Paul Levy’s Column – 2009 Archive

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6th December 2009

A More Profound Route to Creativity?

A lot of people experience creativity blocks when they feel “stuck” and also when they feel tense and stressed. So many of the ideas you have shared can work when people are in that state. But it’s also a dangerous assumption to make at a more general level.


In my own experience, many people are blocked BECAUSE they are relaxed. BECAUSE they are feeling upbeat and laughing. There’s a kind of contentment these days that can be a kind of automaton behaviour where the highs are part of a “collusion of mediocrity”, where people are in a state of wretched contentment. Why wretched? This is only defined by them personally during deeper moments of reflection where they describe themself, in the words of Pink Floyd, as “comfortably numb”.

In my view a large number of people do not need a massage or some laughter medicine or a group hug to “get the creative juices flowing. On the contrary, they need to experience their blockage for real, more profoundly, to build up a pressure where the creative volcano finally erupts. They may need a hard kick up the proverbial ass, to experience frustration, to go THROUGH their blockage, not around it, nor be superficially lifted out of it. I know this sounds like a spoiler for much of the lovely-dovey touchy feely games of the “impro” world. but I’d invite you to consider it – that authentic creativity for many may need a journey THROUGH negativity and darkness through a profound catharsis into a deeper experience of creativity.





6th November 2009

Damp Squib Fireworks

There were not enough bangs last night. Yes, a good Carry-on line but also an observation that credit crunch seems to have hit the back gardens of Brighton. There were a few early evening whizzes, but nothing like last year. Has the recession dampened our Fringe theatre spirits? Are we all hibernating? These was certainly a bit of a smooth edge to a  lot of the work in Edinburgh, and the recent comedy fringe in Brighton didn’t exactly hit the skies like a load of angry rockets. 

Here’s hoping that we wake up a bit in 2010. Is it because people aren’t angry enough, or that we’ve sunk our passion into i-phones and Facebook. Without a doubt, in my view, social media are making everyone a bit comfortably numb, and there’s such a lot of derivative work being created it’s also often a bit diluted. The derivative material isn’t being used as igniting inspiration material – it seems to be being used as a means of being lazy in the creation of original work.

Derivative art, aka Warhol, can be ground breaking but also ground hardening. Making a stage version of a film can simply end up being too repetitive, a kind of karaoke theatre, that feels like a poorer version of the original, or, worse in my view, a clinical copy of the original.

When the credit crunch ends will we. next year, be sending up all the unsold fireworks from this year, or creating some new ones that truly make us go "Wow"?


28th October 2009

A Leg(al and General) Up for the Arts

It’s a real delight to see the Brighton Fringe offering bursaries, funded by Legal and General, regular sponsors of the Brighton Festival, and now spreading their Fringe wings. The bursaries, for "BN" Brighton postcoded arts makers will pay the new (recently increased) registration fee to take part in the May event. There are a dozen on offer. I like it that the Fringe are looking to supported new and local work and targeting help right up front and boldly saying "Go on, put your toe in the water now – register!" It’s also not a great long application processes where half the funding goes on administering it. They’re doing it on a first-come first served basis.

Clever stuff – Legal & General want to support enterprise and to be seen to be doing so. They want any arts funding to be really telling and impactful, in times where their own budgets are being cut due to the recession. I hope more of these sponsors come forward – focusing their funding on giving new work a leg up without the usual bureaucracy.



21st October 2009

Coverage or Sampling?

We’ve started to cover Edinburgh year round, and we now have a presence in Leeds in our UK section. We also cover Brighton year-round outside of the Brighton Fringe.

What we can’t hope to do (and don’t want to do) is cover everything. Our reviews in a town where we might only cover a handful of plays in a year is to celebrate good theatre, where we can and have time or resource to find it. Our reviews become, not an online Time Out magazine – they are samples of great work, the reviews informative for audience as but also theatre makers. The reviews describe and assess theatre process, and are written in a way that’s both informative and entertaining, as well as useful.

We are planning to feed live information about where these shows are playing elsewhere in the country. But mostly, we’re sampling, tasting from a wide choice, the buffet of Fringe theatre all over!

