On Why It’s Time To Listen (or a love letter to theatre bloggers) 14


I’m going to write down a date. Friday the 10th of September 2010. One day everyone who has ever written – or read – a theatre blog might want to remember it. The day that the Royal Opera House not so much poked themselves in the eye as repeatedly bludgeoned themselves with a heavy instrument (an instrument which, in the subsequent health and safety report, they spelt incorrectly). The wonderful irony to the whole thing being that whilst the storm was raging the ROH’s Head of Digital Marketing, Rachel Coldicutt, was at The Media Festival Arts talking about the importance of open data. It is indeed all in the timing.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account (or analysis) of the events because you can read them first hand on Intermezzo’s blog, with the legal view here and the marketing view here. I also feel it needs pointing out that there were two distinct issues that got tangled up on Friday, issues which should be separated out:

1. The specific case and what it shows about theatre bloggers, blogging and theatres.
2. The perception of the ROH within the arts community (which is bundled up with the issue of funding and the level of fear that is – justly – prevalent in much of the arts community about what the Autumn funding cuts will look like).
I’ve lots to say on the latter subject but, for today at least, I’m going to stick firmly to the former.

Theatre blogging is a niche pursuit. But then going to sit in a darkened auditorium and watch people speak – or in the case of opera, sing – someone else’s words multiple times a month (or some times a week) is also a niche pursuit. The internet, in all its multifaceted joy, allows a niche to flourish. Like attracts like (or compels like). It not only cements tendencies (that of reading about theatre, of continuing going, of knowing more than you could ever keep in your head), it also allows tendencies to grow. Knowing there is a community of people out there doing the same thing – theatre-going is a tribe as much as anyone else. Of course not all repeat theatre goers blog but, in 2010 with the ease of google, I’d be surprised to find a repeat theatre-goer (who wasn’t directly involved in the industry*) who had never read a theatre blog. These people – the people whose names might otherwise be simply one in a marketing database – should be hugely valued (and respected). And if not now, then when? As we get ready to batten down the hatches and weather the oncoming storm Theatres should be respecting these people more than ever.

Theatre blogging, like all individual blogging, is massively democratic. A “name” will only get you so far. But you can make yourself a name within the community. There are many, many ways to do this – most are a niche within a niche, either because of their predilection to certain types of theatre or because of their locality – but what unites theatre bloggers is their dedication (have you tried going to see multiple shows and then coming home and writing them – without being paid to do so? It’s bloody hard work when, frankly, you’d rather be in bed). Every single one of them, even the most world weary or caustically brilliant (you know who I’m looking at), love of what they write. They want theatres to succeed, they want the next show they see to be the best thing they have ever seen, they want to share their excitement (or, as it may be, disappointment).

Recently the Guardian Theatre Blog made me want to put my fist through my computer. From the moment I saw the title of the article – Five stars in their eyes: can you trust unpaid theatre critics? – I knew it was most likely going to result in my feeling the need to jab a knitting needle in my eye. Theatre bloggers, with their wordpress and blogspot accounts, are unpaid. Some might occasionally get free tickets but by and large they pay for the privilege of sitting in a theatre’s seat (or standing as the case may be) and then come home and write about it for free. I was genuinely pained when I saw that the article had caused Jake Orr, who founded the – excuse me for the expletive – fucking important A Younger Theatre, say that he was “somewhat down heartened and questioning the value of what [he writes]”. No one comes out as a fully formed theatre critic. What you need is dedication, some degree of writing flair, a willingness to see a lot of theatre, the knowledge you can always learn (or re-learn) and a whole bundle of passion. Theatre bloggers in the UK have these characteristics in abundance. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be writing about theatre and people wouldn’t be reading them. For me a critic is only as good as my relationship with them. Through my reading – whether I visit their blog in a vaguely stalker-ish manner on a hourly basis or whether I drop in and out according to interest in what they’re reviewing – I know their biases, I know their specialisms, I know where I stand in relation to them. This is what matters. That they also entertain, inform and (sometimes) provoke me is all part of the package.

What blogs create – something which Twitter’s popularity amongst the art-prone has intensified and broadened** – is a web of community. Forget six degrees of separation, I’d decrease it to one degree for the online arts enthusiasts. What role you play in this community can be as diverse as any real-life community might be (whether you see yourself as the Mayor in waiting, the person drawing graffiti on the bridges or occasional tourist who wants to see the major attractions). Words spread (with some voices, as in any community, being louder). In the offline world I’m often asked about shows people should see and I clocked recently that my default response is to fall back on what the “buzz” is on the theatre blogs. Theatre bloggers are word-of-mouth amongst friends magnified – because anyone who can access the internet can be their “friend”. If you under estimate the scale of this community and its ability to communicate – well, then you end up with the Royal Opera House on Friday.

