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So, erm, didn’t quite expect the (lovely, slightly overwhelming) response which the love letter got. I’m still trying to find time to respond to everyone who contacted me but, needless to say, you’re all wonderful. And to everyone who tweeted, re-tweeted, blogged, commented, emailed – thank you.
One of the results of all of this is that I have about a squillion new blogs (see, that A in GCSE maths didn’t go to waste) to add to the blog roll. I’m in the midst of writing a play at the moment so have forbidden myself anything I recognise as being procrastination but I intend to schedule in a slot in the next week to do the updating. So, feel free to wave manically in my direction if you’ve got a blog I should be reading.
As a final piece of housekeeping, I should say for those who are visiting here for the first time that I also blog about theatrey-things over on my personal blog (only, I swear a bit more and tell marginally embarrassing stories over there).
I’m going to write down a date. Friday the 10th of September 2010. One day everyone who has ever written – or read – a theatre blog might want to remember it. The day that the Royal Opera House not so much poked themselves in the eye as repeatedly bludgeoned themselves with a heavy instrument (an instrument which, in the subsequent health and safety report, they spelt incorrectly). The wonderful irony to the whole thing being that whilst the storm was raging the ROH’s Head of Digital Marketing, Rachel Coldicutt, was at The Media Festival Arts talking about the importance of open data. It is indeed all in the timing.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account (or analysis) of the events because you can read them first hand on Intermezzo’s blog, with the legal view here and the marketing view here. I also feel it needs pointing out that there were two distinct issues that got tangled up on Friday, issues which should be separated out:
1. The specific case and what it shows about theatre bloggers, blogging and theatres.
2. The perception of the ROH within the arts community (which is bundled up with the issue of funding and the level of fear that is – justly – prevalent in much of the arts community about what the Autumn funding cuts will look like).
I’ve lots to say on the latter subject but, for today at least, I’m going to stick firmly to the former.
Theatre blogging is a niche pursuit. But then going to sit in a darkened auditorium and watch people speak – or in the case of opera, sing – someone else’s words multiple times a month (or some times a week) is also a niche pursuit. The internet, in all its multifaceted joy, allows a niche to flourish. Like attracts like (or compels like). It not only cements tendencies (that of reading about theatre, of continuing going, of knowing more than you could ever keep in your head), it also allows tendencies to grow. Knowing there is a community of people out there doing the same thing – theatre-going is a tribe as much as anyone else. Of course not all repeat theatre goers blog but, in 2010 with the ease of google, I’d be surprised to find a repeat theatre-goer (who wasn’t directly involved in the industry*) who had never read a theatre blog. These people – the people whose names might otherwise be simply one in a marketing database – should be hugely valued (and respected). And if not now, then when? As we get ready to batten down the hatches and weather the oncoming storm Theatres should be respecting these people more than ever.
Theatre blogging, like all individual blogging, is massively democratic. A “name” will only get you so far. But you can make yourself a name within the community. There are many, many ways to do this – most are a niche within a niche, either because of their predilection to certain types of theatre or because of their locality – but what unites theatre bloggers is their dedication (have you tried going to see multiple shows and then coming home and writing them – without being paid to do so? It’s bloody hard work when, frankly, you’d rather be in bed). Every single one of them, even the most world weary or caustically brilliant (you know who I’m looking at), love of what they write. They want theatres to succeed, they want the next show they see to be the best thing they have ever seen, they want to share their excitement (or, as it may be, disappointment).
