Monthly Archives: July 2014

How to be an Edinburgh Festival reviewer

Every year there are more critics at the Edinburgh Festival. Soon there will be more than there are shows. When that happens they will have to take to the stage and review each other. Eventually, the whole process (and possibly the whole festival) will implode and all that will be left is a giant meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square with a few charred fliers and scratched lanyards covered in radioactive dust.

This week, for the eighth year running, I’ll be one of this army of notetakers in comfortable-yet-smart-yet-waterproof shoes, getting on the train at Kings Cross (yes, some of us live in London I’m afraid) with a suitcase full of big coats, out-of-date Microsoft products, and stars. Awaiting our arrival will be audiences, primed to see who we give these stars to. In some cases they will be so dazzled by them that what happens on stage will seem far brighter (or duller) than it actually is.

Those putting on shows will also be waiting to see what we think of them – many ready to hurl a disproportionate amount of praise or abuse in our direction depending on whether we “get” (i.e. like) or don’t “get” (i.e. dislike) their work. Everyone else will be, at best, ambivalent to us as we embark upon three weeks of frantically typing in bars and cafes or from the pavement, like nothing else – not even the massive meteorite-like hole in St George’s Square – matters. Because if the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t a competition for who can be the busiest I don’t know what it is. Oh yes, it’s an arts festival. Or is it dream lottery? Or a chance for Foster’s to sell you beer?

It’s actually all of these things, and more. But perhaps most importantly it’s really good fun, especially if you’re reviewing it – even more so if you’re getting paid, and more so again if you’re getting paid properly. I mean, really, what better job is there than doing something you love all day in a place where large numbers of people are doing the thing they love, and then writing about it? For a month!

If you’re lucky enough to be joining me and many others for the first time as part of this disparate, fractious, paid, under-paid, not paid, experienced, not experienced, enthusiastic, cynical, happy, not-so-happy group of people classified as fringe reviewers – welcome.

There is an elaborate and often difficult to figure out hierarchy among reviewers at the festival. The ones who work for certain newspapers can be disparaging about the ones who work for other newspapers, and the ones who work for other newspapers can sometimes seem to think very little of the ones who work for websites (unless they’re websites they like, and then that’s OK).

At least once a day you might end up in a conversation about what qualifies someone to be an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer. People may even ask you directly, usually because they’ve had a negative review or they’d like your job. Of course, there are no qualifications (BA theatre critic?) in the same way there are no qualifications for people who read scripts or commission TV shows or decide you’re going to win or lose this competition or that competition. Someone in a position of power just decides that you’re able to do the job in the same way whoever’s in charge of them at some point just decided they could do their job.

And if you can’t get someone to publish you (or even if you can), you can always publish yourself online. Newspapers are cutting back, websites are growing. Of course it’s more difficult to get people to listen to you from a small blog with an out-of-the-box turquoise font than, say, the front page of Scotsman – but at least no one’s stopping you from giving it a go due to lack of space, budget or appreciation of your genius ideas.

The Edinburgh Fringe is all about artists producing their own work. And more and more people who write about this work are publishing their own reviews. The spirit of the fringe – that everyone can have a go – has spread. And while some people might be horrified by that, I’m just happy there are other people sitting on the pavement typing. It makes us more visible to passing buses.

So, if you’re coming to review the festival for the first time – or if you’ve been before but would like me to tell you how to do your job – here are my tips for being an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer:

* If you’re under 30 you might want to try and win the Allen Wright Award. Or you might not. But you probably will.

* If you’re over 30 you might want to moan about being too old to enter the Allen Wright Award – or the fact you didn’t win it in 1997. Or you might rise above all of that. But you probably won’t.

* People putting on shows are not your friends – unless they are your friends, and then you should avoid reviewing them (that is, if you want to stay friends).

* Your opinion is your opinion. Other people will have different opinions, but they can’t tell you you’re right or wrong because that’s why it’s called an opinion.

* Sometimes there will be a general consensus regarding which show’s a multi-prize-winning work of a creative god, and which isn’t. It may be disconcerting that everyone disagrees with you. But it may be that you’re ahead of your time.

* At some point you’ll give a show a number of stars you later think was too generous or too conservative. Either way, everyone will have hundreds of the things by the end of August. By this point you might (rightly) question what stars mean anyway.

* Three shows is an ideal number to review in a day. Four is do-able. Five is too many (but not impossible). Seven is dangerous.

* You will write something nonsensical. You will forget to eat. And drink. You will leave all your money in a venue that looks just like another venue. That’s what happens when you review seven shows in a day.

* If you want to see and hear interesting stuff out and about, don’t wear your press pass around your neck. People will know you’re from the press.

* At some point there will just be you in the audience. You will feel awkward, but not as awkward as the performer.

* You might notice other reviewers taking notes. Chat to them. Chat to everyone. They will tell you stuff. But wait until the show has finished first.

* People will refer to you using only your surname. i.e. “Stott says this to that.” If you’re a woman and you’ve written something they really hate they will precede it with “Ms.”

* Be prepared for every performance you see to be amazing. Many of them won’t be, but at least you’ll have given them all a fair and equal chance.

* Sometimes the characters actors play are more appealing than the people they are in real life. That is the power of acting.

* Don’t say anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. At some point, that someone will want to chat to you about it. And then you’ll have to say them to their face anyway.

* The Festival is one of the few places where many people get to do a job they love – at least for three weeks. Others are simply working to earn money and be a part of it. So be nice to the bar/ restaurant/ café staff. Serving you falafel is probably not their dream.

