Image by Pete O’Shea
Today I’m delighted to introduce a talented critic and producer to whom I gave consultancy at #EdFringe2015. She’s co-founder of the Network of Independent Critics which is a collective of professional reviewers who, concerned with the axing of arts sections in print, have coalesced to see if they can find new models for supporting professional indie critics. We strongly recommend you lend them your support morally and through your networks – because as I’m sure you know, without stars and quotes to put on your flyers, it can be pretty hard to prove your credibility (says the producer in me) and for you to refine and improve what you do with impartial expert feedback.
And who better to write about how to get critics to you show? Without further ado… (although we all know you like a bit of ado now and then…)
Everyone wants Lyn Gardner to review their show. Understandably so – who doesn’t want their work discussed in a national publication, the Guardian or otherwise? It’s hard to get these high profile critics in, though. Unless you’re running for a minimum of three weeks in an established venue with a great reputation, or a touring production that’s already generated good press, it’s unlikely that any of the print media will send a critic. If your show is outside London, it’s even harder to get coverage. So what can you do to get those much-needed reviews? Invite independent critics.
Often referred to as bloggers, vloggers or podcasters (depending on their platform), these critics generate reviews that are unrestricted by word limits and house styles. Some experiment with form, some stick with established review formats, some vary their responses from show to show. Each independent critic has their own, unique writing style and often has a specific genre that they are interested in seeing, though many are generalists. These critics also differ in how they view their role in the wider theatre landscape – they might see themselves as consumer guides, documentarians, advocates, or an impartial contributor to the greater dialogue emerging around your show. What doesn’t charge is that independent critics love what they do and a have a passion for performance.
Before you send out your invitations, it’s crucial to plan enough advance notice for independent critics within your production timescale. Print media critics are able to see more productions because it’s their job whereas independent critics rely on income elsewhere. A good amount of independent critics out there also work in the arts, so they may be busy with their own artistic endeavors, be it in a show, directing or producing, or working in arts admin roles that require their evenings. They may only be able to fit a few shows into their schedule a month. As such, the more notice you can give them, the higher the chance is that they will be able to see your show. A month is a good benchmark, but longer is fine, too. Any shorter, and it will be harder to get them in.
Twitter is the best place to find these critics. Searches for “freelance critic” will come up with results, but also try variations such as “theatre blogger,” “arts podcaster,” and so on. Once you find them on twitter, following them will lead you to more that didn’t initially pop up in search results. They’re a close-knit tribe who interact regularly online and you’ll get a good sense of their personalities and interests, as well as links to their reviews. Once you get a sense for who might be interested in your work, you can use twitter to make that first contact if you like.
As you would with critics from the mainstream press, try to make your initial communications with them personal. They don’t need to be lengthy and it’s totally acceptable to use social media. Reference their interests, a recent review or connections they might have with specific venues. You may have friends or colleagues in common, or someone may have recommended them to you. If you can’t locate their email address on their website, it’s absolutely ok to introduce yourself and ask where best to send your press release.
With your invitation and the press night itself, again treat independent critics like you would any other member of the press. It’s good etiquette to offer two tickets unless you’re likely to be sold out, and if you can afford it, drinks beforehand are always appreciated. Remember, independent critics are reviewing your show for free and likely to be coming to your show after a day at work, so these simple gestures go a long way to show you appreciate their attendance. Some of them are quite talkative, others prefer a bit of down time before going into the theatre so take a cue from their body language when deciding whether or not to chat to them. There’s no need to sell your show, though – they’re already there to see it.
Two other items that should be a given but are often overlooked by emerging producers, particularly with short runs, are a programme and production photographs. The programme doesn’t need to be a fancy affair, a cast and character list will do. This can even be emailed to save on printing costs. Also, it helps to email photos either the day of or right after the performance. Give your critics a choice of landscape and portrait, and make sure they are good quality. They will be cropped as needed.
So the press night has wrapped up, and it went brilliantly. Some critics might stick around for post-show drinks in the bar. It’s always nice to receive thanks for coming, but please, don’t ask what they thought of the show. It puts them on the spot when they may still be processing your work. If they didn’t like it, it either forces them to lie, which leads to an unpleasant surprise for you if they don’t write the most positive review after telling you it was great, or they come across as rude by honestly telling you they didn’t enjoy it.
Independent critics naturally want to support small-scale, emerging and independent theatre and can potentially be your best advocates. With connections at venues and in the mainstream press, their familiarity with your work could be hugely advantageous in the long run. Plus, as print media continues to decline, independent critics could be the next Lyn Gardner.
Laura Kressly began reviewing for Remotegoat and Everything Theatre in 2013. In 2015, she launched The Play’s the Thing UK and in 2016, co-founded the Network of Independent Critics. She is a former actor/director who now teaches secondary school, works in arts administration and produces fringe theatre. She is particularly interested in Shakespeare and new writing and is very approachable on twitter.
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