Where are the South West Theatre Critics?

When I tell people I live in Plymouth they often suggest that I enjoy the whole ‘big fish in a small pond’ phenomenon. Actually I feel like I’m a tadpole without a pond at all. Drying out before I’ve had a chance to grow into a …fish…? Hmmm.

from: http://thinkorthwim.com/2007/03/06/face-painted-fish-in-a-relationship/

So @Nom_de_strip (‘a journal of arts and culture in the South West of England’) are asking…. “Why DON’T people write about theatre in the South West?”

And as I have a tendency to get the wrong end of the stick whenever a wrong end is available, I have clarified with them that this refers to both the lack of reviews of South West work and the lack of reviewers/writers on theatre based in the South West.

They have asked me to write something about my experiences of this.

There are a few SW reviewers and writers… Belinda Dillon has reviewed for Devon Life for a while, and she now reviews for the brilliant brilliant Exeunt magazine.

I check out these blogs now and then: Angela Street, Annette Chown, … Wide Awake Devon, are good at provoking debates and Theatre Writing South West has just started a blog. Action Hero ask good questions, and I think in Bristol in general there’s loads going on. But sometimes Bristol doesn’t feel like the ‘South West’ for us Plymouthian Devonians.

Martin Freeman at the Plymouth Herald is pretty open to mini features on arty-stuff. Devon Life profiled my writing project ‘Writing in the City’ last year as part of the British Art Show (that was also Belinda Dillon).  Jo Loosemore who works at BBC Radio Devon used to have a brilliant art review show that featured a site specific piece I did ‘Boat on the Water’ a few years ago, and now she’s on every afternoon, ‘Shep and Jo ’, and is up for squeezing in minimini profiles of theatre/art in the region.

Lyn Gardner regularly gets down the Drum Theatre Royal in Plymouth for the Guardian. But the Drum Theatre Royal in Plymouth very rarely programmes local work. Elizabeth Mahoney has been reviewing lots of stuff for the Guardian in the Northern part of the region (and Wales)…and gives a very high proportion of 4 & 5 star reviews!

I invited everyone I could think of in the region and outside of it to the premiere/preview of Opposition at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. It was sold out, but only those outside of Plymouth who already knew my work came and there were no reviews. (Funnily enough, Sarah Ellis came down from London for it, and Claire Morgan from Newcastle (bless them both) but no one from Bristol or Cornwall made it) When it was at the Bike Shed theatre for the Exeter Fringe Belinda Dillon came and wrote a lovely review for Devon Life. That was my first proper review of my work in the region.

So because I couldn’t get any national critics to come to see Opposition in the region, or any producers or representatives from other theatres either, going to Edinburgh Fringe (with the Barbican Theatre) seemed like it’d provide that opportunity. I got great reviews in Edinburgh, including five stars from What’s on Stage and four stars from Exeunt and Fringe Review and others. Those reviews really helped me to book a tour since. However the nationals didn’t make it. It was a little frustrating to see the Guardian reviewing work that had already been on in London or was going to be in London in the following weeks, but not managing to come to mine – when the future of my show kind of depended on getting those reviews…. A couple of the other people I invited did make it (and booked it) but most didn’t. Edinburgh Fringe is a nightmare and way too big to stand out if you’re not known and don’t have a known producer/theatre behind you. & we just did the last two weeks, which was a mistake, looking back. One of the people who did manage to come was Phil Hindson from the Arts Council (funny that I had to go all the way to Edinburgh to get my local relationships manager to see my work, but it worked out). Following Edinburgh I managed to get a second small G4A fund to re-develop the show.

It’s possible that if I’d had a review from one of those nationals, I’d have managed to book Opposition for a run at a London theatre by now. Someone recently said –if you’d had a load of four star reviews from Edinburgh it would have been programmed in London – which made me go Arrrggh but I did!!  – Just not from the Guardian. So I’ve now put all the stars in a more prominent position on my blog. (See to the right!)

At the recent ‘Getting it out there’ symposium, Lyn Gardner said that theatre makers should stop worrying about the mainstream press and instead pursue a dialogue with bloggers etc. I like the point, and I think in London where there is plenty of opportunity to connect with great bloggers and online websites and other theatre makers it makes total sense. But we can’t expect them to travel this far without funding, and in the South West we don’t have that kind of a community. We need to start building one.

@Nom_de_Strip also asked me to write about my experience of writing about theatre in the SW.

I’m not a critic, or reviewer, or anything. I realised a while ago that it wasn’t sensible for me to attempt to review work – because I’m an artist too, and we’re colleagues in a way, and I can be mega blunt and I rarely like stuff : ) So I made a little rule – I’ll only write about companies that are established, so what I write has no impact on them, or, I’ll just write about the work that I think needs shouting about.

