It was reassuring to read the blog from our Friends at Creation in Oxford, ("Theatre Critics, who needs 'em?": A Response to Lyn Gardner) championing the need for theatre critics in response the Lyn Gardner's column in last week's The Stage.
In Creation's blog, Maddy hits the nail on the head when she says that we need critical reviews "to benefit tickets sales/raise awareness of a specific production and for their own reputation." which may seem obvious but it actually is incredibly important to small-medium sized theatre companies who are competing with larger organisation and cinema screenings of Wet End hits.
We completely concur that word of mouth is the best method of promoting your work to your loyal audiences, and consequently new audiences through their friends and colleagues, but she is absolutely right that national press reviews, from recognised reviewers have a deeper and greater longevity to a theatre company's legacy.
In our 12 year history, only 2 of the 38 shows we have produced have received a national review (King Lear with Brian Blessed 2015 and Julius Caesar 2017). The soundbites and star ratings from those reviews continue to be a vital source of promotion for GSC. To be able to quote "This is the reason British theatre is such a marvel" Daily Telegraph and "5 STARS" Daily Express adds an enormous amount of worth to flyers and posters for future work.
It is not that we are vain or ungrateful of local reviewers, far from it. Our local papers, online reviewers and bloggers have been the life-blood of our company, helping us maintain a profile with the audiences we serve. However, Maddy is absolutely right when she says that "As a regional professional company, one of the marketing struggles we face is how to differentiate ourselves from amateur companies and press coverage plays a part in this." Despite being in our 12th year, there are still people who ask us "What do you do when you're not doing this?" or "How can I become a member of your troupe?". As flattering as this is, the same question wouldn't be asked at the Stage Door of Chichester or The Wyndhams.
Like Creation, we also work in non-theatre spaces, at the heart of our community. Site-responsive theatre is our USP, but it comes with many challenges, not least of making sure potential audiences know the level of the professionalism involved.
However, if a theatre company regularly received notices in national publications attitudes would change. Lyn Gardner talks about 'critical friends' who see your work regularly and get to know the company, unlike the 'parachuted in' national reviewers. We regularly receive 4 and 5 from these sources such as Reviews Hub and Essential Surrey, but the frustrating reality outside of London is that 5 stars from Guildford Dragon does not carry the same endorsement of excellence as a review from The Guardian.
As Maddy rightly points out in her blog, it is not just about audiences: "Glowing reviews from our audiences are essential for ticket sales but have little impact on growing our reputation within the industry." In her article, Gardner states that no editor will say no to a new Alan Bennett play at the Bridge, thus affecting work produced by companies beyond London, despite them being "theatre's life-blood", something I highlighted in a response I wrote to a previous article by Gardner in The Stage in May (We Have A Shakespeare Problem):
"...the recent Bridge Theatre Julius Caesar was hailed as "visceral and politically urgent" (The Guardian) and "A Shakespeare for the 21st Century" (Sunday Times), but were these papers, and by extension their readers, aware an almost identical production played to packed houses in a Guildford church a year before? It feels that this work, made and played locally, is increasingly overlooked..."
I appreciate that reviewers cannot be everywhere at once, but surely there needs to be a way to give a quota of reviews to regional theatre and companies. I think Gardner's suggestion of developing local bloggers as reviewers is an excellent idea. In one move you are not only providing national coverage for regional theatre, under the moniker of the paper name, but also developing the critical skills of emerging writers whilst showing that national press has an interest outside of the West End, Stratford and Chichester.
To make it work, this development needs to be spearheaded by the press, not the other way around; I know from personal experience, even if reviews are supplied to the paper, or a reviewer is keen to attend because they value the company's work, the editor can simply say no. I have lost count of the number of times that I have invited national press to a show with no response; and when we have engaged a Press Agent, even they, with their contacts, are met with the regular 'I'm already seeing a London show', 'no-one's in it', 'it's not running for long enough' type of replies.
Perhaps the NPO funded institutions who are the flagships for industry can be persuaded to help...
Although, when the National Theatre came to Woking for 1 week with Hamlet in 2011 the same time as our Hamlet was playing in a church and we suggested a joint PR for audiences to experience two very different approaches to the same play, our repeated requests fell on deaf ears. This particular situation was exacerbated by NT taking advertising spaces all over Guildford (not just Woking) with their national press 5 star reviews from the London run, thus rendering our marketing almost insignificant. This could have been a brilliant opportunity for a major institution to help the artistic development of small, unfunded theatre company then in its 5th year. But they didn't.
Regional theatre has a lot to offer, but also has a lot of challenges. A single review from a leading paper or reviewer can make all the difference - not only to the show reviewed but the company's ongoing artistic development.