So – you did it, you made a show. You’re taking it to Edinburgh (or Brighton, or Buxton, or Adelaide, or Glasgow – while this is aimed mainly at Edinburgh, I definitely recognise that Other Festivals Are Available). Companies like Mobius and Chloe Nelkin, a host of individual PRs, and press teams at some of the bigger venues do sterling work of getting the word out about individual shows. But if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, and your show’s firmly off the beaten track, how do you get people to see it? How, in a massively crowded market, do you get the attention of a reviewer or journalist who already has 100 other shows in their inbox?
Allow me to help…
The research bit
While it can seem that all of your energy is consumed by actually, y’know, making your show and the attendant logistics of putting it out in the world, a little time spent on researching your target market can reap enormous rewards. A scattershot ‘throw everything and see what sticks’ approach might get you some attention, but the attrition in terms of effort wasted will be huge and you might well annoy as many people as you attract.
Where to send your press release
As well as publications, such as, ahem, this one, where do you want your review to be? The Scotsman and The Stage do comprehensive coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe, but don’t just focus your efforts on the big names – especially since, as evidenced by Lyn Gardner’s recent axing from The Guardian, a lot of the mainstream press is cutting back their theatre coverage, and what is left tends to be more and more focused on big-name shows. But there are a raft of other outlets emerging to fill the gaps, as well as talented individual bloggers and collectives, and schemes like the much-needed Critics of Colour. Which ones suit your show and are likely to be read by your target audience? [Editors’ note: a non-exhaustive list of publications/organisations reviewing the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe includes Network of Independent Critics, The Skinny, The Wee Review, Fest Magazine, WhatsOnStage, The List, The Reviews Hub, ThreeWeeks, A Younger Theatre, British Theatre Guide, Broadway Baby, FringeReview, one4review, Edinburgh Festivals Magazine – and loads more]
Don’t be scared to think outside the box, and contact a publication that doesn’t focus on theatre, but might be interested in the topic of your show, especially if it’s a very specific niche. For example, did you know The New Scientist reviews plays? Well, now you do.
How to send it
For most publications, your first point of call will be the reviews editor (or features editor, if you are after a story/interview), but some reviewers and most bloggers are happy to be contacted direct: check blogs and websites for contact details.
Almost all prefer contact by email, as it’s easier to file and keep track of shows all in one place. Some reviewers are happy to be pitched over social media, but that can also feel stalky and invasive, and some people really object to it, so it carries a large risk of annoying the very people you wish to court.
When to send it?
OK, the answer to this is probably ‘last week’, but at least a month before your show opens is ideal. While schedules are subject to change and editors and reviewers will try to fit in interesting shows at short notice, sending a last-minute invite to a critic whose schedule is packed to the last entry on their Festival spreadsheet is unlikely to yield results. I have been contacted before on the day of a show, which made me feel a) like a Z-list addition you contacted because someone better cancelled (which may be true, but don’t rub it in) and b) as if I had to say no out of principle, to maintain the pretence that I have a busy and exciting life.
You may not get a speedy response (or any response at all) as editors are beyond inundated. A gentle reminder a week or so later is OK, but 45 emails asking why they haven’t got back to you and implying that is a great mistake on their behalf will not go down well.
I follow a lot of reviewers on Twitter and a regular bugbear is marketing and PR people, or theatre folk themselves, just sending out blanket emails with no thought to the recipient: names spelled wrong or emails simply spammed out. Research your target and make it clear that you have done so. Be friendly. Write your email like you are speaking to a person. Be a person.
And, for the love of God, if you are an English person going to Edinburgh, remember that it’s not Brigadoon: it doesn’t emerge out of the mist once a year for the benefit of the tourists. People live there, and work there, and Scotland has an established, thriving arts scene beyond the eyes of London. There is no faster way to alienate your Scottish critic than starting an email with the implication that they are coming to town just for the shows before scuttling back to civilisation where all the ‘real theatre’ happens.
Don’t pay for reviews
Edinburgh in particular is developing a slightly shady-seeming subculture of magazines that sell positive reviews, often in return for ad space. There are far better ways to spend your money, so don’t do it.
The press release – what to put in it
It doesn’t need to be glossy or flashy or expensively produced (most are just Word docs or PDFs, maybe with a logo, if you’re feeling super profesh), but it does need to include plenty of solid facts about your production, not just some overblown hype about its greatness. It should be well-written and mark out your show as one worth reviewing, but it’s also an essential tool for reviewers and press to crib from: don’t neglect the basics in favour of a hard sell. Most reviewers/editors like the bulk of the text included in the body of the email – easier to read on a phone than an attachment – and as an attachment that they can download and copy and paste text from (a Word doc is generally better than PDF for this reason).
These seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how often they are missed off.
Subject header: Include the title of the show, so that the email can be found quickly in a cluttered inbox. If the title is generic or easily misunderstood, make it clear that it is a show, not just a random mail out. For instance: ‘Brexit!’ could be anything. ‘Brexit! A political satire premiering at Edinburgh Fringe’ is clearly a show (whether it’s actually a show worth seeing is quite another thing…)
Running dates and show times: Yes, the very first thing the recipient needs to know is when the show is, so they can allocate a reviewer, or plan to attend. Start times are also important in Edinburgh in particular, when reviewers may stack one show after another (so including running times, also, is helpful). If your start times vary on different days, be very, very clear on that: I was once at a show where nearly all of the reviewers turned up halfway through, since the press release had failed to inform anyone that the Monday start time was earlier than the rest of the week.
