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The cult of the amateur…

The reality TV castings of West End musicals, from The Sound of Music that started it to Joseph, Grease and Oliver! that followed it, have in fact all been won by aspiring, professionally-trained actors - so that the TV castings have, in the end, merely served as another channel for them to be discovered by, and more importantly, publicised by, creating a sense of public ownership in the making of their stardom that has in turn propelled each of those productions to commercial success.

But now the true amateurs are having their day, too. Last May, 14-year-old George Sampson won the second series of Britain’s Got Talent, and by August was making his West End debut when he went into the cast of Into the Hoods, then playing the Novello. As I blogged at the time, I drove past the theatre one night and saw mob scenes at the stage door.

Now another Britain’s Got Talent phenomenon has been born, with the return of the series last weekend that saw Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old unemployed single woman from Scotland, living out her dream to perform in front of a live audience - and if they initially sneered, they ended up cheering. (Tanya Gold has written a fantastic article in today’s Guardian that dissects the audience’s reaction,showing that Britain’s Got Malice).

She admits in the pre-performance interview to never having been married, or even kissed (“but it’s not an advert”), and tells the judges that her dream is “to be a professional singer” and be as successful as Elaine Paige.

She may well be on her way now. As of this 10am morning, the youtube clip of her performance has been viewed over 11.3m times; and amongst the fans, the Times has reported that Demi Moore’s husband posted a Twitter link to it saying, “This just made my night”, to which Moore then replied, “You saw it made me teary!” That story in The Times has also already garnered over 160 reader comments.

But the best bit, from a theatrical point of view, is that it has had an immediate commercial result, since the song that Boyle sang - “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables (which she endearingly mispronounced) - has now shot to the top of the iTunes UK download chart for vocal songs, putting Patti LuPone’s performance from the original London cast recording back in pole position (while Ruthie Henshall’s recording of the same song from the 10th anniversary concert is in 5th place).

No wonder Cameron Mackintosh’s office issued a press release yesterday afternoon trumpeting this success, with Cameron himself declaring, “Just like the judges and audience I was gob-smacked by the emotional powerhouse performance of Susan Boyle’s show stopping rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ Vocally it is one of the best versions of the song I’ve ever heard. Touching, thrilling and uplifting. I do hope she gets to sing it for the Queen”.

I coincidentally spent a couple of hours interviewing Cameron last night, and I already suggested her for Madame Thernadier! Cameron replied that he’d rather see her as Birdwoman in Mary Poppins, except that the show isn’t touring at the moment! The Times has already reported that Simon Cowell is “organising a record deal for her”, and that “bookmakers say she is the favourite to win the ITV talent show.”

Just as performing clearly isn’t the sole right or prerogative of the professional, nor is writing about it - and I got home from meeting Cameron to find that a leading theatrical website has launched a major recruitment drive to source what it calls a “team of theatregoer reporters”, seeking to find broadcast reporters and editors, video and audio content providers, reviewers of books, CDs and DVDs, new bloggers, gossipmongers, and other deputy editors and regional contributors. All terrific stuff — but the catch is that “all of the above positions are unpaid”.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I once worked - on a salaried basis - for the same site. On the one hand, this is a site that has long set itself up as a voice for theatregoers - but now it is planning to become dominated by the voices, in every sense, of theatregoers, too.

It’s one way of generating content for free, and since people expect to receive it for free, it may be the only way to do so. But on the other hand, it drives yet another nail in the coffin for professional arts journalism. I circulated it to some colleagues, and amongst the replies I have already received, one wrote to say, “So funny, I just logged on and saw this and thought, we might as well all give up. Which, having seen Calendar Girls last night, I am tempted to do. If swill like that is what playgoers want, let them have it, but keep me away from it.” Another comments, “Yes, I saw that. I guess the floodgates are now well and truly opened. In a nation saturated with useless arts graduates in a recession, it makes perfect business sense. As a model for journalism, criticism or the wider economy, it’s a disaster. I give Fleet Street criticism as we know it three more years.”

