Louise Hemfrey examines both sides of the media circus
How many of you have experienced the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? I mean really experienced it – more than just tottering down the mile for an afternoon gawking at street performers. Did you ever live and breathe for the Festival when it began, and couldn’t wait for it to be over by the time you finished? As someone who has experienced the Fringe three times over, there are definitely some noteworthy recurring features.
When you are part of a production, that show is your universe. Throughout the festival it is everything you exist for, and you relate everything around you to your show. For most individuals you meet, their importance is subconsciously determined by their relation to your production. This is the underlying reason why reviewers are so unnerving to performers – they have no loyalties, no affiliations, they are free agents, and they are rarely held accountable.
There are, of course, many more apparent grounds for the reverence Fringe performers show reviewers. Their opinion can determine the success or failure of a show. They can say some rather offensive and personal things that upwards of 10,000 people could read; they can be a production’s best friend, or worst nightmare. Reviewers can be sloppy, careless, tardy – their publications overdue and under-printed – but most importantly of all, their absolute attention is not pinned on you (the actor) but is divided by the pen they scribble illegibly with.
I remember my first Fringe, the Chinese whisper clawing its way through the cast who were standing poised backstage: “Reviewer in!”. Who said it first? How did they know? It would seem this mythical person of astonishing ability was in our midst, and our lives were dependent on their existence in that moment – it is even more unnerving when you can pick them out in the audience, scribbling away as you say a line. I snigger at my naïve memory (you may snigger too) but that is how it feels. It does get easier as the show breaks into its run, the more plays you perform secure your sense of worth, but nothing quite prepares you for publication of the review especially if it’s from a publication with some reputation.
The anxious waiting game I played with reviews didn’t come about until my second turn at the festival. I had a major role; it was more than five lines, and enough stage time to effect some level of memorability, but what would they say about me – what wouldn’t they say? The disappointment of not having a personal mention when your co-star did, and the frustration when the mystical ‘they’ dared to criticise something you did is most irritating. However, always we would toil in small ways to hone our performance to this imaginary mark, set by some faceless wit, whose estimations we had fallen short of.
In the summer of 2011 I returned to the Fringe to play the free-ranging, faceless wit. The part, I quickly discovered, was a farce of a performance. As actors plagued my days, I infected their minds with the paranoia of possible analysis. The most valuable thing I owned for those three weeks was my press pass. It got me discounted drinks, extra tickets at box offices, entry to VIP rooms, use of the slightly more upmarket toilets and always the attentions of the many not-so-mainstream productions desperate to get a handhold in the wall of reviewing madness.
It is a form of madness. For instance, did you know that there is a ‘Meet the Media’ day the first weekend of the Fringe where shows can come and pitch to reviewers? The forum area where the event takes place is packed with director/producer/performers lining up for hours to speak for two minutes with a face at a desk certain. Yet most top rated publications have already completed their reviewing schedules well before this event, thereby making their presence a mere formality. If you are worthy of their attentions you will already be on the list, if you are not then tough luck. Maybe you should improve your Fringe brochure blurb next year.
However, perhaps the most maddening element of the whole scenario is that the reviewers whose opinions we depend on so vehemently for our continued existence are, very often, rather under-qualified for the positions of esteem that Fringe culture bestows upon them. Speaking from personal experience we are mostly a tongue-wagging gaggle of students. We are from establishments with varying degrees of prestige studying anything from Art History to Human Biology. We are failing artists, and the unemployed masses. Occasionally the reviewer is a university professor or retired theatre critic, but these are one to one hundred. I met many people with similar experiences to myself – a background in performing arts, or online media – but I encountered just as many who were just your average youth carving up their summer, desperate for work-experience, little interest in the medium they were critiquing, and even less in who read their writing afterwards.
As a performer, discovering this fact should relax the spirit somewhat, and lighten that heavy load on your shoulders. At the very least it should enable you to take anything that the reviewer says with a pinch of salt. Yet even people who knew exactly what my background was would still ask me; what did I think of ‘X’ or ‘Y’, what would I recommend seeing, how many stars would I give? I won’t deny that I enjoyed these situations; an indulgence, as it were. When you spend your whole academic year looking up other peoples’ opinions, and your summer at home where nothing you have to say is of much interest to anyone, it is quite nice to finally voice the thoughts in your head.
The whole media structure of the Fringe is an artificial creation, an illusion willed into reality by the masses of directors and performers – even professional shows feel the need to appeal to these amateur writers for their approval. Our inexperienced collective are not paid for our writing. We scrape out a life in Edinburgh for a month with a discount card for over-priced drinks and a free ticket to the shows we review. Yes, it is possible to waggle some perks at the beginning but the venues quickly wise-up. One cannot eat ticket stubs, nor do they pay rent. Apologies if you find some reviewers a little curt when they speak, or their review a cache of your mistakes. Editors and readers alike seem to have forgotten one minor factor: we are only human.
Image credit – Ally Lodge