What Chrisontheatre is not

There are a lot of theatre blogs out there, all doing their own thing. Some are the publicity arms of theatre companies, some are from enthusiasts eager to support their local theatres, some are from PR firms offering free or paid PR, and there’s many other kinds. As a result, there’s a lot of different expectations of what small-scale theatre blogs are supposed to do.

So to clear any doubt, here are some ground rules of what this blog isn’t here to do. You may not agree with this, and you are welcome to say why, but if you don’t like what I’ve written here, this is not the theatre blog for you. You can find another blog, or start your and operate it by your rules, or not bother with theatre blogs at all, but I’m not going to write to priciples I’m not happy with.

Here’s a list of all the things this blog is not for:

The big two

Chrisontheatre is not a promotional site for me or my mates

I do my own writing, directing and acting. If you want to know about what I’m doing, you can read all about it on my playwriting site. But that has no place here. Nothing I review here has any involvement from me, be it writing, directing, acting or any other contribution. Sometimes the experiences I’ve had with my own efforts might form the basis of advice for other people. And I freely admit that occasionally – when I’m posturing, trying to prove a point and want to demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about – I make references to past works of my own. But reviews of myself are a big no-no. That goes without saying.

On a similar rule, I cannot do reviews for anyone I’m friends with, or who I work with. This is a tricky one to know where to draw the line. Sometimes I’ve been in discussions with a venue on working with them whilst I’m writing reviews on their in-house productions. Sometimes I’ve ended up reviewing plays that I only saw because the actors are staying in the same accommodation as me. But if I’m involved in the same production as you, or you’re someone I know for reasons other than theatre, it would definitely not be appropriate for me to write a review. Please don’t ask, because that only make things more difficult.

(Footnote: Please be aware this rule does not apply to my Twitter account. I have one account that covers everything to do with theatre, including productions where I am involved. I make no secret over what I’m involved in and I trust my followers to tell the difference between tweets related to this blog and tweets related to my own projects. But if you want to read something more impartial, this is the place to be.)

Chrisontheatre is not backed by the arts industry – or accountable to it

One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot of review sites that have appeared recently that are backed in some way by one arts organisation or another. Off the top of my head, there’s Live Theatre’s official blog, Cuckoo Reviews from New Writing North (for young writers interested in arts journalism), and North East Reviews (supported by the North East Artist Development Network to review productions at the member venues). I wish them all well in what they’re doing – but this is not the thing for me. I value my independence from theatres and funding bodies, and I do not want feel I owe anything to anyone backing me. If everyone’s raving about a new play, I want to freedom to show less enthusiasm if I feel that way. If a new play disappoints, I want the freedom to say what I think went wrong. If an unfunded unbacked play is better than than highly-trumpeted plays on offer, I want the freedom shout that from the rooftops even if the rest of the arts media ignores it.

One obvious side-effect of being unfunded is that I have to do this in my spare time. I have a lot of things to do beside theatre blogging, and sometimes I may have a backlog of reviews to clear. There are other effects too, which I’ll come on to in a moment. I consider contributing to arts publications if asked (I sometimes do for Fringeguru), and theatres are welcome to invite me for reviews, interviews, or anything else they thing might help their cause. But once it involves giving away editorial control to someone who has an interest in my verdict – count me out.

What I don’t review

Chrisontheatre is not a generic performing arts blog

I rarely or never review dance, poetry, storytelling or cabaret. I’ve nothing against any of these types of performance, but my speciality is theatre. I don’t see enough of these other kinds of theatre to be able to make a fair judgement. Comedy and musicals get slightly more attention, but where I make recommendations, it tends to be in the area that overlaps theatre. In areas that have little overlap with theatres, such as stand-up comedians and jukebox musicals, I give little or no coverage.

You are welcome to invite me to review something outside the theatre programme if you like, but if I think there’s no chance it will interest me, I will warn you – it’s not fair for me to otherwise waste your time. But if you think you can defy my expectations, by all means go ahead. Just occasionally, I have been pleasantly surprised.

Chrisontheatre is not a cheerleader for the big north-east theatres

So, now that I’ve established I’m not answerable to any of the big theatres, this is quite an obvious one. I’ve seen a number of independent blogs that are enthusiastic about north-east theatre and want to do what they can to support it. That’s good on them, and I too am supportive of north-east theatre, especially the producing ones such as Live and Northern Stage – but I won’t do it by bigging up everything they do. They get more than enough good publicity from the local papers, who want to stand up for their local theatres and are generally kind in their reviews. They do not need extra cheerleading from independent theatre blogs – they get enough of that from the ones they back. And I cannot do a proper job as an independent blogger if I’m expected to dutifully write positive things regardless. It’s not fair on me, it’s not fair on audiences, and it’s especially not fair on smaller groups in competition with the big productions.

