Vancouver, September 16, 2009
Reviews are a very tricky part of the Fringe experience. It's very
difficult to talk about them. And to know exactly what you think. And
as a performer, you don't want to queer your pitch with any one
publication or reviewer by complaining about them.
Yet they are an essential part of the fringe equation. Good reviews
make you. Bad reviews break you. And I know this very well: I've been
made by them, and I've been bust by them.
And I've spent sleepless nights, sleepless weeks even, being exceedingly hacked off about them.
Generally though, I've been made by them: I'm a poet, meaning my show
is a harder sell than most� So I need good reviews, and when I get them
I plaster them and the stars all over my posters and flyers.
But reviews all matter in different ways and, as I don't want to hack
off any particular publication, I'll have to speak generally, because
please remember this is my living.
Because the reviews in the Montreal Gazette, Montreal Hour, Montreal
Mirror and The Ottawa Citizen all matter. As do Eye and Now and the
Star in Toronto, the Winnipeg Free Press, CBC Manitoba, Uptown, The
Calgary Herald, Ffwd, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Planet S, the Edmonton
Journal, the Edmonton Sun, Vue Magazine, See Magazine, the Times
Colonist, Monday Magazine,The Vancouver Sun, the Westender and last,
but certainly not least, the Georgia Straight.
Some matter more than others, some much more than others. And three of
those reviews make or break your run at that fringe. As in Good review:
you do good. Bad review: you do bad.
Because a three star review, or less, in a influential publication for
a show that is not a comedy or sex-based show means that show is
probably finished. There are shows whose success has been exceptions
to this, yet it's broadly true. Three star reviews finish dramas, or
poetry shows. Two star reviews likely mean no one will buy a ticket
for that show from then on.
By which I mean I can think of a show that got a two star review from a
big paper in the Prairies. Sales had been going well, but from then on
they sold only seven, yes, SEVEN, more tickets for their entire run.
My reviews this year in Eye and Now in Toronto were great positive
reviews, yet they were three star, so they blew my run right off course
and I went from audiences of 100-130 at the start to 50-60 by the end.
They were extra annoying because both reviewers came to rocking shows I
was mighty pleased with.
Mind you, I got my worst-ever review anywhere from Now Toronto in 2007
and I still sold out once more and did fine. And I got a killer review
the following year and sold out my last three shows.
Reviewers frequently get things wrong: where you're from, names of
pieces, characters, the plot, etc. But when it's a good review you do
not care at all and when it's a bad review you have to stop yourself
from walking round spitting getting mad as hell.
The ones I like the best are the publications where a good review helps and the bad reviews don't matter. Those are nice.
Comedies are different. I've known good comedies get two-star and three-star reviews and still do excellently, though it will have taken them
longer to start selling out, because of that review.
There's an awful lot of luck in all this of course. Right now I'm dead
lucky because both Colin Thomas (Georgia Straight) and Peter Birnie
(Vancouver Sun) both came to shows that went great. But on the bad luck
downtip, I'm nothing in Ottawa because the last review I got, in 2005, was a horrible review from the Ottawa Citizen … who came to a
pretty horrible show.
But there's a lot of luck in the whole Fringe process. Which is why it's
good to do a bunch of Fringes, because your luck tends to even out in
the end: venue-wise, time-slot-wise, review-wise, etc-wise …
And it is a hard job, reviewing, and I'm glad I don't have to do it. I
tried to write a great review of Straight From That Side Of Town for
this blog. But it soon turned into one of those badly written clunky
reviews you see a lot of on the tour, so I stopped. And it is a
responsibility, one I'm glad I don't have. And most reviewers do try to
be fair: as Colin Thomas said to me the other day, I sometimes review
friends' shows and I write them bad reviews …
So what do performers want from reviewers? Intelligence and consistency
would be high on the list. And a number of the reviewers across the
tour are good intelligent writers in search of ideas to write about.
What performers do not want is some nineteen-year-old intern in his/ her
first reviewing job. And they do not want the Cooking Editor.
They'd probably not want the star system at all. But we're kinda stuck
with it. And they'd really rather not have just the stars reprinted
every day without the review. But apparently we're stuck with that too,
in the places which do it. Most notably in Edmonton, where a show with
a sub-four-star review gets hit over the head every day by the review,
and never gets to properly stand up again.
And it gets pretty tragic when someone you know has a one-star review. When you know they have a good show. When they sit down over a coffee and candidly admit that, "I'm dead, I'm finished", and you know it's true.
Reviews are a bit like the weather. They are good and they are bad and
they happen. Some are intelligent and sophisticated, some are more
folksy, depending on publication.
Whatever, we'd all like it if every reviewer knew the consequences of
their actions. That if they give a show a three-star review or less, no matter what they write, thy are ensuring, or trying to ensure, the
abolition of that show's chances…
Meanwhile … rumours are … swirling in the … murk about … a possible …
putative … speculative … hypothetical … maybe … peut-etre … what-if? …
why-not?? … midnight cabaret … of BS? … somewhere on the island on … Saturday … no
details are … clear … because … as yet … not one person actually knows …
Slowly, however, destinies are forming … a show is being born in the … primordial ooze of … enthusiasm and talent