04 March 2015

Ten tips to get a Comedy Festival review

Or, How to make an arts writer read your email and say "Yes!"

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival starts on 25 March.

For arts writers, this means that we get more emails and messages than usual. Some won’t be read.

This festival, there are 559 shows wanting reviews. That’s 558 shows that your approach has to be better than.

Most review publications use the official festival media request form because it’s easier than making individual requests. (It’s by no means easy for the festival publicists, whom you should always be lovely to because they are awesome and put up with arts writers when we're difficult, tired or ditzy.)

BUT that doesn’t mean that your email – whether you're using a professional publicist or doing your own publicity – won't get a result.

1. Make it personal

“Dear reviewer” or “Hey guys” says, “I have no idea who you are and don’t read anything you write”. If you don’t know the name of the person you’re contacting, are you sure you want them to come?

Sending cut-and-paste individual emails isn’t much better. I’ve received emails asking me to review for publications I don’t write for and ones where my name has changed during the email.

And if you don’t know the person you’re writing to, introduce yourself.

2. Know what you want

Do you want your email to result in an interview, a listing, a review, an opinion piece, a news story, a ticket giveaway, an audition notice …

Tell the writer what you want.
And don’t ask for something that they don't do.

I’ve had complaints that I wasn't at shows I was “invited” to. Sending a media release with no other information is NOT an invitation.

3. Write a good subject line

Don’t write a witty or an obscure subject line, write a good one. A good subject line makes it easy to know what you want (and easy to search for when we need to check something).

For example:

Invitation: Name of show
Review/interview/listing request: Name of show
Reminder: Name of show (I appreciate reminder emails.)
Follow up: Name of show
Images: Name of show (the next ten tips will be all about images)

Media release: Name of show? – see point 2

4. Put the information in the body of the email

A beautifully designed pdf is cool, but make sure that the vital info is also in the body of the email. Opening an attachment takes time, is annoying to do on a phone and is one more excuse to move onto the next message.

Plain text also makes it easier to cut and paste so that names are spelt right.

5. Check spelling and grammar

This festival, I want to read ONE – really, just one – email or media release that has been proofread.

Writers do judge you by your ability to use an apostrophe.

6. Do your research

Read the writer and the publication. What do they like seeing and writing about? Do they interview? Do they review? Who else do they write for?

And check if the writer had reviewed the show/artist before. I’ve had invitations to review shows I’ve already seen – and not liked. Google really is your best friend.

7. Who, what, when, where

If the name, time, date and place of the show aren’t on your message, media release, invitation, web page, flyer and everything else about your show, don’t be upset if people don’t turn up.

8. Find the magic time

There’s a time that’s not too early or too late to make contact. It differs for everyone. For me, it’s four to five weeks from opening. Too late and I'm booked up, too early and I'm not ready to commit.

Some writers, especially those with mainstream publications, need longer, but a last-minute request can work, especially during a festival.

The secret to finding the magic time: ask the writer.

9. Follow up

A follow-up email is a great idea.
A second follow-up can work.
A third is a waste of time.

10. Be nice

558 other festival shows want reviews. As do the all the other shows on during March and April. Arts writers love seeing your shows (it’s why we do this, after all) and try to see as many as possible.

But this means that not everything will get a review.

This can be a kindness, or it can be because their brains imploded, the extra day in the week doesn't exist (it takes time to write reviews), they're sick or there wasn’t room to publish.

Never assume the worst, don’t get shitty and be happy with a tweet. And remember that a lot of word-of-mouth really is word-of-mouth.

Next: Ten tips on choosing, supplying and sending images

Review: Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity
Luckiest Productions, Neil Gooding Productions, Tinderbox Productions, Arts Centre Melbourne
26 February 2015
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 7 March

Verity Hunt-Ballard and cast. Sweet Charity. Photo by Jeff Busby.

"There's gotta be something better than this." I don't think so.