As Intermezzo says on her latest post on the subject theatre blogging is here to stay. I first blogged about theatre-going in 2001, I first bought a theatre ticket directly because of something I’d read on a blog back in April 2007 (when I didn’t even live in London) because of this. It’s laughable that it’s 2010 and many of our major arts institutions haven’t realised that blogging exists as more than a vague concept (or something that someone in their marketing department does in a half-arsed, vaguely inept manner). The theatre companies who have embraced social media (and embrace means more than just being there with your twitter account RTs of positive comments and Facebook page of official photos) are largely the ones without buildings (there is a notable exception up in Stratford). When you’re filling spaces with hundreds of seats every night it’s easy to forget the individual theatre goer sitting in E23 up in the Amphitheatre. When every person you engage with your work matters – as it does for many small and medium sized companies – you don’t forget the individual. That ticket sale – those future ticket sales – matter. That’s why these companies understand that “social” goes both ways.

Having been a long time blog reader I’m happy to say that theatre blogging in the UK is more exciting than it has ever been. It’s also expanding at a faster rate than I’ve ever seen before. Am I surprised that Friday happened? Absolutely not. Maybe the ROH is lucky that it happened now and not six (or twelve months) later, just as the Tricycle is lucky that this happened in 2008. It’s time, however, not just for (if an organisation is lucky) having one person in a marketing department who knows what a theatre blogger is. All it takes is a clear policy, a lightness of touch, and the humility to remember that these people buy tickets to your shows.

Remember that love I mentioned earlier? That love is for your industry, your venue, your show. Embrace it, don’t stamp all over it in steel-capped boots. Why shouldn’t press photos be available to bloggers as long as they’re properly credited? Given that you have charged them money for your product why shouldn’t bloggers review show whilst they’re in previews? Talk to us. We’re bloggers, we love a conversation. But – and here’s the big lesson – bloggers will not bend to you. Five years ago, maybe, but not now. This community – it’s too big and vocal, for that. You need to adapt and respond to us, not the other way around. Change, innovate, blaze a trail. You might even learn something.

*I’m constantly shocked when people inside the industry can’t name a theatre blogger.

**Not every tweeter blogs but I’d guess 97% of bloggers tweet.


14 thoughts on “On Why It’s Time To Listen (or a love letter to theatre bloggers)

  • Dickie and Butch

    Good evening,

    Thank you for your words. We have found, since creating the blog only in March, that the majority of regional UK theatres have been extremely hospitable and knowledgable about the value of the bloggosphere as a marketing tool. Whether this is because of the need for strong advertising in regional venues is unclear, but we have certainly found the whole process very positive.

    We are UK based bloggers and our blog is at http://www.dickieandbutch.com. It is meant to be informative with lots of humour, and is aimed at a younger demographic. We cover all areas of the performing arts such including opera, classical music and we also make regular commentaries. I would be very grateful if you wouldn’t mind adding us to your blogroll – I will do the same with your blog now.

    Keep up the good work,

    Kind regards

    Butch

    Dickie and Butch
    Theatre Critics
    http://www.dickieandbutch.com
    Twitter: @dickieandbutch
    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dickie-and-Butch/123178921033227

  • Esther

    Wow, great post. I’ve been blogging about theatre for a couple of years. I’m not an expert by any means, just an enthusiastic fan. I definitely agree about the web of community. I’ve learned so much from my fellow bloggers & have come to value their opinion on what to see.

  • Brian

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, Corinne. Excellent job. Old institutions like theatre really need to embrace the new media approach, one that is primarily of conversation rather than plastering your brand all over the place. The sooner we can get to that point, the better!

    Also, I launched a web app two weeks ago called Talkbackr.com, which encourages audience participation in the review process for theatres (or any event for that matter). Just set up an event (you can make a fake one to test it out) and then hand out the URL to your audience so they can provide feedback. I think it’s a handy alternative for theatres to get DIRECT feedback from the audience rather than waiting for blogs to come out and having to track every blog that writes about them. It should also generate more focused feedback, instead of melodramatic wah wah wah.

    Keep up the good work. Cheers!

  • Leonard Jacobs

    This is the kind of thing I’ve been writing about at The Clyde Fitch Report for three years. My suspicion is that the theatre in New York may be slightly ahead of you guys when it comes to taking the blogosphere seriously, and believe me there is plenty that the institutional power-players don’t understand. But bravo on that wonderful, insightful, smack-’em-in-the-head post.