So I saw Blok/Eko by Howard Barker at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. I didn’t go intending to write about it, not at all. But when I got home and looked it up there were no reviews. So I wrote my kind of a response and a lot of people have read it. Actually the comments are more interesting than my post, and I’m happy that my blog provided a space for people to discuss the work. I don’t know why there were no ‘proper’ reviews of Blok/Eko.

I have got some great national opportunities at the moment and have actually made some kind of a ‘living’ from my writing and theatre for the last few months and I’m possibly sorted for the next few. But other than a bit of teaching, none of that is coming from the region or supported by the region (so far anyway). I don’t even get shortlisted for jobs that I apply for in the area, and they often go to people outside of the SW who then struggle with the commute. It must be human nature – we never go to that great café next door until we’re about to move, we assume that if someone is local they are not any good. I think it happens everywhere. I’m currently working on a commission for Hull City Council and getting nice bookings in Liverpool and Manchester.

And the last opportunity to see (and review) Opposition is next week at the New Wolsey Theatre, Pulse Festival in Ipswich on the 8th June, 7pm.

[edit: Yeah! I’ve finally got a London run for Opposition! – Ovalhouse 6-17th November 2012]

What’s on Stage gave it five stars and said: Go to listen, marvel, participate, go to be amazed, just go.’ – Honest!

19 thoughts on “Where are the South West Theatre Critics?

  1. Thats a good read Hannah, actually I have felt the same way about Plymouth for a very long time and have now, more or less, given up on the place. Its the passive aggressive nature that gets right under my skin I can tell you!! Its all the ego driven artist ‘wannabees’ who think they are more important than they actually are that I find so funny. This feeling has come (almost) full circle to where I have started writing about the local area in a fictional (maybe) sense illustrated with photos. Heres the link:
    Maybe we’ll see you both soon:-)

  2. Pete, that stuff is brilliant, total brilliant. Really made me laugh.
    I’ve pretty much given up too (should be writing a job app instead of this blog today!)
    Thanks for the link and yes – we really should.

  3. great rant, tadpoles tend to turn into frogs, these can survive longer than fish out of water, great that you’re still IN Plymouth. Hang in there.

    1. well its a great place to be and you have the mobility to do your work where you want, keep Carping, but cynicism is ‘unattractive’. I think your work is great and people like you can help shift the center of gravity

  4. Thank you very much! But, although, as I said, i’ve got great opportunities outside of the region at the moment, I don’t have the mobility to work where I want, I need rehearsal space and collaborators and I need to make partnerships and get my work seen. ‘cynicism is unattractive’ – Very true, I think lively debate is the opposite of cynicism, and I don’t see the point in pretending everything theatre-wise is rosy, even if the rent is lowish the sea is blueish and the moors are stunning.

  5. Ah, yes…. Correction: The Drum Theatre Royal does programme/produce the occasional local work/writer, such as ‘Horse Piss for Blood’ by Carl Grose who I think is based in Cornwall…(I’m a liability with this blogging lark)

  6. Hi Hannah, I feel similarly, even being in Bristol where there is at least some national reviewing. I think reviews are a funny thing- we’ve only ever had 3 national reviews (all by Lyn Garnder in the Guardian!) and generally don’t ever get reviewed. Even in Edinburgh last year we seemed to miss out, not really getting any reviews at all. I used to find this frustrating, but have tried to stop bothering with it, partly because mainstream media and national press doesn’t really bother with us! After having made work as Action Hero for almost 7 years now, I don’t know whether we’re not trying hard enough to get national press or whether we’re just never going to be in that realm so I shouldn’t bother with it. It doesn’t generally seem to affect our audiences, although we do use our Guardian quotes a lot and who knows, maybe a review from the Times would send our audiences figures through the roof! I do generally feel though that the work I like most never gets reviewed.

    When I think of artists whose work I think is genuinely exciting I think of Ed Rapley, Ella Good & Nicki Kent, Search Party, Paul Hurley, Tania El Khoury, Deborah Pearson- these artists on the whole don’t get any press. Which is a shame, because as a maker the work I see getting reviewed often seems dated, boring and tame compared to the work of my peers. Anyway, I don’t know what my point is here- I honestly don’t know if a review has ever gotten us a gig; I suspect not. I think programmers rely more on gossip from each other (!) when booking a show they don’t know.

    I do think however it lets audiences down, because they perhaps don’t know about the stuff thats happening in their own city. Maybe local press seems to ‘local’ to be reputable source, there’s a gravitas to a national newspaper- a reader is excited that this *national* company is touring to their city (even if you actually live there. We probably perform in Bristol less than once a year) and this makes the show more desirable, perhaps. Maybe then they think local is sometimes boring. Or worse, amateurish, not proper somehow, because surely real talent lives in London, or somewhere bigger, where Important Cultural Stuff happens.