Recently the Guardian Theatre Blog made me want to put my fist through my computer. From the moment I saw the title of the article – Five stars in their eyes: can you trust unpaid theatre critics? – I knew it was most likely going to result in my feeling the need to jab a knitting needle in my eye. Theatre bloggers, with their wordpress and blogspot accounts, are unpaid. Some might occasionally get free tickets but by and large they pay for the privilege of sitting in a theatre’s seat (or standing as the case may be) and then come home and write about it for free. I was genuinely pained when I saw that the article had caused Jake Orr, who founded the – excuse me for the expletive – fucking important A Younger Theatre, say that he was “somewhat down heartened and questioning the value of what [he writes]”. No one comes out as a fully formed theatre critic. What you need is dedication, some degree of writing flair, a willingness to see a lot of theatre, the knowledge you can always learn (or re-learn) and a whole bundle of passion. Theatre bloggers in the UK have these characteristics in abundance. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be writing about theatre and people wouldn’t be reading them. For me a critic is only as good as my relationship with them. Through my reading – whether I visit their blog in a vaguely stalker-ish manner on a hourly basis or whether I drop in and out according to interest in what they’re reviewing – I know their biases, I know their specialisms, I know where I stand in relation to them. This is what matters. That they also entertain, inform and (sometimes) provoke me is all part of the package.
What blogs create – something which Twitter’s popularity amongst the art-prone has intensified and broadened** – is a web of community. Forget six degrees of separation, I’d decrease it to one degree for the online arts enthusiasts. What role you play in this community can be as diverse as any real-life community might be (whether you see yourself as the Mayor in waiting, the person drawing graffiti on the bridges or occasional tourist who wants to see the major attractions). Words spread (with some voices, as in any community, being louder). In the offline world I’m often asked about shows people should see and I clocked recently that my default response is to fall back on what the “buzz” is on the theatre blogs. Theatre bloggers are word-of-mouth amongst friends magnified – because anyone who can access the internet can be their “friend”. If you under estimate the scale of this community and its ability to communicate – well, then you end up with the Royal Opera House on Friday.
As Intermezzo says on her latest post on the subject theatre blogging is here to stay. I first blogged about theatre-going in 2001, I first bought a theatre ticket directly because of something I’d read on a blog back in April 2007 (when I didn’t even live in London) because of this. It’s laughable that it’s 2010 and many of our major arts institutions haven’t realised that blogging exists as more than a vague concept (or something that someone in their marketing department does in a half-arsed, vaguely inept manner). The theatre companies who have embraced social media (and embrace means more than just being there with your twitter account RTs of positive comments and Facebook page of official photos) are largely the ones without buildings (there is a notable exception up in Stratford). When you’re filling spaces with hundreds of seats every night it’s easy to forget the individual theatre goer sitting in E23 up in the Amphitheatre. When every person you engage with your work matters – as it does for many small and medium sized companies – you don’t forget the individual. That ticket sale – those future ticket sales – matter. That’s why these companies understand that “social” goes both ways.
Having been a long time blog reader I’m happy to say that theatre blogging in the UK is more exciting than it has ever been. It’s also expanding at a faster rate than I’ve ever seen before. Am I surprised that Friday happened? Absolutely not. Maybe the ROH is lucky that it happened now and not six (or twelve months) later, just as the Tricycle is lucky that this happened in 2008. It’s time, however, not just for (if an organisation is lucky) having one person in a marketing department who knows what a theatre blogger is. All it takes is a clear policy, a lightness of touch, and the humility to remember that these people buy tickets to your shows.
Remember that love I mentioned earlier? That love is for your industry, your venue, your show. Embrace it, don’t stamp all over it in steel-capped boots. Why shouldn’t press photos be available to bloggers as long as they’re properly credited? Given that you have charged them money for your product why shouldn’t bloggers review show whilst they’re in previews? Talk to us. We’re bloggers, we love a conversation. But – and here’s the big lesson – bloggers will not bend to you. Five years ago, maybe, but not now. This community – it’s too big and vocal, for that. You need to adapt and respond to us, not the other way around. Change, innovate, blaze a trail. You might even learn something.
*I’m constantly shocked when people inside the industry can’t name a theatre blogger.
**Not every tweeter blogs but I’d guess 97% of bloggers tweet.
I don’t think I was alone in doing something of a double take when I read Michael Coveney’s post about watching a preview of Legally Blonde. Specifically the bit where he appeared to projectile vomit all over his computer screen:
“I went on Saturday night and I’ve never sat in an audience so unreal or abnormal. Weird couples, clacking hen parties, simpering teenage girls: it was like being stuck in a nightmare college campus graduation ceremony.”
Yep, still had to do a double take when I copied that over because I’m not entirely sure which part of that paragraph is the most offensive.
