The top 10 times I got it wrong

This might looks like another novelty lockdown piece, but it’s actually something I’ve been planning for over a year. It’s the eight anniversary of my theatre blog when I wrote this. On the third and sixth anniversaries I wrote about what I’ve learned, but for this milestone I thought I’d do something different. It’s sort of about what I learned, but only what I learned the hard way.

As any regulars will know, I made up my mind quite long ago that I don’t want to be an unconditional cheerleader for theatre, and definitely not a cheerleader for the people in charge of theatre. I want to be noisy and frequently off-message, supporting decisions when they’re right, speaking out when I think it’s a mistake. Nor do I go along with consensus just to fit in with what everyone else think of plays. I plan to keep it that way, because there have been times I’ve stuck my neck out and later been proven right, the most obvious case being Pantogate – I was asking questions long before their treatment of staff and actors came out in the open. But I don’t always make the right call. There several thing I’ve said that, looking back, I now thing I got wrong. In general, I’m embarrassed I wrote this now.

So, let’s get straight to business. The worst mistake I ever made is …

wait for it …

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15 ways Coronavirus might change theatre for good

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As you might have noticed, my last article on Coronavirus didn’t age well. I won’t go over the embarrassing details just yet, but pretty much everything I could have got wrong I did get wrong. The latest I’ve heard is that consensus is most theatres are provisionally planning things to get back to normal in September, with a few having plans on standby for started sooner at short notice.

Do you think I’m making any more predictions after that fiasco? Of course not. So what I’m doing instead in, instead a single vision of the future, I’m going to give fifteen. I will stress straight off that none of these are predictions – indeed, most of them are mutually contradictory. But all of these are, in my opinion, plausible outcomes. There’s still a multitude of things that could happen in the short term, but this is my speculation for how things might turn out in the long term.

So, imagine it’s 2025. Coronavirus is long consigned to the history books, as is the great shutdown, but it’s legacy lives on. But what is that legacy? It might be any of these:

1: Edinburgh Fringe reinvents itself for the better

[This is the scenario a lot of commentators are hopeful for. I am sceptical about this one myself, but let’s see how it might work anyway.]

It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe has a record-breaking 4,452 acts. Any observer from the now-infamous 2019 fringe, where the 3,841 acts seemingly pushed the it to the limits, might call that a disaster waiting to happen. But the pessimists are confounded and the Fringe has sorted out its problems.

In hindsight, the problem was time. For all the Festival Fringe Society’s efforts, they could only achieve token victories single-handedly. What they really needed was the co-operation of the major venues, but the moment the fringe finished the venues had their hands full planning next year. Suddenly, the shock cancellation of the 2020 fringe gave all the venues time on their hands. With the PR disaster for Hogmanay 2019 still reverberating, Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon were all eager to show they’d learnt the lessons Underbelly hadn’t – Underbelly was forced to go with the flow. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government got on board, and an unprecedented level of co-operation arose. Continue reading

10 common mistakes in playwriting from people who should know better

I never guessed this when I first posted this in the first year of my blog, but 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting is by far the most read post on this blog. Since then I had advanced a lot further and learnt a lot more, but it’s interesting to discover that I haven’t changed my mind about any of these. It’s frequently linked as a resource by  schools, and Papatango even once named this one of their resources for their playwriting competition.

But … am I pointing the finger at the easy targets? I want to help, but there’s always the nagging doubt that the real audience of the post is people who are familiar with writing plays exchanging knowing laughs about people who aren’t. Well, if that’s you, it’s time to stop smirking. My biggest frustration in the last few years isn’t from the people who don’t know any better, but the people who should. I can understand why novices would keep making the same mistakes, but I’m increasingly noticing that there’s another set of repeat mistakes made by established artists. People who ought to have learned by now.

So here’s comes my less popular companion article: 10 common mistakes in playwriting  from people who should know better. Unlike beginners’ mistakes, not everything here will get your script binned in the reading room – on the contrary, some people think any or all the things listed here are a plus. If you want a commissions performed in front of a praiseful clique, ignore everything I say. But if your goal if for people to look back at your play years or decades later and say “wasn’t that good?” – and I hope this is what you’re aspiring to – you should take heed. I’m listing this in ascending order of controversy – I’m expecting the last one to piss quite a few people off – but all of these things are inspired by plays I’ve seen. I won’t say which ones*, because I don’t want to personalise this, but if you think it’s you, please consider this my hint to change tack.

