Why I am no longer accepting free tickets to Theatre.

I’ve never been interested in giving my opinion expert or otherwise regarding the Sydney Theatre Community. I’ve always held the only time to give feedback on a show’s quality is when you have been invited to do so while the play is in rehearsals. Once a play is produced and presented, we need to look at the art and what the artist are doing, and trying to say. The quality conversation is over, and if opening night is the first time you have seen the play, then you’ve missed the right to judge its production quality. Nothing is going to change when you make your criticism, so what’s the point?[1]

For me, looking at theatre, film, books and otherwise has always been about context and what a community or group is contributing. My readers love my reviews (or tell me they do) because of the way they make them think about what they’ve just seen. I feel, as a regular witness of theatre, my role is to help the audience enjoy and expand on the play, not ‘assist’ the performing artists with advice about what they got wrong from the safety of my seat.

Much of my readership is in Europe and the United States, and many of my subscribers are people in those countries keeping in touch with the Sydney theatre scene and what we are doing. I get mail from people saying they love my reviews because it keeps them in touch with the Sydney scene. For some, it’s a way to stay in touch with the development of performers, directors and writers in Sydney they are interested in. It’s also a way to see who might be up and coming.

My reviews take time. They don’t always flow. Sometimes there is something remarkable to say about a play, and other times what you want to say comes later. I’ll say it again. You have to go slow. Feel your way toward the creatives. Find out what they are trying to do and trying to say. I always try to lean in. Then I want to expand what they’ve introduced and extend it for the audience, so we can come up with all sorts of ways of thinking about what a creative is trying to say. It doesn’t always come out easily. But often, it happens that I still want to write about a production that has haunted me long after its run is complete and I didn’t get my review out ‘on time.’

I’ve reached a point where much of this is changing.

As I have been reviewing theatre for the last six years, I’ve come up against a strong push to reduce the quality of my reviews in order to get them out faster for the purposes of publicity. This is primarily a distance that has been artificially curated between the reviewers and the creatives. We mostly talk to publicists now, or producers keen to offset the price of publicity by acting like a publicist themselves. I used to get invitations from actors, directors or writers keen to add my review to a collection of writings about their play. Too often now, there is pressure from publicity to reduce quality and churn something out fast.

I completely understand why theatre does this. The pressure to sell tickets is enormous, and many peoples livelihoods depend on theatres being full. When reviews come out, people sell tickets. It’s a beautiful thing.

At least, it’s a beautiful thing for those seeking to sell tickets to theater. It is a desperate tragedy for the art of criticism which is all but lost in Sydney. As I have watched theatre improve in this city over the last five years, I have also watched the quality of reviews diminish. Most reviews are rote pieces these days, churned out to meet time constraints and burdened by a nonsense competitiveness to consistently be the first with a review. I’ve watched the reviews become homogenised, repetitive and predictable. I get no sense the reviewing community is grappling with their art, and I get no sense they struggle with a description beyond avoiding cliché. But to be fair, they shouldn’t have to. They have no time, and the pressure to serve that review on the Facebook table is enormously high.

The theatre review has lost its authenticity in Sydney. It is tired, dull and worst of all predictable. Publicists have no problem pushing back on reviewers, demanding reviews in a time frame that suits their agenda, or insisting on a review no matter how the reviewer feels about producing one. The cheapest ticket given free is expected (In some cases demanded) to be fair compensation for the hours of work even a stupid review takes. Reviewers tend to race to get product on their blog, zine or paper in order to beat other reviewers to petty rewards like good seats on opening night or some other not so subtle indicator that a publicist approves of their work. The power plays surrounding opening nights, opening night drinks and seat placement will leave you crying with laughter if you knew, but worry you if you understood how well these tactics work.

Blogs are still way better than the main stream press, but there is a terrible pressure (exerted by all sorts of corners of our community) for blogs to ‘authenticate’ themselves with places on the STA or readership numbers, or winning Walkley awards and this reduces and far worse controls, the quality of their work. We used to have a vibrant blogging community in Sydney. It’s going through a low patch at the moment, though my hopes for a cyclical rejuvenation remain high. I’d love to see a vibrant blogging community again that is truly independent. We had that about four years ago. Hopefully we will see it again.

And it is in that vein, that I will announce, I am side swiping the publicity sector of our lovely community and I, to the best of my ability, will start paying for my tickets. Theatre needs ticket buyers more than anything else. If I purchase, I am free to review or not review as I see fit, and no one can tell me what to do about it. I can keep my reviews the way they are, take my time, and provide for my readers without the pressure of dumbing down my reviews for other people’s comfort.

I have worked hard for the last four months on a particular project that I am hoping will independently fund this venture. To say that another way, I am creating an income stream that will specifically provide me the money to buy two tickets to all the shows I want to attend. I’ve always had a problem with the whole “free ticket” thing. Sydney reviewers are very middle class and we live in one of the richest nations on earth. The poorest of us is richer than almost everyone in the world. A true audience experience is a purchased ticket on a normal night. That’s where a true review should begin.

Apparently, theatre needs ticket buyers more than it needs high quality reviewers anyway.

I intend to offer both.

Best of all, this will get me out of the opening night rat race. The ranking and qualifying that goes on, the petty refusals and attempted insults over forgotten name and bad seats. The fawning and flattering, the tiresome rituals we must all indulge in. I know there is lots of lovely stuff about opening nights – free booze, catchups etc – but I’m there to work, and I can’t really do that stuff and properly get into the play too. Don’t get me wrong. Sydney’s great creatives are the light of my life and they inspire and thrill me every day. But speak to me from the glorious stage. Don’t bother with chit chat as one of us is racing for the loo. I can see you, hear you and feel you and you are glorious and beautiful. Keep doing that and I will be there to See You.

Any theater can refuse to sell me a ticket of course, and I am sure some will, but I don’t see how proper creative criticism can happen under the current model I’ve used for the past six years.

That’s enough of that now.

See you from the seats.

Lisa

[1] Other than to wield power of course. Reviewers far too often use the power of voice to try to stop people going to theatre. Bad reviewers are always about the reviewer – never the show.