As I wander from fringe to fringe, I often wear two hats. For a few hours a day I am the Executive Officer of the QPM Zythos, second in command of the weighty and consequential task of maintaining the integrity of the beery timelines. Or I am serving cupcakes and champaign and making rainbows in empty space. Or I am leading people backwards in time to the couch where they wait in front of telly for mum to bring them soup and Calpol with hot Ribena. Or whatever. Basically, I am trying something, sharing something, doing something, driven by some unknown mania, and in the hopes that someone else will get something out of it. That’s making theatre on the fringe – it’s bits and bobs and taking chances, experimenting, and pouring out heart and soul to create something fragile and cherished and quite possibly frivolous but no less important for all that.
And then I go out, notepad in hand, and take a look at the work my colleagues are making. Evaluating theatre (read: reviewing) is a tricky business when one is a theatre maker oneself. It can feel a bit hypocritical – there is the constant danger of being too sympathetic and, on smaller fringe festivals, there is the certainty that one will find oneself in at least one social engagement with the object of one’s scrutiny. Making friends on the fringe (fringe begets beer, beer begets friend, beer begets honesty, honesty begets enemy) can be tricky for the wayward reviewer.
Once, whilst waiting for a Rachel Mars show, I found myself sitting next to the Metro, and we got to chatting. She asked me how I’d come to be writing (at that time I was a culture writer for The Upcoming). I told her about the Central School, and about Wish Experience, and when I’d finished giving her my abridged (but not very) CV, she asked me when I reckoned I was going to decide. Decide? Whether to review or to make work of my own. It was about that time the lights dimmed for the top of the show, so I managed to wriggle out of giving any meaningful answer, but as the show went on, the question burrowed its way into my skull and laid there. Shrugging it off, I turned my attention to Rachel and her problems expressing herself and, after the show, my tormentor was out of there like a shot and the matter didn’t come up again.
But it’s been on my mind ever since. When are you going to decide? What you’re doing? Because they’re uneasy bedfellows, reviewing and making work.
It’s easy enough on a larger fringe, like Edinburgh or Adelaide. There are thousands of shows, and one can see three shows a day the entire festival and never run into a friend or acquaintance. But in North America it’s another story. A large fringe here has close to two hundred shows – a far cry from the city-wide orgy of anonymous fringe abroad. And on an everyday basis, a city like London or New York offers a large enough pool of artists and work that one can cut a pretty wide swath through the scene before painting oneself into a corner. But as we progress; as we work our way ever closer to the nub of the matter, refine our tastes, and establish ourselves as artists inhabiting a particular niche (which also happens to be the subject of our greatest interest, experience and, therefore, expertise) we find those circles getting ever smaller.
A conversation on the subject with Jem Rolls over drinks in the very excellent Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour a few months ago led to his admission that “you only ever really remember the bad reviews”. A show can get all the good press in the world, but that one bad review will niggle at you and gnaw at your soul. I know we’ve had a couple of lukewarm reviews. Early on with The Awesome Show, we had a woman come out and give us one star. It was sickening. I still feel a bit queasy when I think about it. I mean, it pushed our art; forced us to rethink the path we’d worn for ourselves – we overhauled the show. Two days later, Donald Hutera came out and called us “inventive and enjoyably urgent”. And we went on to get rave press from all the usual suspects in Edinburgh, but that one review… Haunts my dreams.
Writing for FringeReview, it’s not such a hard road to hoe. We only publish good reviews, so there’s not really the looming spectre of the show that got the slate. But that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing. When I go and see a show and don’t review it, there’s always the possibility that I didn’t write it up because I didn’t like it. Sometimes, I do like a show well enough to recommend, but still must acknowledge flaws in the work. Friends are always eager for a ‘friendly face’ to come and cover their shows and are occasionally put out when I hit back with our conflict of interest policy.
With such lions and bears out there waiting to pounce, and the constant sense of disapproval from the more conventional press for us and our ‘dabblin in watercolours’, I find myself pondering the words of that distant colleague and wondering when I’m going to have to decide. The press can have a lot of effects, both good and bad, on a work, a company, an audience, and even a zeitgeist. In another post, perhaps I’ll muse a bit on the topic of what the purpose of a review is. For now though, I think I’ll put the matter to bed… I have a review to write.