Edinburgh Fringe 2016 is over, and thankfully appears to have passed without any unseemly public spats between reviewer and reviewee, like this one between Lawrence Mooney and an Adelaide Advertiser journalist during Adelaide Fringe or Jen Kirkman and supporters’ Twitter piley-on vs The Guardian’s Brian Logan after this review in July.
Perhaps it’s because in Edinburgh, through the good offices of FringePig and others, the more flagrant offences of the reviewing community are now efficiently weeded out. By slaughtering a reviewer and displaying their dismembered corpse as a warning to others, the Pig has improved standards, even though rookies remain prone to mistakes like getting their comedians mixed up.
But even without such horrendous bloopers, the co-dependency is fraught with difficulties and tensions. One particular publication infuriated sections of the performing community this year by turning up to shows in “REVIEWER” t-shirts (our order of The Wee Review onesies has now been cancelled). And, unless a publication dishes everyone five stars, someone will inevitably be unhappy. This year, as ever, we had a few performers and PRs who were displeased with negative reviews we’d given them, not for factual errors, but for what they perceived to be excessive harshness.
We take all this on board. We’re not in the business of casual controversy or deliberate offence. And nor are most publications. Most regular reviewers aim to do a good, honest job and improve their skills where they can. This year the Network of Independent Critics organised get-togethers at Fringe Central for reviewers to share ideas and discuss the slightly weird “profession” of analysing others’ work. But to reassure performers they’re being treated with due care and attention, perhaps it’s time for respectable publications to set some basic standards of reviewing that Fringe shows can expect of them. Then, if performers wish to take issue, they have points they can argue. Here are our suggestions:
1. Stay for the whole show
This ought to be basic audience etiquette in general, unless something gratuitously offensive is going on, or it’s a medical emergency. It certainly should be the minimum requirement of a reviewer. The performer has worked very hard for this. An hour of your time is not so precious that you cannot stay to the end, however appalling you might find what is in front of you. If you slip in late, or absolutely must leave a little early to get to another show, this is acceptable, but it should be referenced in the review where relevant. Under no circumstances review twenty minutes of a free fringe performer as if you have seen their whole show.
2. Be part of the audience
This is the observer’s paradox – the phenomenon that is being observed is changed by the act of observation. It is therefore incumbent upon the reviewer to try and blend in as an ordinary audience member as much as possible. If audience participation is required, join in. If you take notes, do so discreetly. Sometimes it is inevitable that the performer will know who you are. Try to respond naturally to what is happening in front of you, as stony judgemental face may throw them off balance. And don’t sit solemnly with a clipboard and pen and a sparkly hat screaming “I AM YOUR REVIEWER”.
3. Review what you see, not what you want to see
You might not like free jazz/immersive theatre/sketch comedy personally, but this is a free jazz/immersive theatre/sketch comedy gig. So review it as such. The performer has created their work with a purpose. Try to assess what that purpose is, and whether they have met that to the standards they and the audience ought to expect. There is more about the purposes of reviewing in Mark Fisher’s How To Write About Theatre, much of which is equally applicable to other artforms, and makes a good framework for assessing what your review is for.
4. Yours is only one opinion
A good reviewer can think beyond themselves to what is happening dynamically in the room, including how other audience members are responding. They may be responding very well to something that the reviewer is hating. Why is that? It needs explaining. Is the audience giving a Pavlovian response to a performer with a big reputation? Or is this a divisive show that splits audiences? Reviewers should state their opinions, strongly if necessary, but always be open to other perspectives.
5. Justify everything
Nothing should be stated without being backed up. “The show was offensive/dull/fabulous/terrible” should have clear examples of why and how it was. A one-star review should read like one, with numerous significant instances of where the show let itself down or failed in what it was trying to do. Likewise, a five-star review should make a very strong case for why the show was exceptional, not just something the reviewer happened to enjoy.
6. Apply context
Performers deserve to be reviewed within the context in which they are operating. A one man/one woman show is never going to “feel” as spectacular as a huge circus performance, but it can be equally brilliant. Likewise, bells and whistles should not mask a show that is deficient in other ways. This is especially important at the Fringe when reviewing student/early career/amateur performers. It is useless trying to judge an amdram Shakespeare by the standards of a big budget professional affair, for instance. As a reviewer you should ask yourself, is this good for what it is?
