Black Hat & Critical Thinking at the Fringe

At the Edinburgh Fringe a show can be made or broken by a good review. With over 2000 shows a day how do you make a decision, social media, word of mouth or a cunning flyerer? More often than not if the act is unknown you’ll decide based on a review and stars on a poster and it seems nowadays anyone with an opinion and an online soapbox can start throwing stars about willy-nilly.  I was curious to know what it’s like to be a critic at the Fringe. If you watch 10 shows a day how do you stay open minded? Is Twitter and the multi headed reviewer blog hydra killing the role of the critic, now that everyone’s a critic? Why work as a critic in the first place! and most importantly why do we need critics at the Fringe? I asked a couple of professional critics, Stephanie Merrit from the Observer and Julian hall from the Independent a few questions about working at the Fringe to find out a little more about why they do what they do?

Why work as a critic?

StephanieOn one level I realise it’s hugely presumptuous, the idea that my opinion somehow carries more weight than someone else’s just because it’s in a newspaper. Obviously the most important thing is to experience a work of art directly and form your own views, whether that’s a book, a painting or a comedy show. But sometimes we want to look a little deeper or just want a bit of guidance to what’s worth seeing, and that’s where the critic comes in. I’ve always loved live comedy and watched a lot of it, so I’d like to think that over the years I have developed an eye for work that’s original or different. I think the critic plays an important part at the Fringe because there are just so many shows; readers do want to be pointed in the direction of the good ones.

Julian - Performers don’t have the capacity to step back from their own work, we do that for them.  Essentially we are doing the job that directors do / should do (if there is one), but with stars attached.  (The star ratings make us the bad guys/gals but is a measurement that editors feel their readers want and by and large they are right.) So, we are serving a useful, constructive purpose and what we say can often shape the performer’s work.  That said I respect any act who chooses not to read their reviews – good or bad. On a practical level, the question implies that reviewing is a career, no critic (not even seasoned theatre critics) can survive on this pursuit alone and you’ll often find they engage with the art form in other ways, features, books, maybe even more practical ways, some have performed themselves, some might run a comedy night, or be involved with TV and radio projects with comedy talent.  I have given PR advice to acts I am not reviewing.

 Do you think the era of bloggers and twitter is diluting and damaging the role of the critic?

StephanieI think they occupy different spaces. To me, good criticism is as much about the way the ideas are expressed as the opinions themselves; when you read Anthony Lane’s film criticism in the New Yorker you don’t need to have seen the film or agree with his view, it’s just a great read. And a lot of bloggers are not professional writers so perhaps their reviews are not as crafted as a newspaper critic. It’s certainly noticeable at the Fringe in the past few years that some performers will stick 5 star reviews from just about anywhere on their posters – I guess it’s up to the public to judge whether 5 stars from a website run by some guy at his first Fringe is worth as much as a review from an established newspaper arts section. I think a critic needs time to establish themselves so that people come to trust their judgment, or at least have a sense of their taste. A blog can do that too, if it attracts regular readers. Twitter is different altogether; it’s a free for all where anyone can shout out their opinion to anyone who cares to listen, and I love it for that.

JulianYes, for one main reason – star ratings again.  It’s the obvious physical manifestation of a critique and in Edinburgh these manifestations are everywhere, to the point that there are so many journals giving out stars that your chances of getting a 4 star review are higher than they have ever been!

 Do you find it hard to go into a show with an open mind?

Stephanie - I don’t think so. I try to consider each show on its own terms; the main criteria is whether it makes me (and the rest of the audience) laugh, but I do also look at how it does that. The only thing that is sometimes difficult is if I’ve seen an act before and not liked their show, to go to their new show the following year without preconceptions. Sometimes people can really turn things around from one year to the next, but there is always the worry that it’s going to be more of the same. Also I think every critic brings their own sensibilities to their writing, and that does affect your taste. I’m a woman, and a liberal, so there are certain subjects I struggle to laugh at – male comics making rape jokes, as an obvious one.

Julian - No, not at all.  I go into every show wanting to like it and be entertained.  Why wouldn’t I?  I could be seeing as many as 80-100.

 Have you ever been confronted or abused by a comic at the fringe for a review?

StephanieNot really. I don’t tend to write bad reviews at the Fringe, because it seems more valuable to me to use the little space I have to flag up shows I want people to see. But I did once write a diary piece where I mentioned a show that all the critics I knew disliked; I didn’t mention the performer’s name or even gender, but the person recognized themselves and later sent me a long, angry letter telling me how they’d almost given up stand up because of it. I felt a bit bad about that, but this person then made it a mission to get me to like their work; for the next year, they obsessively sent me CDs, invited me to gigs, emailed me constantly and turned me into a kind of enigmatic love-hate figure on their blog. They later went into journalism, so…

Julian - Never abused in person.  Someone once sent me an email that read, “you’re a cock” because I didn’t like show that they had curated.  I’ve had a conversation with a comedian about frames of reference/comparative elements. But since they were talking about their own show it was never going to be the most objective chat.

 Why are critics important?

Stephanie – I try to see this from both sides. I’m a novelist, and when I read a review of one of my books by someone who has clearly read it and considered it thoughtfully, I do take on board any criticisms they make. So from the point of view of an artist, I think good critics are important because they can point out flaws we might not be aware of and ways to improve. We all want our work to be better each time. From a reader’s point of view, I think criticism is valuable because there’s just so much out there. And of course good criticism can get debates going because everyone will have a different view – I’m always happy if my columns get people talking about comedy, even if it’s because they violently disagree with me.

Julian - For the reasons above, but also they help to capture the essence of a movement or an era and make sense of the influences that stand ups are under rather than performers working in a perceived vacuum.

Stephanie Merrit is a journalist and critic for the Observer and Julian Hall is a writer and critic for the Independent.




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One Response to Black Hat & Critical Thinking at the Fringe

  1. asher says:

    Thanks so much, I appreciate you taking the time to read over it. If you want to stay in touch be sure to join the mailing list.