Who reads reviews? Who cares? Why bother?
It is a daily question in my life:
As a director, producer, writer, dramaturg – I certainly seem to have enough to do without the extra stress/time demands of reviewing shows.
And it can be stressful. Very stressful.
The expectation is huge. From artists and publicists keen to get more people aware of their shows. there is for me also the awareness that the word i write may be read by the artists and may affect them in ways I have no control over – sometimes negatively – for the rest of their life – and that is a responsibility I carry.
For example – during the fringe I was inundated with very nice (and some not so nice) emails from theatre makers asking me (often last minute) to their opening nights. Some shows were overly angry when I said I couldn’t make it and need more notice as my theatre-going schedule is usually determined 3-4 weeks in advance.
I have received abuse, threats, I have had artists cry at me over the phone, or ignore me in foyers.
Interestingly unlike other reviewers, I am a theatre maker. My aesthetic and perspective and my conflicts of interests are ALWAYS declared. Many know me as a reviewer – but I have been working in the theatre for ten years. Just as many people know Alison Croggan for her reviews, not for her tomes and tomes of award winning poetry -many know my reviews but not my work as a director. In fact interestingly in the last 2 years this has become increasingly obvious with a playwright recently instructing me on “the process” of making theatre and referring to me as a “new director.” And that’s OK. Afterall- I don’t declare all my credits in my bio. And the internet is a long and enduring resource.
The expectation is huge because there are so many colleagues making work that deserves to be seen, celebrated, responded to, recorded etc.
I know, first hand, what it feels like to make work and have no-one respond to it. Family and friends only go so far – especially if they are not theatre-goers.
Sometimes you want some to read your work – your stage work- from an intelligent and heartfelt perspective, reflect on it.
Most reviews that are written are for the major papers cover the smae shows – mainstage theatre, big budgets with popular appeal. The aim there is to sell papers, get clicks on a website – Mary Poppins will have more people reading about it that a show at the Tap Gallery that runs for 2 weeks and has 44 seat capacity. It’s numbers.
I try to fill in that gap – that when I am not in production I try to support those whos that are not acknowledged or responded to by the major papers.
In a transient artform such as theatre all that is often left of an event is programs, ticket stubs and reviews.
I review/respond to plays because I know that it is valuable to the artist and to culture in general to have a record – a history- of events in our cultural development.
I try ot offer support to artsits and a wider perspective to punters (family and friends included) on the form/contect/genre of a play.
FOR THE RECORD
I do not review for marketing departments – I don’t do it so i can track my popularity in cyberspace via google analytics. In fact – I have no idea who is reading this or why.
I do not get paid for any of my reviews.
I do not generate income from my site.
It takes 2 hours to write a 1000 word response to a work I like. It takes double that for a response to work I didn’t enjoy. So each night I see a show it can take 4 -6 hours to travel to the theatre, see the show, write about it… and so that – if i see 3-5 shows a week – which I often do – equates to a full time job.
I am not a journalist. I didn’t study journalism. I respond to work as an artist. My reviews/responses are largely what I would say in a foyer to my theatre date – or to the artists faces. For me responding to the work of a theatre maker is to be a part of the conversation – and to develop ideas and practice.
But I thought I’d share with you some thoughts from a theatre colleague called Tom about his reasons why reviewers should not get comps –
An awkward conversation (courtesy of my Facebook wall)
TOM: I’d be interested in your thoughts on whether or not a review is more valid and honest if the… reviewer paid to see the show rather than see it on a comp ticket.
It’s really a bit odd that theatre gives out comp tickets to reviewers – by which I mean in most other industries from hotels to computer games reviewers tend to state proudly that they didn’t get anything for free. It’s the major principle for CHOICE magazine, for example. Whenever it’s revealed that so called non-biased reviewers did actually get something for free, it’s a huge scandal. So, why do theatre companies give comps to reviewers? Why do reviewers accept them? I’m not at all trying to be hostile to reviewers here, just sort of poking at a symbiotic relationship I can’t quite work out.