    I think its worth staying in a city of you feel its good for your work, but there’s also a point when a principle turns into a struggle, and I don’t know how you judge when that time comes. Me and James moved to Bristol because the place we lived before seemed not to offer us anything, and we didn’t have the strength (or will) to challenge that. It was a good move for us, because Bristol’s been great to us and in turn we can give a lot back. Keep on rocking the Plymouth massive as long as its good for you but don’t let the city become more important than work- I think that’s important.

    Gemma xx

  7. Hey Gemma,
    Thank you for commenting. Hmm, lots to debate.
    ‘I do generally feel though that the work I like most never gets reviewed.’

    You know, that’s what gets me so frustrated about blogs like this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2012/feb/26/avant-garde-theatre-britain-lost-nerve

    – Because those features, and I’ve heard others saying the same things – they assume that they are aware of all the work that is out there. They assume that of course there are no ‘Becketts and Ionescos that are lying unformed and undiscovered because British theatre is not adventurous enough’

    And like ‘Jay’ McCarthy’ wrote on my Facebook page ‘why would they go to the effort of coming here, when in most opinion, any ‘decent’ work will eventually find its way to them?’ (i.e to Bristol, to London)

    I think, being in Plymouth, where there isn’t a ‘Theatre Bristol’ to support work, or festivals with highish profiles, or any pathways – out – …reviews do take on a particular significance that perhaps they shouldn’t. Also I think because there is not such a network between theatres, so that ‘programmers gossip’ thing doesn’t happen easily. – All things ‘Wide Awake Devon’ have been thinking/talking about recently… My sense about Bristol is that it looks after its artists a little more. For instance Theatre Bristol’s remit is to work with Bristol based artists, so although I’ve had nice conversations with them, they have said they can’t work with me as I don’t live there. (which is all fine, don’t want to turn this into a poor me thing)

    And on that note, I agree with your comment ‘don’t let the city become more important than the work’. – don’t just stay on principle. Sometimes there’s the sense that artists based here (or in similarly regional locations) should be championing their city, their region etc. – I should hang on in here to help shift things. But I also think, why should I be a champion for a place that is not a champion for me? (hoping not to piss anyone off with that comment as of course I have had great support locally which I am very grateful for). At the moment, I have some funding for a project, and I want to bring my funding into the area, I want to work with local artists, but with money tight everywhere, even ‘support in kind’ is hard to come by – so the project may have to happen in London. – which again, is fine, it doesn’t make a difference to me, but I guess it could make a little difference to the region, so perhaps it’s worth talking about.

    Thanks again for joining the discussion, love it when people comment!

  8. Really interesting post and discussion. Thank you! I’m a visual artist and writer on visual art based in the SW. I think the situation is very similar for visual art. I started writing about visual art as a way of championing what we do in the SW – trying to contribute to a momentum that would hopefully benefit my own practice too. I have felt a little lonely at times! I think that blogging and online platforms have somewhat democratised access to national readerships (and all that implies) but more of us need to do it. And do it in a credible, critically engaged way. We have great cutting-edge performance and art in the SW and it deserves more attention, but that starts with us.

  9. Thanks Gabrielle!
    “more of us need to do it. And do it in a credible, critically engaged way. We have great cutting-edge performance and art in the SW and it deserves more attention, but that starts with us.” – YES
    Yes, I have found your blog: http://gabriellehoad.blogspot.com it looks great – I will link to it and other local blogs/sites from mine. We should all do that.
    I agree that the blogging is great, it enables a dialogue with people anywhere, it can help that feeling of isolation – and it can also help us to connect with each other locally. I hadn’t really thought of that before, (duh).

  10. A timely post and yes to lots of the above! It’s really tough in Exeter to get reviewers at many events (or to see acts that are on as part of a mixed bill or showcase). My own company, (Widsith & Deor) have come across the reviewer phenomenon (our best ‘official review’ was from an event in Bath). And a performer like Matthew Hammond the Stand Up Philosopher ( http://youtu.be/a4xkSlZ6JZA ) on the occasions when he’s performed in Bristol, Birmingham or London say, people have said they can’t believe he’s based in Exeter, as if it was the North Pole or something. 🙁 . There’s some great talent in Devon, but sometimes I do wonder whether it might be a lot simpler just to move, sadly.

  11. I’ve been meaning to write a reply to this for ages, but coming back to this post and comments after some time is even more interesting.

    I recently attended the ‘Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow’ in Bristol and found myself calling a session on the second day because I felt there was an underlying question the group wanted to ask. I called it ‘Four Stars: Is the traditional review still the Holy Grail?’. I combined it with a session Alison Farina had called about success, and there were some interesting thoughts and insights that came out of the session which I’ve included in my report: http://downstagewrite.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/devoted-and-disgruntled-report-diagrams.html.

    Also, thanks for mentioning my blog in your post! Like you, I am uncomfortable reviewing the work of other artists and I want to help spread the word about the work in the South West by writing about it in other ways, so my blog has developed over the years to reflect this.

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