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Making sense of the Edinburgh Fringe Guide 2014

A blog originally published in 2013. I was going to write a new one, but my friend said “why don’t you just update that other one you did that was really funny” – and how could I say no to that? (Although I also wrote a new one anyway…)

***

Choosing what to see at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a stressful process for a lot of people, particularly my Dad. Throughout August he emails me saying things like: “We want to go and see four- or five-star theatre show at 3.30pm on Sunday 12th August at the Pleasance Dome, or within a five-minute radius, and it can’t be like that dreadful boxing one that won all the prizes you sent us to last year. Do you have any suggestions?”

By this point, I’m usually seeing lots of shows for The Scotsman and, as a result, have lots of recommendations. However, I can’t remember when or where any of them took place because venues, times and titles are a jumbled mass of numbers and letters rolling around my head like lottery balls. So I just email him a single word: the name of my favourite. It has really stuck in my mind and I’m pretty sure will win all the prizes. Why wouldn’t it? It’s by the company who did that wonderful boxing play.

It’s around this time of year that lots of lists come out called things like ‘Top 20 things to see at the Edinburgh Fringe if you can’t be bothered to read the programme’. They predominantly suggest you go and see shows by companies or individuals who have done good stuff in the past, similar to the way banks only lend to people who can already prove they have lots of cash. These shows are ‘a safe bet’. However, safe can mean predictable and, in some cases, disappointing. For instance, you’re unlikely to appreciate a harrowing expose of sex trafficking, no matter how well done, if what you really want to see is a musical starring ex-soap stars.

Reading the Fringe Guide for yourself avoids this. It means you will be more likely to find and see what you want; less likely to have to buy your ticket now (or last week). However, it’s a time consuming process. I know, because I do it every year. It’s boring! Don’t even try and read more than ten pages without a break. But, in the end, it is worth it. Out of the hundred or so shows I see each year most of the ones I choose are good, and the ones I like best are often on few people’s lists except my own.

In 2008, I was one of the first and only critics to see Little Bulb’s debut show Crocosmia, performed in a hotel room. There were two other audience members. Their last show, Orpheus, sold out Battersea Arts Centre. A picture of their 2013 one, Squally Showers, topped the Guardian’s ‘to see’ list. In 2007, I saw one of the first performances of the recently formed 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It went on to win multiple awards and tour the world. The company didn’t have critics at their follow-up show in 2011. They didn’t need them.

Seeing a great show before anyone else is brilliant. You can take your time and choose where to sit, you won’t have someone else’s head blocking your view because there is no someone else, and the cast will probably chat to you at the end because they’ll be so grateful you came. “Why did you come?” they’ll ask, impressed that you’ve managed to find a venue listed 5km off the edge of the festival map. “Oh, I just read about you in the Edinburgh Fringe Guide,” you’ll breezily reply. None of this is going to happen when they’re selling out the National Theatre and appearing on BBC Breakfast.

While you will never again have the chance to see Little Bulb or 1927 in a quiet, unassuming atmosphere uncluttered by expectation in the way I originally did, reading the Fringe Guide will increase the likelihood of you having a similar experience with another currently unknown company.

But be warned, the Fringe Guide is a bewildering place: hidden gems are submerged in a cauldron of false advertising and unsubstantiated claims. In order to find the really good stuff, you’ll need to weed out the really bad stuff. To help, I’ve created a dictionary of the kind of terms you’ll come across here – words and phrases describing shows, and what they really mean:

Edinburgh Fringe Guide Dictionary

Immersive
You will probably end up on stage.

Site-specific
There isn’t a stage

One-on-one
Talk about your life with a strange man

Interactive
A strange man will try to snog you

A classic dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century
A pointless new setting for a familiar old tale

A rollercoaster ride of emotions
Lots of people crying for no obvious reason

Tackling issues
Talking about issues

Heart wrenching
Self-conscious

Poignant
Slow

Loveable
Annoying

Experienced
Boring

Burlesque
Stripping

Hilarious!
Painful!

America student company
Cheerful, rich teenagers on holiday

Iraq
Play written in 2003

London Riots
Play written in 2011

Ban the Bomb
Play written in 1963

Brechtian
Don’t go if you like Brecht

Beckett-like
Weird and confusing

New writing
Play by someone no older than 25

Monologue
Long

Verbatim
Saying other people’s words for them

Giving people a voice who don’t have one
Writing other people’s words for them

Science meets theatre
Someone like Brian Cox

Theatre meets art
Someone like Tracy Emin

Suitable for under 4s
Don’t go on your own if you’re 43

Suitable for over 14s
Don’t go on your own if you’re under 4

Adults only
Sex

Starts at 1am
Probably good

Free food!
Croissants

Multimedia
A projector

Five stars (audience member)
The critics gave it two

Five stars (unnamed source)
Everyone hates it

Five stars (well-known critic)
You will be left feeling mildly disappointed but predominantly smug

Won a prize in 2002
And hasn’t won one since

The critics loved it
We care what other people think

The critics hated it
Fuck other people

Adapted from a radio play
Was better as a radio play

Is on the telly
And should have stayed there

Anti-establishment
Mainstream

A play about tuition fees
Created by people who don’t want to pay them

A lot of hard work has gone into it
It’s not very good but please be sympathetic

Robert Burns
You will only see this play at the Edinburgh Festival

There will be a Q&A afterwards
No one will ask questions except the director

You will laugh until you cry
You may cry but not in a good way

You will cry until you laugh
Could be interesting

Good luck!

If you still can’t face the idea of reading the Fringe Guide and were really hoping this blog would be another list of recommendations for shows from someone who has yet to see any of them, please continue reading.

 

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