The Column

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The Archive for 2012 is here.
The Archive for 2011 is here .
The Archive for 2010 is here.
The Archive for 2009 is here.
21st October 2013



Living in your venue
I’ve met two kinds of performer at this Fringe in Edinburgh. There are those who’ve used the opportunity to, not only see shows for free at the venue they are performing at, but have also spread their curiosity wings and seen plenty of work at other venues as well. Of course budgets may not allow of this, but they have got out and about, got comped in and seen free fringe shows. Their venue is a home base but they are not the stay at homes of category number two. These performers haven’t seen a single show outside their own venue, tend to solely inhabit their venue bar or cafe when not flyering or at home.
They do not venture out,. In the big venues this gets incestuous and also self limiting. Its a pity, narrow minded, even arrogant. It is a lost opportunity on my levels and isn’t always explained by the free tickets in your own venue policy. Its about insecurity and it can be about cliquiness.
Some might call it staying focused, but I suggest it can even negatively impact on current and future work, limiting learning, inspiration and innovation.
The Fringe is bigger than your big four venue and your next vital meeting or thought may well be in the venue next door or even on the other side of the city.
Thought for the day: Familiarity breeds mediocrity.
16th August 2013
The Lost Art of Reviewer Baiting
There’s a fine line between an angry about a bad review of a show, and the more refined art of baiting the critics. Recently, the spirit of revenge was light-heartedly released for charity as reviewers and critics such as Broadway Baby’s Pete Shaw, took a “hit” from some hurled tomatoes in a light hearted and staged act of performer revenge.
It’s easy to demonise reviewers. When I first came to Edinburgh with a one many show in 1999, after a decent review in the Scotsman, and a good review in the Stage, a more locally based magazine said in their review “It was a crime the directors parents were ever born to give birth to a show this awful.”
Some reviewers can seem to be evil-hearted and cruel in what they write. And some may well be just that. Most I have met range anywhere from clueless to objective, from clumsy to eloquent writers.I believe it ought to all come down to motive. If a reviewer has decided to make a splash in order to get noticed in the writing profession and bascially bashes most shows to get noticed, then there’s a motive that needs “outing”, and a bit of baiting might just show the motive for what it really is.
We’ve just been baited ourselves. And we decided to bite the hook. Well, I did. We’ve been accused (under a guise of academic inquiry) of deliberately not seeing Free Fringe shows. We’ve been asked a set of seemingly innocent questions and there’s probably no way we can answer that will satisfy the baiter. The baiter you see is angry and already has a theory they believe to be true. Baiters, like biased reviewers, are unaware of their own rose-tinted spectacles. They selectively then gather in what they need and – if they are a good baiter – they’ll present it as truth.
It has been quite revealing to see how any replies to the baiter simply aren’t taken in board, as they dilute the process of baiting. We’ve been accused (again under the guise of an innocent inquiry) of ignoring free shows. When we point to theamount of previewing we do as well, and when we point out that Edinburgh, for us, is just part of a year-round reviewing activity, this is brushed aside as the baiter focuses simply on catching the fish. We were set up for good motives, and we’re now stuck in the usual trap of not being able to review everything we’d like to.
Reviewer baiting is a bit of a waste of time in my view, unless you are baiting something truly worth baiting. It is a waste of time here at the Fringe for this reason: the critics aren’t that important and the majority aren’t nasty. Well, not at the Fringe anyway, and not at the level of web sites such as ours. And it all comes down to motive. What’s our motive? However you want to demonise the various web sites covering the fringe, the proble you’ll have is that eventually the motive will out. None of us have the budgets to be the evil monsters were can be “outed” to be. Richard, from Fringe Guru, is a huge and passionate enthusiast for the Fringe. And that’s why he does it – he writes about it with his review team – he reviews shows because he loves the Fringe. Pete from Broadway Baby is ona mission to cover the whole damn lot and he’s up for about 16 hours a day. His motive is almost obsessive enthusiasm,the poor bastard. Chris and his team at Three Weeks have the motive of offering a media training to young writers and media students. I mean, how evil is that???
