Recommendations policy

Since I keep writing the same opening to all of my “What’s Worth Watching” articles, I thought it would make more sense to write this all in one pager to repeat myself time and time again. If you’re wondering on what my list means, how I decide on recommendations or how to get included in my recommendations, this is the place to go.

The important rule:

If you can’t be bothered to read all of this, there’s really only one thing you need to know:

The plays listed in my What’s Worth Watching articles should be considered a cross-section of what’s out there. It is not intended as an exhaustive list.

I am only one person, I cannot know about everything there is to see. Even in the north-east, or small festivals I know well like Buxton Fringe, there is a lot of stuff out there that I don’t know anything about. So if I don’t list a play in my recommendations, don’t read anything into it. Some plays I don’t list because I expect them to be awful, but most of the time it’s simply because I don’t know enough about them to make a judgement. And sometimes, the play I’ve never heard of by the company I’ve never heard of turns out to be excellent.

A note on press releases:

The next most important rule is one for anyone promoting a show: Press releases have little influence on what I choose to recommend. However, there are still good reasons to send me a press release.

If I have not seen you before, you are unlikely to get recommended from a press release alone. It doesn’t matter how many good reviews you have to your name: I want to base recommendations on things I’ve seen for myself, having made up my own mind. Occasionally, I may recommend artists I’ve never seen based on good feedback from people who I know and trust, and very rarely, I may recommend things that are so wildly different I can’t resist giving them a plug. But the main reason to send me a press release is to invite me to review you. Impress me in person, and I will recommend you then.

If I have seen you before and reviewed you positively, you might not need to do anything. I keep my eyes open for groups I respect and plug their plays as and when I find them. But let me know what you’re doing anyway – every time, there’s always something that slips through the net, and if you want to make sure I know about what you’re doing, it’s safest to tell me.

Categories explained:

I currently use four different categories for recommendations. They are as follows:

Safe choices: These are the plays that I’m confident you’ll like if this is anything near your sort of thing. Many of these productions are ones I’ve previously seen that are still running where I know exactly what it’s like. Other recommendations can be revivals of older plays or adaptations of stories I know – provided I trust the producing company to do a good job. No play is ever recommended for everyone – if it’s something completely different to your tastes, no number of gushing recommendations will change that. But if you like the sound of it from my description or their description, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.

Bold choices: This category is for plays I’m recommending with less certainty. Most new writing falls into this category, as it’s rare I’ll be prepared to make a firm call on something I haven’t seen yet. Nevertheless, I will have more reasons to believe you’ll like it than you won’t – it may be on the strength of the writer, the theatre company, or many other reasons. (Very occasionally, I use this category for plays I have seen and liked, but are so different I can’t be sure what other people will make of it.) There will be a chance it won’t live up to expectations, but it could also be the best thing you’ve seen. If you’re happy to take these risks, these are the plays for you.

You might like: This category is used occasionally for plays I have seen, but have quite a specific appeal. Some of them might not have been quite my thing, but I can see this appealing to other people, others I did like, but it’s something I only expect to cater to certain tastes. For these plays, I’ll do my best to give you an idea of whether this is the play for you – but if after reading that you still think that’s your thing, you should like it.

Wildcards: This final category, again only used occasionally, is for plays where I’ve no idea whether or not they’ll be any good, but I nonetheless feel like giving them a plug. This is almost always used for small productions – big productions get enough publicity, but sometimes small productions do something that grabs my interest that deserves wider attention. If could be interesting quirks, promising excerpts from workshops or simply gut feeling, but if you want to try your luck on something new and untested, consider this a suggestion for you.

Also of note: This isn’t a recommendations category as such – inclusion in that category is not in itself a comment either way. Anything else which is noteworthy or newsworthy will go here. In general, main-season main-stage productions from Live Theatre and Northern Stage will go here if they haven’t already been included in another category, but anything else that stands to make a difference can be included too. Very occasionally, I may use this express reservations about a choice of play, but normally I’ll be interested in seeing this for myself.

Comedy tends to be reported in its own section. In theory, I shouldn’t be recommending comedy at all in a theatre blog, but I end up seeing stuff that’s too good to ignore. Stuff outside of both the north-east and festival fringes tends to be reported in its own section for now – I will review this arrangement another time.

What I include:

So, here’s how I do it. I write six “What’s Worth Watching” articles each year. Three of them are written for each of the big three festival fringes: Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton. The other three are for mostly local theatre throughout the year, covering winter/spring (approx. Jan-May), spring/summer (May-Sept) and autumn/winter (Sept-Dec).

For the festival fringe lists, I will of course get most of my recommendations by scanning through the programmes, although I will know about a few shows through other means. (Note that Edinburgh’s programme in particular is massive and I keep missing things, so send me a press release if you want to be certain I know about it.) For the north-east lists, I tend to look through the programmes of the main north-east theatres, currently Newcastle Theatre Royal, Live Theatre, Northern Stage, Alphabetti Theatre, People’s Theatre, Royalty Theatre, Gala Theatre, Darlington Civic Theatre, Arc Stockton, Middlesbrough Theatre, York Theatre Royal, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Once I’ve done that, I tend to put together my list in the following order:

  1. First dibs goes to good productions I’ve seen already. There’s no surer endorsement than knowing exactly what it is.
  2. Next, I look at new productions being done by creatives I’ve seen before and liked. In general, this means the writer, director, or the performing company (if many of the actors in the last play are also in this one), but plays can be chosen on the strength of anyone involved if they are memorable enough.
  3. Then I will consider in-house productions of producing theatres. There will still need to be something about it to get my interest – no play gets an automatic recommendation just because it’s programmed into a main season – but they’ll get a better chance than other plays.
  4. Finally, I may recommend a production on the strength of the play rather than the performers, but this doesn’t happen often. In general, to get a recommendation based on a good script, I’ll need to trust you to do a good job of it. (Very occasionally, I will recommend a play performed by people I’ve never heard of it’s an obsure play I love that I think deserves more exposure.

