Features Essays Published 15 October 2018

Is the hype real?

As social media takes a starring role in 21st century theatre marketing, Alice Saville writes on the power and pitfalls of Twitter-era criticism.
Alice Saville

Heathers – The Musical. Photo: Pamela Raith

“The hype is real” – blare the posters for Heathers – The Musical. It’s not a claim you can easily quibble with. Yup, the movie-turned-musical has indeed created a genuine, hairspray-thick fug of hype around it. On the posters, five carefully quoted tweets rave about the show and its star, Carrie Hope Fletcher. This is nothing new: theatres have long used carefully chosen social media responses to create a buzz (and it’s easy to do so, because unlike product reviews left by disgruntled customers on TripAdvisor, Amazon or the rest, audience reviews on Twitter and Instagram are pretty much invariably positive).

What’s different about Heathers is that it has a whole marketing strategy built around reaching out to potential audience members in a highly targeted way. An online fandom for Heathers built up, sparked by the soundtrack being leaked online (again, this isn’t unique – look at Hamilton). But, crucially, the show’s marketing team saw this fandom, nurtured it, and understood that it was the key to getting the show into the West End. Daniella’s blog post offers an intriguing rundown of how: by supporting amateur productions, by holding annual costume competitions, by casting star Carrie Hope Fletcher, whose vlogs gave fans a day-by-day glimpse into the rehearsal process.

Where does theatre criticism sit in all this? Pretty much nowhere. Heathers got responses that ranged from lukewarm to cautiously enthusiastic to baffled. They made no apparent dent on its success.

There’s something democratic about the trajectory of this show. Fans (mostly young women) used social media to fight for it to get to the West End, and won out. I respect that. Where my slight queasiness comes in is that the show’s endlessly slick social media strategising made no room for dissenting voices. Reviewers weren’t let in for the show’s first run at The Other Palace, even though the show was “ready” enough to charge audience members £50 per ticket. And by the time the first responses to the West End run emerged, the show’s eight week stint was already selling fast.

It’s a balance, then. On one side, social media makes for democratic, grassroots championing of new work. On the other, it risks scrubbing out any trace of cynicism or criticism (emotions, ironically, that Heathers the movie drips in, even if the musical doesn’t).

This fraught balance is extra visible, extra heightened in the case of Heathers, where social media buzz created by young women collides with the jaundiced note of caution sounded by established critics. But it’s something that pretty much every production is affected by, from naff West End musical to one-night experimental scratch performance.

Whether or not they have a marketing team on board, 21st century artists have a perhaps-unprecedented ability to control the narrative around their own work. On social media, they can curate the responses they choose to ‘see’ and make visible (artists who tweet out negative reviews as well as positive ones: you have my undying respect). And with every tweet or post, they’re implicitly or explicitly stating whose views and which sources they value.

On a larger scale, many theatre companies are taking their marketing budget directly to Instagram, Facebook and Google, promoting the audience responses they like, and drowning out the ones they don’t. This also means that their advertising spend will prop up vast, ethically dubious multinational companies instead of providing much-needed revenue to struggling newspapers and magazines (Creation Theatre’s blog post documents the company’s reasoning behind switching their spend – ironically, a later blog post laments the lack of national arts coverage). And when there’s a tidal wave of sponsored positivity, critiques, not plugs, often end up sinking without a trace.

This makes for a pressure on critics to stay positive to stay visible. And it’s a pressure that’s heightened by the sense of intimacy between artist and audience and critic that social media brings. Once, you could make hard and fast rules like “actors and critics shouldn’t be friends” or “artists shouldn’t read their reviews” and people had a fighting chance of actually sticking to them. But social media puts everyone in a forum that’s essential for their own visibility and career development, and then makes them talk.

I try not to be friends with artists, because it would make the kind of long, involved theatre criticism I like to write feel uncomfortably personal. But even so, weeks before I see a show, I’ll often end up developing a mass of preconceptions and ideas around it, from a dripfeed of early audience feedback or imagery or production team tweets. Or, even more weirdly, from the writer as they document their own process, moment by moment. You don’t have to be Carrie Hope Fletcher to give away enough of yourself online to spark a little cognitive dissonance in a reviewer, who can move from scrolling past someone’s TfL-related gripes in the afternoon to reviewing their play that evening.