I’m in favour of complaining about poorly written reviews, often by reviewers who don’t know what they are seeing, or are unaware of just how much their sujectivity and biases are distorting what they see. I think all sites and publications should have responsive complaints and feedback procedures. Equally, publications have a right to engage in dialogue that is as cheeky as anything they are receiving – as long as the motive is warm. But going after the publication itself is a bit silly and poinltess if that publication isn’t badly motived. Some might argue that the food is the restaurant. I disagree. The food is a performance on that particular night. It might be evidence of the restaurant’s cheap and nast motive. But it is more likely something in that moment, around that process. At least be open to the idea that the your current pain is not necessarily the fault of the entire health service. It might be. But it might not. What’s your motive for assuming darkness all around? Is it a truth or simply a reflection of the state of your own soul, projected into the world around you?
We often fuck up. We don’t get to see all the shows we’d like to see. Some of our reviewers may write badly, others brilliantly. As members of the Festival Media Network, we’ve tried to improve standards across all of our publications. But, in the seven years we’ve been convering the Fringe, I can’t say I’ve come across anybad motives. Incompetence perhaps, rudeness yes, but there’s no point in baiting us to admit to hidden, seedy, dark mortives, whateve rour behaviour on the surface, because you won’t find them. We advertise to cover our costs – no one in the FMN makes a profit and many self-fund being here, at least in part. We write about the Fringe because we love the Fringe.
Baiting people who have a warm heart, however inefficient they maybe, is doomed to failure. Because all you end up “Outing” is sadness.
Now, back the the real evil bastards. I’ve met them here. They are here to hurt and to write a bit of poison. We won’t have anything to do with them at FringeReview and if ever a rogue reviewer writes something from any motive other than to authentically review the Fringe and celebrate fine work, we remove their words from our publication.
Now, Twitter is an interesting grey area. On Twitter we banter. On FringeReview’s own site we tend to be more detached and attempt to be objective. On Twitter, we let go a bit. We allow ourselves to get emotional on the assumption that the dialogue between performer and reviewer can be more playful. And there comes the potential for misreading – not only of word, but also motive. There’s another greay area here which is often referred to as “trolling”. You see this on Youtube a lot where a film of a cute cat soon descends into violent chat rage in the comments below, after just a few comments! “I hope you die of cancer, you idiotic….”
Twitter is a place rife with misunderstanding. Review baiters will use this skilfully, just as badly motived journalists often do – by partial quoting and trying to tease out comment and reply they can use as fodder for demonisation. In a way its just a spoiling tactic because then the playfulness stops and we all revert to more formal channels. And that’s boring, especially if, at a common ground level, all of our motives are warm and good.
If you get a bad review, either move on, or make a complaint.But if that reviewer is well motived, the baiting will just be so much lost energy. Get into a dialogue instead if you feel the need to. And either do it playfully on Twitter and use a more deep and satisfying medium. As my grandmother used to say; Phone! Why don;y you phone?
But then, that all comes down to the motives of the baiter…
6th August 2013
Turning into a Spider
As I sit here for the fifth time today, squinting at a rather too small lattop, I am feeling reflective.
Social media is sitting at the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe, with physical flyering and face to face show advertising now on the periphery.
The amount of activity on Twitter is higher than last year, the amount of Facebooking seems lower. People have got wise to the power of many-follower micro-blogging – the 140 character moonshots – over the status updating on home pages read mostly by collusive friends.
Indeed, several companies I’ve spoken to who are struggling for ticket sales are actually neglecting their flyering and hoping for ever more action via their fingertips on gorilla glass screens. And the problem is, it largely isn’t working. Lots of “likes” and “retweets” are not necessarily translating into physical movement of feet towards box offices. It is all to easy to bathe in the warm illusion that there is interest in our show because lots of people are retweeting or liking us.
The problem with connection at the end of fingertips is that the touch is too light for physical commitment. Without some truly eloquent and inspiring words to deepen and give weight to that all too light touch action, it is all too fleeting and wispy. People like our intentions, they give thumbs up and retweet our words, and we end up like the ghosts of Hogwarts – haunting the place without every physically effecting it beyond a mischievous shriek or gust of wind.