I was going to write a rebuttal about Coveney’s prejudices (not to mention his hardly covered misogyny and contempt for a theatre audience who had paid to see a show) but others have already said so incredibly well that I’m going to point you in their direction instead:
Carrie Dun writing at Spotlight robustly and passionately defends the audience’s right to like something critically disliked.
The magnificent Mission Paradox blog wasn’t writing of Coveney when he wrote about art’s hostility to its audiences – but, crikey, someone should send Coveney the link pronto.
Finally, and gloriously, Sans Taste has what is possibly the most eloquent response to the whole debacle.
Once again taking the lead from The Clyde Fitch Report to take a tour around what all those theatre bloggers in the UK are going on about.
At A Hectic Phase In The Life there was a reflection or two on Howard Barker.
At A Younger Theatre Jake revealed why he really, really doesn’t like one man shows.
At Carousel of Fantasies Matt brought some urban decay to the BAC.
At Confessions of a Playwright our attachment to the idea of the lone genius was questioned.
At The Corner Shop Blog it was almost time for opening night (plus a rather spectacular to-do list)
At Fin Kennedy Fin broke his hiatus to tell us his blog was going on hiatus.
At HannahNicklin.com Hannah blogged about apathy (or rather the myth of apathy), something which after the reaction to that edition of Question Time seems even more pertinent.
At Helen Smith Helen had her second dream about Playwright and one-time blogger David Eldridge.
At John Morrison The Power of Yes proved that it was continuing to underwhelm bloggers.
At Killing Time Dave Windass stepped into Annie Hall. Well, almost.
At Life in the Cheap Seats Webcowgirl saw rather a lot of one of the stars of Silence: The Musical, and rather liked what she saw.
At Miching Malchio it was the proliferation of reviews which was up for discussion.
At Nabokov NewsBlog there was some rather impressive packing going on.
At Paul in London Paul suffered for his art and went back in for the second half of Carousel: The Songs of Jacques Brel at the Barbican
At Russell’s Theatre Reviews it was all about the touring production of Beauty and the Beast. I saw UK Production’s version when it was last doing the rounds 18 months or so ago and would rather have my fingernails pulled out while watching Waiting For Godot than repeat the experience. But, with the brand behind it, it seems like there are many more regional audiences to traumatise before it dies.
At Shenton’s View Mark Shenton had a timely reminder about the problems of buying theatre tickets.
At That Damn Yankee Jason Ferguson continued to explain British Theatre to Americans, this time with the aid of a fire curtain.
At The Guardian Theatre Blog Andrew Haydon considered his relationship to (man of the week) Howard Barker and, subsequently, the terms by which we judge theatre. My (limited) experience of Barker in performance has done nothing but leave me cold – though the other half of Write By Numbers would say the opposite of that – and as anti-intellectual as it might sound for me theatre is at its most compelling when it engages my heart as well as my head. In that way the title of Haydon’s piece is a no-brainer: yes, of course we should watch plays for pleasure because I can stay at home, save my money and read dry critical theorising on the internet for free.
At View From The Stalls the task was to puzzle out what actually happened in Memory Cells with even its Director getting in on the action…
At West End Whingers it was a trip to the almost universally adored Enron which which was on the cards and, perhaps inevitably, it just couldn’t live up to the hype.
One of my favourite recent-ish discoveries is the Clyde Fitch Report and one of the things I love about it is it’s From The Blogroll section that takes a brief look around, well, the Blogroll. So in blatant theft I’m going to start doing the same thing here once a fortnight. It’s a bit different to what I write for Whatsonstage as I’m going to stick to UK based blogs and undoubtedly be a little bit more flippant than I am over there.
So, if you’re sitting comfortably, here goes…
At A Younger Theatre Jake became part of the play and reviewed Tim Crouch’s The Author.
At Carousel of Fantasies Matt Trueman took Roger Foss to task for his dismissal of interactive audience-led theatre in The Stage. Given my documented obsession with One & Other I’m with Trueman on this. And I can say that and still be in raptures over Stoppard and Shakespeare etc etc. Because that’s what’s great about theatre. Difference.