7. Make allowances
Sometimes things will go wrong – tech failures being a common example. Forgive small hiccups in low-tech venues, assuming them to be one-offs. If the effect is substantial, offer to review again on a different day. If that’s not possible, reference the incident, but don’t judge them by it. This year, for instance, our reviewer Tamarin Fountain originally saw WiFi Wars on a day the tech dropped out, went back for another one and gave them five stars.
8. Be sensitive
These are people’s careers you are playing with. “Tread softly, because you tread on their dreams”. Reviewing is not an exercise in creative cruelty. As a rule of thumb, brutality can be applied (where justified) in inverse proportion to a performers’ status. As the The Wee Review Writers’ Guide says, “Coldplay at Corporate Sponsored Enormodome can be ripped to shreds, but do go gentle on Kirkcaldy Pensioners Gilbert and Sullivan Society.” And NEVER make things personal.
9. Check facts
Names, nationalities, places of birth should all be easy to check for most performers. Equally importantly though, where a performer or company has a track record, their style and performance history should be considered common knowledge that can form part of the critique. Also, where publicity material or show programme has made clear what the performance is about or is aiming to achieve, this should be taken into consideration, even if the conclusion is that the show failed in its aims.
10. Confess to ignorance
Not every reviewer will know everything about what they are about to review. You may not know the performer or the genre or the subject matter. This does not automatically debar you from reviewing. However, if there is something you are unqualified to comment upon, do not be afraid to own up to that. Better that than risk being unfair.
That is the least that performers should expect from reviewers, and respectable publications should make sure their writers are up to the task. At The Wee Review, for example, we vet all our writers before taking them on, and need to see some excellent examples of previous critical writing. If you, as a performer, or a member of the public think we’ve failed on any of the above let us know. We will always publish (clean!) comments on our reviews, even if, or especially if, they’re trying to debate a point. We had an incident of that nature a few months back with Blood Brothers, but let’s not go into that…
At the same time, performers should catch their breath before taking to their laptops to downcry reviewers. They need to learn to trust reviewers’ intentions and be assured that most credible reviewers are doing their best. Do not describe us as a “necessary evil”. We are neither necessary, nor evil. Taken the right way, though, we can be useful. After all, we’re all of us in the business of creating and enjoying art. So, as a quid pro quo for us trying to do our best, please can performers bear in mind…
1. Reviewers want to like your work
At a Fringe Central Media event a couple of years ago, Mark Fisher of the Guardian made this very good point: when a reviewer walks into a show, they want it to be the most amazing thing they have ever seen. They are on your side. Why else would someone be seeing and reviewing something if they didn’t have an essential love for it? The satisfaction of having been present at a moment of perfect art far outweighs any schadenfreude at someone dying on their arse. Trust that they are looking for your good points. Sometimes the harshest criticisms can come from someone who really likes your work, or could really like your work, but is frustrated at a flaw that ought to be fixed.
2. Most reviewers hate putting the boot in
Imagine a PR or performer imploring you to see a show, insisting you will love it. Imagine the sinking feeling when you realise it’s not up to scratch. Imagine knowing you are then going to have to write up a stinker. You have been chatting to this person over Twitter or e-mail and they seem nice. Now you’re going to have to tell them some bad news. It’s not something you do lightly.
3. Many reviewers agonise over their reviews
I have had many a conversation with The Wee Review writers in a quandary over whether something is three or four stars, or whether they should include such-and-such a comment. They are well aware of the benefit of a nice pullquote or an extra star, and their inclination is always towards the positive. As editor it sometimes falls to me to remind them to keep that in check, or just to stop agonising and go with their gut. People want to get it right and never is a negative review just tossed off for a laugh.
4. If the reviewer has depersonalised, so should you.
The reviewer should never get ad hominem on you. They may have misjudged your intentions, or misread some part of the performance, but assume this is because you were unclear, rather than the reviewer stupid or hateful. They will not normally be attacking you directly, even if it feels like it. Try not to read a criticism of performance as a criticism of you as a person, or of your right to perform. They may have said some stern things, but it makes neither you nor they a bad person. Of course, if they’ve slandered or defamed you, have at it.
