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.

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 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.