I’m keen for there to be more general articles on the site, where our reviewers step back from the shows they are seeing and pull out themes, explore what’s changing in the field, be critical about good and not so good practice. Is Fringe theatre developing, and, if so how? I think it’s making more use of new media, film, but also looking at reviving raw, technology-free, minimalist work. The food is very varied, it’s a weird and wide buffet.



14th October 2009


Artsploitation is the process of exploiting artists to produce art at no cost. It is often a technique employed by entrepreneurs to get artists to work or little or nothing, claiming there are opportunities for non-financial reward such as:

– a development opportunity

– a chance to make new contacts

– “do it for free now and there may be paid work in the future”

Artsploitation is now endemic even in businesses and organsiations who have real budgets to fund their work. For example, in the film industry, technical crew, producers, directors can get paid but the writers and actors queue up to be offered the chance at success or fame, and offered expenses only, nothing, or even a demand to pay to work.

Artsploitation is norming in the arts and casting web sites mostly offer unpaid “jobs” or “expenses only” jobs aplenty. Artists are told their work and skills are “valuable” on all levels but financial.

The increase in artsploitation has, paradoxically, led to an explosion in artistic projects but also a drop in the amount and level of paid work that can actually sustain an artist’s career.

Some artsploiters have turned artsploitation into an art, not just creaming off budgets for personal gain, but actually managing to hide budgets in “costs” that make the project appear to be a loss-maker, subsidised by the benevolent investor who “would pay the artist if it were possible” but who unfortunately is not even able to cover their own costs, thus offering the artist an unpaid opportunity to at least practice their art and publish it for free, which “surely is better than nothing.”

It’s been sad to watch actors’ pay decline and decline as more and more of them are artsploited, to a point where many projects are now little more than vanity projects with artists literally paying, for example, to show their work at arts festivals. It’s become the norm. Sustainable, paid work is slipping ever further into the realms of fantasy. An actor who asks to be paid above Equity minimum is a “trouble maker” and “arrogant”.

Art sometimes is just a labour of love, where the urge to create happens whether there is money or not. This will also be important. But the line between emergent spontaneous creativity, and the right of artists to be paid a living wage for their work in order to not live on the street, is blurring unhealthily. The process of “speculating to accumulate” is being fed upon by vulture-like greed merchants as well as well intentioned, but unimaginative arts makers. Sometimes arts projects should NOT happen unless ALL the professionals involved get a decent wage out of it.

(Thanks to Sue Bradley for stimulating these thoughts)


4th October 2009

The Brighton Fringe 2010 in 2009…

This Saturday saw the first Brighton Fringe workshop for those wishing to get involved. Early birds caught the artistic worm as the Fringe team set out on the road to May 2010, hoping to break all previous records. 

This is, of course, the order of the day, at all Fringe Festivals – to grow, to exceed, to record-break. Relentless growth is both motivation and terrifying. It’s a taboo to even consider saying "we have enough here", though most believe, unlike Edinburgh, Brighton is way short of critical mass. If the Brighton Fringe is to realise its potential and grow healthily, it will have to grow the audience pool along with the number of registering events.

It will also have to encourage bigger names to join the Fringe as well as encourage shows to do longer runs than one night or three days maximum. We need shows on for at least a week.

Last year there were some shows who played several gigs a week or a fortnight apart, allowing reviews to sink in to the minds and wallets of the discerning public.

Let’s hope the growth at Brighton Fringe 2010 has a healthy and sustainable feel to it.



17th September 2009

The Return to Culture?

So why has Fringe theatre in London been enjoying a recession-denying boost this year? Why were tickets up up up at Edinburgh Fringe, despite the predictions? I’m hearing anecdotes from a lot of creative enterprises that they are not experience any kind of recession in their work. One comedian I know who always bemoans the lack of ready income says, inexplicably for him, that this is a rather lucrative year for him on the comedy circuit.

