Jo Caird: Alternative Perspectives on the FringeDate: 3 August 2011
The divide between the critical community and the artistic community can sometimes feel very great: one group passionately creates a piece of work, the other dispassionately (or so it's hoped) dissects it; one spends weeks or months on a show, the other swoops in for a couple of hours and pronounces its verdict in the form of a 400-word review and a star rating.
This is as it should be – critics can only maintain their authority (and with it the trust of their readers), I think, if they keep a certain distance from the work they're critiquing. For me, this means not reviewing shows I've written features on. This isn't to say that journalists who do this are behaving improperly; it's just that I personally find it very difficult to stay objective about a production having had enthusiastic conversations about it with those involved.
But while I think that it's a good idea for journalists to stand apart from the particular shows they review, I also feel it's extremely valuable for the people writing about theatre to have some experience of the work that goes into making it. Some critics have gone the whole hog, taking on a defined role in the creative process, as Nicholas de Jongh did when he wrote Plague Over England (the success of which led him to resign from the Evening Standard to pursue a full-time writing career), or as Mark Shenton did when he produced Charlotte Eilenberg's Shrunk at the Cock Tavern last year.
Now, I'm not planning on becoming a theatre-maker – my brief fling with musical theatre during Eyebrow Theatre's one-off charity performance of The Boyfriend earlier this year was sufficient to remind me where my skills do and do not lie – but every year at the Fringe I get a little taste of the realities of the business when I act as general dogsbody and assistant to my performer/comedian/musician boyfriend.
My work takes precedence, of course, so I'm only really able to do bits and pieces in the run-up to the festival and in the first few days before my review schedule goes nuts (watch this space), but it's an illuminating process and one that makes me a better reviewer I think. On my Edinburgh blog last year I wrote about the challenge of giving shows negative reviews without resorting to spite or mockery or exaggeration: it's importance always to remember that behind even the most appalling work there artists who are passionate – albeit misguidedly perhaps – about what they do and who have worked incredibly hard.
Almost all the critics working the festival have some connection with artists presenting work up here; they should therefore have a good understanding of the possible impact of what they write on the individuals involved. I've got plenty of friends and acquaintances doing productions, of course, but it's the work I do on my boyfriend's Fringe shows each year – the alternative perspective I gain from driving equipment around, stapling reviews to flyers and bugging him about the bits of the show in need of rehearsal – that keeps me aware of just how challenging and exhausting this environment is for the artists involved.