At Confessions of a Playwright there was what can only be described as an accordion moment.
At HannahNicklin.com Hannah blogged about A City Staged and the kind of embracing of the possibilities of social media for theatre which makes me a little sick with excitement. It even made me want to have been in Derby so I could have taken part. (My only connection with Derby is an interesting evening in a club in the early noughties when my feet stuck to the floor and where I probably should have worn a polo neck. So, believe me, this is saying something).
At Helen Smith it was all about a giant knitted poem. And murder. Agatha Christie would be proud.
At Killing Time Dave Windass found paradox and Apostrophe Use Gone Mad in the same sign.
At Life in the Cheap Seats Webcowgirl quite probably could have done without having seen Jane Horrocks in Annie Get Your Gun.
At Miching Malicho there was an adventure in the streets of York with Belt Up production of The Trial.
At Paul in London the interval of Mother Courage led to the revelation of what Rah-Rah Gay is.
At Pirate Dog it was all about a monkey upstaging Kevin Spacey on stage at the Old Vic. Which almost makes me want to see Inherit the Wind.
At Russell’s Theatre Reviews the Young Vic’s production of Annie Get Your Gun continued to astoud – so much so that it was re-christened Annie Get Your Act Together.
At Shenton’s View Mark Shenton discussed the questions that the launch of Love Never Dies failed to answer. But not – WHY? For the love of God, why?
At the Guardian Theatre Blog Lyn Gardner sent out a plea for more Rupert Goolds in British theatre. Goold had me at his production of Six Characters in Search of an Author which delighted me more than almost anything I saw in the first few months of living in London. Also if we are to go by his photo on Gardner’s blog then he also has rather impressive hair. So winning all round.
At View From The Stalls there was Shakespeare aplenty in Lend Me Your Ears.
At West End Whingers it was third time unlucky for Annie Get Your Gun and, well, you should just go and read as it’s the Whingers doing what they do best.
A few days ago Mark Shenton blogged about the response of a ‘Creative’ (ouch, yes that term doesn’t roll off of my tongue either) to critics reviewing Previews. In some ways it is just a tale of bad communication between various departments, as well as that desire I know so well just to keep on tweaking and changing and well, only one more thing, just one more… Which is fairly standard. But it did get me thinking about Previews and the paying public – specifically the paying public who then go home and write a blog which I (and others) may read.
After all – lots of theatre blogger write reviews having seen what is technically a ‘preview’ performance. It’s inevitable – previews are when tickets are at their cheapest so it’s somewhat obvious that people who go to the theatre lots (and are thus the ones who know about the different ticket pricing) will go during previews. And unlike the critic being given the free seat and the paid column and thus an embargo on reviews, they can go home and write their review whenever they like. It’s their perogative and long may it continue.
Maybe some would say – does it matter what bloggers say? Well for some people no, just as much as for some people it doesn’t matter what Michael Billington says, and of course their quotes don’t look quite as good at the front of the theatre (let it be noted – I will whoop with joy the first time I see the West End Whingers quoted). But I – and I am sure many other people like me – get a feel for the shows through these people. If a show was generally being rubbished amongst the plethora of bloggers I read then I, quite probably, would give it a miss (unless it was reaching To Close to the Sun proportions of cult fame and then, hey, I want to know what I’m missing). Equally if a show that hadn’t initially sent me running for the Box Office queue generates some blogger buzz then the chances are I’ll make the effort to see these people. I went to see Attempts on Her Life on the strength of this review. And that production would make my list of ‘Productions which changed the way I see theatre’. In a way that you feel you know a bit about the person when reading good theatre critics in print, it’s the same with the best of the theatre review bloggers. Only they’re more likely to let you know where you should sit or who the cutest member of the cast is. And I like all that. That’s part of the experience of going to the theatre.