One explanation is this: A lot of "cultured" people, or indeed, people who value art and culture, have experienced the credit crunch as a kind of awakening. They’ve woken up to the world situation and also found they have woken up IN the world situation and found themselves on the slab, and not feeling quite right. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they feel they have been "made" without their say-so, in this case into economic creatures. They are suddenly products of marketing and commerce and they don’t like it. Banks are not nice people, businesses are greedy, bonuses are are sign of something wrong at the heart of society, and also at the top of it. The monsters turn on their economic masters and then decide to react, to remake themselves. I think a mini revolution took place this year, small yes, but enough to lead to a desertion of commercial spending and an angry "splashing out" on culture. People have fled back into the art – just a bit – enough to be registered on the ticket sales Richter scale.

Also people have performed in Edinburgh on lower budgets – plenty of shows, but a lot were a bit rough round the edges, less rehearsal time and less money to spend, but still committed nonetheless. The spirit in Edinburgh was warm this year, upbeat, and there was a real sense I felt of a certain rebellion against the encroaching recession. We kept it out, not with our credit cards, but with our endeavour. What a wonderful paradox!


9th September 2009

Firmly back in the Gardens by the Sea

Back in Brighton and there’s a feeling of a hat I have taken off after wearing it for five weeks, and still feeling the impression of it on my head. I keep thinking I can hear bagpipes and have had the disarming experience of waking in the morning to what sound like bagpipes but are in fact the sound of seagulls, wheeling over Kings Cliff.

Edinburgh was an intense experience this year, and quite a gratifying one. FringeReview and other established web publications enjoyed a kind of catapulted success as the number fo paper-based journalists were there in lesser numbers due to slashed budgets. This is a pattern not just related to the recession. Newspapers have lessened their review coverage over quite a few recent years. This creates an interesting challenge for the Edinburgh Fringe managers – how to manage what is going to be a profileration (nay an explosion) of web-based publications in August 2010. They’ll be right along a spectrum from fully emerging serious publications (for example, Allthefestivals and FringeGuru) to one person blogs, well written and professional, right through to one-hit chancers after free tickets. In the past, the Fringe leadershipo haven’t quite "got it" in relation to web publishing. In other fields there are now fully online referred academic journals, and web-based books can seel for the same as paper-based ones. Virtuality can be flakey and inconsistent, but more and more it is emerging as better than paper, more flamboyant, smart, and, most of all, navigable. I hope the Fringes around the world meet the opportunity and put a bit of time and patience into it.



2nd September 2009

FringeReview Gets There First – Again

Last year we were the only review publication who, not only saw Eric’s Tales of the Sea, but also five-starred it. We tipped a few other review publications to see this gem of a show and – lo and behold – it gets a well deserved Three Weeks award, as well as a clutch of further five-star celebrations of Eric’s comedy uniqueness. 

This year, we were just about the first to five-star Morecambe, and that piece of one-man excellence pockets a Fringe First – again, well deserved.

We’re delighted for Horizon Arts, whose Heroin(e) for Breakfast was uncovered by us just a few days into the Fringe. And now they’re off to Adelaide, and ain’t the Aussies a lucky lot to see this piece of priceless treasure. We’re made up for them.

And one more to mention. Iago scooped our final award for excellence. This piece of stage mastery deserves to tour and we demand other review publications chase it around the globe several times. It’s such a precise and vibrant piece of Shakespeare from Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

I feeling rather proud of our tenacity at Fringe Festivals. We seek out the best, delving not just into the glossy poster brigade or the "Usual" grapevines. We look under the radar and uncover real theatrical treasure. FringeReview will continue to bat for brilliance, even where no one else seems to have their heads even turned in the directions we are looking in.



31st August 2009

The Edinburgh Taboo

A quiet final day here in the Pleasance Dome. It’s 12.30pm and the flyering goes on for one last time until next year. In some ways this is my favourite day. I lot of learning curves have been skied down, a lot of good and bad has been gone through and there’s that sense of a month having zipped by, of something to go home to – the waiting dustiness of a flat and a bed not slept in since July. A sense of achievement for some, a sense of what might have been for a few, a sense of sensory overload and a lot of it simply not, nor perhaps never to be, properly digested. 

I always recommend the following weekend to be one of reflection. Don’t fill the diary. Sit back and remember it all, gather in the smiles, and learn the lessons. Digest it properly and don’t carry a sluggishness into the months running up to Christmas.