So, here I am, staring at my lap top and remembering Hamlet: Words, words, words…
Imagine this: that you are a ghost, a spectre at the Edinburgh Fringe – people can hear your echo, but do not feel the impact of your reality. Your charisma doesn’t reach the other people. At best, they hear, smile, then turn away.
And the advice to those companies? To get back onto the streets and physically flyer. To talk with saliva, not binary bits. It isn’t either-or – but digital distraction can kill a show. It creates a shade-interest, a mock-reaction, and the tickets do not sell.
There is an art to social media, but judging by the press we are often receiving, only a handful for PR folk have got the gift. Most are also ghosts, zooming like poltergeists and screamig words like “ground breaking” and “amazing” in our tired, drum-shattered ears. Imagine that: paying ghosts to haunt the spaces in which you, too, have become an even less substantial presence.
I’m into this stuff. We tweet therefore we are. But what are we? Here in Edinburgh I believe that physical presence needs to be at the core. The streets and eye contact lie at the authentic and EFFECTIVE core. Social media needs to sit on the periphery – just as our fingertips physically are. But it is the beating heart that drives the passion that makes the work succeed.
Beware the illusion of success that fingertip connection and Facebook “liking” can give you. I genuinely believe that face to face flyering will elicit less false promises to attend than online tweet-begging. You can end up in a circle, disappearing up your virtual arse, as everyone retweets each other, everyone follows each other, and everyone pretends to promise. It can be a blind alley. We can text-sleep our Fringe away and we walk along the street, tweeting into the bullshitosphere, ignoring each precious opportunity to get some eye contacvt with a show-seeking human being. We can miss the weather and the rainbows, and even the bagpipes. Well, I suppose…
24th July 2013



The Joys of Collaboration
There’s plenty of collaboration at this year’s Fringe. You only have to look at the Made in Scotland showcase, dive into the Traverse programme (and check out the Traverse Fifty, for example), or see the many collaborative works at Summerhall, Assemble, Pleasance, Zoo and Dance Base, to name but a few, to see the spirit of working together to create, is thriving.
It makes sense for economic reasons to share effort and resources, especially in times of even more arts funding cuts. But, of course, it makes sense from the point of view of creating diversity and originality. Collaboration is risky, it involves ego meeting ego. Not all collaborations find synergy – that emergent state where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
I particularly like it when forms fuse that rarely collaborate – where physical theatre meets film, where dance meets dialogue, where image meets physical movement. In Edinburgh, I like it when venues like Whitespace play host to theatre.
Collaboration gives birth to a trust that allows frission as well as fusion. Spine-tingling works can appear as a result of the juxtaposition of one vision with another, or the co-creation of a shared vision from the start.
I’d advice you to take a risk and see unknown collaborative work. It can be fresh, unfinished, edgy and dangerous.
Look for work at Forest Fringe. Here’s one tip for you. Andy Smith, Tim Crouch and Karl James.
Collaborative work offers different angles. At its worst its a kind of dodgy collusion. At its best, it’s magical synergy.
10th July 2013



What is to be done about Improvisation?
I’ve had four connections with the world of improvisation during my professional life.
Firstly I led theatre workshops for over fifteen years as part of Brighton’s community-based Upstairs Theatre Company. This company is a bit of a legend in the city of Brighton having given birth to the professional careers of a lot of actors, writers and directors as well as staging over 100 performances, some improvised. Its workshop base was often focused around improvisation work. A lot of invention took place and, in my own case, I “invented” a lot of improvisation activities and approaches, many of which I later discovered were part of an existing field called “Improv”. But quite a lot of my work didn’t fit into that field at all. (www.applied
Secondly, I found the field of improvisation overlapping with the field of teaching and learning. As a researcher at the Centre for Research in Innovation Management I became fascinated with concepts such as “flow”, “dialogue”, “Yes-and” (which had found its way into negotiation skills training) and the use of improvisation in encouraging creativity in students. Improvisation and problem solving, improvisation and public speaking, improvisation and idea generation were all linked in fields outside of “improv” years ago.