This time last year, new independent company Hayes Theatre took over an old 110-seat theatre in Potts Point in Sydney and opened with a small-scale production of the Sweet Charity. This 1966 Broadway musical was directed by Bob Fosse and starred Gwen Verdon, and was made into a movie in 1969 that was directed by Fosse and starred Shirley Maclaine. It wasn't surprising that the small venue show sold out but it caused a stir when it was nominated for and won some Helpmann Awards (that don't cover indies). Its return season was at the Opera House in Sydney and it opened for a too-short season in Melbourne last night.

If you're choosing between the musicals on in Melbourne over the next couple of weeks, this is the choice. With a small cast (12), small band (four) and relatively-tiny budget, it packs more punch than the biggest shows on in town and reminds how musical theatre can and should grab you in the guts and make you forget everything except what's on the stage.

Director Dean Bryant, music director Andrew Worboys, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, and designers Tim Chappel (costume), Owen Phillips (set) and Ross Graham (lights) prove that great musicals can be made without the spectacle and money that dominate commercial shows. Start and end with story and character and you've got a show.

In 1960s New York, Charity Hope Valentine works in dance hall and charges for her body and time but gives her heart away too easily.

The choreography and direction is part-tribute to Fosse's distinct style but is never lost to the memory of past productions, and the late-1960s story is told very much from the perspective of now that and put all hope in Charity getting herself a man.

Verity Hunt-Ballard is Charity. She's amazing. She makes Charity's unselfconsciousness seem natural, while letting her be vulnerable and hopeful underneath the tough-innocent shell that lets her pretend that she can see a way out of the world that isn't going to give her a chance to be more than a cheap dance-hall girl.

Supporting her all the way are Deborah Krisak, Kate Cole, Martin Crewes and an ensemble who always put character first.

The bonus is that every number, including the well-known "Big Spender", "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "The Rhythm of Life", continues the story on the stage and brings an originality that lets each song stand alone and tell its own story.

The show has been tweaked for bigger theatre but it's still best to be close to really appreciate the performances. I moved from see everything to closer seats in interval and it was a different show.

Sadly Sweet Charity only has a two-week season. I'd love to go again, but that'd mean someone else misses out.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

03 March 2015

Review: What Rhymes with Cars & Girls

What Rhymes with Cars & Girls
Melbourne Theatre Company
21 February 2015
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 28 March 2015

What Rhymes with Cars & Girls. MTC

What Rhymes with Cars & Girls was Tim (You Am I) Rodgers's first solo album in 1999. Aidan Fennessy loved it so much that he wrote narrative to sit between the tracks and be told on a stage. The result has the same listenable swagger as Rogers's songs and is as easy to enjoy as a Sunday afternoon in a cool beer garden with friends and hot chips.

Aidan Fennessy's characters tell their story directly to the audience and re-inact the moments that changed their paths. He evokes inner-west and outer-north Sydney perfectly as 28-year-olds Johnny Carr (Johnno) and Sophie Ross (Tash) are plucked from their under-the-flight-path and harbour/ocean-view-mansion worlds to sit in a Morten Bay Fig tree as lovers who cross Sydney's harbour and class divide. They talk about class a lot.

The metaphor-filled script shines with images like the Hills Hoist as apocalypse maypole, but is so over worked that instead of unexpected sparkles, the writing reminds that it's memorised words rather than a story to get lost in.

This is mostly overcome as Clare Watson's direction lets the warm and loving performances from Carr and Ross be more than a love letter to Rogers, and the split-level recording-studio design by Andrew Bailey (and Kate Davis's character-defining costumes) makes the presence of the band feel natural, while offering a future world for the couple.

And with Rogers, now in his mid-40s, and band (Xani Kolec from the Twoks and Ben Franz) on stage (they play, the characters sing), it's easy to feel the love for Rogers and equally as easy to send a little more his way.

I don't know how well it would work without the presence of Rogers. It's a sweet, if obvious, story and beautifully realised, but it's a bit wobbly to stand alone. Which is moot because Rogers ain't going anywhere and his old, and new, fans will love this version of the album.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

Review: Sexercise

Aleksander Vass & Malcolm C Cooke
27 February 2015
Alex Theatre
to 29 March

Lyall Brooks, Nicole Milloy, Fem Belling. Sexercise

Sexercise could be a ripper of a show if it toned up and got rid of the flab.