On the plus side, this means that when I do write good reviews of plays from Live or Northern Stage, you can be assured I mean what I say. Any praise I write will be genuine, and I will not be concealing what I really think of the play. But on this blog, praise has to be earned. If you want hear that everything is awesome, you’re better off clicking here.

Chrisontheatre is not an unconditional supporter of the little guys

I want to support small-scale artists. I really do. If there’s one cause I’d like this blog to advance, it’s giving artists who aren’t endorsed by the big players a fair chance against the artists who are. Most of the north-east arts media, I feel, is too heavily skewed towards what’s going on at the big-name venues, with smaller artists struggling to get a look in – I want to do what I can to redress that balance. I might not be able to help much (my opinions do get taken seriously by some fringe reviewers if that’s any use), but there’s nothing I love more on this blog than championing an obscure group that’s barely known and watch them go from strength to strength.

However, I can’t champion everyone. There’s too many of you out there, and my recommendations won’t be taken seriously if I say everyone’s great. So it’s the same as the big players: praise has to be earned. The only concession I can offer the little guys is that if I don’t like your play, I normally prefer to publish no review at all over a negative review – I’m not always so forgiving of the bigger artists. But again, there is a plus side to this: if you do get praise from me, it’ll be genuine praise. No need to worry that I only said that to be nice. If I said it, I meant it.

Chrisontheatre is not a comprehensive guide to what’s on

I’m only one person. I cannot review everything. And with the majority of tickets coming out of my own pocket, what I see heavily co-incides with my personal tastes. Even if I had an unlimited supply of complimentary press tickets, I would not have time to see everything. I suppose I could devise a system to ensure that all the most talked-about shows in the north-east are reviewed here, but what would be the point? By definition, plenty of other people are talking about them. I’d rather spend some time picking up some shows that no-one’s talking about.

It’s better to think of this blog as covering a cross-section of what’s showing in the north-east, rather than a comprehensive guide to all the best plays out there. And it’s a cross-section that will be heavily skewed by my personal interests. Inevitably, there will be some plays I would have loved had I seen them, but I remain ignorant about. Some of them will get plenty of publicity elsewhere, other unfortunately won’t get any recognition. That sadly can’t be helped. I might, one day in the distant future, think about creating some sort of independent multi-author review system, but it’s just me for the foreseeable future.

How I don’t operate

Chrisontheatre is not a local site that thinks “north-east” means Newcastle

This is one of my biggest pet hates: countless arts publications that claim they cover “north-east arts” but report next to nothing outside Tyne and Wear. Sure, it’s true to say that there is an awful lot of mainstream and grass-roots theatre in Newcastle compared to the rest of the north-east, but with Arts Council funding so heavily focused on Newcastle and arts journalists paying hardly any attention to what happens in the rest of the region, it’s hardly surprising. The only thing I hate even more are the times when high-profile productions are commissioned in towns and cities other than Newcastle – which then import all the talent from Newcastle, set the play in Newcastle, or both.

I still review a lot of plays in Newcastle because 1) there’s a lot of stuff on offer, and 2) it’s easy for me to reach because I work there. But I try to balance this with reviews elsewhere, and I am especially keen to review plays produced or shown in my home town of Durham. It shouldn’t be up to me, but somebody’s got to do it.

Chrisontheatre is not free PR for people I’ve never heard of

There are a lot of groups out there who want theatre blogs to promote their play. Or publicise their latest kickstarter. I hope as many of you as possible succeed, but the reality is you are in competition with each other. Every plug I give for one production comes at the expense of another. If you have previously impressed with your work, by all means tell we what you’re doing next and I’ll consider recommending your show or advertising your crowdfunding. But please don’t ask me to do this if I’ve never heard of you. It’s presumptuous. And it pisses me off. (The only thing that pisses me off even more is big West End shows asking me to retweet their publicity for their big shows. Why should I? That’s the job of your PR team.)

You are, however, welcome to invite me to review your play. I’m more likely to review you if invited and supplied a press ticket. (And if I was planning to come and see you anyway, a press ticket might persuade me to come earlier and review you sooner.) If I like you, that’s when I’ll consider promoting you further. But you’ve got to earn it. Expecting generic support just because it’s theatre doesn’t cut it.

