Some of the review team from The Stage answer the questions.
How do you choose which shows to review?
Emma Harlen – “I allocate the reviews by using the Fringe programme. All of those that run for the full festival and are premieres are considered for review. I also receive press releases from production companies and use those to help with my decision.”
Gerald Berkowitz – “The Stage reviewers don’t choose what to review; the editors do. When writing for other outlets, I look to companies, performers or playwrights I know, or programme descriptions that aren’t pointlessly ‘clever’ but tell me something about the show that makes it sound interesting. I also get suggestions from other reviewers and punters I respect.”
Thom Dibdin – “I’m given a list of shows to see by The Stage, which reviews professional shows only. I also have a list of shows to see for the Edinburgh Evening News, which is made up of local amateur companies and the big productions which are deemed to be of most interest to a local newspaper readership.”
Nick Awde – “If writing for The Stage, I am commissioned and assigned a show. If writing for theatreguidelondon.co.uk I choose every West End new opening (plus occasional cast changes in the longer runs such as Chicago) or select off West End/fringe shows that are of personal interest or considered to be “significant”. At Edinburgh we all get our own individual list and work our way through it till we’ve finished.”
Have PR people ever persuaded you go and see a show?
Duska Radosavljevic – “They might have persuaded me to go and see a show but I can mostly only review what I am commissioned to review by the Commissioning Editor.”
Gerald Berkowitz – “Very occasionally a PR person I know and trust will point me toward something I might have missed; the best know not to misdirect us too often.
Thom Dibdin – “Yes.”
Nick Awde – “No.”
What’s the best way to get you into a show?
Duska Radosavljevic – “First of all the above procedure should be taken into consideration. On receiving my list of shows from Emma, I tend to schedule my shows on the basis of proximity between venues. Some venues have previews the first few days of the Fringe, so in those cases I give priority to venues which let the press in early.”
Gerald Berkowitz – “The least likely way is to bombard me with repeated requests that I come to your show.”
Thom Dibdin – “Pitch it accurately and without hyperbole. Tell me what it is, what it is trying to do and why I should see it. Don’t tell me it is the best thing ever – it is my job to decide that. And don’t tell me what other critics thought of it: I’ll make my own mind up, thank you. Put in a brief synopsis. State where it is, what time it is, how long it is on for – don’t forget to say which days it isn’t on – and give me the contact for someone who can give me more information and get me a ticket if I want to see it.”
Nick Awde – “See question 1 above.”
What are the best shows you’ve seen at the fringe?
Duska Radosavljevic – “Of the many hundreds I’ve seen over the years, the best shows have been those that are imaginative, surprising and professionally done.”
Gerald Berkowitz – “I won’t bother trying to think of a best/worst. I’ve missed barely a half-dozen Festivals since 1972, and that’s too long a list to try to put in order.”
Thom Dibdin – “The Bloody Chamber, the Grid Iron show which used the supposedly haunted vaults under the High Street as a venue to tell a site-specific version of Bluebeard particularly sticks in my mind. Black Watch was utterly brilliant, but not really a “fringe” show, as it was produced by the NTS. I love unexpectedly intense productions in out-of-the-way venues. Highway Diner was brilliant, I seem to remember. This year, White and Roadkill were equally brilliant. But slightly different!”
Nick Awde – “To be honest – and I suspect most critics would say the same if they really thought about it afterwards – it is invariably strong writing and visionary production values (i.e. how much spent on the show is not important here but HOW things are done). This can cover anything from dance to comedy with all manner of theatre in between. In recent years at Edinburgh, for example, I liked Midsummer (A Play With Songs), You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, the Riot Group shows, Scott Capurro, Monkey Poet, A Midsummer Night’s Madness, Idle Motion’s Borges and I – they have different budgets and abilities but they all respect the audience while still taking risks.”
Can’t really ask about the best without mentioning the worst. What are the all time stinkers?
Duska Radosavljevic – “The ones that don’t seem to care about the audience experience, that are sloppy, lazy and in for the ride.”
Thom Dibdin – “I don’t remember the name, but I do remember seeing a show in what is now the GRV which I likened at the time to being as entertaining as being hit over the head with a decaying fish.”
Nick Awde – “That’s a hard one and unfair on those many thousands of performers who clearly have no future in show biz but have a couple of stabs on the fringe regardless. I’d prefer to mention those big budget productions that may have got the public in and even good crits but really were ’emperor’s new clothes’ such as the ‘all-star comedian’ versions of Talk Radio and Killer Joe at Edinburgh – not the comics’ fault, but god they ticked the box as you of of “a waste of 90 minutes of your life”. Again, that’s the arrogance of venues/directors/producers thinking they know better than the audience (and, to judge from the palpable misery of the performers in Killer Joe, the performers themselves).”