[*: And no, I’m not going to tell you, so don’t ask.]

Without further ado, here we go.

1: Set piece overkill

This one is a giveaway of recent drama school graduates. I’m not knocking drama schools here: whilst there some damned good performances from people with no training, in my experience the biggest strength of professional training is versatility. (Good amateurs are great at playing variants of their real selves – with professional training you can do a lot more.) Another asset of drama schools is learning every trick in the book to put together a great performance. After seen enough plays, you learn to spot the “set pieces”. Things that wow regular theatregoers are known by more experienced viewers to be quite easy if you know how. Which is fine – you should be trying to impress the 95% of the audience who just want to enjoy this, not the 5% who know enough about the craft to judge your skills. Continue reading

We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown

Roy Chubby Brown and Robert Walpole
FIGHT!!!!!

COMMENT: It won’t be easy to find a right balance when programming controversial acts in publicly-run venues. But neither unofficial blacklists nor political intervention are the way to do it.

Oh dear. This almost passed me by, but there’s been a pretty major controversy over at Middlesbrough. Roy Chubby Brown is coming to Middlesbrough Town Hall in spring next year. Given the, shall I say, “contentious” nature of Roy Chubby Brown’s material, that alone raises a few eyebrows. But the really controversial bit is not the decision itself, but how the decision was made. The management had originally refused the booking – it was the newly-elected Mayor of Middlesbrough who overruled them, and the manager of the Town Hall resigned apparently in protest.

In the end, however, something like this was bound to happen. The issue over venues refusing to programme Roy Chubby Brown goes back years, with reasons for refusal rarely being more specific than “it’s offensive”. And with so many venues owned by their respective local authorities, it was only a matter of time before someone higher up took the view that people who are offended don’t have to watch it. I wasn’t expecting things to come to a head so close to home, but in hindsight, it’s not too much of a surprise it happened in Middlesbrough – and not just because this is his home town. I will come on to this reason later.

So here we go again. As this raises questions about censorship and this is an anti-censorship blog, it’s time for me to give my thoughts. I don’t respond to every story that’s a censorship issue, but the main reason for this one – apart from the fact it’s happened on my doorstep – is that this shines a spotlight on two practices that normally have no scrutiny: one is how arts venue managers choose to programme at publicly-owned facilities; the other is how and when people higher up intervene in the running of these venues. And on this one occasion where we get an insight into what happens behind closed doors, it’s worrying for a lot of reasons. Continue reading

My Lumiere 2019 wish list

I’ve been meaning to write this for several months, but now I’d better get a move on. Next month the programme for Lumiere is revealed, and as this is a 10th anniversary Lumiere, they are going to give this a special theme I’m unofficially naming “Lumiere’s greatest hits”. There will be a few new installations coming, but most of them will be some of the most popular installations over the last five biannual festivals. In which case, here’s a good opportunity to give my own wish list for my dream Lumiere line-up.

Here’s the rules of this game. These installations are all personal favourites of mine, but I have taken into account popularity amongst other people too. I have, however, set myself a rule that it must be possible to put these all into one festival. I loved most of the centrepiece installations in the Market Place, for example, but the Market Place can only have one centrepiece at a time. Very occasionally, I will take the liberty of advocating moving an installation, but that is strictly reserved for cases where there’s two installations in the same place and I can’t bear to let either go.

Footnote: I’ve found out through my channels that one of these on the list is coming, but I won’t say which one because I respect embargoes. But it was already on my wish list before I knew it was coming.