(Oh, and if you are seeking publicity for a project that has a wider benefit – say, another venue like what Alphabetti set up – that’s an entirely different matter. I’m more than happy to support projects that stand to support lots of artists; just not so keen if it only benefits you.)

Chrisontheatre is not a free service for commercial websites

Apart from requests I get for free plugs, the other thing I sometime get is people who run commercial sites (particularly accommodation in Edinburgh for the run-up to the fringe) asking me for me to write something for them. They never want anything long and they provide links to my site, but they don’t pay me. I have done it before, but I’ve decided it’s not worth my while any more. They are often very slow to actually publish what I write, and the web traffic I’ve got from this is pretty feeble. So I’m saying no to this now – offer me a payment, even a token one, then we can talk.

Fringe media is a different matter though. I’m more than happy to write for that if asked. The only thing I might draw the line at is writing for a major publication (e.g. newspapers) for something where you’d normally get paid, as I don’t want to take away someone else’s work with a freebie. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Chrisontheatre is not independent of my life outside reviewing

Whilst I don’t do reviews where there’s a conflict of interest, however, that does not mean my connections outside of reviewing have no effect at all. Whilst I have strict rules on who I can and can’t review, I relax the rules for news and recommendations. And yes, this can mean that people gets coverage who I would never have heard of had I not known them personally, or worked with them in the past. On the other hand, were I not to cover them, it could mean that people who deserve a bit a publicity get nothing. This is especially true in the north-east outside of Newcastle where grass-roots arts coverage is virtually non-existent. It’s also silly to penalise people just because I was in a play with them once.

It’s a fine balance, and I’m happy to discuss what’s fair; I also make no secret of who I know personally, so that people reading can take this into account and make up their own minds. Some people think that it’s good for reviewers to make their own theatre so they understand what the job involves. Other people think that there should be full separation of theatre practitioners and reviewers, from the West End right to the smallest fringe shows. You are welcome to hold either view, but if you hold the latter, this isn’t the place to look. Neither, incidentally, are half the review publications at the Edinburgh Fringe. But please keep this in proportion – this blog’s influence is tiny. If you’re not getting a fair look-in, it’s highly unlikely I’m the cause of it.

Also: so far, all the recommendations I’ve made of people I know I chose to do myself without anyone asking. Not everyone gets recommended. Please don’t ask me to list you as a personal favour – I will have to reconsider my recommendations policy if that starts happening.

How I don’t review

Chrisontheatre is not deferential to “authoritative” verdicts

Let’s get this out of the way. I don’t see the appeal of Waiting for Godot, I think Quentin Tarantino is pretentious and overrated, and I find the praise for Damien Hirst nauseating. Oh, and I’m not that enthusiastic about Shakespeare, and I don’t see what all the fuss is about iambic pentameters. If you think holding any of these views invalidates my artistic opinions, then you’re better off reading academic textbooks.

I once heard an interesting quote from Roger McGough. He said that when he was at school, he was never taught any modern poetry. His theory why was that when you taught the classics, scholars had already decided which works were great and which were unworthy, whilst with newer works, scholars were yet to deliver their verdict – and so, teachers shied away from expressing their own opinion in case it was “wrong”. Something similar, I suspect, happens in theatre blogs, especially ones eager to support the established local theatres. I can’t help wondering if people are holding off expressing views until the “proper” reviews are in, or only write positive reviews of plays shown in subsidised theatres because, well, it must be good if they programmed it, mustn’t it?

That doesn’t happen here. Where possible, I try to avoid reading other people’s reviews before I make up my own mind. Even when I do, I sometimes form a different opinion. As far I’m concerned, no-one’s verdict is authoritative, and I will disagree with Michael Billington if I want to. (In fact, I already have.) Similarly, if you’ve been programmed into Live or Northern Stage, congratulations, you must be doing something right, but that doesn’t entitle you anything here – you will only get a thumbs up from my if I enjoyed it. Conversely, if your play or your group has been rejected by the bigger players and you’re going it alone, I am not afraid to stick my neck out if I think they’re missing out.

Chrisontheatre is not on a quota-filling mission

It is extremely unlikely I will choose to watch a play simply because of the gender or race or whatever of the performer. And I will certainly not give you a better review on that basis. I do not want anybody thinking that I only gave someone a good review because they’re female/black/disabled/etc. And I hope anyone getting a good review would want to know they got the good review on their own merits. I cannot do that and simultaneously give leg-ups to anyone from an under-represented group. If you would rather have the latter, there are plenty of blogs who do that and make no secret of it. Read one of those instead.