That’s not always a bad thing. We don’t know each other in real life, but I felt like I knew Vinay Patel’s grandparents long before I saw An Adventure, a play loosely inspired by their lives. I’d seen pictures of them on Instagram, and the memory of their faces added an emotive extra layer to my experience of the show. But sometimes it can make it extra hard to dive into a longform, careful criticism of a show when the person who created it exists, however tangentially, in the same social space as you (and who can Google your naff student journalism or coo over your pets on Instagram). It feels personal, even though it isn’t, when you’ve got the memory of that person’s distinctive online voice ringing through your head. And in a few rare cases, artists’ voices can become so loud, so combative, that dissenting from the official narrative around a work means being shouted down online.

At a Devoted & Disgruntled discussion on theatre criticism at the Edinburgh fringe, a critic explained, seriously and unremittingly in the face of all disagreement, that the reviews on his review site were objective. His protestations felt as futile as King Canute issuing edicts against the incoming tide. Maybe there’s something noble about trying for objectivity in an era that’s all about subject. But social media and its cult of openness and self-examination has shifted the way I write criticism. Try as I might, it shifts further and further away from solo, and into something a little closer to a duet. To quote Wicked, itself the subject of a furiously enthusiastic online fandom:

Elphaba: “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? Because I knew you”
Glinda: “Because I knew you”
Both: “I have been changed.”

In the run-up to the Edinburgh fringe, I saw artists tweeting frantically about the struggle to gather together venue deposits, their fears about their mental health, their ambivalence about whether everything they were going through could ever be worth it. Once, I delighted in pun-ridden putdowns of shows I hated, justifying my florid anger with thoughts of audience members who’d paid £10 for an hour of what my red hungover eyes deemed to be suffering.

I couldn’t do that now, probably because I have been changed. I’m more aware of how utterly terrifying putting your creative work out into the world is, especially when you’re struggling financially and mentally to do so. A critic has a responsibility to be sensitive to that,  without shying away from offering the kind of meaningful, detailed, honest critique that’s valuable both to audience members and artists. But for social media to be a truly Elphaba-worthy force for good, we might need a wider shift to take place.

Because putting your work out there IS terrifying, often, the first responses to a show will be from mates, peers, mentors or aspiring employees of the creative team who give out the kind of validating pullquotes every artist dreams of. Sometimes, these can be a welcome corrective to a critical response that doesn’t respond to the experimental spirit of new work. Or, if they appear late in the run, they can acknowledge that a production can shift and develop long after press night. But when it solidifies into a social ritual, I’m not sure that this silently biased flood of extravagant post-opening-night praise is a helpful one.

As Kirsty Sedgman’s book Locating The Audience points out, in challenging conditions for theatre-making, “discourses on audiences’ responses are often flattened to produce an official version of what a performance achieved”. Individual critics or audience members not ‘getting’ a performance can be framed as a failure on their part, and that’s reinforced when you have a storm of influential theatre industry figures all singing its praises on social media. Wouldn’t it be better if they could say “I’m proud of my friend for their work”? Or, “This show is yet another reason why I’d love to work alongside this person someday?” Otherwise, there’s a risk that essential criticism around new work gets hidden, or flattened out, in the interests of creating a supportive bubble. Bubbles are fine. But not when they end up misleading people who aren’t in their charmed sphere.

Ticket prices are rising, steeply. A night to spend at the theatre is precious. And if you sail into a theatre on a wave of hype then it’s easy to get disillusioned. What makes social media dangerous is how misleadingly democratic it feels, and how it masks hidden relationships and power dynamics. Social media has already made the invisible visible, by showing the conditions artists work under. Maybe it’s time for another making visible: a transparency and bravery around how we talk about art, and a willingness to save our hype for the things that need it.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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