ME: Hi Tom – well it certainly is an interesting topic. One I wrote about in my aussietheatre.com. column back in 2007 – http://augustasupple.com/2009/01/the-politics-of-comps/ I guess reviewing comes with it a huge responsibility – and some…times its a burden. The expectation that reviewers are available to see every show is enormous and exhausting. Also if you are a maker and a reviewer (like me – which no one is – because they are SMART and like to have spare time and the ability relax) it is doubly as tretcherous. If I was asked to pay for every show I saw – I simply would not be able to afford to go – as well as an onliner – I do not draw a wage from this job – what this means is that the people who review do not have to be from a privieldged socio-economic class to do so. Additionally I think reviewers should be offered comps so that they don’t necessarilly weigh up the financial value of art -art should be regarded as art – not “funded” art versus “unfunded” art. I mention the ticket price in this instance because of the punter’s perspective at the fringe – and we must ask ina time of economic stress what does a $25 ticket MEAN to a punter – will they be satisfied with the experience?
As an artist I offer reviewers tickets out of good will and respect – I know how much effort it takes to attend a show. It’s sometimes up to two hours of travel (to the theatre and back) then 2 hours of watching then 2-3 hours of writing and sometimes you carry the reponsibility of what you’ve written FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. In some countries – namely China – reviewers are paid by the theatre company.
My question is – would you pay a reviewer $100 (and comp their tickets) to review your show?
TOM: I question your thought that reviewing carries a huge responsibility, while not discounting the huge amount of time put in. I posit that the majority of theatre goers don’t read… reviews anyway, so I don’t see where the responsibility arises. What do you feel responsible for?
I increasingly think that the only people who read most reviews are those directly involved in the show, their friends and family, and (perhaps) other theatre reviewers. People directly involved in the show either hate or love it long before the reviews come out, their friends and family will come and say they love it even if they hate it.
The expectation that reviewers are available at the drop of a hat to see every show is certainly silly, but I’m not sure why you can’t just say no when you need a break.
I’m not sure that reviewers should be relieved of the financial burden of attending a production. None of their readers will be. To an audience, art does have a financial value. (I don’t like this, I don’t have a solution, we need cash to keep paying the bills).
I guess the question is: What is the value to a production from comps given to reviewers? Which comes down to: Who reads reviews, do reviews impact on ticket sales?
I can only speak for the Genesian as I only have direct access to Genesian sales & marketing info, but reviews seem to have no effect on ticket sales. Good reviews don’t boost sales, bad reviews don’t lower sales. This seems to suggest that the general public don’t read reviews, or pay no attention to them – after directly asking our patrons where they get their theatre tips, they listen to their friends: word of mouth is the holy grail of getting bums on seats.
This is absolutely not to say that reviews have no value. I’m just wondering who reviews should be aimed at. I think a useful review should be aimed at the people who worked to produce the show, make intelligent suggestions how they could improve it. These are the people who are going to read the review.
Don’t quite see why “you carry the responsibility of what you’ve written FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE”. Seems a bit over dramatic. I sincerely hope the rest of your life will involve more than 18 months, which seems to be about the longest time people have any real concerns over a review.
You say what you think at the time. You say it well. There’s no rule you can’t change your mind.
I actually receive quite a lot of comps, working in Genesian publicity for several years. I’ve never used any of the comps I’ve been sent. If I get an email sent to me with a comp for a show that looks interesting, I buy a ticket. Basically because if I’ve not worked on the production I don’t see why I should get a free seat, I can usually afford to buy a ticket, and I know that many of these shows are running on really tight budgets such that my $25 does make a big difference.
When I’m working to publicise a show, I do think that being generous with comps is the best strategy to fill a house, which then pays off in word of mouth publicity: which is tremendously elusive to capture but I think remains the biggest draw to get the punters in – you want everybody to be talking about your show, so comp everybody for opening.
Really not sure what you are intending by bringing up a mention of China. Really don’t know where you are going here, please do some research into China’s human rights record. China is not noted for encouraging open speech on anything. If in China, you could quite possibly end up judicially executed with a bullet to the brain for performing some of the most interesting work I’ve seen in Sydney over the past year. If they are paying for reviews, question has to be asked what sort of reviews are they paying for, can the paid reviewer give an honest review?
I would never pay a reviewer to review a show. I think that a cash payment would put the reviewer in an impossible position. Give a good review – people think it was paid for. Give a bad review – you piss off the people who are paying you. This is exactly what prompted my original comment. Getting very close to Payola.
What is the use of a review that is paid for? Why do we give comps to reviewers?
ME: Why give comps to reviewers? Because reviewers can be the first instance of word of mouth for a show, it’s also a goodwill gesture and most of us can’t afford to pay to see everything that we are asked to respond to.