Thirdly, as founder and editor of FringeReview, a theatre reviews publication that covers fringe theatre and performance all over the world, I have seen and written reviews of several hundred improvisation performances, mostly in the UK. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of “impro”. (
Finally, as a member of the applied improvisation community, (I’m a member of the Applied Improvisation Network as well as host of, I’ve been involved for over ten years in applying improvisation in organisational and business contexts, particularly in training and development. This is a fairly large internationally and growing community of practice.
So, one way or another, I’ve been fairly immersed in improvisation for a long time and in a number of different ways.
I could also add a fifth field that is harder to define. As a writer on philosophy and a practitioner in the field of personal development, I also have come across the concepts and practices of improvisation in these fields as well. I mentioned earlier the concept of flow. There is the work of David Bohm on dialogue. There are approaches to conversation such as Goethean conversation, as well as notions such as “presencing” and being “in the moment” to be found in Eastern practices including meditation. The world of “impro!”, rooted in the work of Keith Johnstone doesn’t begin to describe the much broader, deeper and richer territory that characterises improvisation.
Over these years, and in all of these different fields of activity, I’ve always been dissatisfied with the dominant form of performed improvisation I’ve seen pervading in the UK. It tends towards comedy. It tends towards cloning itself. It tends towards making stuff up in front of people in order to “get a laugh”. It tends towards hanging that “making up” on hidden structures, hooks, and anchors. And it tends towards “games”. And now it is really starting to repeat itself as a form. And there are more groups forming all the time, repeating and copying these formulae. The map now is definitely not the territory.
Much of it is a direct copy of the ‘theatresports’ and “games” world of Johnstone and his followers. Much of it copies that which came out of the “Chicago School” decades ago. It often lacks freshness, seeking a new gimick and focuses on punchline based skits. The shows often base around audience suggestions, and a version of improvisation that is relative rather than pure or absolute. What do I mean by that? Well, if, as an audience member, I’m not particularly spontaneous in my life, and tend to follow scripts – the scripts of cliche, of thinking a lot before I speak, the scripts of work rules and routines, the scripts of repeated entertainment from TV and the media – then I will tend to feel the “wow” factor of people on stage making stuff up a lot faster than me, and on stage to boot! I experience “improv” as “improvisation” because they are all doing it so cleverly, and so quickly – almost in real time! I’m feeling “wow” just as I feel wow when I see fast downhill skiers, or spinters running 100 metres in less than ten seconds.
A lot of improvisational performance, often called “improv” or “impro” for short isn’t pure improvisation – a complete real-time state of emergent, spontaneous creativity – it is simply what we all do every day, but speeded up, and enabled by a bunch of structures and tricks. True, some of these rules and tricks do create moments of near pure flow – but rarely. What we really have is lightning quick , split-second-before-the-moment planning that can fool even the speaker. And we call it improvisation because, compared to how the rest of usually are, it IS much more improvisational – so relatively speaking, it is improvisation.
Absolutely speaking it isn’t. And I would even suggest that Johnstonian “improv” can take us to the very edge of pure improvisation but it can take us no further. We might as well be a million miles away.
The reason for that is because that split second pre-in-the-moment planning is qualitatively no different from planning what we want to say, ten seconds ahead. It is simply different in terms of quantity of time. The sense of excitement and adrenalin rush can certainly increase and, occasionally, the shock of it, combined with a reduced sense of ego (In improv we very much are about give and not only take), can shift us suddenly into accidental pure flow states. Actually, I think it is what all “impro” performers desperately seek.
Now, this lightning fast individual or group “impro” can be a real spectacle, just as a lighting fast downhill skier can be a real spectacle.”How do they do it so fast”? because a big part of the audience wow and they often “get off” on the thrill of will it or won’t it work. In a skilled improv troupe. of course, it often does work.
Linked to this is what I’ll call the “wilde” factor. Yes, Wilde with an “e”. At lightning pace, the group is also able to make up content  – story and one liners, sight and verbal gags – that feel impossibly witty and clever in the time given.