The writing, I suppose, is literally on the wall - and we may be going to the wall with it. But what happens when other industries start to follow this lead? How far away can it be when theatre producers start using unpaid actors to populate their productions, too, whose performances will be reported on and reviewed only by unpaid critics?

23 Comments

All of this is part of the Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame theory. What happens to Susan Boyle when the public tires of looking at an ordinary woman who's talent is more the surprise factor than the greatness of her voice? Cameron casting her as the Birdwoman is probably dead on because without the proper support system in place for her, she will no doubt be overwelhmed by agents,publicists and the evil Simon Cowell and when her popularity dwindles she'll be tossed on a garbage heap of one hit wonders. I'm thrilled for her and sorry at the same time.
As for that website soliciting fresh and free theatre reporters , well that too is a reflection of the times. The respect for expertise in a given area, the achievement of a broad based liberal arts education and the want of challenging cultural events will be a thing of the past in no time. Like junk food that is hard to resist - the likes of Calendar Girls, Priscilla, Dirty Dancing will soon be all the West End will have to offer. In part because the paid critics gave many of these shows "a pass" when they first opened. In part because of the feeling that people want that sort of show. So the west end goes the way of Hollywood movies - mindless over produced drivel for the masses. Bummer.

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I imagine Mark and Jack you must be talking about the new amateurism being trumpeted on the increasingly off-centre Whatsonstage.com website. Once a kind of web must-read, it is now not taken seriously in the theatre business world I work in -- and our kids see it as old-fashioned, trying hard to be hip and twitterish.

Which is probably a reflection of its new owner, the Really Useful Group. I liked Priscilla, but I wouldn't want to see it performed by unpaid wannabees in frocks, or when Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom 2 is eventually staged, who will take any notice whatsoever of reviews written by amateurs pretending to be Michael Billingtons? Times are changing fast in the media, and art critics need to be aware of that, but freeloaders are not the future.

And bang goes all those journalist courses. Why bother to learn the skills required, when the freebie brigade is encouraged to fill even more web pages with even more garbage.

I love Whatsonstage.com! It's the best site for theatre news and interviews. People should pay THEM to write on it. And I have no connection to it at all.

Interesting debate but bemoaning the death of professional theatre journalism seems to be missing the point and is a very self serving debate of interest to no nore than a handful of theatre journalists.

Maybe employed and unemployed theatre journalists don't do a very good job of informing theatregoers whether they will enjoy a show or not. Maybe they are so involved in their own opinions that they fail to address the needs of their audience. After all, most people's relationship with the theatre critic is no deeper than the number of stars given on a show poster.

The idea that a site which aims to be for theatregoers is asking them to get more involved in the creation of content is, I think, not a backward step but a progressive one in line with the unstoppable move toward citizen journalism on the Web.

True, there are consequences, you only need to look at the closure or so many regional newspapers to see the impact the Web is having but you also only need to talk to any marketing executive to know that grass roots word of mouth the best and strongest marketing you can get.

Ultimately whatsonstage.com will be judged on the quality of the content. If it is poor, people won't read it. If it is good, they will. The fact that a paid journalist wrote something does not defacto give it a seal of quality. There are plenty of very poor and very paid journalists out there doing a bad job and taking home a wage. Indeed, this very blog, on occasion, has highlighted those critics who fall asleep at shows or leave at the interval and still deliver glowing or scathing copy the next day.

Who is to say theatregoers are less dedicated or less capable of delivering a valid opinion?

Some things are being confused here - the web is creating a lot of free content which is a problem for everyone and somehow a way has got to be found to make some money to keep people afloat.

Reviews, on the other hand, come from personal experience and perhaps like the political journos the professional theatre journalists are a bit too close to those in the theatre world rather than the audience they purport to serve?