Sexercise is a new Australian musical. Yay. It's opening in a great new theatre venue, the Alex Theatre in St Kilda (used to be the George cinema). Yay. But putting on a show at this stage of its development. Boo.

30-somethings Sam (Nicole Melloy) and Joe (Lyall Brooks) are married with a child are finding more time for exercising with their bffs (LuLu McClatchy, Cameron McDonald, Kristin Holland) than for each other or for sex. Their couple's counsellor (Fem Belling) suggests they try "Sexercise", which "loses" more calories than yoga. It does, and they get fit enough to set the iPad to record.

The super-brilliant cast make this show work. Each one bring more than the script and music offer and each deserve more than they're given. See it to see these six give everything they have to make the show work.

There's so much this story could explore: the demise of sex in long-term relationships, the impossible quest of body perfection, how porn affects perceptions of bodies and sex, forgiveness and understanding when someone really fucks up... But it's mostly easy jokes that everyone is thinking before they happen.

Great comedy relies on a core of great drama – make those stakes high, give them impossible choices, make them fail.  Sexercise Sexercise fails with the too-obvious comedy and the never-really-care drama.

But there is something there that could be hilarious, shocking and real. Not long before the interval, the couple sing "Is it over yet?", about feeling obliged to have sex, and the show finally begins. Everything we needed to know about that couple is in that song. It's funny and honest – who hasn't been there! – and everything before is unnecessary back story. Act 2 is much better because things happen. They are still predictable and make serious issues trivial, but there's story and problems to be solved.

Successful and popular shows develop and grow. This is at workshop stage, not expensive ticket stage. At least cut the songs where the audience don't clap. But keep the McClatchy's "Vagina or penis" song; it's numbers like this that show how cool Sexercise could be.

And then there's the LED-screen design stolen from a 1995 screen saver and the Big-W-sales-rack costumes; Belling's baggy beige pantsuit is the highlight of costumes try for joke rather than reflecting character.

I really hope that this isn't the end of Sexercise. But it's still at kissing and downstairs outside grope stage of sex and not ready to move on.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

28 February 2015

Review: The Lion King

The Lion King
19 February 2015
Regent Theatre

Photo by Belinda Strodder

In 1996, Disney Theatrical announced it was making a musical of their popular animated hit The Lion King (1994). Eyes rolled with memories of Disney on Ice productions and the fear of anthropomorphised skating lions, but the show that opened in 1997 challenged how movies are adapted for stage. And 18 years later, its returned to Melbourne and it's still mind-blowing.

The genius decision was making Julie Taymor costume and puppet designer and director. She rejected any thought of replicating the film aesthetic and proved that safe commercial productions can – and should – be art.

The Lion King won the Best Musical Tony award in 1998, has had productions all over the world (first seen in Australia in 2004–6) is is still running on Broadway. This Australian production is stunning and the cast bring a palpable passion to the stage. It's been to Brisbane and Sydney and is currently winning thousands of new fans in Melbourne.

It's the story opens when lion King Mufasa and medicine-woman monkey Rafiki present baby, and future monarch, Simba to the savannah. But Mufasa's brother, Scar, doesn't like being third in line to the throne and plots to gain power. Of course, he succeeds and the banished and terrified Simba has to grow up and remember what it's like to want to be king.

The story's a bit naff, as is the music by Elton John and Tim Rice, but the magic of this production is that the naff is overcome  – and the women characters have a bigger role than they do in the film.

The "Circle of Life" opening is still my favourite opening of any big show. I teared-up when I saw the elephant coming down the aisle in 2005 and wasn't much better this time (and I had a boozy Lion-King slushy for comfort.) This lump-in-you-throat opening declares it a work that musically supports and celebrates its African setting, acknowledges the opening of the film, and overwhelms the theatre as it brings all the savannah animals onto the stage.