Often the audience are so immersed in this process of basically getting a  “speed and cleverness” fix that they feel the troupe deserve applause and reward for the sheer feat they have achieved. I’ve often noticed that the comedy material can be groanworthily bad, but an audience will forgive much if the troupe is sweatingly fast enough and really “going for it”. Because so much improv involved audience suggestions, the fourth wall is regularly down and the audience are collaborators in the success or failure of the show. This means that judging the performance too critically is a kind of audience self-damning. And they rarely do it. We all end up colluding with an emerging mediocrity. As a reviewer, time and again I watch audience reaction at improv shows. There are always some audience members who haven’t dived in, aren’t collaborators, and are looking in from outside wondering what on earth people are laughing at or enjoying.
Improv shows with audience involvement rely, for their success, not on improvisation, but on the creation of temporary cults. Basically the audience have to sign up to “yes, and…” in blood as well.
Sadly, Johnstonian improv theory and practice, theatresports, “yes, and…”, the default to gags and laughter, and the dominance of “status” have all, ironically, become dogma in the world of improv performance. And this had led to an increase in formulaic shows, repetition and stale formats. The established groups are seeking new income by running fairly fixed “trainings” and new generations of office-bored wannabes are happily doing the courses and then setting up their own groups and performance nights all too quickly. Many improv troupes are basically the new folk club singarounds of the upstairs pub circuit. In terms of the many shows we have reviewed in recent years the standard overall has gone up in terms of competence with in the formula but the amount of improvisation and experimentation with the genre itself has declined.
And little or none of it is true improvisation. It’s fake. Call it improvisation in relation to slower scriptedness. But in pure, terms, it isn’t.
Dangerous territory here, using the word “pure”. Pure improvisation, to quote acclaimed long form improviser, Rachel Blackman is an ‘egoless state’. There are no tricks or structures to hang it on, because those very structures defeat it and render it elusive. Some suggest the pure improvisational state is not a state of being “in the moment” but of being “beyond the moment”
Personally I don’t believe improvisation is best hung on theories of the Naked Ape , of the competitive status relationships we are all in, as more highly evolved apes. I have found more electric improvisation in notions of emergence, open space, flow, communion and community. So much of “impro” was born out of a reaction to overstructure, from sports metaphors and the work of people like Desmond Morris. Yet there is, and has always been a richer, deeper vein of experience and practice in the fields of creative flow, breathing and presence, and resonance.
By becoming a fixed dogma, “yes and” has largely killed real improvisation on stage. Yes, and… is one of a number of flow states in improvisation. Yes, but… set in the larger context of resonance, can give birth to astounding improvised performance, especially where trust has been evolved more deeply than weekly warm-up exercises. Some of the best long-form improvisation I have seen has clearly come from audience attention and deep silent involvement – their spontaneous breathing in reaction to the unfolding performance, as well as the silence of expectation and openness, and then the performers perform not “to” the audience but “out of the audience” in ways far more effective than clumsy audience suggestions. Improvisation such as this often works well in the semi round or the round, or even in promenade. And much vibrant improvisation recognises the importance of resistance, of creative clash and friction as well as the power of self-organisation.
This may all sound and read like hot air or a bit weird. But that is because “improv” has become so institutionalised. Many “impro” addicts simply don’t get these new ideas. They certainly don’t want to unlearn much of what they’ve learned by rote. It’s always been bizarre to me that many improv groups meet to “practice” and repeat their impro practice just as a magician practices in order to make what has been practiced look improvised to the audience. Here, improv becomes only about the content on the night, not the underlying process. Yet the content is not the process, it is the output. The vomit or the song. Improvisation is also the process.
What is to be done about “impro”? Simple, it needs to start improvising again.
8th June 2013
The Brighton Fringe ends, after an extra week that seems to have paid off. Caddy got his Spiegetent, and the Spiegeltent… well … I wonder if there isn’t a tiredness that can set in when you move that humungous circus from place to place, from Fringe to Fringe.