Have you ever caught anyone altering one of your reviews for their shows on posters?
Duska Radosavljevic – “Yes, sometimes words or sentences have been taken out of context in misleading ways.”
Gerald Berkowitz – “The only alteration to reviews I’ve caught was a show (I’ve forgotten which) that posted ‘* * * * * – The Stage’ until I pointed out that The Stage doesn’t give stars. On the other hand, I once noted that the acting in a solo show ranged from barely passable to truly awful, and later saw ‘Truly Awful! – The Stage’ flashed on his posters. That’s the true spirit of the Fringe.”
Thom Dibdin – “Yes, I find that very distressing. Not so much the lifting of one word out of context – that’s just dumb – but running what looks like the whole review but with any critical elements removed. That is not just rude – and wrong – but actively makes a mockery of my writing by missrepresenting it to anyone reading it.”
Do you think free shows are good for the fringe?
Duska Radosavljevic – “Forest Fringe has been great!”
Gerald Berkowitz – “The Free Festival is one of the best developments in the Fringe in years. While ticket prices remain a bargain by London standards, there is always a section of the market that is in danger of being priced out, and it is good that they can still find things to fill their days. I am a firm believer that you are not ‘doing the Fringe’ unless you see 3 or 4 or 5 shows a day, and anything that encourages audiences to have that experience is good for the Fringe as a whole. Granted, most of the comics I’ve seen for free were pretty poor, but so were some who were charging. And if the economic model for performers works – if more people can afford to do shows because their venue costs are low – so much the better.”
Thom Dibdin– “Yes.”
Nick Awde -“Absolutely.”
How do you think free shows can improve and be taken more seriously?
Duska Radosavljevic – “Be realistic about what is possible to do within the limitations of the venues you are working in – stand up often tends to work well because the requirements are minimal, but trying to do a naturalistic play with a sofa in it is pushing it a bit.”
Thom Dibdin – “They can and they will, but they are also the place where people can enter the Fringe without too much of a financial risk to themselves, so they are always going to be on the edge: places where you can take a risk with your time – which is a hugely valuable commodity to a theatre critic who can see up to 80 shows during the fringe.”
Nick Awde -“They can’t. Unless you’re already established like Robin Ince who has a huge profile from radio and regular touring. That’s the Catch 22, no one usually ever accepts that what they get for free can be 100% quality, just as the fact of paying 80 quid or whatever for the Porgy & Bess as the Edinburgh International Festival means that utterly insulting tat must be good if not brilliant and groundbreaking.”
Is there any magic formula for a good show or is it simply a case of you know one when you see it?
Gerald Berkowitz – “I have no idea what makes a good show.”
Thom Dibdin – “Of course not. Having a sound script, a director with vision, actors who can both remember their lines and create characters and a big imagination helps. Having a show which captures something of the moment is a bonus.”
Nick Awde – “Good writing, good producer, performer who loves the audience, director who can leave the ego and old college-mate’s scripts at home and make script/performer/producer look good. Everyone should sit at the back and to one side in rehearsals, include the writer at all points and make sure that’s a writer who can says “when?” when asked to do a rewrite rather than “why?” and that everyone is asking “does this respect the audience”. Oh, and hire a good PR – they won’t guarantee anything but they are an integral part of the process. Doing all this will not guarantee a box office hit, but you will 100% achieve a viable production that will get an audience going. Seriously. (And, despite not having the world’s most perfect production team, haI can put my money where my mouth is with the success of my own play, written with Chris Bartlett, Pete and Dud Come Again.)”
Duska Radosavljevic Lecturer at University of Kent and Freelance Theatre Reviewer at The Stage
Veteran theatre critic Gerald Berkowitz has written five best-selling books on drama and theatre including American Drama of the Twentieth Century and New Broadways: Theatre Across America. His theatre reviews have appeared in The Stage newspaper, InTheater Magazine, Shakespeare Quarterly and other publications for over 30 years, and in 2006 he was elected to London’s prestigious Critics Circle.
Thom Dibdin is theatre critic for the Edinburgh Evening News and Scottish correspondent of The Stage newspaper. Thom is a freelance journalist, with a special interest in writing about Edinburgh, theatre, and the arts. He also has a blog site “Annals of Edinburgh Stage”
Nick Awde – is a British writer, artist, singer-songwriter and critic. The author, editor or illustrator of more than 50 books.