But today there is more and more of the reference sell or classic Word of Mouth - so a suggestion to all the theatrical papers how about having a guest blog from theatre goers and publish what you think is a good review to complement the professional ones? From experience I know that many of the sites like Whats On Stage and Dress Circle at the moment do not get much more than "its great" or "its terrible" which is not much use to anyone.

I've been writing reviews of shows for forums and friends for a while now and know that they are appreciated but they are not like a newspaper review but they still contain the How, What, Where, When, Why and How! I have been told they are good. I do compare with newspaper reviews but many and particularly local ones tend to be written by young inexperienced journalists who may or may not be interested in theatre.

So come of why not try and get blog reviews from keen theatre goers who really care about what they pay their money to go and see?

Dear Mark Shenton...

As we all should have realised by now - there's nothing the British love better than a good amateur!

(God help us.)

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Todd Lipsey "Maybe employed and unemployed theatre journalists don't do a very good job of informing theatregoers whether they will enjoy a show or not" - maybe it's wrong to expect them to do so. As far as I'm concerned, the job is to tell readers what a show's like and thus give them information to make up their own minds, not to presume to second-guess them.

Diana "perhaps like the political journos the professional theatre journalists are a bit too close to those in the theatre world rather than the audience they purport to serve?" -

"why not try and get blog reviews from keen theatre goers who really care about what they pay their money to go and see?" - Because that payment and that really-caring actually serve to distort their opinion. Yup. Sorry, but this isn't just me speculating or holding forth in order to cover my own hide. I actually did some serious, number-crunching research on it. I've mentioned it a few times in various places online, but here it is again:

When the Independent introduced their "YOU write the reviews" feature, I monitored its reviews for a month, and this is what I found:

Firstly, to take a kind of base line, it's reasonable to assume - isn't it? - that the quality of theatre productions will more or less follow what statisticians call a normal distribution curve: a curve that looks like a bell, with the highest point in the middle, because most stuff is of middling quality, with the numbers dropping off on either side, fewer that are distinctly good or bad, and then at either end to the very few that are either really great or utterly dreadful. Yes? So, on a scale of one to five stars, you'd expect the average to be about three (or, on a scale of zero to five, around two and a half).

Well, looking at the Indie's own commissioned theatre reviews over that period, that was what I found: an average of just under three stars.

The reader-submitted reviews in the same period averaged over four stars.

This is partly because it's a self-selecting sample: people tend to care more about expressing their views for the sake of it when those views are strongly held, and people who have cared enough to buy tickets for a show have an emotional as well as a financial investment in it and so are more likely to like it.

The reader reviews also showed the converse: when readers DIDN'T like a show, the dislikes were also more extreme. (Same reason: having made such an investment, the sense of loss or disappointment, even betrayal, is keener.) In other words, where the normal curve of quality bulges in the middle, the curve of reader opinions actually dips. It follows a trend quite opposite to the actual quality of productions overall.

It's precisely because professional reviewers have far fewer axes to grind, because we aren't beholden to theatre people - we're not in the same game, after all; we're in journalism! - and because we have experience without allegiances or obligations in that field, that what we say is actually more reliable than reviews by self-selecting "civilians"! I know it flies in the face of what a lot of people think is obvious, and it even seems arrogant; but I'm afraid that if you look closely at the actual work, as I did, you'll find it's an inconvenient truth.

@ Ian Shuttleworth:

But what price independence when the reviewing publication is owned by a bigtime producer of shows? Might be interestesting to crunch numbers on that.

Whatsonstage will find their volunteers, because lots of people would love to get their work on a website with an established audience, but really, anybody who would like to be a truly independent critic, beholden to no agenda, is better off self-publishing and trying to build an audience that way - because a non-independent site like Whatsonstage only has limited ability to dominate that space. Going it alone worked wonderfully for the West End Whingers and has also worked well for the MusicalTalk podcast in which I'm heavily involved (now up to episode 130), plus a series of other independent podcasts and theatre blogs.