Are you ready? Then here we go:

The best of Durham that I want back

Crown of Light (2009-2013)

Some people said that this installation was overused after coming back for a third appearance – but it would surely be unthinkable to leave out this iconic projection over the first three festivals. The images of the Lindisfarne Gospels projected over Durham Cathedral was the definitive image of Lumiere, and without this I doubt the festival would have catapulted the festival to national fame. As well as the images, the music used for the project – existing music though it may have been – was perfect for the setting. Nothing says Lumiere more than Crown of Light – surely surely surely this has to be in the 10th anniversary lineup. Continue reading

Green is not a creative colour (or: the problem with mass participation arts)

Yellow guy from Don't Hug Me I'm Scrared with his clown painting

COMMENT: Mass participation events at arts festivals are fun. It should not be used as a substitute for supporting people’s creativity – and especially not by Manchester International Festival.

For those of us with sufficiently obscure senses of humour, there is a cult series online called Don’t Hug Me, I’m ScaredI can best describe this as Sesame Street if David Lynch had directed it, where innocent-looking “educational” songs turn into surrealistic drug-fuelled nightmares in the final two minutes. My favourite episode of all, however, is the first one: a notebook singing a catchy tune to “get creative”. However (ignoring the upcoming drug-fuelled nightmare for a moment), when you listen a bit closer, you notice that this notebook has very exact ideas of what does and doesn’t constitute permissible acts of creativity. Incorrect art is decried or destroyed; even picking the wrong colour is a serious offence, because “green is is not a creative colour”.

This may not seem relevant to what I’m about to discuss, but please bear with me. Continue reading

Sorry Scotsman, but “pop-up” reviewers are legitimate competition

COMMENT: There are valid reasons to criticise independent reviewers – but writing “entertaining” reviews at the expense of saying anything helpful is worse than anything so-called pop-up reviewers are accused of doing.

I apologise for burdening you with yet another anti-Scotsman article. I was planning to let this go after my original article on why you should think twice before letting The Scotsman review you, but then came Kate Copstick’s bizarre passive-aggressive column for Broadway Baby, seemingly unable to let go of her outburst the year before over comedians exercising their right not to give out press tickets for previews. So I wrote about that hoping it would be the last time. But now I’ve come across this article in the Edinburgh Evening News: ‘It’s these pop-up reviewers who haunt festivals such as Edinburgh Fringe that have done much to devalue the review as an art form’. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, this is bad. It’s not entirely clear what is meant by “pop-up” reviewers – most of the time it seems to be independent bloggers such as myself, but it’s vague and possibly extends to pop-up review sites. The only people cited as valid reviewers are – yes, that’s right – the reviewers at The Scotsman, co-incidentally the sister publication of the Edinburgh Evening News.

Even though this piece is a blanket attack on people like me, I’m going to refrain from making personal attacks back. Unlike Kate Copstick and Paul Whitelaw, who both squandered all my respect a long time ago, Liam Rudden, by all accounts, is highly thought of as both a theatre maker and an arts journalist. And yet the way this article is written, it reads like a hit piece sanctioned by the fringe editors of The Scotsman with Liam Rudden acting as a proxy. So let’s respond. Continue reading

Guest post: Flavia D’Avila on Edinburgh Fringe – a Love/Hate Relationship

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Alfredo Jaar’s installation for the Edinburgh Art Festival

The endless growth of Edinburgh Fringe has provoked a debate on two big issues: the affordability of the Edinburgh Fringe, and the conditions for workers at the venues. But there is a third issue that also needs attention, which is what effect Edinburgh has on the locals of the city. Is it a chance to enjoy the greatest cultural festival in the world on your doorstep and take an annual windfall? Or does it make your own city inhospitable for a month every year? I haven’t commented much on this as I don’t live in Edinburgh and don’t know much about this issue.

So let’s get the perspective of someone who does. Flavia D’Avila lives in Edinburgh. Coincidentally, she is directing a play that is coming to Edinburgh this year (which I happened to see at Buxton and loved), but she is more importantly someone who I’ve seen commentate on contentious issues at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere in a fair and thoughtful manner. So here is the perspective of an Edinburgh Fringe local …

I first moved to Edinburgh in 2006. I arrived the day before the Fireworks Concert that year, so I had just missed the Fringe but that was one of the reasons I decided to move here from Brazil. I had never been to Scotland and had no personal connections here but I had my mind set in Edinburgh as a good place to develop my theatre career after the suggestion of an English friend living in Brazil and reading a short article in a local newspaper about the Edinburgh Festivals.

