Out-of-Office

I won’t be posting for a few days so I thought I’d leave you an out-of-office message so you’d know nothing was wrong – I have coping strategies in place to manage six days without theatre (though celebrating my birthday in Florence with friends will certainly help…!).

And as a birthday present to you, my readers, I’ve selected some of my favourite current videos for your viewing pleasure.   Continue reading “Out-of-Office”

Blogged: the return of You Me Bum Bum Train

Sound the klaxon, blow the whistle, You Me Bum Bum Train is coming back! It ranked as my second favourite thing that I saw in the entirety of last year and I could not be happier to be able to experience what Kate Bond, Morgan Lloyd and their tireless team have in store for us this time around. It is quite difficult to explain just what You Me Bum Bum Train is without giving it away, and a massive part of the pleasure is the complete unexpectedness of what it is that lies in store for you. Though it may seem a little scary, and believe me just before I went in last year I was genuinely freaked out and very close to backing out, but I persevered and boy am I glad that I did as I got to do things I never dreamed I would ever do, and will most likely never get the chance again!

What I can say is that rather than being a traditional show, You Me Bum Bum Train is ‘a participatory theatrical experience’: you enter on a solo adventure that takes surreal twist and turns that will introduce you to a world like no other where you will get opportunities like no other. It may sound a little intimidating, especially for the more reticent, but it is done with such a huge amount of sensitivity and such an amazingly supportive atmosphere that you never feel exposed or embarrassed, but rather encouraged to have the best time you can possibly have. So put any doubts whatsoever to the side, embrace the unknown and take the plunge as you will only kick yourself if you don’t! But move quickly, tickets sold out for last year’s run in nano-seconds – making it the fastest ever selling show at the Barbican. Continue reading “Blogged: the return of You Me Bum Bum Train”

Blogged: When social media really is social (and not so much)

Late June saw me attend the Devoted and Disgruntled satellite event What Are We Going To Do About Theatre Criticism and followed by calls to action from other bloggers who wanted to hear more voices than just the reviewing one, I decided that I would give it a try and attempt to bring a different perspective onto certain issues that I felt I could contribute to. I had the best intentions but life has pretty much got in the way since then and I haven’t really had the time to devote to writing. But one issue has kept burbling around in my brain and it was all brought back to me in various ways last week, so here goes (apologies for the length).

The subject I decided to hold a session on at the above-mentioned event was “Should bloggers aim for/be held to a set of professional standards/code of conduct” the notes of which can be read but a quick summary was a definitive rejection of the statement and a recognition that blogging is an individual act which can’t (and shouldn’t) be policed. I have to admit to being a little surprised by this, but as the discussion progressed I realised that the issue I really wanted to delve into was an offshoot of the original question: something along the lines of ‘what value would a bloggers association have and is it desirable’, this similar idea of trying to provide some sort of structure that bloggers could rely upon if necessary.

It’s something that resonates with me as, without wishing to play the ‘woe is me’ card, I have been involved in a couple of extremely bruising online encounters which resulted in some pretty vicious commentary being flung my way and leaving me questioning whether I wanted to continue blogging at all. The first time it happened, it was genuinely upsetting to have my motivations questioned so publicly and my working practices dissected so brutally without any prior communication with the people throwing out their opinions, but I was fortunate enough to have an amazing group of fellow bloggers and Twitter buddies to keep my spirits from falling too low and keeping me going whilst I tried to regain my equilibrium. Continue reading “Blogged: When social media really is social (and not so much)”

Blogged: Blogging as opposed to reviewing

Blogger, critic, reviewer, writer of drivel; all these terms have floated around as people try to deal the ever-evolving world of online theatre criticism and impose some sort of definition on it (and me). I have generally resisted trying to get sucked into the debates – responding only when comments have really resonated personally – but recent weeks have seen two buddies of mine throwing down the gauntlet when it comes to theatre blogging as distinct from theatre reviewing which has got me thinking just a little: lurkmoophy’s letter of resignation as a theatre blogger and Jake Orr’s response – The Stagnation of Theatre Blogging for A Younger Theatre.

Luke’s own précis of his post “Don’t only write reviews. Branch out into commentary, opinion and awesomeness within theatre” is a nicely inspiring mantra and one that I had been musing for a while: there’s about 4 half-finished blog posts on various subjects lurking on my laptop somewhere that never quite made the light of day. Why is that? Well, lack of time is the main reason. In common with most bloggers I know, theatregoing is my hobby and for me, writing about the shows I’ve seen is a choice I made to keep a comprehensive record of it all in lieu of collecting ticket stubs and/or programmes. Clearly, it is has evolved into something more than that now, a behemoth that dominates my life but it is still essentially a pastime, as the reality of 9 to 5 working dominates the day rather than burning issues in theatreland. Continue reading “Blogged: Blogging as opposed to reviewing”

Blogged: Should bloggers aim for/be held to a set of professional standards/code of conduct

Notes from Open Space session at Improbable’s Monthly D&D Satellite: What are we going to do about Theatre Criticism?