Incidentally, I do monitor my reviews at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes. I’ve noticed that my pick of the fringe lists tend to be pretty even three-way splits between male-led, female-led and mixed work, and that’s without any proactive effort to balance the coverage. In fact, a lot of the time I don’t even know which of the three it is until later. Naturally, not everything is that simple. Not all areas of performing arts are as gender-diverse at the theatre sections of open festivals, and racial and disability balance are far more complicated issues. But the fact remains I would do no favours to anybody by giving certain people preferential treatment simply based on who they are.

What this means is that it’s unlikely you will persuade me to see your play solely because it’s _____-led. So what? I may well want to see you based on the premise of the play, the previous work of the performers, or many other things, but if talking at length about your play being _____-led comes at the expense of that information, I’ll never know. Bottom line is that I don’t care if you’re a white man, a black woman, or a blue alien with three heads – if your play is interesting, I want to see it. Don’t pass up your chance to say why I should.

Chrisontheatre is not the culture police

It has been long-accepted that reviews can mark plays down for being objectionable. So far, I’ve only had to do this twice in eight years. Other than that, I am very careful to make moral judgements of plays – if I ever did it, it would have to be something that I reasonably believe can provoke widespread and needless offence. In general, I’m pretty easy-going and my firm belief is that when there is a show around that contains material that you know offends you, the correct course of action is to not watch it.

However, I’m seeing a trend amongst some reviewers to use their position to impose their morals in their reviews. It’s only a minority, but Fringepig has evidence some reviewers basing star ratings on how much artists (mostly comedians) conform to their own moral codes and try to pass this off as artistic merit. I’m also seeing an increasing trend to criticise plays over what “message” it gives the audience, over matters as petty as women having outdated roles in Downton Abbey (yes, I really have heard people say that). It’s a bit like “Think of the children” except that you treat everyone like children. I want nothing to do with this practice. I will even ban reviewers from my aggregated lists of reviews I do in my fringe coverage if they are blatant or persistent offenders. Please don’t make me have to do this to you.

(Footnote: Although I’ve only criticised a play for being objectionable twice, there have been a few more plays I didn’t like and had content that was questionable. There were worse problems than offending my moral sensibilities, but on these occasions it was dubious moral values that tipped the balance from an unenthusiastic review to no review at all.)

Chrisontheatre is not interested in horse-trading

Being a writer/director/performer myself, I am treading a very fine line. As well as steering clear of reviewing anything I’m involved in, I also have to steer clear of favouritism for anyone who helped me. I greatly appreciate it when other groups recommend my plays, recommend my blog, or allow me to use their venues. But I cannot offer you anything in return. If I give you a recommendation or a good review, it can only be because I would have given you one anyway.

I’m not even terribly impressed with speculative follows on Twitter. Anyone is welcome to follow me if they want, but that doesn’t entitle you to be followed back and I notice if you unfollow me a few days later. If you absolutely must chase Twitter followers, you can work with me, impress me consistently (if you’re a performer), or exchange views on plays we’ve both seen (if you’re another reviewer), then I might follow you. But don’t ask me for anything in return for a Twitter follow or any other kind of endorsement. I can’t. And if I was considering endorsing you anyway, you’ll only make it harder.

Other things this blog isn’t about

Chrisontheatre is not a gossip column

As I’ve been getting more involved in the production side of theatre, I have been hearing quite a lot of interesting stuff about other people, some big names, some in positions of power, or both. Most of this, however, is who’s got a grudge against who and who’s been shagging who. I don’t want this blog to go down that route – it’s about theatre, not the people involved in making it. Also, broadcasting live updates of every trivial piece of gossip is, at best, a fast way to lose friends and alienate people; and at worst, career suicide.

That’s not a free pass to get away with everything – if I was in on an open secret that was a serious matter, I would have to consider going public. But the general rule is that anything I hear about people’s personal lives is assumed to be off the record. If someone comes forward with an allegation that’s expressly on the record, I’ll cross that bridge (and take a lot of advice) when I get to it.

Chrisontheatre is not a politics blog

One practice that is frequently associated with culture policing is liberally mixing politics and theatre reviews. I’m not against this practice as such, but it does make it harder to do your job as a reviewer fairly. As soon as you take the opportunity to use a review to express your approval or disapproval for the opinions expressed in the play, it becomes a lot harder to say whether the play itself was any good. It’s not impossible, but even if you manage to separate art and politics in the same review, few people are going to trust that review as impartial. I try to work on the priciple that politics in plays should be judged by how well the message is conveyed, not whether I agree with it – it’s far from perfect, but it’s the best approach I can think of.