5. Sometimes, reviewers know what they are talking about
There is one show I gave five stars to at the Fringe this year, that when I checked (AFTER I had written my review, always AFTER) had been given two stars in Brighton by another publication. The difference? It sounded to have been seriously reworked in the interim. Maybe this was a response to the negative review, maybe not, but the fact is that the flaws that were identified in that first review had been cleared up, and it made all the difference. If you’ve been criticised, consider the crazy possibility that the reviewer has spotted something.
6. Sometimes, reviewers don’t know what they are talking about
Equally, consider the possibility that the reviewer is wrong. If you have faith in yourself and your performance, and you are sure it is good and what you wanted to achieve, don’t be swayed. There can be any number of reasons why your work could be good and the review still critical. You could just be way ahead of the critics. You could be producing work of popular appeal that critics are never going to like. In either case, just get on and do it, but don’t bother fighting.
7. There’s no conspiracy against you
Reviews tend to coalesce around the same ratings, but not because there’s some great reviewing conspiracy. Reviewers do not, as a rule, discuss what they have seen afterwards, but they do often notice the same things. When Scottish Mussel screened at last year’s film festival, for example, it was under embargo. When that embargo was lifted, late the following evening, all the reviews, independently written, were tweeted simultaneously. Almost every single one came up one star. You would be surprised how often this convergent evolution happens. I have even checked others’ reviews after I have done my own, and found they’ve used the exact same analogy. Independently.
8. Publications have audiences too
A good reviewer will be writing for an audience, and who that audience is will depend on the publication. Any perceived criticism or slight may actually be a signifier to that audience. So, Hosiery Weekly may give one star to the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets because they found them to be badly stitched and drab in colour. It doesn’t matter that the show was full of laughs and got five stars from Cowdenbeath Comedy Times. Laughs is not what Hosiery Weekly is all about. Both Cowdenbeath Comedy Times and Hosiery Weekly can be right. See also…
9. What your friends / other performers / audiences said about you is, unfortunately, irrelevant
All the above groups are predisposed to say nice things about you to your face, and their reaction has no place in objective reviewing. Even if you are convinced your performance has been wonderful, because the audience reaction was so overwhelmingly positive, it doesn’t necessarily make a critical review wrong. Consider point 7 above. Consider the audience is made of existing fans, while the reviewer remains to be convinced. Consider anything before hitting the reviewer with, “well, everyone else loved it so you’re wrong!”
10. Don’t call the kettle black
On the few occasions when performers have challenged us about our reviews, they have fallen foul of the same critiquing faults they level against reviewers. We have had people jump to conclusions based on a reviewers’ name, we have had reviewers accused of biases and grievances they don’t have, we have been slagged off as a “blog review site” by people who either haven’t noticed or haven’t checked what we actually do. We’ll take all criticism seriously, and will admit when we’re in the wrong, but don’t be hot-headed about it. Don’t be sniffy about reviewers in general, either. We are bombarded by PRs and performers desperate for us to review them, which means it’s a bit rich when there’s such disdain for reviewers from certain quarters.
There will always be tensions between performers and critics. But as someone who has only ever been the critic side of the fence, I am only ever full of admiration of someone who gets on stage and performs, especially at somewhere like the Fringe. That is always in my mind when I review. Some of our reviewers have performed or still perform, so have a different perspective, but all, I believe, want to give people a fair assessment.
There is obviously a problem at the Fringe with an expansion in the number of publications, a decrease in professionalism in reviewers, and the continued commercial and artistic pressures on performers to secure good reviews. The broadsheets are in the process of abandoning Edinburgh, while the volume of artistic endeavour only ever increases. Amateurs and hobbyists are filling in the gaps, and no-one has fully sussed out how that works yet. On the one hand, you have performers slagging off FringeMuppet because some wet-behind-the-ears oik misunderstood their surrealist theatre, while on the other, you have performers slapping five stars from ILuvComedy.com all over their posters, conveniently overlooking that it’s one kid in their bedroom in Bonnyrigg.
The best way to ensure the reviewing environment around the Fringe continues to work is for the two sides to be constructive in how they operate with each other. I have laughed louder at FringePig than I have at most Fringe comedy shows, and it’s one way to tackle the situation. But if anyone, reviewer, publication or general public, wants to talk other ways of upping the standards of reviewing e-mail me or comment below. Just don’t put anything critical or I will slag you off in a Twitter meltdown.