven’t proactively asked venues for press tickets, but I get the impression that those who do often succeed if they have a press pass.

Oh yes, one other thing I’ve discovered is that a condition of getting a press pass is that you inform the Edinburgh Fringe of your reviews. They don’t enforce that – that would be impractical – but it’s a good idea to do it, because your reviews will be listed alongside the big names on their website and get you a lot of visits. So for anyone else thinking of doing this, do it. It’s more useful than you think.

10: You can only write a finite amount

The last thing I learnt the hard way is that there’s only so much you can write. I’m not going to repeat exactly how far behind I’d got on reviews at the end of last year, but it was pretty embarrassing. In a way, I’d had it artificially easy in the early days, working in a start-up business with long periods of slack time where I could write things like this. Now a busier job and more theatrical projects eat up spare time, whilst my ambitions have got grander and I’ve tried to cover more things. Admittedly summer 2017 was an unusually busy time for me, but that’s not to first time I’ve fallen behind.

Obviously my circumstances are unique to me – other people will have their factors playing into how much spare time can be given over to a theatre blog. But the lesson that applies to everyone is to know your limits. There’s only a finite amount you can write with the time you’ve got available. After that, something’s got to give – you can limit the plays you see, limit how many you review, shorten reviews, limit what else you write about, but you can’t do everything. So don’t expect me to be stepping up theatre coverage any time soon. Not unless you have a Tardis you can lend me.

Would I start a theatre review blog now? Probably not. It’s partly time, but more so that the conflicts of interest from performing and reviewing are getting tough to manage – something that wasn’t an issue back in 2012. So far, I’ve been able to manage these conflicts of interests, so I don’t want to stop now – and I have to admit this theatre blog has helped me along with the theatre making. So I won’t be stopping any time soon – if circumstances change, I’ll look at it again. But for anyone thinking of doing this, be aware of the work and the responsibility. You can start on a whim if you like – but do realise what you’re letting yourself in for.

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