The other practice I’m seeing is that there are some reviewers who say they are seeking the change the world for the better in their role as theatre reviewers. This worries me more. I’ve only seen this openly said since a certain blond-haired nutjob won an election over the pond, but the problem is quite simply that I don’t see what this is meant to achieve. Neither Donald Trump nor Boris Johnson are going to be brought down on the news that theatre critics don’t like them. The only thing I can see might make a difference is influencing what messages theatre makers give to the world – by rewarding on-message performers with good reviews and punishing off-message performers bad ones, as a deterrent against performers exposing theatregoers to incorrect opinions. That’s far too high a price to pay, and straight back into the practice of culture policing I am completely opposed to.

The only thing I do take sides on in this blog is how theatre and the arts runs, and especially the issues of censorship and artistic freedom. Very rarely, if a wider political issue becomes a freedom of speech issue, I may have to take sides on that. But in general, I want this blog to be a welcoming place whatever causes you believe in and whoever you vote for. The only people who I’m not going out of my way to welcome are people who want art should be tailored to give the right message to people.

Chrisontheatre is not sanitised

Theatre covers all sorts of issues. I write about these issues as a result in my reviews. Some of these plays’ issues will be upsetting to some people, and if I end up writing about it, that could be upsetting too. I sympathise, but I cannot gloss over this and do a proper job as a reviewer. In theatre, especially open-access fringe festivals, all sorts of difficult issues can come up without warning (at least not if you don’t expressly ask in advance). As a rule of the thumb, if you cannot cope with unexpected content getting to you in a mainstream Edinburgh Fringe play, the Edinburgh Fringe is not for you. And this blog is not for you either.

Also, as a general rule, this blog does not use content/trigger warnings when common sense does the same job. If I review a play that discusses rape, it will be obvious the play contains references to rape the moment I say the play covers this subject – that is your cue to stop reading if you don’t want to know (which, let’s face it, is exactly the same service as a content warning provides). Very occasionally, I might give a content warning if I have to write someone unusually harrowing or graphic (so far, I’ve only had to do this one). But this is a courtesy, not an entitlement. I cannot safeguard against anything that might upset anyone.

If I am writing anything that you’d rather I didn’t, you are welcome to contact me and say what the problem is. I cannot guarantee I’ll be able to do anything about it, but I will treat it in confidence. I certainly won’t berate anyone for asking politely.

Chrisontheatre is not trying to be edgy

This blog contains jokes. I don’t have the resources to run all jokes past a sensitivity check. And if for any reason I did, there’s always somebody somewhere who will find a joke offensive, from knock-knock jokes to the one about the Spanish priest and the Iranian gynaecologist. And if you are that easily upset, fringe theatre is probably not for you. If someone somewhere somehow manages to do a theatre blog that never writes anything that might upset anyone anywhere ever, well done to whoever that is. But this is not that blog.

However, I want offence to be the exception rather than the rule. I normally defend edginess in the acts I review on the ground that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to see it, but I want this blog to be inclusive to as many people as possible. So if you think my crap jokes are stopping you reading or enjoying this blog, please let me know. I’m unlikely to change things every time someone complains, but if enough people have a problem with the same thing, I will listen.

Please note, however, I am assuming good faith here. If I get complaints and I find out they’re from people who go looking for things to be offended by, I may have to reconsider this.

Chrisontheatre is not the place to bash bad plays

Okay, now that I’ve disheartened everyone with the support I won’t give, here’s one final rule: I’m not interested in rubbishing plays that aren’t very good. Sometimes I will be critical of a high-profile writer, director or theatre if I feel a play is going in the wrong direction, but that is only in the hope of getting things back in course. Very rarely, I am absolutely scathing about a high-budget high-profile play where they should know better, but that’s just me letting off steam over where our arts funding goes. But small-scale plays are off-limits. If I don’t like it, I just won’t review it. Being a small-scale artist myself, I’m not interested in kicking other small-scale artists when they’re down.

Criticism of plays I review are allowed in the comments, but they must be constructive. Unconstructive sniping is looked on dimly, and anonymous trolling is looked on very very dimly. And if I work out who you are and discover you are hiding something – bigging up a play you’re involved in, or attacking competitors’ plays – I will expose you. So don’t do it. Be nice.

Last updated 2nd January 2020


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