Location: Check the name of the venue is up to date (one reviewer I know nearly missed a show because the venue had changed names between Festivals, and the press release hadn’t updated it as ‘everyone still calls it that.’ Well, not Google maps, buddy). If it’s not a major venue – or even if it is – an actual address is handy, and for more obscure venues, referencing local landmarks is also useful. (For example, the Rialto theatre in Brighton is near the Clocktower, and knowing that makes it an awful lot easier to find). If the venue is part of a larger space, make that clear, too: I once spent 20 minutes walking up and down looking for a venue labelled only by its super generic title (Suite 6, or some such), with no reference on any of the material that said venue was actually inside the fuck-off-massive Jury’s Inn hotel I was standing right in front of, looking balefully at my phone GPS and mentally composing a ‘sorry I missed the show’ apology to my editor.
Cast and crew info: Publications will vary as to how much information they need – The Stage, for example, likes a lot of production info, as fitting its role as an industry publication, while others may just want the basics, but these should at least include writer, director and designer. More info is generally better than less and including this from the off helps avoid your review being delayed while a reviewer chases you for info. Linking cast to characters where relevant is also helpful and saves the reviewer frustrating hours googling actors and squinting at a screen trying to match actors’ glossy smiling Spotlight shots to how they look done up as a plague victim in a sci-fi dystopia.
Contact information: Who do they email if they do need more info? Make sure this is someone who will be available in both the run up to the show and immediately afterwards, as that’s when questions are likely to arise.
Social media tags: Most reviews will want to tag the creatives: if you have a chosen hashtag, include it, as well as websites (for more info) and Twitter handles. Make that you share the reviews you get widely, and consider doing so even if they’re not 100% positive: publications and reviewers are part of a click-based economy, and there’s no point in them covering things if the reviews never get read. Plus, it’s always valuable to have a conversation surrounding your show.
Production images: Remember I said there were better things to spend your money on than paid reviews? Well, this is one of them. Most publications want production (i.e. action) shots, not just poster images, and if you can provide these well in advance, so much the better. A Dropbox link is the ideal, since it doesn’t clutter an inbox with attachments and reduces your risk of ending up in the spam filter. (Make sure the link doesn’t expire before the show, as reviewers are unlikely to download images more than a day or so in advance and most will only do so when they are actually publishing the review).
Information on the show: Last but, of course, most definitely not least. What’s the damn thing about and why should they care? Again, go for specifics rather than some generic blurb about it being immersive, innovative, urgent, etc. Think of some catchy hooks. Is it topical – related to something happening in the news, or an issue people are talking about? Does it have a gimmick? A famous cast member or a director with an impressive pedigree? Is it a world premiere? Has it won awards or plaudits somewhere else? This doesn’t have to be – indeed shouldn’t – be reams of text (your press release should be 1-2 pages long max – most are 1 page), but you should include enough to whet the appetite of the reader. Journalists need stories, and stories need hooks: what makes yours stand out?
(Side note: this article is mainly focused on the reviews side of thing, but Amy Taylor (@TrashTaylor) of The Skinny did an excellent Twitter thread on marketing for the Fringe that is worth checking out. Twitter in general can be a great resource to find out not only what journos and reviewers want – and who they are – but what annoys them, since they will inevitably start to complain right about now about all the ways in which theatre companies frustrate them in the run up to the Fringe…)
Some last thoughts…
The vast majority of reviewers at the Edinburgh Fringe are there as unpaid volunteers, who are choosing to cover the festival instead of blowing that time/money on an all-inclusive week’s holiday in Gran Canaria. And the handful of professional reviewers will often have had punishing schedules drawn up for them by editors months in advance. No one is obliged to give you a review – even if you bought an ad, even if you know the editor personally or hang out in the pub with the reviewers. Likewise, a free ticket doesn’t equal a positive review. No matter how much you love your show, a reviewer may not like it and that’s just tough luck. And while it’s becoming more acceptable to challenge problematic reviews – as illustrated by Quentin Letts’ well-deserved mauling for suggesting a black actor was cast for box-ticking reasons, but shown also by an increasing willingness by performers to call out reviewer sexism or cultural insensitivity – it’s not OK to throw a hissy fit because someone didn’t care for your show.
I personally once gave an – admittedly very harsh – review to a show I found juvenile and sexist and the theatre company took such umbrage they not only singled me out on their website, they clearly did some ‘opposition research’ and took to Twitter to slag off my books, which rather reinforced my original opinion of their ethos. Another female writer I know gave a measured but negative review of a play and one of the actors got drunk and DMed her furious insults. This wasn’t OK then, but now, in the glare of a #MeToo landscape, such temper tantrums could cause irreparable damage to the reputation of not just the actor, but the company involved.
And a bad review can be useful. Edinburgh is often a testing ground for work, so it makes sense to take on board opinions aimed at making it better. A reviewer may have picked up on something you didn’t. (I once had an exchange with a male theatre maker whose piece, I felt, had an unpleasant anti-abortion tone. He was properly horrified by my reading – it hadn’t been his intention at all – and amended subsequent shows to avoid it).
And finally: if you love a review, and think it was insightful, helpful, or just well-written, why not let the reviewer know? Reviewing is generally a thankless task: a brief email thanking them for their time or perspicuity might well make their day. By the end of Edinburgh most of them are a bit broken: a little appreciation will go a long way…