Well, it wasn’t the credit crunch Fringe that many had predicted. Sales were up, up, up, and the number of events held its own defiantly shaking a fist at the pessimistic recessionary frowning face.

And what of next year? Of course the taboo in Tattoosville is to even suggest that NEXT year might be the year it all dips. Even to think it is to be a spoiler, an enemy of the Fringe cult. Yet, it won’t do any harm to, at one and the same time, congratulate Edfringe 09 for being a recession-busting success, but also to point a wary finger at 2010 and wonder if the conitnuing growth in unemployment, the projected cuts in arts funding, and the fact that perhaps we all decided to have one last good summer before we really tighten our belts, might be a more realistic assessment for Fringe 2010.

Why mention it? Why be such a doom-monger on the day of last-night parties and self-congratulation? Because this is a good time to really wipe the slate clean from last years’ various troubles, to meet the oncoming financial deficit that the Fringe will announce with a sense of opportunity and a chance to continue in a warm and positively supportive light, in the way that Kath and her team have done so well this year. We’re a community at this year’s Fringe and it all felt a lot more together – Fringe Central became a genuinely shared space with warm and nice people staffing it. If we do go into a quieter Fringe next year, we can all still have the personal and professional time of our lives. If it doesn’t grow again, perhaps thats because sustainability, born of both planet and recession, has arrived in Edinburgh August 2010, and we’ll learn to be even more innovative than we already are – doing wonderful things with few resources. Perhaps Edfringe 2010 will deepen itself, become more lush in a natural way – perhaps corporatism will be softened around its edges.

The Fringe can still do much to market itself better outside of Edinburgh, to promote and be more strategic. But that strategy can also be sustainable and even holistic. The Fringe is foremost a gathering of human beings, sharing creativity. It’s at its best when its business is spelt with a "y". Busyness. Here’s to a busy Fringe 2010.


30th August 2009

Kudos Under the Radar – The Under-Fringe is Coming!

I’ve been updating our Edinburgh Hall of Kudos. This is our rather self-indulgent list of people who have added something special to the Fringe or who we think deserve special mention and a thumbs up. In compiling the list, and trying not to sound like an horrific Appreciation Society, I’ve noticed how much Fringe flies below the radar, yet is also special, adding to the Fringe as a whole, but going mostly (and often by choice) unnoticed.

I bumped into Hidden Gem Award Winner Hennie Van Greunen yesterday who is over here from South Africa with a play ("Normality"), and he mentioned, almost in passing, that he is also over here looking for good writing to take back home and commission for perfomance/translation over there. I’ve bumped into a lot of folk who are up here to be part of the creative buzz, to write, to share thoughts, some without Promoter status who are here to informally find work to commission. There are performers up here for the sheer serendipity of playing at open slots at various free venues, or even just on the streets. There are theatregoers here, seeking not just to seek plays to see, but also because they love the conversations they get into before and after shows.

New work will emerge from under the Fringe Radar that is very much part of the unnoticed but tangible life of the Fringe as a whole. It’s a kind of Fringe underground, not yet as subversive as it might be, but often quietly inspiring, gently heating, occasionally cooling and grounding. I think as the Free fringes inevitably grow, the under-Fringe will evolve as well.

Social media are also beginning to spread the Under-Fringe to places physically and geogrpahically way beyond the confines of the sleeping volcano itself. The Twittersphere has created an Edinburgh Fringe that spans the globe. If Secondlife or newer virtual worlds revive, we may yet have an Edfringe that isn’t actually located in the real Edinburgh at all (at least in part). The Royal Virtual Mile might be located in India or worse, on the south coast, in my own home town of Brighton. Beware…


29th August 2009

R.I.P Three Stars?

It began a few years back, and last year I really noticed it. Last year, there were far less three star reviews quoted on posters and flyers. Three stars, despite denoting a "good" or "recommended" show by many review publications meant "crap" or "not worth mentioning". On FringeReview a three star show is a recommended show. We mean "go and see it, despite some criticisms of it". We’d seen it and our reviewer thought the show worth recommending to potential punters.