There are over 200 astonishingly beautiful puppets and masks in the show. They include masks that sit on top of performer's head, like the lions; rod puppets, like Zazu, flying birds, and the mini-lions that run through the grasses; full body puppets that show the performer as much as the animal, like Pumba and the zebras, cheetas and giraffes; Balinese shadow puppets; and Japanese Banraku puppets, where the operators are dressed in black to be invisible – except in this case when the Timon operator is dressed in green to represent the jungle.

With respect to the ritual of theatre, the always-visible performers ensure characters are never lost behind the static face of a mask and that the humanity of the story isn't lost in the jungle.

Then there's the magnificent leaping antelopes on a bicycle, and performers that bring grasslands and bushes to life.  All working with with Richard Hudson's design that makes the stage feel as endless as a Southern African horizon.

Of course, a ticket to see The Lion King is expensive, which means that so many people who would love to see this show, can't hope for a ticket. I want to take every child that I know to it; I want them to see how amazing theatre and stories and music can be. But it's a dress-in-your-best and not-see-anything-else-all-year show. That's sad. Everyone who argues that show tickets should be more accessible understands the costs of presenting a commercial show – but perhaps producers need to look at ways to subsidise and sponsor more affordable tickets so that people who have never seen a huge show like this can have the chance.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

27 February 2015

Email fuck up

Apologies if you've been trying to email me. The SM account was forwarded to another address and Outlook considers this as being inactive so was returning emails. Grrr.  If I didn't get back to you, all is working again now.

Review: In The Heights

In The Heights
20 February 2015
Chapel off Chapel
to 8 March 2015

Stephen Lopez. In the HEights. Photo by Belinda Strodder.

In The Heights won the Best Musical Tony in 2008. Melbourne independent company StageArt presents the Australian premiere and it's an absolute winner. It nails the tone of a show that's rooted in New York, shows how to cast place-specific pieces, and explodes with amazing talent.

With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also starred in the Broadway production), its first professional production was in 2005, it was on off-Broadway in 2007 and on Broadway from 2008 to 2011. It won more a few more Tonys, a couple of Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Set in the mostly-Latino area of Washington Heights in New York, it's the story of Usnavi (Stephen Lopez), who still runs the tiny bodega (corner store) his immigrant parents bought and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. What keeps him there is no money, his young cousin (Andrew Doyle), his adopted abuela (Francesca Arena) and the hope that local girl Vanessa (Bianca Baykara) might notice that she never has to pay for her coffee. Meanwhile, the Rosario family (Clarence Marshall and Bianca Bruce) are dealing with the loss of their taxi business when their daughter (Anna Francesca Armenia) drops out of Standford and falls for their non-Latino employee (James Elmer), and the local unisex salon is moving to the Bronx and taking staff (Laura Marcucci and Sarah Calsina) are going with it. Too much is changing when Usnavi finds out that someone in the neighbourhood has won $96 000 in the lottery.

The book, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, works out a bit too easily, but it's overcome by the music and the undying passion for the place and people that created it.

The cast, also including Peter Sette, Gareth Jacobs and an awesome ensemble, and the off-stage band are simply sensational. There are some rough edges and over-earnest moments, but there isn't a weak link on the stage as everyone pours heart, understanding and energy into a work that they obviously love.

James Culter's direction keeps the story on track and the characters real, and Cameron Thomas's musical direction lets the music beat the emotion of every song (from Latin to Hip-Hop to Rap) and develops very good sound in the notoriously-difficult Chapel off Chapel theatre. Meanwhile, Yvette Lee's choreography creates so much energy that it's a wonder the theatre stays grounded.

In The Heights could fill a much bigger stage and venue, so take advantage of the relative intimacy of Chapel off Chapel. It's a show that is unlikely to get a commercial production in Australia, but if anyone's looking, this one is ready to go.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

23 February 2015

Review: Psychopomp & Seething

Psychopomp & Seething
Barking Spider Visual Theatre, MUST
18 February 2015
La Mama Courthouse
to 1 March 2015

Kate Brennan. Seething. Photo by Sarah Walker

Psychopomp & Seething begins by taking the audience on a ride in the La Mama Courthouse. It's not a hold on and scream ride, but you do move and it ends in pure darkness.

