What qualifies someone to write about theatre?

Earlier today, an article was published by The Stage in which producer Danielle Tarento was quoted as saying of theatre bloggers, “This is a massive generalisation, but a lot of people are not ‘proper writers’. They do not have the intellectual background or historical background or time to know what they are writing about.”

And then Twitter exploded.

My natural instinct is always to give people the benefit of the doubt in cases like this, ever since I was 18 and the local paper quoted me as saying my A-Levels had been easy (definitely not what I said) – so I naturally assumed the quote had been taken out of context. And there’s a good chance it was, particularly since in the same breath Danielle Tarento acknowledges the massive role bloggers play in spreading the word to a wider audience.

But that hasn’t stopped people getting upset about it, and the fact that the article was published at all seems like as good a reason as any to pause and ask: what qualifies someone to write about theatre?

I don’t come from a writing background, as evidenced by the noticeable absence of the novel I’ve been trying to write for years. I don’t come from a performance background either, unless you count a few appearances in school nativity plays and a brief spell in a drama group which I’m pretty sure only ever managed one production (I can’t remember what it was; all I know is we all said, “He’s not there!” a lot, and I was supposed to have a German accent). This worries me, because in addition to all the professional critics out there, it often feels like most other theatre bloggers are either students or practitioners of theatre. This, in my head, means they must know a lot more about the subject than I do, so I’m at a double disadvantage before I’ve even started.

I fell into theatre blogging totally by accident – it began as an occasional topic on a blog about stuff that makes me happy, and grew from there. Next thing I knew, I was reviewing regularly for three other sites, and eventually decided it was about time I started a specialist theatre blog of my own. And here we are.

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150(ish) reviews later, here are a few things I know:

– Like most theatre bloggers, I’ve been going to the theatre my whole life, which means I have 30 years of experience as an audience member. True, I’ve only been reviewing for just over a year, and I’m too scared to look back at some of my early reviews because I’m sure they were very, very bad. But the only way to improve is to keep trying, and I like to think I’ve got at least a bit better over the past 12 months.

– Like most theatre bloggers, I have a full-time job to pay the bills. So I don’t have a lot of free time to work on reviews… but I make time. I stay up late, I use my lunch break and my commute, and the other day I sat in a restaurant with my family and ignored them all for a good five or ten minutes while I finished up a review – which I later rewrote because I hated the thought that I’d rushed it and not done a good job.

– Like most theatre bloggers, I don’t review because someone’s paying me. I do it because I want to; because I want to support theatre and share something I love with others. (Although if anyone wants to pay me, that’s totally okay. Just putting it out there.)

– Like most theatre bloggers, I sometimes worry my reviews aren’t intellectual enough, or that I’m somehow “doing it wrong”. But then I remember I’m not writing an academic essay; I’m writing for people like me, who enjoy a good show and might want to go and see something they may otherwise not have heard about. And it’s my blog, so as long as the review is honest and accurate, I can’t really mess it up.

So, what qualifies someone to write about theatre? Personally, I think passion, dedication and having an opinion are worth a lot more than using big words or having every comma in the right place (which is saying something, because I really care about correct punctuation). And if today is anything to go by, the theatre blogging community is overflowing with all these things.

The battle between bloggers and critics is, apparently, an endless one. It raises its head regularly, usually on Twitter, and everyone gets outraged every time. It is unfair to make the sweeping statement that bloggers aren’t proper writers, especially since some of us only plucked up the courage to start applying that label to ourselves very recently. But actions speak louder than words (or should that be words speak louder than tweets…? I don’t know), so let’s put our energy into proving our worth, by blogging on with pride, improving and learning as we go, and giving it 100% like we always do.

Review: Big Brother Blitzkrieg at King’s Head Theatre

Could Adolf Hitler win Big Brother?

Yes, you read that correctly. Big Brother Blitzkrieg, at King’s Head Theatre until 30th January, is a satirical play by Hew Rous Eyre and Max Elton, in which a confused Hitler wakes up to find himself the newest contestant on the infamous reality TV show. Bemused by the pointless tasks and petty squabbles, and with an instant hatred for mum of three, Rachel, it’s not long before Hitler begins to subtly manipulate his fellow housemates – and the British public – with alarming ease.

Big Brother Blitzkrieg, Bitter Pill
Photo credit: Jack Fisher

The idea is bizarre, and the show takes arguably a little too long to make its point – though there’s certainly plenty of fun to be had along the way. But in the end the message, encapsulated in the powerfully visual final scene, is quietly horrifying. We’d like to say that the rise of Hitler could never happen again, that we’ve learnt our lesson – but the truth is, whether it’s a Big Brother contestant or Donald Trump, it turns out human beings can still be that easily led.

Stephen Chance is brilliant as Hitler, with a seemingly limitless range of facial expressions and a flawless accent. His performance brims with the charisma that won over so many, and yet also highlights the character defects – temper tantrums, stubbornness, petulance – of this legendary historical figure, who at the end of the day was just a man, and a pretty ridiculous one at that.

He’s joined by an eccentric cast of housemates, each of whom is necessarily a bit one-dimensional, a ticked box on the reality TV checklist: gay guy (Neil Summerville), young rapper (Kit Loyd), feminist (Hannah Douglas) and PR superwoman (Jenny Johns). The only one who doesn’t seem to fit is Rachel (Tracey Ann Wood), who just seems like a nice person, without any particular ‘angle’ – and is consequently derided by her fellow housemates as boring and weak.