And now, there are NO three star reviews quoted on posters. I’ve noticed some flyers and posters have dispensed with quotes completely – there are just stars – stars, f***ing stars. So now it is as if four or five stars are the only currency. I even spoke to one person doing PR for half a dozen shows and she was describing four stars as not worth quoting. And, as one of our review team observed: "Some reviewers are giving out five star reviews like sweets". And next year? We’ll possibly have the majority of posters and flyers with only four or five star ratings, and the majority of all shows will be able to dredge up one or two of those from SOMEWHERE – it doesn’t take two minutes to buy " for a fiver and set up a worthy looking site on WordPress and then secretly give yourself a five star review.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being elistist. I’m all in favour of the level ground provided by Web 2.0 and the internet. I’m in favour of a return to review ratings that really mean something and shows that want to quote eloquent reviewer feedback. It’s up to us as reviewers to write compelling reviews that people can’t NOT quote. And we need to find a way to either ditch the star system before it disappears up its corporate ass, or to come up with better and more usable ratings. Stars won’t go away, but if all you see is stars, you end up in a paralysed daze.



26th August 2009

Imploding Stars in Our Eyes

Guy Masterson was reminiscing the other day about the good old days when there were almost no star ratings at the Fringe. And what that meant, according to Guy, was that "people used to actually read the reviews".

It’s hard to find a show on the Fringe that doesn’t have a five-star review from somewhere ( plastered over it. The stars are becoming more and more necessary (now three means bad, though it doesn’t mean that at all here on FringeReview), and only four and five matter. 

It makes me sad to think people don’t read the views under the star ratings, though I can’t say I really believe it entirely. There is probably a good deal of star-gazing going on, and I do sense that the star-rating system is starting to defeat itself, as star-inflation drives the value of stars down further and further. The Stage has always been bold enough to not star rate, and it’s "Must See" stamp has gained currency in recent years, though there seem to be rather a lot of them about. Our own star rating is a bit strange as we only publish three, four and five star reviews of shows, prefering to be the "Good Fringe Guide" and not the public shamer of shodddiness.

Will the star system completely implode? Probably not, but we’re probably all as guilty of a failure of imagination here as the continued exponents of "Blue Cross Sales" in the retail sector. 

This year we developed further our Good Fringe idea by committing to paper, as well as more dynamically online a Top Recommebded Shows listing by venue and by genre. These seem to have been gobbled up. If people trust our reviews, then they’ll trust our recommendations. Among the thousands of shows to see, it can be a godsend to theatre goers to get a simple list of the "best fayre to be had in town". We’ve had good feedback so far. People want recommendations from people in the know, most of all, people they trust. So, perhaps the stars aren’t the be all and end all after all…


25th August 2009

The Hidden Gems

This Fringe, we created a new award category – the Hidden Gem. Hidden Gems are shows that we have rated as outstanding but are getting few reviews and low audiences. We present the performing company with a gem in a box and announce their show as a hidden gem in a press release and on FringeReview. The play, Normality, is our first Hidden Gem and, rather spookily, was called a hidden Gem only yesterday by the Scotsman (the newspaper, not the chap at the bottom of Canongate on the corner). Hidden Gems emerge wonderfully as pieces of excellence that were not predicted by the media and, despite favourable early audience reaction, fail to burst through the media glare and get noticed.

Next year we’ll be moreproactive in seeking them out. The Fringe is too large and the amount of paper too huge to catch their sparkle in a place so crowded with the shadows cast by the bigger players with bigger PR budgets, that we can’t see their light easily. Search out the hidden gems and unhide them – they deserve their roar as well. One footnote: some hidden gems, just a few, want to remain hidden; they are like artists behind closed doors, loving the art for itself. The mainstream think they are mad, or at least, eccentric. And yet these little shows of brilliance are, perhaps, not hidden gems, but hiding gems. They really are worth questing for. And I won’t tell you what or who they are.


22nd August 2009

An Utterly Unmissable Blog

This year, more than any other year, I’ve noticed a problem. Some of our reviewers, in their early twenties, are really showing they were born of the Superlative Generation. We’ve had to moderate several three or four star reviews where performance are described as "Utterly this" and "Absolutely that" er… every other line. The superlative generation are the generation for whom mediocrity is often "fantastic" or "amazing". Yes, a hamburger’s taste is "utterly amazing".