Lamburgers at six quid were a disappointment; Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen were a highlight. It was good to see that hive of energy back on the Old Steine and Fringe City on New Road had a true Fringe feel. Flyering there is a pleasure that I wish The Royal Mile could recapture.
We overlapped with Prague Fringe and I do feel a sense of elation at the springing up of Fringe new shoots in Readingm in Guildford and elsewhere. When Milton Keynes Fringe created its entirely unique version of Fringe with much on the streets; when Bill Buffery and his team created their own model for Fringe in Barnstaple, attracting some impressive names; when Bath, Exeter, Bedford and Ipswich all shine in their own different ways, then it feels to me that Fringe is part of a cultural renewal and revival.
10th May 2013
I’m hearing that box office is significantly up for the Fringe overall, and it isn’t just big shows such as La Clique that are entirely responsible. I suspect it is the sub-ten-quid bracket that is thriving and also it is the venues that have really grasped how to use social media properly and also who are sweating over their flyering.
Some people are flyering hard on New Road and I supect that many have paid lip service to it. I’m seeing a lot of pointless and limited effect Facebookery, less Tweeting than last year by a long way, and virtually no flyering given the total number of shows.
This is a Fringe where you really do get out what you put in. The noise of information is louder than ever and being heard requires, skill, confidence and eloquence. Everything is “amazing” which sets amazing as the new zero.
6th May 2013
These are the gardens in the city, tin whistles, childrens’ magician, a baby squirrel who climbed on my shoulder as I sat in clumsy judgement over an out-of-date netbook. These are the new chocolate chip rock cakes, an interference in a recipe that hasn’t changed for forty years – delicious for both the taste and the culinary terrorism. These are the gardens were an African drum riffs with North street engines and sirens. This is the extra hot water, and these are the people, the dogs, the passing ferret man, and the shining of the sun, bidding the fog back to sea.
Fringe is here again and the spring has arrived to meet it, full of summer. It’s Bank Holiday Monday and I am wondering where the street theatre is.
The winners at this year’s Fringe will be those focused on the work, not the winning. The winners will be those who stay true to themselves, but allow defnition of those selves to be inspired by the needs of their circles – their communities.
2nd April 2013
With less than a month until this year’s Brighton Fringe, things seem pretty low key. We’ve received less press releases by far than any previous year. Is this further evidence of Generaton Y doing things more “emergently”, or, as Generation X might out it “the last minute”?
There are no news alerts from Google and our own newswire page lies frozen back in early March.
Are tickets going like hot cakes? Perhaps low key is the right key. during these recessionary days when people can’t even take their own money out of the bank.
Even venues are playing it fairly cool, heavy onbrochures, light on news and press releases. I’m feeling like a Jewish grandmother – no one writes, no one calls.
Well, it’s April now, and this particular straddler of both X and Y, and even dabbler in Z, is looking forward to the build up – the arrival of the Spiegel in the lawns, the popping up of the Emporium, and the flood of inevitable hyped up press releases.
Bring it on.
23rd February 2013
The winter is still here, so I’ve emerged from hibernation early. The Brighton Fringe Press Launch is among us and another impending speech from Julian Caddy. Who could miss THAT?
So, I’m sure we will have the announcements that the Fringe is back, bigger and better than ever. And we’ll hear that there are more events and shows than ever before proving that there is no such thing as a recession. Oh, and of course we will hear the announcement of a new sponsor who has stepped in to make everything, well… alright.
Yes it is Fringe time again and there’s the usual sense of fresh repetition. What I love about our particular Fringe is that, despite its size (the second biggest in the Universe), it has kept a human scale feel and also a sense of local being, not only important, but also vital, due to the fact that this city is loaded with some of the most creative and also nutty people in the world. Our Fringe is all about defying category and our Fringe City may be smaller than the Royal Mile but it also has its own scale that is bigger in dimensions other than three.
I hear there is some kind of Spiegeltent back and a few new venues (not all officially in the Fringe). The Fringe in may isn’t only going to be the “official” one but all will benefit from the buzz and the (quite right) decision to extend an extra week.
We’ll be reviewing. Oh yes we will.