But does it matter that they’re reviewing a preview? In the days when I was a Duty Manager in a producing theatre in the North we had a big preview sign we would stick in front of the doors to the auditorium. It was big and bulky and utterly unmissable. And on the nights it was out I would get asked ‘What does ‘Preview’ mean?’ at least nine or ten times. I’d come out with the standard – changes are still being made to production etc etc but it remained that the person asking wasn’t aware they were booking for a Preview. So for them this was the production full stop. And why shouldn’t it be? Discounted though they may be preview tickets are not free (or even close to being free) and paying audience means – I want the technical bits to happen on time, I want the actors to know their lines and cues, I want this show, quite simply, to work. Okay, we can say we’ve put signs up about previews, and that it’s in the glossy brochure but it doesn’t really matter. Paying customer here, not test audience. Maybe, if you’re a producing theatre like the one I was in, this might be the first time this audience member has ever been to your theatre. This might be the one chance you get to make an impression on them.
I know time changes shows, things bed down, new ways open up. It was one of my great delights of last year that I saw the RSC’s production of Hamlet on its final Preview, again towards the end of its run in Stratford and then again during its final week in London. I didn’t blog my thoughts on my first viewing – but it would have been safe to say that I agreed with a friend who wrote at the time: “there is nothing to offend (well maybe the cuts), but there isn’t as yet anything which makes you hold your breath”. By the final time I saw the production I still had some reservations but the cast had become such an ensemble, absolutely attuned to their roles that it made me gloriously happy to have seen part of the journey.
One of the lovely (and some times terrible) things about the time I spent ushering was seeing a production develop and change and grow. During that time I did see shows change during previews but I never saw a bad production transform into a great one (or indeed even turn into a solid one). Of course some things get slicker and tighter but really it’s the performances within productions and the audiences who watch them which change over time. And what is a show if not everything which it is in its final performance? So, ideally we’d send the critics in then (the RSC almost achieved this this week) – but what use would that be for anything bar the scrapbooks belonging to actors and directors? Plus who can legislate for those odd evenings where everything just comes together; the evenings that pull me back to theatre just in the slight hope I may have one again. And – yes, another and – a good production is a good production is a good production. Even during a midweek matinee.
So Press Night, really, is just an arbitary date in as much as performances are never quite the same and, at least for those involved I would suspect, rarely – if ever – the finished product.
I’m going to return to this one tomorrow when I’ve got a bit more time to write something vaguely coherent but, thanks to @FacesofWayne on twitter, I saw an article on Writer’s Digest about whether writers should blog. And indeed if they do whether there should there be a code of conduct.
My first response was most definitely something along the lines of it covering some useful areas whilst simultaneously feeling completely alien to my own experience of blogging. But then there are certainly times in my life when I’ve been a Blogger who writes rather than a Writer who blogs so maybe that’s where that (not so subtle) difference comes in.
Equally, I’ve never heard the phrase “time sink” before. Every day really is an education.
It touches something, however, that I’ve been wanting to explore for some time – so I shall return…
There was a blog and that blog belonged to Write By Numbers.
Write By Numbers is a new-writing theatre company based in South London and was started by myself, Corinne Furness, and Charlie Whitworth after we (like Blur) met whilst studying at Goldsmiths College. That is, I confess, probably the only way we’re like Blur. What can I say – you win some, you lose some.
This little blog of ours is the combination of far, far too many hours spent over the past six years either writing or reading blogs. So it seems entirely natural that Write By Numbers should have its own outpost on the interweb. In some ways this blog is a bit of an experiment. Basically, I read lots and lots of theatre blogs (I kind of have to, in another life I write a column about theatre blogs), both those by people reviewing or commenting and those by people who are making theatre. And I wanted to combine all of the things that I liked about those blogs, along with my own take on what I think is missing from UK theatre blogging.
So – Blogging By Numbers is not simply a marketing exercise disguised as a blog (I mention no names) but will tell the story of Write By Numbers. It’s about the things that inspire us, the opinions we want to share, the adventures we’re having. It’s about us engaging both with the people who see our work and those who may only ever know it via the internet. It’s about the theatre we’re making and the theatre we want to make.
I should probably also warn you that at some point it may be about David Tennant (my fault) or Arsenal (entirely Charlie’s) but we’ll let you know when that’s about to happen so you can go and put the kettle on while we get over it.
I’m looking forward to sharing this adventure with you.