What Chrisontheatre is

To accompany my list of all the things that this blog is not, here’s a quick run-down of what this blog does. With caveats.

Chrisontheatre is a review site for north-east theatre

The original purpose of this site is, of course, reviews of local plays. And I still write a lot of reviews, even though the scope of this blog has since expanded beyond this. Unlike some review sites, my intention is to actively seek out plays that are good, especially plays that aren’t already getting attention from other publications. So I generally restrict reviews to productions that are good, or at least show some promise. If I didn’t like it, I generally won’t write a review at all. (Very occasionally, I also do this for plays that were okay but indistinct from all the other offerings out there.) Private feedback is always available to anyone who asks it (if you know I saw your play).

I’m only one person, and I cannot review everything. It’s better to think of this blog as a cross-section of the plays out there, rather than a comprehensive pick of theatre in the north-east. As with many reviewers, what I cover is heavily influenced by my personal tastes and what grabs my interest. I pay for most of my own tickets, so I rarely review plays at Newcastle Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire. If you want me to review more of your plays, you are welcome to invite me to review you, but that’s up to you. But my interest will always be primarily with the up-and-coming little guys.

By “north-east”, I mean all the north-east, not just Newcastle. I also make occasional forays into Yorkshire, particularly for the Yorkshire-based groups I like (Stephen Joseph Theatre, Northern Broadsides and John Godber). And I write the odd review about things I saw in London whenever I happen to be down there. But most of the time, it’s the north-east.

Chrisontheatre is a review site for festival fringes

I’m busiest of all, however, when I’m at festival fringes. I go to the Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton fringes every year, and write about the good and promising plays I see. Like my reviews of north-east theatre, I aim to pick out good plays, and especially pick out good plays that are yet to be discovered by the great and good. So, again, bad plays usually don’t get reviewed at all, with the occasional kicking reserved for highly-trumpeted productions that should know better.

As with local plays, it’s better to think of this as a cross-section of plays at the fringes than a list of the best plays. I’m only at each fringe for a few days, and even if I had the time and money to stay for the entire festival, I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of covering everything. I give priority to plays that invite me to review them on press tickets, and in the case of Edinburgh, that eats up most of my schedule. Other than that, I mainly watch plays that I’m interested in seeing as a punter, with a few lucky dips thrown in.

Unlike local theatre, I’ve discovered that what independent theatre blogs says at festival fringes does matter. There aren’t enough reviewers in fringe publications to go round, so fringe performers do turn to online blogs as the next best way of getting noticed. I occasionally get invited to review Edinburgh Fringe plays, and you are welcome to do the same. I can’t guarantee it will always be available to everyone who asks, but so far, I’m always been able to accept. And sometimes it pays off.

Chrisontheatre is a recommendations site for upcoming plays

The trouble with reviews is that they have a very limited useful life for punters. With the exception of a few long-running touring plays, by the time most people have read my review it’s too late. The play has already come and gone. So as well as reviews, I do regular What’s Worth Watching pieces, listing the plays I’ve noticed coming up that I can recommend. I typically write six per year: one for each of the Brighton, Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes, and another three covering the north-east season-by-season. Most recommendations will be on the strength of previous productions of the same artists (or, better still, me having seen this play before), but just occasionally I will recommend plays based on repeated recommendations from other people, or very occasionally play descriptions I can’t resist promoting. I tend to divide recommendations into “safe choice”, which are plays that I’ve confident you’ll like if you liked the description, and “bold choice”, where I’m less certain what they’ll produce but it could turn out to be something great.

Like reviews, it’s not a comprehensive list of recommendations north-east theatre or the festival fringes. I cannot possibly know about everything going on, and I’m sure there are are many absolute gems that pass me by. I advise you treat this as an addition to the recommendations of the big publications, not a replacement. Plenty of publications will let you know what big names are coming to the north-east, what fringe acts have a set of five-star reviews under their belts – I’m here to show what they may have missed.