Attended by: some lovely people whose names I did not take (sorry)

Discussion started around whether any rules for blogging should or could be created. The quick consensus was that no, they shouldn’t and no, they weren’t really desirable. Key factor is clearly the inability to make anything enforceable so the issue moved somewhat around whether a sense of responsibility is what we are actually after. Much chat about the very nature of blogging being an individual act, the freedom of speech and the right to respond to a piece of art as you see fit (especially as a paying customer, even for a preview), often closer to opinion giving rather than critical discourse: all making it impossible to ‘regulate’ for want of a better word.

Problem comes in trying to apply journalistic concepts too strictly onto bloggers. Asking/making them adhere to official critic rules without giving them any of the benefits subjugates blogging to an ‘inferior journalism’ mindset which isn’t what it is about. Indeed, blogging could be seen to be challenging the print media voice – perhaps giving a voice to the audience member – and offers a unique opportunity to subvert expectations without being wedded to format, word count, structure – embrace the freedom of opportunity, create an interactive community with your readers. For the most part, readers will be able to discern that there is a clear difference between journalism and blogging. Continue reading “Blogged: Should bloggers aim for/be held to a set of professional standards/code of conduct”

Blogged: Selecting Blogger’s Choice for Off Cut Festival 2011

The Off Cut Festival 2011 will see 28 short plays being performed at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios as part of a three week showcase of new and undiscovered talent with the audience able to vote for their favourite play, which will receive development time and a full run next year – much like last year’s winner Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind which played at the Hen + Chickens in March. The reading panel selected 32 plays, all of which they would have been happy to have in the festival and of those, 24 were put into four groups to best reflect the diversity of writing style/genre/tone/casting in order to present the most exciting, interesting and varied programme for the audience. And because they are crazy people at Off Cut, they invited a panel of bloggers – yours truly, Scott, Luke, Alison and Havana – to select our favourite four from the remaining eight to make up the final programme.

Thus we were treated to readings of 8 short plays from the Off Cut reading panel plus a little extra assistance, and though there were several moments of helpless giggles at some of the more absurd points, there were also some lovely touching moments which really added to the whole experience and brought a complete life to the scripts that would have been lacking had it been a simple reading exercise. The subjects covered were an interestingly varied range, as were the formats, but the final four that we selected by committee were: Continue reading “Blogged: Selecting Blogger’s Choice for Off Cut Festival 2011”

Out-of-Office

If I were one for admitting I am sometimes in the wrong, I would perhaps say that the cutting down on theatre in 2011 hasn’t really worked out for me so far…108 shows seen this year. But there will be a few less this month as I’m going away for a week to Krakow so 1) please don’t rob my flat and 2) here’s a repeat of that meme to tide you over.

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

1. Godspell, Union Theatre
2. Precious Little Talent, Trafalgar Studios 2
3. Iolanthe, Wilton’s Music Hall
4. The Coronation of Poppea, King’s Head
5. Moonlight, Donmar
6. The Great British Musical, Criterion
7. London Road, National Theatre
8. Thrill Me (Leopold & Loeb Story), Tristan Bates
9. The Tempest, Barbican
10. Little Shop of Horrors, White Bear

Who was the best performer in number one (Godspell)?
Madalena Alberto was the classiest performer for me, both acting- and singing-wise, in an ensemble which had quite a few good performers.

Why did you go to see number two (Precious Little Talent)?
Ella Hickson has won awards for her writing, but it was mainly the chance to see Ian Gelder working in such an intimate theatre.

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (Iolanthe) that you liked?
There’s loads of witticisms about liberal/conservative alliances, the necessity of the House of Lords and tongue-in-cheek remarks about being half mortal half fairy, but my favourite line is probably the Fairy Queen’s “I am not insensible to manly beauty”

What would you give number four (The Coronation of Poppea) out of ten?
Somewhere between 6 and 7.

Was there someone hot in number five (Moonlight)?
Indeed there was, Liam Garrigan was a piece of hot stuff and frequently in his y-fronts which was an occasional merciful relief in the extreme longueurs of the show.

What was number six (The Great British Musical) about?
Celebrating musical theatre writing both old and new in this country. And raising money for Perfect Pitch.

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (London Road)?
Kate Fleetwood was the most impressive as she probably works the hardest, but it was Clare Burt who really touched my heart the most.

What was your favourite bit in number eight (Thrill Me)?
The way in which the performers dealt with the malfunctioning lights: singing the line “I can’t see you any more” in the pitch dark was too much for anyone to deal with without laughing and Frasca and Maguire were extremely good-natured about it.