    My best,

    Leonard Jacobs
    Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report
    http://www.clydefitch.com
    The nexus of arts and politics.

  • Matthew Joseph

    Interesting blog. I’m in Australia, so I’ve just had to do some hasty online reading to get a handle on what happened but it appears that a UK theatre has behaved aggressively toward a supportive theatre blogger.

    Is it my imagination or have a number of issues become entangled here?

    Firstly, nobody who supports theatre should infringe copyright, regardless of their goals or sympathetic objectives, because if copyright isn’t respected (not just adhered to as a legal requirement but actually respected) then you can say goodbye to theatre written and performed by professionals.

    On the other hand, professional theatre’s who don’t embrace their supporters – especially their very vocal online supporters – don’t have much of a future. In Sydney at least, the community of theatre patrons is almost as tight knit as the professional bodies. When I go to see a play it’s not at all uncommon to see familiar faces in the foyer from previous performances by other theatre companies.

    Finally, bloggers v critics – this is a blog topic all on its own. There is absolutely a place for professionals with years of experience who have studied dramaturgical theory and have an intimate understanding of the artistic movements of the last thousand years that are still informing what we see performed on stage today. All of that experience, however, is irrelevant when it comes to an amateur theatre aficionado giving a personal, unpaid recommendation to like minded people based on simply the enjoyment that a performance delivered.

    Sorry. Didn’t mean to hijack your blog.

    Matthew Joseph
    http://mrjsays.wordpress.com/

  • Corinne Post author

    Charlie, Claire, Esther – Thank you!

    Butch – I think some theatres (particularly those who don’t get huge amounts of mainstream coverage, or are in the regions – which can amount to the same thing) value bloggers and glad you’ve had a positive experience. Randomly on the night I wrote this blog I got a thank you from a Fringe theatre for a blog post about them I’d written on my personal blog – so it’s there! Absolutely will link to you.

    Simone – Would *love* to see you blogging again (though I know from my own experience that some times you just don’t feel in the groove).

    Brian – Love the idea of Talkbackr.com, having had a plethora of google alerts for various projects (with things inevitably slipping through the net) this seems the perfect solution. Will definitely use.

    Leonard – I think you’re right that theatres in New York is slightly ahead of London (and in terms of theatre blogging in the UK I think we’re slightly behind the American bloggers too, if only for fact there’s not a pool of – for want of a better word – ‘commentators’ outside of mainstream media). As a long term reader of your blog my post undoubtedly owes a nod to you!

    Matthew – don’t apologise. The whole thing is huge – I could easily have written another seventeen posts on it – just when you think you’ve said something you realise there’s something else you want to say!

  • The Broadway Critic

    Interesting post! Did you just see the NY Times just talked about bloggers who wrote about the first preview of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown? I was one of “those bloggers” who wrote about my experience.

    I posed the question at the end of my post, “If we have so much “power”, than why doesn’t the Broadway community embrace the theatre blogger community more readily?”

    Interesting…

    Spencer
    The Broadway Critic
    http://broadwaycritic.wordpress.com
    Twitter: @abroadwaycritic
    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Broadway-Critic/168034079682?ref=ts

  • Swollen Foot

    This is a wonderful post. I’ve been blogging for many years but am very new to the world of theatre-blogging. I turned to theatre blogs after looking for some books on arts management & almost fainting at the price of them! So I went for the free option… but when I searched for my first theatre blog, I wasn’t expecting there to be so many! I was expecting maybe one or two. It was a pleasant surprise. :) Now I don’t feel I need to buy an overpriced book if I can read blogs by professionals and enthusiasts alike. I’ve already learnt so much from reading these web pages, and this is in the space of just over a week. I also feel more encouraged to develop my own, very new blog, because I know there is a large market of like-minded people out there. From what I can tell so far, blogging could be a very powerful tool for the theatre if used properly. I mean, it is for other industries such as fashion. No one ever doubts fashion bloggers, do they?

  • Michael Hunter

    As a fairly new blogger and theatre reviewer, I have only just come across this page.
    I mainly review the wonderful amateur theatre in and around where I live in South Shields.
    http://spikemikeisbreakingaleg.blogspot.com/
    My aim is the report on the proceedings and hopefully get some bums on seats because of it.
    These am dram companies are only too pleased to give me press tickets to review their show, not so for the bigger theatre chains. I was told that as ONLY a ‘blogger’ I would have to pay for a ticket, review it and if the theatre or the production company received and hits from my enclosed links then they would think about giving me free tickets…somewhere along the line.
    I couldn’t see this happening if I thought the play stunk!!

    Michael Hunter

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