Big Brother Blitzkrieg, Bitter Pill
Photo credit: Jack Fisher

Leaving aside Hitler for a moment, the parody of Big Brother (who’s represented by the calm, unflappable voice of George Smith) is great fun, whether you’re a fan of the show or not. But it’s also, depressingly, not a parody at all; in fact, if anything, it’s pretty tame compared to some of the things that actually go on – just look at the bizarre mix-up on CBB this week over David Bowie’s death. And even though the play’s housemates openly admit that the show’s rubbish and nobody watches it any more, they all still desperately want to win. Never mind Hitler – what does that say about the human race?

Big Brother Blitzkrieg is almost like two plays in one, taking on Hitler and Big Brother simultaneously. It’s great fun and quite, quite bonkers – the image of a Marigolds-clad Hitler clutching a feather duster is one I won’t soon forget. But Bitter Pill’s production also has a serious message, which – once it becomes clear – is unsettling and should give any modern audience pause for thought.

A brief guide to life as a theatre blogger

I’m relatively new to the world of theatre blogging. About eight months ago, I spotted a tweet from London Theatre Direct looking for people to join their blogging team, and thought I’d give it a try. When they said yes, it’s fair to say I was more than excited – not least because they were the first people to ever publish something I’d written.

My first post for LTD was a rant about bad behaviour in the theatre (talking, eating, using phones and the like), which is something I still get very worked up about, and will no doubt have a rant about on here before too long. And since that first post, life’s changed a bit; I now regularly review for London Theatre 1 as well as LTD, and I’m on the press list for a couple of local theatres. I’ll also usually write a review of anything I’ve actually paid to see – because there’s still plenty of those shows as well. It’s been a great few months, and I’m loving it, even if I’m not completely sure what I used to do with my time before.

If you’re thinking of becoming a theatre blogger, here are a few tips.

A brief guide to life as a theatre

Be prepared to see a lot of shows

From making a resolution at the start of the year to get to at least one show a month, I’m now seeing on average 2 or 3 plays a week. I’ve discovered some great new theatres across London that I never knew existed, and seen several fantastic West End shows. My colleagues have stopped asking what I’m doing after work, and now just go straight to the more obvious question, ‘Which show is it tonight, then…?’ Be prepared also to see things you wouldn’t usually go to – I’ve found a few gems that way.

Get ready to network

I’m not very good at this, because I’m horrible at walking into a room full of people I don’t know and making conversation. But fortunately there are ways around that. I now spend a lot more time on Twitter than I used to, following actors, directors, playwrights, theatres and companies and occasionally saying hello if I’m feeling brave. I’ve made friends with other theatre bloggers too, and have even written a guest review for one of them (the very lovely Caroline at Carn’s Theatre Passion). All of which means when I finally meet them in person, we already sort of know each other. And even if I do have to meet complete strangers, at least I know we all have a love of theatre in common, which is a pretty safe place to start.

Don’t expect to sleep much

Because it generally takes me at least an hour to get home from a London performance, on a theatre night I’ll invariably be up till 1am or later, writing up my review while it’s fresh in my mind. I choose not to take notes during the play, so I usually spend the train journey home jotting down thoughts on my phone, before starting the review proper on the computer when I get in. The latest I’ve ever been up working was 4am, but that was a one-off. (And it was a Friday, so at least I could sleep in the next morning.) Generally a review will take me a couple of hours; sometimes a bit less if it flows easily.

Get familiar with star ratings

Not everyone uses star ratings; personally I don’t when I’m writing reviews for my own blog, but some of the sites I write for do, and it can be difficult to decide what to award. My instinct initially was to give pretty much everything five, because if I gave it any less, I felt a need to justify my decision by finding something wrong with the play. (Four somehow seems a lot less than five.) But since I learned that five stars means basically the best production of its kind ever made, I try to use them a little more sparingly – unless I genuinely think it was brilliant. Which I often do, because I’m far too nice.

Get organised

I used to keep most of my diary in my head, and – a few minor double booking disasters aside – it worked pretty well. These days, I can’t do that, because I have so many plays booked in that it would just be asking for trouble. As soon as something’s confirmed, it goes in the diary on my phone, and then when I get home it goes on the calendar so I’ve got a back up. And it’s not just about dates; with theatres dotted all over London, it’s important to be familiar with the location beforehand, so as not to run in gasping for breath at the last minute – or, even worse, arrive late (especially if you’re representing another company).

Prepare to drink

Many theatres either have a reception at the interval of a press night show, where you’ll be plied with drinks and snacks, or they’ll thrust a drinks voucher into your hand when you collect your tickets. Either way, lately I’ve been finding myself drinking a lot more wine than I used to. Not that I’m complaining, but I just thought it was worth mentioning.

So there we have it: a brief guide to life as a theatre blogger. It’s a lot of fun, and I’d recommend it to anyone. You don’t need any qualifications, just a love for theatre and the ability to write about it. And we’re a friendly bunch, so why not join in the fun?

If anyone has any more tips to add, please share them in the comments 🙂