If you're going to do it for free, then you might as well enjoy the benefit of being able to speak your mind! And it makes you more trustworthy to audiences too.

Mr. Shuttleworth (using the term with all honest respect) in response to Todd's comment about reviewing for the audience wrote: I'm concerned, the job is to tell readers what a show's like and thus give them information to make up their own minds, not to presume to second-guess them.

I think that works in terms of the broadsheets and wide-reaching publications, but allow me to speak from personal experience. I review shows for a magazine with a very specific demographic. Based on the remainder of the content in the magazine I write for and in similar publications, it's very easy for me to guess that - for example - most of the magazine's audience will love Priscilla, which I as a nerdy theatre practitioner earning less than half our demographic's income was personally quite sour on. The result is that it gets four stars as a big fun party show in the magazine.

That said, I was less than kind when reviewing the show on my own site because its main function is a personal reminder of what I saw rather than a proper review site. And because, you know, other snarky types like me are my blog's main readership.

I also find that I don't like *reading* reviews which are summaries of plot/cast/creative with minimal opinioning.

In short, when I'm paid to write the audience are absolutely priority #1 - as Frank Rich used to say, he wrote to serve readers at the Times, not the theatrical industry.

On a semi-unrelated note...

Jack wrote: Like junk food that is hard to resist - the likes of Calendar Girls, Priscilla, Dirty Dancing will soon be all the West End will have to offer. In part because the paid critics gave many of these shows "a pass" when they first opened. In part because of the feeling that people want that sort of show.

I just saw Calendar Girls for the magazine this week, and didn't think it was all that bad though it shows Tim Firth's bad habits from Our House are still present. While I liked it more than Priscilla, I still opened my review by declaring it a chick flick on stage and pointed out that for most of our readers, that was enough to decide either way. The other 400 words were for those likely to still be on the fence afterwards. Enjoyable mediocrity at its finest.

I'll also point out that everybody has their weak spots for some really lame shows (I loved Eurobeat) and am actually excited for Sister Act and 9 to 5 both based on the historic strengths of their composers. I'd trade all three in, however, for a West End run of Next to Normal.

All the gushing over that damn bus, however, makes me wonder how many drinks people have most nights before seeing it.

Dear Rogue,

You've kind of made my point in giving Calendar Girls a pass as a "chick flick on stage." That somewhat validates its existence in the West End which then has a beautiful playhouse taken up for the foreseeable future with yet another hen night /coach party show. If these shows succeed then the expectation of a West End evening is diminished all around - and a serious theatregoer will stop going to the West End entirely and go only to the subsidized theatres. Do we really want the West End to be the legit equivalent of Blackpool? I don't think so. Tim Firth is a talented playwright. David Pugh and Daffyd Rogers are smart producers who have done their fair share of quality West End shows but On Calendar Girls they didn't reinvent the charming film for theatrical purposes - they took the lazy Dirty Dancing and Graduate route and translated the same experience to the stage. The result is lifeless . It serves no one to give this show( and ones like it ) a pass because if the theatre experience is ultimately lifeless even the least discriminating audience will find it a neutral experience and decide that the theatre is not only not that special but also expensive and decide to spend their money on some other form of entertainment. Then its bad for all of us.

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Sorry, but nobody takes amateur reviewers seriously in the theatre industry and I work in it so I know what the buzz on the ground is. Forget all your grand ideas about the web, the only reason why unpaid reviewers and the like will apply, is to get hold of free tickets. Since whatsonstage employs Michael Coveney to review all the main theatre productions - perhaps he just gets his bus fares - they'll all be scrambling over who is going to review the leftovers at the Hen and Chickens! I've just spoken to one theatre producer who says she plans to refuse to allow any of Whatsonstage freeloaders in to cover her shows. Better to be panned by a real journalist than a fake one. Go to the SOLT site. It has everything you need and none of the silliness of amateur sites like whatsonstage.