One other thing: like reviews, you’ll find very few recommendations of Theatre Royal and Empire plays. That’s not because I don’t like the plays there, more that they get more than enough coverage elsewhere. On the rare occasions I recommend something, it will be because it’s something I can pick out amongst all the other highly-trumpeted plays on offer.

Chrisontheatre is an unsolicited resource for punters and performers

Occasionally, I write tips for punters. This is mainly written for anyone going to the Edinburgh, Brighton or Buxton Fringes who doesn’t know what do expect. If you’ve never been to a fringe before – or even if you’ve been to one fringe but not another – it’s easy to make mistakes that stop you making the most of it. Whether it’s how to spot the best shows to see, how to spot the next big thing, enjoying yourself between shows, or simply practicalities over finding somewhere to stay, I write things that I wish I’d known when I was a newbie.

I also write tips for other performers. This might be a bit more controversial. There are plenty of books you can buy about playwriting, and plenty of courses on playwriting – and I don’t always agree with them. Much of my advice is uncontentious and anyone else will tell you the same things, but at other times I will write about things I feel get overlooked, and occasionally I will outright contradict conventional wisdom (I try to warn you when I’m doing this). You are free to heed this or ignore this as you please. I may one day look at amalgamating everything I’ve written into a single guide, but right now it’s odds and sods. I’ll write on more topics if I have enough requests.

Be aware, however, that almost all of this is unsolicited advice based nearly entirely on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Heed this at your own risk.

Chrisontheatre is a place for comment and debate

The other thing I frequently write, in line with most theatre bloggers, is Comment. Usual rules apply for comment – these are my views that you are welcome to agree or disagree with as you please. Comments, whether assenting or dissenting, are welcome. Unlike some theatre blogs, I’m not really interested in using this as a blog for politics unrelated to theatre. I respect the decisions of other people who choose to go down that route, but I don’t want to encourage a politically partisan audience here. So comment pieces are generally kept relevant to theatre or, at the most, the wider world of performing arts. There is one exception I will come on to in a moment.

I’m a firm believer in the right of reply. If you don’t agree with what I’ve written about you or your organisation, you are welcome to reply, and that reply will will, within reason, be shown uncensored and unedited. In general, I will let you have the last word. And if it’s a good reply, I might even allow you a full article so you can argue your position further.

Chrisontheatre is pro-artistic freedom and anti-censorship

I said I keep wider politics out of this theatre blog. There is one exception, and that is censorship. I make an exception for censorship because I believe this is currently the number one enemy of theatre and indeed all the arts, ahead of cuts to arts funding. When an issue becomes a censorship issue, I reserve the right to take a stand, even if it has nothing to do with the arts. If you allow censorship to be legitimised, even once, ideological crusades to censor to the arts is never far behind. So I reserve the right to bring up censorship at any time, whether or not the issue is related to the arts.

That includes marking plays up if they stand up for our rights to artistic freedom, and marking plays down if they support silencing other voices, especially the voices of other artists. I won’t give a bad review of a play just because the writer or director has expressed pro-censorship views elsewhere – reviews should judge the art, not the artist – but I may well refuse to watch the play altogether. If you believe you should deny other artists the right to be heard by anyone who’s willing to listen, I don’t see why I should bother hearing what you have to say.

And closely related to censorship is artistic freedom. One recurring theme throughout this blog is my support for open-access festivals, especially Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton Fringes. Now, I’m not going to brand you an enemy of artistic freedom just because you don’t programme on an open-access basis (indeed, there are plenty of times when open access is impractical), but I have more respect for people who strive for this. Open access brings a lot of benefits to the arts. As well as stripping the power from people who might otherwise constrain what views artists can express, it also acts as a great equaliser, where the minnows stand a fair chance against the giants, and people’s choices are more important that arts industry favourites.

Some people do not agree with me. They think that art has a duty to educate the public by delivering the correct messages. Artists who say the right things should be promoted, those who don’t should be sidelined or silenced. Some of them even think that’s how the Edinburgh Fringe should operate. If you are one of these people, then go away. This is not the blog for you. There are plenty of other sites that either stay neutral on the matter or back your preferred brand of culture policing. Maybe you’ll find out why artistic freedom matters the hard way. You can come back then.