I might put the odd thing in the list if it manages to grab my interest some other way. But basically, to have a realistic chance of being recommended I need to know who you are.

What I don’t include:

There’s no hard and fast rules of what’s systematically excluded from the list. However, the following categories are generally not considered for inclusion in my recommendations:

  • Scratch performances, script-in-hand performances, and readings generally don’t go into What’s Worth Watching; this is for finalised pieces, not pieces still under development. However, I might be able to include you in my monthly Odds and Sods article if a piece under development is sufficiently noteworthy.
  • This isn’t really the place for music, dance, cabaret, circus or visual arts – this is a theatre blog, not a generic arts blog. I do make the occasional exception for comedy, but I’m trying not to make a habit of it. Again, exceptionally good non-theatre performances may go into Odds and Sods.
  • I generally won’t recommend something based on good reviews from people I don’t know – I want my coverage to be a fresh take, not just a repeat of existing coverage. However, good reviews from people I know and trust, or good word-of-mouth feedback from other people outside of reviews, might sway me decision in favour of a recommendation.
  • Anything I’m involved in never goes in a What’s Worth Watching list – that’s bad and wrong (apart from “Also of note”, where I may put something too noteworthy to be ignored). However, my rules on conflict of interest aren’t as strict as they are for reviews. If you’re someone I know too well to review fairly, I may still be able to list you in What’s Worth Watching if you’re worthy of it.
  • In general, I don’t recommend long-running nationally-touring shows that keep returning to the north-east. Some shows are great, but my lists would get tedious if I kept recommending Blood Brothers over and over again.
  • In fact, I recommend very few shows that go to the major receiving venues such as Newcastle Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire. There is no hard and fast rule against it, just that most of what’s programmed isn’t what I’m looking for. Stage adaptation of films, jukebox musicals, and production reliant on big-budget special effects rarely interest me, but that accounts for most of their shows. For the remaining shows, I need convincing that what you’re showing is worth the high ticket prices. That doesn’t happen often.
  • It is also rare for me to make recommendations for traditional amateur dramatics. Again, there is no hard and fast rule against it, just that circumstances conspire against you. With almost all amdram productions being performances of reasonably well-known plays, it’s difficult to have something that leaps out as original and different, and with fully-professional theatres being capable of doing better production on the same play, it’s difficult to stand out on that front either. Best chance of getting me interested is if you built a reputation as an individual director. Or do something original. There’s no law that says you can’t.
  • Political theatre is also something I rarely recommend. That’s not because I’m against the concept, simply that most political theatre I’ve seen has been either incomprehensible or just shit. If you’re determined to get a recommendation, you can help your chances by convincing me you’re not strawmanning, jumping on bandwagons, or trying to be clever.
  • There is a special rule for Edinburgh Fringe recommendations that I do not list performers I haven’t seen before, no matter how much I like the play they’re doing or how many good things I’ve heard about them. This is simply to keep the list down to something manageable.
  • As previously mentioned, you do not qualify for a recommendation simply because you’ve been programmed into a reputable theatre, even if you’re part of their main season. I do not dutifully write about everything that Live Theatre and Northern Stage programs – there are plenty of local papers who do that already. Give me something extra to get me interested then we can talk.
  • I’m afraid I can’t publicise you just because you’re a new group who isn’t getting coverage elsewhere. It’s not fair on other groups who’ve had to earn their place on the list, and it’s not fair on my readers who expect me to recommend things on merit rather than charity. Best I can offer is to review you, and if you’re good, maybe recommend you in the future. North-East Theatre Guide might be able to help you though. They tend to run press releases for most shows that they get.
  • I most definitely DO NOT go plugging big productions I’ve never seen (or never heard of) because some PR department sent me their press release. Why should I? You’ve clearly got a big enough budget to generate your own publicity – I don’t see why I have to provide you with more publicity for free. They are, of course, welcome to give me a press ticket to review their shows and maybe earn some good publicity. But they never do.

In general, if I’ve seen the play already and I wasn’t that impressed, I’m more likely to say nothing that list it and say why I didn’t like it. In this situation, I think it’s only fair that I wipe the slate clean and allow the company to start again. I do believe in giving performers second chances (and third, fourth and fifth chances), but if you’re doing something risky, I will be less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if you disappointed me last time. But you’re welcome to get in touch with me and ask me what I didn’t like about your last play, or tell me what’s different about this one. If you can convince me you won’t repeat your mistakes from last time, you may still make it on to the list.

And the final rule …

The last rule is that I’m making up the rules as I’m going along. I reserve the right to change the rules at any moment if I think the current rules aren’t working.

That’s how I do things. Good luck getting on to the list.

Last updated 13th February 2019