Would you see number nine (The Tempest) again?
I would definitely see it again and had it not been such a short run, I would probably have gone back to the Barbican (indeed a friend booked to see it again practically upon leaving it, he loved it that much).

What was the worst thing about number ten (Little Shop of Horrors)?
Dentist overacting and general oversinging.

Which was best?
The Tempest was a fantastic physical reinterpretation of a much-told story which gave it a real freshness, but London Road seems to invent a whole new genre of theatre with its exhilarating presentation of the voices of real people and an emotional honesty that I didn’t think theatre was capable of.

Which was worst?
Will have to say Moonlight for the not inconsiderable feat of making 80 minutes feel like HOURS.

Did any make you cry?
Unusually for me, no.

Did any make you laugh?
Iolanthe and The Tempest both had greatly humourous moments in them.

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
A woman playing a whore in Godspell so that I could sing ‘By My Side’, one of my favourite songs; or one of Ferdanand or Ariel in The Tempest so that I could be in the log scene… đŸ˜‰

Which one did you have best seats for?
Best seating experience was being in the pit for London Road, puts you right in the middle of the performance and subject to some interaction with the actors.

Meme: Last 10 things seen at the theatre

Because I am at that place called Procrastination Station and not currently inclined to finish the 5 outstanding reviews, here a little light-hearted bit of fun.

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Gielgud)
2. Ecstasy (Hampstead)
3. 8 Women (Southwark)
4. After Troy (Shaw)
5. Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket)
6. Lidless (Trafalgar Studios 2)
7. The Knot of the Heart (Almeida)
8. Richard II (Tobacco Factory)
9. Godspell (Ye Olde Rose & Crown)
10. Romeo & Juliet (Royal Shakespeare)


Who was the best performer in number one (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)?
Meow Meow as Maîtresse, the narrator-type figure, one of the main reasons I was so excited for the show and completely worth it, her rendition of Sans Toi is almost worth the ticket price alone. Joanna Riding and Cynthia Erivo also excellent though.


Why did you go to see number two (Ecstasy)?
The fact that it was selling out? Also the chance to see Sinéad Matthews and Siân Brooke onstage again after really enjoying previous performances from them last year.


Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (8 Women) that you liked?
“Mummy, people tend not to commit suicide by sticking a knife in their back”


What would you give number four (After Troy) out of ten?
A 7?


Was there someone hot in number five (Flare Path)?
I can never quite make up my mind about Harry Hadden-Paton but in uniform, yes. See also Joe Armstrong.


What was number six (Lidless) about?
The moral implications of being involved in torture and the impact of suppressing the truth from loved ones, but from a heavily liberal point of view. Also a handy guide on what not to do with a pair of handcuffs.


Who was your favourite actor in number seven (The Knot of the Heart)?
I didn’t really enjoy any of the acting in this to be honest, unless you count wine glass throwing technique, but Kieran Bew did extremely well at clearly defining several small different roles as the various men in the show.


What was your favourite bit in number eight (Richard II)?
Apart from being within touching distance of John Heffernan when he sat in the audience, it would be the scene when he arrived back from Ireland to receive some bad news, slumped against a pillar and practically whispering, you could have heard a pin drop as he proved what a fine actor he is becoming.


Would you see number nine (Godspell) again?
No. Not even for the sexy gay Judas in it.


What was the worst thing about number ten (Romeo & Juliet)?
Cripes. I can’t think of anything apart from the box office woman being unwelcomingly rude.


Which was best?
I’m saying Flare Path for now, but subject to change.


Which was worst?
The Knot of the Heart, without a doubt.


Did any make you cry?
I wept in Flare Path and afterwards. Also shed a tear or 5 in Romeo & Juliet and After Troy.


Did any make you laugh?
I very nearly lost it in The Knot of the Heart but I wasn’t supposed to be laughing… But Sheridan Smith made me laugh lots in Flare Path, 8 Women had lots of silly humour, Umbrellas, Romeo & Juliet and Ecstasy also got a laugh or 3.


Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
None immediately spring to mind, although I wouldn’t mind being one of the charcaters in Umbrellas of Cherbourg who got carried around.


Which one did you have best seats for?
My seats for 8 Women had my name on them! But forked out for front of circle for R&J which was amazing, and even if the play was awful, the £8 marvel that is F12 at the Almeida did not disappoint.

A response to Matt Trueman

I was wary of posting this response to Matt Trueman’s theatre blog “Theatre bloggers must leave previews alone“, a draft sat on my laptop for a good few hours yesterday as I tried to make sense of the wilfully provocative rhetoric and the sentiments that lay behind its writing. Ostensibly a defence of the preview period as part of the creative process, it soon moves onto yet another attack on bloggers and their conduct. I could have refined it, clarified some of the points I struggle to make, but it came out of me fairly stream-of-consciousness-like yesterday lunchtime and so whilst I’ve separated it into two main strands, this is me speaking pretty much unedited from the gut.