And it gets darker.

Seething, the first piece, opens with an older woman (Vanessa O'Neil) with long blond-grey hair in a sound booth with a red-velvet curtained wall. She's reading a poem that's easy to listen to as music rather than words. When a younger dancer (Kate Brennan), with a recently shaven head, comes into the empty space between the booth and audience, her presence feels slightly intrusive until it's clear that she's dancing to the words being spoken.

These are words about bodies and love and how we blame our bodies for being imperfect and not deserving of love. It's somehow comforting and confronting as the two woman are compared to but rely on each other.

The words are by Penelope Bartlau. Using the musical nature of words and poetry, it's writing that's meant to be heard rather than read, and the kind that you to listen to with far more than your ears. She says that the works come from a mix of dreams, her own experiences and the experiences of her friends. This blend of dream and reality makes for a familiar unease because even when we wake up, we hold the too-real emotional experience of our dreams, and that emotion is never too far from a wide-awake truth.

This becomes more evident in Psychopomp.

Aislinn Murray. Psychopomp. Photo by Sarah Walker

This piece was developed by Barking Spider at Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) last year. Directed and designed by Jason Lehane, who is also the MUST Technical Manager, the cast and crew are/were MUST members.

Recently, The Age published an opinion piece that associated student theatre with "young things running around with their underpants on their heads". I doubt that writer sees student theatre made in Melbourne. This is the second work in this year's La Mama program that was developed through MUST. Although often raw, the new theatre by students in this city (Deakin and Melbourne as much as Monash) is exciting and dangerous and is created with an understanding that theatre and storytelling are so much more than well-written words on a stage.

The stage in Psychopomp is a two by two square box. The first signs of life from the four boxes are noises that become the voices of four people, or animals.

Designer, and director, Jason Lehane has created a world that's distant but impossible not to be drawn into. While Seething uses the emptiness of the space, Psychopomp is confined and impossible to escape from. By boxing in the boxes and the audience, there's no where else to look and it's easy to imagine that this four are a few among endless unseen boxes.

Each box contains a teller who's compelled to tell their story. Captured in their own worlds, the intricate design (costume and set) and exquisite lighting hint at the contained secrets. There's a warm nest, a lush garden and two darker more-empty spaces that become vivid as imaginations fill in the un-lit horror.

Unaware of each other or the watching eyes, each tell a story about a death. And while they are beautiful to hear, they are mildly traumatic to feel.

Actors James Cerche, Nicola Grear, Aislinn Murray and Lindsay Templeton are the four storytellers. Each bring a remarkable emotional understanding to their stories. With writing that isn't a simple narrative and direction that ensure the wholeness of the picture, they bring all of themselves to their story while working together like a musical quartet to let their stories overlap with sound and meaning.

Psychopomp & Seething is a work that stays with you long after you've left. Being unsure where you are in a well-known space can be unnerving, and, as it's devised to be listened to as sound as much as words, it's easy to simply experience being there. But the truth of what was told will catch up with you because it's made to be seen and felt as much as heard.

There are limited seats for each performance and no room to expand, so book for this one. And, when the timing is right, also book for The Unspoken Word is Joe around the corner at the La Mama theatre.

This was on Aussietheatre.com.au.

20 February 2015

Review: The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman
Victorian Opera
14 February 2015
Palais Theatre
to 19 February

Victorian Opera. The Flying Dutchman. Photo by Jeff Busby

Opera at the magnificent sea-side Palais Theatre with the audience wearing 3D glasses! Victorian Opera are sure giving us a new look at Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

Close to his home in Norway, captain Daland (Warick Fyfe) takes shelter in a fjord where a huge and red ship pulls alongside. With the promise of riches, he doesn't notice its ghosty appearance and offers his daughter (Senta, Lori Phillips) to the Dutchman Captain (Oskar Hillebrandt, who has sung the role over 400 times in 45 productions around the world). This actually turns out better than expected because on shore Senta dreams of the legend of The Flying Dutchman ghost ship and its dreamy captain, but she already has a suitor, Eric (Bradley Daley).

