In defence of the amateur critic.

As you all may know, I’ve been up in Edinburgh reviewing shows for a month and it’s been one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve never learnt so much whilst having an absolute blast!

However, in the last couple of days I had a debate on Twitter with a performer who had an issue with FringeBiscuit (the publication I was writing for) who didn’t believe that amateur critics had any place at the Fringe. This person believed that professional performers shouldn’t have students etc reviewing their shows. Now I have an issue with this, because I believe art should be accessible to everyone, regardless if you grew up around theatre or became interested in it in later life.

One thing I did notice at the Fringe was that the majority of the audience was middle class, and this isn’t a bad thing. However, shouldn’t a performer welcome diversity in their audience? Just because a critic hasn’t spent ten years studying theatre doesn’t mean that their opinion on it is irrelevant. I’m not literary critic but I’m well within my rights to say that ”Fifty Shades of Grey” is a poorly written book. It’s not a fact but my opinion, but as long as I can explain why I think it’s poorly written then surely my opinion is still valid?

FringeBiscuit helped me understand theatre more, and whilst I’m far from being an expert, I feel like the way I criticise and view theatre has improved greatly. At the end of the day, we all have to start somewhere. After all, some of the greatest comedians will have started in dingy clubs performing to four people, and many actors will have received terrible reviews about their performances when they first started out and some of them still do. When you’re creating art there is always going to be someone who doesn’t ”get it” and they may be a theatre critic with thirty years experience or someone who’s experiencing  theatre for the very first time. Art is subjective and we have to respect people’s opinions whether we like them or not.

We all have to start somewhere, and yes we should be corrected and criticised if we make mistakes but  ultimately amateur critics shouldn’t be removed from the world of theatre until performers deem us fit to review their show.


12 thoughts on “In defence of the amateur critic.

  1. A thoughtful piece. I do agree that there should be a place for student reviewers etc – like you say, everyone has to start somewhere. This is why I quite like what Broadway Baby did this year, publishing a biog of the reviewer next to every review, just saying “This is who they are, and this is how long they’ve been going”. That way people know what they’re reading and can weight their trust in it accordingly.

    My one main issue with FringeBiscuit specifically is that the reviews are so short. I’m not saying every review should be an academic essay, but it’s impossible to present any kind of balanced review in that space. 140 characters (including title etc) are not enough to get across any more than a glib praising or snappy dismissal of a show; it’s not helpful for the performer, and it’s not really helpful for the audience; it tells them little to nothing about the show that’s been reviewed, and just feels like a bit of a waste of a press pass. I liked having the summaries appear on my Twitter feed, but I didn’t find them useful without the option to click through and read a fuller explanation. For instance (just picking a few at random – no way of knowing whether any are yours or not!):

    And The Girls in Their Sunday Dresses, Assembly. Vivacious duo make the stage and audience their own. Universally inspiring. Glorious. 4/5

    Vivacious, universally inspiring, glorious; why isn’t this 5/5? It implies there’s something stopping it from being perfect, but there’s no hint as to what this might be.

    Excuse Me I’m Trying To Please You, Zoo Southside. Swamped by a myriad of increasingly tiresome caricatures. None in the least pleasing. 2/5

    “None in the least pleasing” – So why does it receive 2/5? Clearly there must have been *something* there to redeem it slightly, but what was it? Again, it’s impossible to say.

    I understand this was a very deliberate decision taken in founding Fringebiscuit; I’d just be interested to know what the rationale was and what use it is. Anyway, I realise that you’re one of their reviewers rather than the person who made that decision (presumably) – sorry for the long post!

    • Hi!

      Thank you for your thoughtful response 🙂 I agree that twitter reviews do not give an audience enough detail about the show. However, I think it’s useful for people who want a short and snappy review. However, I wouldn’t advise someone to go on tweet reviews alone, because we are essentially branding a show. However, I think they create intrigue about shows that someone may have initially bypassed and whether the review is good or bad, it will encourage someone to investigate further. Another advantage of tweet reviews is that they look good on performers flyers 🙂

      I think the fringe needs a mixture of reviewers because not everyone has studied theatre in depth or been watching theatre for years and years. I don’t think reviewers should be made up of just students or experienced theatre goers. The fringe is a platform for student productions and I think it’s a great platform for student journalists as well.

      I’ve learnt a lot in this past month, not just about theatre but how to write critically. I’m even grateful for the criticism I’ve received, even the scathing comments as it helped me improve my writing in terms of how I think and how I interact with performers. The fringe is a fantastic place where performers can learn and grow and I think writers and aspiring journalists do that here as well.