I skipped 2015 because of issues with the Home Office (that’s another story that you can read on my personal blog here), so 2019 is my 12th Edinburgh Festival Fringe and although I am sadly still not entitled to a Scottish passport, I feel very much like a local here. That said, during the Fringe, I’m not just a local. I’m part of it. So when Chris kindly invited me to write this guest post reflecting on the Fringe impact on the Edinburgh locals, I gladly accepted but I feel the need to warn readers that my experience is that of a local theatremaker who is very much embedded in it all. That part of me absolutely loves the Fringe. Part of me also hates it.

I can’t tell you much about the experience of the other locals, those who just want to be able to get to work in an office or need to pay a bill or go the library and get annoyed because the Fringe keeps getting in the way. I got little insights here and there, like when I was speaking to a bouncer who sometimes works at the venue where I work year-round. He rarely goes to shows that he’s not working at and doesn’t really care much for it. He enjoys some music gigs and has done some private security for Kylie Minogue in the past so he was delighted to see her at Edinburgh Castle last month. He isn’t super keen on how busy the city gets but he also acknowledges that August is his best month for business so he works his ass off and then he takes his family away for a 4-week holiday in some remote beach resort in January. Although he doesn’t engage with the Fringe, it allows him to have some quality family time a few months later. Continue reading

There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman

COMMENT: The Scotsman is a highly-regarded arbiter of high-profile fringe theatre, but the service they offer groups on their first fringe venture is a different matter.

Edinburgh Fringe is about to begin. And where there’s an Edinburgh Fringe, there’s Edinburgh Fringe shenanigans. This year, the first shenanigan to hit the headlines is The Mumble, who charge people for reviews. I am in agreement with, well basically everyone, that you should have nothing to do with them, especially if you are starting off on the fringe circuit. The good news is that few people appear to have signed up to their schemes – most people, it seems, know better to put their trust in someone with such a dodgy reputation.

However, I am coming to the view that there is another publication you should be wary about, and unlike The Mumble, they are very highly regarded; and plenty of performers, beginners and veterans alike, invite their reviewers along. And that publication is The Scotsman.

It’s not got to the point where I’m telling everyone to have nothing to do with them. Their Fringe First awards are something to take seriously, and if you’re already a big name and you’re in with a shot of awards of that prestige, The Scotsman is as good an option as any. But if, like the majority of performers who read this blog, you are trying to make a name for yourself, it’s a different story. Any review request is a gamble, heavily swayed by a reviewer’s personal tastes that you have no control over. But this particular gamble is one where the odds are not in your favour. There is a high chance a Scotsman review will be useless, or worse than useless.

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Interview with Richard Stamp on fringe ethics

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I’ve been covering a lot of thorny issue on this blog recently, particularly regarding how fair festival fringes are. But I’ve been giving my own views quite enough. I’m keen to get other perspective on the issues I’ve been covering. So last weekend, I took the opportunity to get the views of the editor of FringeGuru.

This interview is a near-verbatim transcript of what we discussed. But I genuinely had no idea where this would go. And was an interesting discussion it was:

The expansion of Brighton Fringe is the most dramatic change to the fringe scene in the last few years. It’s now said by some that Brighton Fringe now is comparable to the Edinburgh Fringe thirty years ago. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, I wasn’t at the Edinburgh Fringe thirty years ago so it’s hard to draw a comparison, but I do think Brighton Fringe as it has expanded has lost a bit of its individual character. It used to be a place where local performances and local performers were very much at the fore, with some invited guests. Now the balance has shifted and it’s about shows visiting the city, with local companies forming just a small part of the programme.

I think that is a shame, but on the other hand, I do think there’s a need for a counterbalance to Edinburgh. It really makes very little sense for the Edinburgh Fringe to carry on growing any further – I think everybody recognises that – and Brighton has its own place on the festival circuit that it occupies well.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether I think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s going to happen, and the question we should be asking ourselves is how we try to nudge it gently in a more fair and ethical direction, rather than trying to stop an unstoppable force. Continue reading