Dutchman is one of Wagner's early works and is difficult to stage because the first act is set on a moving ship mid-ocean and the final act brings ghosts. The problems have been conquered with a team of animators and designers from 3D Image Design & Creation Deakin Motion. With three screens on the stage, we're brought onto and into the ships and it feels almost like being in a live computer game.

This is combined with a simple and somewhat traditional design of heavy wood (Matt Scott and Christina Smith) that makes it feel like we're at the Palais not long after it opened in 1927. The combination of the two styles works wonderfully to create a solid and unmovable world that's lost to a world of dreams. Unfortunately the costumes feel out of place. Unnecessarily attached to the late nineteenth century, the women look especially frumpy and not part of the stage world that feels so at home in the huge and crumbling Art Deco theatre.

Although the design is what's bringing attention to this show, there's no holding back from Victorian Opera in the creation of Wagner's opera.

The absolute highlight of the work is the Australian Youth Orchestra, who almost overfill the pit that's not much lower than the stage. Conductor Richard Mills leads them in creating a sound that fills the huge space. The sounds's not as rich as a professional orchestra who know Wagner inside out, but they bring a freshness to the music that's rarely heard. (I should also say that I was close enough to hear Mills singing along, so I don't know if the sound travelled to the back of the C Reserve balcony.)

On stage, Fyfe (who was a favourite in Wagner's Das Rheingold in 2013) continues to master Wagner as a singer and an actor, and Phillips holds onto Senta's indecision and dilemma until the last scene. Director Roger Hodgman lets the story come first on the stage by ensuring that the projections only take over when they need to and by letting everyone in the chorus be as important in the telling as those up front.

Wagner's music is demanding to listen to and his stories about how humans and the supernatural/divine interact are equally as demanding. This combination of traditional opera story-telling, young orchestra and whizz-band new technology grasps it all. This is the kind of production that makes old-school opera exciting and fresh.

There are only three performances and the only one left is this Thursday, 19 February.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

19 February 2015

Review: Blak Cabaret

Blak Cabaret
Malthouse Theatre & Summersalt Festival
11 February 2015
Malthouse forecourt
to 22 February

It's worth seeing Blak Cabaret to hang outside in the Malthouse forecourt, and it's impossible not to love Kahmahi Djordon King in a frock.

Conceived by Jason Yamiru, Blak Cabaret is part loud, brash and sequins, and part heart, land and song. The combination of songs that hurt to hear and satire (written by Nikkiah Lui) that can hurt to watch is what makes cabaret a form than can change views of the world.

Black queen, Queen Constantina Bush (frocked up magnificently by Chloe Greaves) arrives in white Australia and declares it terra nullius. With assistant Nikki Ashby, making hip hop hipper, and keeping her out of line, Queen Constantina dismisses disgusting white culture, fake apologises and insists that the audience prove that they are white. We're drinking fizz at the opening night of an Indigenous cabaret in Melbourne's inner city: oh yeah, we're white.

It's funny and lots of fun, but it's satire that grabs the obvious and doesn't have that biting reflection of something like the "take a selfie with a black kid" in 2015's Hipbone Sticking Out. It's satirising those silly white people who don't get it, rather than us who drink at Indigenous cabaret shows and claim to understand.

The heart comes in with Deline Briscoe, Emma Donavan, Kutcha Edwards and Bart Willoughby playing and singing. Willoughby formed No Fixed Address (Australia's first Indigenous rock band) in 1978 and has been playing and performing all over the world, and teaching and mentoring, ever since. He's one of those performers who you've probably seen (he been in things like Wim Wender's film Until the End of the World) but don't know his name. I've been looking at his website; I had no idea he'd done so much. Look him up. He's pretty amazing.

Luckily the stormed out night has passed and the weather is looking good for the rest of week. Blak Cabaret is a lovely start to the Malthouse's year and let's hope for a tear of more experiments, diverse voices and risks.

This was on AussieTheatre.com