  2. NOTE before I kick off – none of this is specifically about you or any one person!

    I think one of the problems in part, particularly if you’re reviewing comedy (my area so it’s what I’ll talk about! It’s also a lot of what’s on at the fringe), is that a lot of comedy reviewers have never even attempted comedy and/or are only interested in a very particular (usually extremely mainstream) area of it. You don’t need to be an expert on literature to know that 50 shades is awful but you *do* need to have read a variety of books and not just mills and boon, or you may think it’s awesome. Often these people think that one type of comedy is good because it’s on TV, not realising that comedy as an art form is so varied and so subjective that not everyone will even like *most* of the stuff out there. About attempting it, I know that it’s not essential, and most reviewers haven’t tried the thing they’re reviewing, but I think it’s a worthy argument, because so much goes into even getting up there in the first place. Even the shittest act can have brilliant stage presence, or good material can be marred by bad delivery, and this can happen at any level of professionalism and I think any reviews of comedy need to be done with a knowledge of all of this. Not to mention that some comedians can push the boundaries of different styles and that can make it immediately unfunny to someone who isn’t used to a “traditional” style. One comedian’s shows can be radically different one year to the next.

    The main problem I think people have with amateur or student reviewers is that, for whatever stupid reason, punters respect amateur reviewers much more than performers at the same level, or even of a much higher level. Though you have room to improve on your reviews, if one of your reviews that wasn’t very good or too harsh or whatever was about someone’s show they may not get another chance to improve, as that review would stop any audience from entering, even if you yourself considered what you wrote a bit harsh afterwards. One review has the power to make or break a performer’s fringe in a way that criticism of a review by a performer doesn’t, because it makes the performer look bitter and silly, even if their criticisms were legitimate. There is a serious disparity of power that reviewers often don’t understand. This is what amateur or student reviewers need to learn before they put pen to paper: you have more power than you realise, and must be very VERY careful what you write before you are sure of your own style, tone, voice and most importantly opinion.

    Sorry for the tone,
    Well done for surviving the Fringe.
    Mabel Slattery xx

    • Hi!

      Thank you for your comment. I completely agree with everything you said, and it’s something that I learnt at the Fringe. I think the relationship between performers and reviewers is something that needs to be worked on as currently it feels like we’re against each other.

      I think in terms of performers challenging reviews, they are perfectly entitled to. However, I have had two performers tweeting at me today challenging me as an amateur critic even though I haven’t reviewed any of their shows, and when I stopped replying they were still tweeting me. For me, that is unacceptable behaviour and both critics AND reviewers have a duty to criticise in a way that isn’t insulting or bordering on harassment.

      • Yes that’s very true. Though it also may be worth bearing in mind that performers probably aren’t feeling too hot at the minute after a month of shows – the depression score for comedians alone after the fringe is through the roof! And as for feeling like you’re against each other, I’m sorry but we are. The dread that enters your soul when someone with a press pass enters the room is destroying as you know that that person is there to pick a hole in every single flaw you have. For amateur performers especially that is terrifying. That does have something to do with the attitude of performers but a lot to do with the attitude of reviewers, who are so jaded that they seem to be there just to prove that they won’t laugh at your show. I remember the reviewer who came to review our show two years ago came with a copy of the Guardian under his arm and as soon as we’d started he unfurled it. And he is not a minority. xx

      • I know the depressed feeling, I’m feeling a little low myself!

        I think it’s a shame that reviewers and performers are against each other. However, I feel this is why there should be a mix of critics so performers aren’t getting jaded reviewers come to their show.

        I think Lyn Gardener is involved with something that is trying to help performers and critics connect more. In a world where the arts industry is facing cuts, writers and performers need to work together!

      • That sounds really interesting! As a writer myself – and remember that most performers are writers too – I think it’s a good thing. I definitely advocate a mix of reviewers I just think it’s important that reviewers know their power and are damn careful with it. You seem sensible, but others may really not be. That goes for professionals as well as amateurs. I think another issue I’ve seen is that most comedy critics think they’re funny, and try to be all sarcastic and amusing in their reviews, a la critics who are also comedians. A lot of the time though, it’s not funny, just pretentious and cutting (again I stress this is not about you because you seem very nice!) – I think that’s something about finding your voice as a critic, just as comedians need to find their voice. I have reviewed before and even if I hate something I’ll stress that this is simply an opinion and try to find something good to say… I’m a wimp like that!

  3. hello, the concern generally is that when you write about someone on the internet it is there forever. a review that “isn’t fair” is an indelible bit of graffitti on the performer’s name everytime they are googled.

    • Hi!

      Thanks for your comment. I can see your point but I think there are so many publications out there, that it’s almost impossible for an act not to have a bad review.

      • All Im going to say is that, if yoy find an act funny then you find it funny. You CANT really force people to laugh if they Dont find any of it funny. Its like a bit of art work. One person could love it, the other person could hate it. Look at damian herst. Real “experienced” critics hated his work, but people that had no experience and most likely knew nothing about art thought it was fantastic! I think zoe has done a really good job, she writes so people understand, plus she looks at two sides of the performance. I even YouTubed all of the acts she wrote about.

        All it is is criticism, you can take it as constructive to work on your performance or you can brush it off and carry on whay you are doing.

        Remember, people have different tastes especialy when it comes to comedy. I love lee evans, others may not. I love jim carry, others may not be able to tolerate him. 😉

      • It is almost impossible indeed; however, because of the power dynamic to which I referred, and the fact that people actively seek bad reviews more than good ones (for some reason people think that a bad review is more fair even if it’s not) the fact that it is an indelible stain on a performer is really important. I think the point is that punters are stupid. 😛

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