As an old fart, I’ve had to overcome an initial irritation with this and just get down to the work of ensuring the reviews aren’t too peppered with these superlatives, and that their use is authentic to what has actually been seen. Of course saying something is "absolutely" anything is a bit… absolutist, so it is easy enough to encourage the reviewer to be a bit more relativist. And things which as "fanstastic" are really things in the realm of fantasy, so this word is easily ditched too. Shows which are "Utterly unmissable" can just as easily be unmissable or even "strongly recommended to see."

But wait a minute. Aren’t these superlatives okay? Isn’t it time i simply woke up to the new text generation and celebrated simplicity? Utterly not. Never. Ever, ever, ever…


20th August 2009

New Work and the Boldness of it All

I’ve just been to see AngelRust at the Bedlam. The River People are hitting five stars with Lilly through the Dark this year after mostly four-star success in 2009. How thrilling it was ot be in the audience for a work-in-progress performance and to witness the director at the end of the performance inviting us all to email him with feedback on the show. I remember feeling a similar pride in our Fringe spirit last year when we covered a rehearsed reading of what is now a strong production of King Arthur at Universal Arts.

It’s gratifying to see new work, work-in-progress and developing projects showing early versions at the Edinburgh Fringe. I wish these efforts would receive even more overt support from venues and even the Fringe society; let’s encourage the incubator to happen at the Fringe festivals at the world; new work in progress can enliven a Fringe, bringing an edge and a freshness.

Let’s offer some free spaces for new projects and perhaps offer bursaries for work-in-development. This is certainly something FringeReview hopes to do in 2010, using some of our advertising revenue to subsidise the development of new work. I wonder if the big venues will step up to the plate and become showcases for early-stage work, even more than some already do. I love to savour and taste experimental cooking before it becomes a finished recipe.

I am glad to have been involved in bringing such a work in progress this year as part of The Critical Incident. White Man’s Burden is a very unique piece of theatre/live art that involves collaboration with the audience. Inspired by Cut-Piece, yoko ono’s art installation, Mark Trezona was pitch perfect in stillness and vulnerability in a suit, as we cut his clothes away from him, mocked him, and then tended and cared for him. An early-stage work that will go well, I think, on its further journey. It was a delight to see it at the Melting Pot in Edinburgh this year.

White Man’s Burden, by Alchemy, 19th August 09, Edinburgh Fringe


18th August 2009

Steadying the Fringe-Ship

Musing just past mid-way at this year’s Fringe it seems to be that the Good Ship Fringe has been more than steadied. A few tiny hiccups at the box office, but its mostly all ship-shape. Even the rain has returned to confirm things are right as…

And now comes a leadership challenge. One of the other hats I wear in life is occasionally helping organisations in the arts and other sectors develop visions and strategies for the future. There is a danger that growth for growth’s sake will grip the Fringe even as the recession really kicks in next year. Most economic forecasts suggests that even if the current early signs of "green shoots of growth" (gulp) on the high street are genuine, there waves of the current downturn will still wash against the shores of 2010, reaching perhaps even into 2011. August 2010 may well be the Fringe recession that we missed this year, and the unexpected sales increases for tickets this August may indeed have been a kind of false dawn or even euphoric farewell to boom times.

It’s a kind of misery-mongering sacriledge to even suggest a downturn at the Fringe. It reminds me of Croatian hotel owners in the war days of 1991-2. It was a kind of betrayal to even suggest times were tough in case one were guilty of talking things down further. Yet I believe there is an opportunity here. There’s a possible window opening for the Fringe to – yes – allow any natural growth that happens anyweay – but also to prune a little, to tend the garden and ensure its future glory. Let’s look at ALL the costs of the fringe, let’s see if venue costs can’t be reduced a bit, if box-office splits and fees can’t be tied more to the real costs AND aspirations of the many full-hearted and empty-pocketed Fringe performers.

Perhaps the strategy is to keep the ship, not only steady, but to also ensure the little boats that arrive into Edfringe harbour have well maintained berths, and that the berthing fees don’t bankrupt them in what might be a difficult year.