The pity of it is that, if anyone bothered to measure it properly, they'd see the amateur critics don't get anything like the coverage it's assumed they do. Editors may do away with paid critics out of a perception that doing it for free is the way forward. In fact, they'll just kill off criticism and public engagement with the arts. Most people are not interested in reading amateur crits and they won't turn to them just because that's all that's available.

We do of course have to be careful who we tar with the brush of amateurism. The standard of some reviews in The Stage is abominable.

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Rogue Zentradi: I think we're pretty much in agreement, really.

"I don't like *reading* reviews which are summaries of plot/cast/creative with minimal opinioning" - absolutely. When I spoke of providing information, I certainly didn't mean just descriptive data. Evaluations of which aspects do or don't work, how and why; putting a piece into context, either "horizontally" in comparison with what else is going on at present (theatrically or in broader culture) and "vertically" in terms of history (theatrical history, practitioners' CVs, or again anything broader)... any and all kinds of explanation, based on the reviewer's almost inevitably greater experience, are all information by my lights.

At this point I usually get a bit abstruse and mention cybernetics, the study of communication, in which "information" is defined as the amount of unpredictability in a message. In this respect, say, the reviews of one or two major nationals usually contain little or no information, being simply recapitulations of the reviewers' and perceived readerships' shared prejudi^H^H^Htastes :-)

I'm also entirely in agreement that "when I'm paid to write the audience are absolutely priority #1", but I don't think that does or should involve making assumptions about their preferences. A good example here is Bill Hagerty's Friday theatre box in the Sun. Bill has his own store of experience and his own tastes, he knows his stuff, and he writes about it in lively Sun-ese: he uses the language of the paper, but doesn't tailor his content, his opinions, to it.

I think, in a way, this is also a frequent fallacy of reader-writers. There can be an implicit reasoning of "I'm an ordinary person, this is what I like, I'm writing for ordinary people like me, therefore I'm writing for people who like what I like." That's rash enough, but when it goes the step further, to "In writing this, I'm speaking for them", it gets really dangerous. Reviewing is about speaking to people, not for them.

@ Jack who said "You've kind of made my point in giving Calendar Girls a pass as a "chick flick on stage." That somewhat validates its existence in the West End which then has a beautiful playhouse taken up for the foreseeable future with yet another hen night /coach party show."

I think you're forgetting something important: the artistic policy of the commercial theatre begins and ends with selecting material that will encourage audiences to part with their money. It is not the West End's job to produce intellectual, challenging, and experimental work. Its job is to be a tourist spotlight and get people to fork over cash for an event, a large night, and something with bragging rights with non-artsy friends. And, for most people that means a big splashy thing or a light comedy (remember a certain Tommy Lee Jones line in Men in Black?). Noel Coward is brilliant - and commercial. Spring Awakening is brilliant - and commercial. Wicked is mediocre - and commercial.

And as I put the final touches on my Calendar Girls review, it's not given a pass by any stretch. I find Firth tends to rely on sap factor and his scripts boast logical gaps (Our House has a HIDEOUS book) and say as much. But it doesn't change the fact that my colleague for the evening thought it was great, that I laughed at most of the jokes, and that some people like fluffy comedies with a moment for a quick cry.

@ Ian who wrote "That's rash enough, but when it goes the step further, to "In writing this, I'm speaking for them", it gets really dangerous. Reviewing is about speaking to people, not for them."

The problem lies when your personal opinions are quite likely to conflict with the readership. It would be like giving a rave to a pro-Thatcher play in the Graduion or a pro-Murdoch piece in the FT. Sometimes you suck it up and stick yourself between the lines (or in the final lines when you point out that a third of the seats fail at basic visibility.)

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"The problem lies when your personal opinions are quite likely to conflict with the readership" - only a problem for people who don't understand that it's in the nature of reviews to be grounded in personal opinion. Are there any people who don't understand that? Are there people who can't tell a statement grounded in personal taste from one grounded in theatregoing experience?

