I probably shouldn’t be writing this. I probably should be more professional. But I’m not going to be, so settle in for a big ol’ angry rant.
People who know me know that I used to be a theatre reviewer, a gig I walked away from after the realisation that being a playwright who wants to work with people in the Melbourne theatre scene doesn’t exactly sit well with regularly criticising said people’s output. But having a foot in both camps was a fascinating experience and taught me a huge amount about accepting opinions even when you disagree with them or find them hurtful. It also left me uniquely placed to comment on the practices of critics in this city.
By the way, I am not targeting any specific critic here and I am certainly not targeting anyone for writing a bad review of one of my plays. I strongly believe it is the prerogative of a critic to be honest about their opinion, even if that honesty isn’t what I want to hear. Inviting a critic to see a show is always a gamble, a gamble that should be based on your confidence that you have created a good product worth people’s time and money. But critics don’t have to share that confidence.
No, my issue here is something altogether different and altogether more irritating.
My latest play, The Commune, opened on Wednesday night. It’s been in pre-production for a long time and rehearsing for the last two months. As usual, before that process even started, I sent out the standard round of emails to all the Melbourne theatre blogs and publications, inviting reviewers. And as usual, there was pretty much no response.
I do get this. When I wrote for TheatrePeople and Australian Stage Online we were regularly forwarded any press releases for upcoming plays and the first reviewer to respond got to cover the show. But often I didn’t even read those emails, because hey, we all get busy and not every description that turns up in your inbox grabs your attention. There isn’t much the editors of those sites can do if nobody wants to review the show, so, while this is frustrating, I do get it.
But we persist, sending follow up emails once we have trailers and photos, and usually we manage to secure a few critics. In the case of The Commune we had three in for Wednesday’s preview show. It is now Saturday afternoon, and only one of those reviews has gone online (positive, by the way).
To understand why this is so rage inducing, you need to look at why we take the risk and invite critics to our shows. After all, there is no certainty whatsoever that the write-ups we get will be good. But it’s a risk that we absolutely must take because independent theatre is essentially a non-stop succession of rolling boulders up hills only to see them come back down again. Convincing people to part with their hard-earned to see a play is often a near impossible task, and with a limited budget our advertising campaigns can hardly be aggressive, or even fairly called advertising campaigns. As such, we strongly rely on reviews because a good one might be the difference between the actors getting paid or not.
That’s not to suggest that the masses closely follow theatre blogs (I don’t), but there are those that do and us sharing a review essentially is being able to show the public that it’s not just the biased opinion of the creatives insisting this show is worth their money. A good review has power and we usually see a spike in ticket sales once we can share one.
It’s for this reason that reviewers are offered free tickets, with the understanding that they will write about their experience of the show and, this is important, write it promptly. When I was a reviewer I always endeavoured put my take together the night of the show, whether good or bad. At worst I’d do it the morning after. But I knew, having been on the other side, that no matter what I ended up saying the creatives had not given up a ticket for me so that I could drag my feet and put my review together if and when I could be bothered.
Most reviews aren’t longer than 500 words. That takes, at most, fifteen minutes to put together. And while I appreciate that people are busy and most reviewers aren’t getting paid, how packed can your life be that you can’t take a tiny bit of time out of your day to hold up your end of the bargain? You got to see a show for free, a show that cost money, time and effort to put together. We’re not even asking you to say nice things about it. We’re just asking you to do what you promised to do when you replied to our email and agreed to come along.
This happens every time. I didn’t even bother to check the review sites on Thursday because I knew that nobody would have put anything up then. But when Friday came and went with only one review going up, I started to get angry. Because ticket sales haven’t been great for The Commune and at this stage we’re really holding out for anything that might help.
In the case of Dracula, which had the benefit of name recognition propelling it to a sell-out season, one reviewer didn’t post their write-up until over a week after seeing the show. Others took up to four days. In the case of The Critic and Regression some reviewers didn’t post anything until the season was over – at which time there is literally no point in you having bothered. Frankly it’s rude and it’s insulting. And by the way, in all the above cases the reviews were positive, so it’s not even as though the critic hated the show so much that they couldn’t bring themselves to write it. They were just lazy.
How do you justify that to yourselves? How do you watch the days go past and think ‘yeah, I might get around to writing something tomorrow or maybe the day after’? And while somebody on Twitter made the point that often publications have schedules that dictate when a review can go up, that’s just as shit. Most of these blogs wouldn’t have more than twenty regular readers; how is your feigned professionalism more important than posting a piece that could turn an obscure show into a success?
And lest you think I’m being unfair here, remember that I did this job and I am not holding anybody to a standard that I didn’t hold myself to. Even now when I write my reviews for Den of Geek, reviews of major TV shows where my opinion would make no difference, I get them in the day of watching. Because that’s the responsibility I have and I can’t very well call myself a critic if I don’t clear the time to do what is expected of me.
Back during the run of Dracula I got halfway through writing a similar angry blog post before getting cold feet. I thought it would make me look like a petulant child throwing a tantrum and not the professional I claim to be. But since then two more shows have proved to us that this is not an isolated issue. Being a critic is a rightly respected profession; people rely on you to know whether or not they should give up time and money to see something. It’s up to you to provide an articulate, engaging, well-argued and prompt answer to their question. If you can’t manage that, you’re in the wrong industry.
Basically, be better.
Writing words about writing words.