Previews
There is a debate to be had about the ethical responsibilities around preview performances, but Trueman does not pursue this fully despite it being the set-up for the article. In focusing so hard on and damning the bloggers, an amorphous community who act as one for the benefit of this argument apparently, whilst simultaneously skating over those same responsibilities also held by the producers, the theatres, the PR companies, the actors even, the argument is fatally undermined. The actions of all the key players need to be interrogated and challenged in order for this issue to be truly understood and dealt with in a manner that can then be addressed.

Take a theatre like the Almeida: nowhere on the website are previews mentioned, nor on the tickets you receive, yet the process of a press night a few shows into the run is still observed. Their social media team regularly tweets audience quotes and yes, blog reviews, from the very first show. Yet they do not come in for the same level of opprobrium here even though it does not square with the idea of radio silence argued for. What element of silence should be, or indeed can be, enforced during these preview periods when theatres themselves are publicising feedback from audiences?

PR teams are wising up to the realities of a world in which social media is playing an ever-larger part. Invitations have been proffered to blogger nights, as opposed to press nights, and in some cases the former has taken place before the latter. What then, should the invitation be declined because “theatre bloggers must leave previews alone”? When people involved with the show itself have issued that invitation?

And whilst I am not a creative, others will doubtless provide that perspective, I find it hard to agree with the idea that sums of money close to full ticket price can be charged for a show that is considered “unfinished”. Once a financial transaction takes place, there is a responsibility to the audience which surely has to supersede the creative process unless there are serious changes made to the way in which they are advertised and priced.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to any of these things and it may be (almost certainly will be) that different strategies work better for different people, theatres and shows and I applaud those theatres and companies that taking this issue by the scruff of the neck and trying out new and different ways of dealing with this challenge. This is a subject that really is worth debating sensibly, but free from the sneering attitude towards bloggers that permeates the original blog.

Bloggers
It must be nice to live in a world where the savings made on preview tickets don’t mean a thing to you: for the record, that would be £90 for two tickets at each of the last three shows at the Olivier to pluck a random example. Multiplied over a year of regular theatre-going, it does make a difference. And as for chasing hits, it cannot be denied that it is nice to have a lot of people read a blog-post, thereby satisfying the early demand and this is something I have been quite open about, but to suggest that this is foremost in my mind whilst getting up early when booking periods open and websites crash regularly under the demand, spending evening after evening (and some afternoons) in the theatre and then using the spare time left over to write up reviews whilst working a regular job, who’s the cynical one there? Corinne at Distant Aggravation articulates these points, and others, in a wonderfully eloquent post here which is well worh a read.

This condescending attitude takes its worst form though in the assumption that bloggers “want the same regard as critics” as if every blogger is a wannabe professional critic. Every week it feels like one critic or another is laying into bloggers for what they are or aren’t, for what they write or don’t write as if one has to be defined by the other. I have a job thank you very much, blogging is my hobby and this site is my personal record of what I’ve seen. I am quite clear about who I am, a regular audience member writing about his experiences doing the thing he loves the most, watching theatre. That others choose to read and share what I write is a genuine honour for me, and the key word there is ‘choose’, no one is forcing people to read this blog. And let’s be honest, for all the talk of influence or power that is mentioned and the consequential responsibility, there is a relatively limited amount of people who actually read this blog no matter how high it might appear in a Google search and I would wager that very few of them would confuse this with a formal, professional reviewing site.

Critics come to their work from a world of huge experience and knowledge, I don’t have that nor do I pretend to; there’s a discipline to critical writing that I do not have, nor do I crave. I choose to write in an informal, accessible, sometimes rambling style because I can and that is how I express myself and I would hope that any respect that I might happen to garner would actually stem from that rather than from a direct comparison with professional critics. And though you dismiss it so easily, the fact is is that you are pretty much saying that bloggers ought to observe the same professional etiquette as critics whilst receiving none of the attendant benefits. Will you ever hear a critic talk about the experience of paying £70 to sit in a restricted view seat or having to put up with the worst seat in the house: no, because different briefs are being fulfilled and you know what, in the end, that is absolutely fine. On blogs, in the theatre industry, as in life: respect and regard cannot be demanded of people, it is earned through hard work, the demonstration of your passion and, let us not forget, the way in which you treat other people in the world, no matter where you perceive their position to be.   
So Mr Trueman, you get what you wanted: you raised the red flag and I duly charged and I thank you for your condescension, it serves to define how I am perceived by some and I’m grateful for that. But to point the finger so definitively at bloggers and to maintain such a myopic view of the multitude of factors and responsibilities for all concerned that swirl around this issue of previews is more than just a little irresponsible and does the industry that you obviously care so passionately about a great disservice.