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.
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!