It’s been just over a year since I moved back to Newcastle, and the theatre scene has delighted me. I spend most weeks bobbing on some triangular trajectory between Northern Stage, Live and Alphabetti, and I’ve seen shows in locations that range from a castle to a community centre. While obviously I haven’t loved everything I have seen, the hits have far outweighed the misses, and the quality of locally grown material has, on the whole, massively impressed me.
But, if there’s one area where there’s room for improvement (major companies aside), it’s on the PR / comms side. Of course, this is often to be expected: smaller companies have limited budgets for such things, and often little experience on what reviewers and publications want or need, or how to get on their radar, and are often pulling together things like show packs or press releases on a non-existent budget while having to sort the ten million other things that need to be sorted. I get that, I really do. This article isn’t a dig: it’s a genuine attempt to offer free advice that might make your lives easier, or help you get your show on the radar of the publication you want.
It’s also totally biased, based on my own experience and not affiliated with any of the publications I work for. You can read a more ‘official’ version here, or check out some of the more senior reviewers on Twitter, who often post tips and advice (even if it’s sometimes more geared on what not to do!)
Anyway, for what it’s worth:
Some hopefully handy beginners’ tips to getting your show reviewed
Think schedules: Most publications book their reviewers in about a month or six weeks in advance (more around the Ed Fringe or Christmas, when they are juggling huge numbers of people and shows). Remember they are juggling not just calendars and staff but budgets – most but the biggest run on a shoestring. Sending a press release the week of a show – or even at the start of the month it runs in – means you will likely have missed any available slots. It’s especially important to give notice if you expect people to travel. Bloggers might have more flexibility, but they are also likely to have more budget constraints – for instance, a limit to how many shows they can afford travel costs to and from each month (even a few extra bus tickets adds up over a month).
Front load your press release: Remember most publications (and bloggers) will get zillions of emails, and won’t have time to read and respond to most, especially as they get so much spam. As a general rule of PR, don’t make people work to find the information you want them to have. Include in your email header the show name, venue (and maybe dates), and put as much of the pertinent info in the first paragraph of the email – including the hook that will get them in (a well-known playwright or director, high profile cast, local angle, etc.) (See below for an example). If you have a set press night, mention that.
Mention if it’s a new show, or if it’s a cast change to an older one: many publications don’t want to review something that’s been around a while. They may also not review stuff that has a very short run, so put the dates clearly.
Put info in the body of the email: Most publications like you to attach a press release, but also to include core info in the email so they can see that on their phones/without downloading the attachment.
Spell out what kind of show it is: This is in as much your interest as theirs, as publications will try to assign reviewers knowledgeable about, or interested in, what your show covers. There’s little point sending someone who hates dance to a ballet, or someone who thinks Shakespeare should be burned in a bin to your Hamlet, as they are not the target audience.
Don’t assume they know stuff: Like where your theatre is. For a start, remember if you are emailing a national publication, plenty of theatres have the same name. Just which Theatre Royal are you talking about?
Be thoughtful of ALL your audience, including critics: Don’t assume your reviewer will be a fit, able bodied guy happy to walk for 15 minutes in the dark to get to a warehouse performance where they will have to stand for an hour. If there are access issues (a lift-free space, no seats, uneven floor surfaces) these should be mentioned up front. If it’s a venue that isn’t near public transport, or involves a dodgy walk through an underpass and a dark estate, maybe flag that up, because it might affect a reviewer’s decision to attend. Many is the out of the way show I have attended with a sinking feeling in my heart, because I can see on the way there just how creepy the way back will be, and all I can think about throughout is whether I’ll get murdered on the way home.
Have production photos and info ready: I spend half my life emailing people asking for tech info. Some publications, like The Stage, want as much info as possible – it’s an industry publication, so obviously wants to credit the technical crew as much as the actors – but most will require a basic list of cast, director, designer and music. Include image credits for your photos, and use a Dropbox link rather than sending as an attachment. And list the cast and crew up front: I don’t want to have to trawl through a ton of text to find it.
If you can, break down who plays who: this will help the reviewer single out performers, and save us much time googling actors and going ‘I think that’s who that was’. I once saw a show that had an utterly standout performance that I totally failed to mention because after 20 minutes on Google I still couldn’t figure out which of the four beardy white guys listed in the cast played the role that impressed me, and that info was nowhere to be had.
Run times are good: I know these can be subject to change, but a rough idea can be useful, especially in cities where public transport slows after a certain time. And, again, it can help editors allocate reviewers: your show might be the best 6 hours in the world, but if it’s that long, no editor would send me – Tracey ‘make it shorter’ Sinclair – to see it; they’re going to allocate it to one of my younger, stronger-bladdered colleagues. Likewise, I’m often willing to squeeze something in at the last minute if it’s only an hour long.
Who to contact, and how: For most publications, it’ll be the editor or reviews editor (check also if the publication splits into London and regional editors). Some reviewers are happy to be contacted direct, but many aren’t, so a little bit of research in advance can prevent you alienating the very people you want on side. Most theatre bloggers will have a review policy and contact details on their blogs. And remember, no matter how well you get on with individual reviewers, whether it’s interacting with them on social media or bumping into them in the bar, it’s generally the editors that decide who reviews stuff and what gets covered. (Also, for the love of GOD, don’t assume everyone is based in London).
Everybody’s busy: Like most theatre makers, the vast amount of reviewers and bloggers are fitting this work in around other, often, full-time / better paid work. I used to have to write all my reviews either on the train home from the show, or before I left for work in the morning. Time spent chasing basic info delays reviews being published, and reduces the time spent on the actual review.
And REALLY remember, everyone is human: This year’s Edinburgh Fringe, in particular, seemed to have a particularly toxic and combative atmosphere between artists and reviewers. And part of me gets that, I do: you spend a lot of time and money pulling together a show, and someone who is knocking out 10 reviews a day slags it? How very dare they? (Though part of me is less sympathetic: at least the part who spends half my career as an author in Book Land, where the attitude towards bad reviews tends to be ‘suck it up, sweetheart, it’s part of the gig’ and reacting negatively towards even the most poison pen review can torpedo a career). But bitching about bad reviews should be done to your mates, not on Twitter, where it just makes you look like a whiny child.
The vast majority of reviewers are in this gig because they genuinely love theatre. They are doing it on top of other jobs and commitments, often at their own expense. Nobody – or, certainly, nobody I know – goes into a show keen to slate it. And while time pressures can lead to hastily written reviews, mistakes or misinterpretations, (and, yes, genuinely egregious things like racism or body policing should be called out) it’s worth remembering that we’re all in the same boat, so behaving like A Person is never a bad idea.
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