For a useful recent example, look at the reviews of Maggie's End at the Shaw Theatre. Most of the reviewers were politically unsympathetic to the playwrights' point of view, all (that I've seen) were disappointed with the production, but no problem discerning each perspective from t'other.

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And, of course, the examples you give are of conflicts less with readership than with editorship/proprietor, which is at the other end of the pipeline altogether.

To Caroline Wadhams and those with similar views: If you'd taken a gander at a media jobs section recently, it may have amazed you to have seen that there aren't very many, especially not for newly-qualified journalists. It may further surprise you to learn that the modern culture of entry into journalism - arts journalism especially - is based largely around unpaid freelancing and internships. Then you might realise who many of the so "amateur", "freeloading" arts bloggers you sneer at are, and why they are writing for free - often fitting it around paid 9-5 jobs as sub-editors/copywriters/reporters for publications with a circulation of 10. But since that would entail removing your head from up where it seems to be lodged, I'm guessing it's a non-starter...

@Rogue. Point taken. I guess my disappointment is that theatre owners opt for the easy (lucrative ) booking - Buddy when it was at the Duchess, Thriller at the Lyric, you know what I mean - and leave us with a West End that is without "must see" theatrical events. I have American friends who ask me what in the West End should they see and everything I recommend is at a non-West End venue. Time was when when could divide one's time between the subsidized and commercial theatre - sadly that time has , for the moment, passed.

@Jack: Trust me, you are not alone in your despair. If Spring Awakening makes it through the summer that will help. La Cage's ongoing success is helping. The current run of Bennett, Ayckbourn, and Pinter is helping. I always considered that the best theatre is 1/3 entertainment, 1/3 art, and 1/3 intellect. You can adjust these stats but the quality of each segment needs to rise with its share. Thriller is a small bit art and large part entertainment, but from what I've heard it does the entertainment part extremely well. The problem is that there just isn't the infrastructure here to be bringing up the people who write the challengingly commercial stuff (go to NYMF to see it in development) and producers here have cold feet.

"Reviewing is about speaking to people, not for them"

In your often repeated view it is also to your job to ruin all of the plot devices and tell us the end of a play with the twisted reasoning of "how many of the people reading the article will get to see the show".

Really your thought process on spoilers makes you the worst kind of critic out there. I would much rather read the ramblings of an enthusiastic amateur than your "professional" reviews. At least they generally have a sensitivity about possibly ruining a show or play for others that never seems to enter your thought process.

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Lee, you would be right in your conclusion if you were right in your assumption, but since you're not, you're not. If you can point me to two examples in my 20-year reviewing career of such major spoilering as you allege, I'd be astounded. (I remember doing it pointedly once because a show was so awful, but twice...?)

And another "how many" for you: how many productions are all about that purely narrative tension anyway? Does spoilering apply only to new plays or productions? Do I need to keep quiet about the fact that Hamlet dies at the end, or that Nora leaves Torvald? The Mousetrap is still going strong after as many years as Heinz has varieties, and is there - never mind a person in the audience, is there a person alive who doesn't know that the dental hygienist dunnit?

That last one was a joke, by the way.

Useless arts graduates? Hmmm, great, thanks, cheered me right up. Yes, I am an arts graduate. No, I do not have a 9-5 job. Yes, I get professionally paid to write for some magazines in specific sector.

I write for free for a student aimed publication. I do this, primarily for fun, to cover my interests, to talk to actors and musicians I like and admire. However, I also do it in the hope that one day I'll have amassed enough work to convince someone else to pay me to write professionally in those areas.

I wouldn't write for free for what's on stage, because I feel an established, professional site should pay. I write for free for the student aimed paper because none of the contributors get paid at all. There's not a divide, the pros and the ams. For established publications, online or in print, I want to be paid.

I would say that my writing is qualitative. I understand aspects of writing, like feature structure etc, through academic learning and now experience in the field. Yet some might still call me "amateur". Just, don't underrate the talent of those who don't get paid. They might actually be good, but just need a break.

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