Chrisontheatre is frequently noisy and off-message

So, I see a lot of theatre blogs expressing a lot of opinions, but one thing I see a lot less of is theatre bloggers is individual opinions. Most views I see expressed are safe mainstream views, and whilst this may genuinely be someone’s own view, they’re views which they can safely expect to be met with the approval of their peers. With a few honourable exceptions, I rarely see anyone stick their neck out and speak out of line.

I wanted to do provide something different. I will speak out on any issue in theatre if I feel strongly enough about it, but I’m less likely to say something if I’m repeating what everyone else is saying. Most of the time, when I say something, I want to say something new. I don’t say controversial things for the sake of being controversial, but I ignore any and all sacred cows when I say what I think. There are three particular sacred cows in particular here.

Firstly, I do not recommend plays, or give them good reviews, solely because they are produced or programmed by the most prestigious theatres in the north east. One pattern I’ve observed in most north-east arts publications is an very hierarchical approach to their coverage: coverage of big upcoming plays reads almost like press releases from the theatres themselves, and whilst some original views might be present, I rarely or never see an opinion expressed that might be seen as speaking out of turn. That does not happen here. I support what Live Theatre and Northern Stage do, but I don’t dutifully write good things about their plays. This is partly because praise has to be earned, but, more importantly, is because I want the little guys who can’t get programmed in a high-profile theatre to stand a fair chance against the bigger players who do. (This may or may not be why I far fewer invitations to review plays locally than I do at festival fringes, but if this is the price of saying what I think, so be it.)

Secondly, I go wildly off-message with the idea that there’s lots of help to get started in the arts. I’ve come to the view that most of the help offered by theatres to aspiring artists  – especially aspiring writers – is there for the benefit of the theatre first and the aspiring artists a long way second. Don’t get me wrong – when you can get it, most of the help and advice available is good. But there are times when theatres wildly over-promise and under-deliver. There are also times – far too many times – when it’s better to stop waiting for their help and just do your own thing with or without their blessing. And some suggestions – such as the idea that the only way to have your work produced is through script submissions and playwriting competitions, and that the absence of feedback from rejections is done for your own benefit – I honestly believe does more harm than good. For more bleak off-message advice I have about what received wisdom play writers should ignore, come this way.

Thirdly, I have a generally poor view of political theatre. Not the concept of it – if you have something to say, and you think the medium of theatre is the best way to get your message across, go for it. But if by good political theatre you mean theatre that actually influences people, most of what I’ve seen fails, usually because the arguments are shit, or incomprehensible, or both. Even when political theatre makes good points, it rarely reaches anyone who doesn’t already agree with the message. And yet far too many people seem to routinely confuse being an influence on society with identifying an audience who want to see a play because it agrees with what they already think and spoon-feeding their own views back to them. Here’s a longer post explaining my cynicism, but the short version is if you’re looking for a blog to back-pat you for your part in changing the world, you’ve come to the wrong place.

If you think that support for the theatre means unconditional support for certain ideas, you won’t find that here. What it does mean, however, is that when I think a major play was great, or a theatre is doing good supporting artists, or a political play is making a difference, I mean it, and I’m not just saying that to fit in with mainsteam opinion. That’s the deal here. Take it or leave it.

Chrisontheatre is a few other things too

As well as reviews, recommendations, tip and comments (in ascending order of controversy), I do a few other things. I occasionally report a few developments I think a worth a mention (with priority to little stories that the press are overlooking), analysis of plays, some coverage of non-theatre art (particularly Lumiere), and a few other odds and sods.

What I write, however, is really down to what you’re interested in. Some articles I thought would be of minor interest get a huge amount of interest, whilst others that I thought would get a lot of interest are barely noticed. Some articles lies dormant for days, weeks or even months before they get attention. If there’s anything you’d like to read about, you can always ask.

Last updated 23rd November 2017

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