Rushing in to fill the void left by the departure of alt-weeklies, the Beer Tent Reviews (BTR) zine just landed at the 2019 Edmonton Fringe. The zine is print-only and the reviews are words-only – no star rankings. (My thoughts on this glorious development here.) I was part of its team of veteran Fringe reviewers (and alt-weekly expats), which also included Andrew Paul (who co-founded the zine with Trent Wilkie), Fawnda Mithrush, Paul Matwychuk and Michael Hingston.
The zine is circulating around the Fringe grounds as we speak – look for it in the beer tents (obviously) and select venues.
Here’s a Q&A with Andrew for the inside scoop on the project. (My questions are the headings and his answers are the text underneath, just in case that wasn’t obvious.)
How did the project come about? Who’s behind it?
I was helping Trent Wilkie produce The Undad Podcast when we heard that VUE Weekly was going to close in November 2018. We had both worked in Edmonton’s alt-weekly scene over the years and knew that its closure was going to be a major loss for Edmonton’s arts communities, particularly the theatre scene during the Fringe.
We floated the idea around to a few people and their response was very positive. So, we started sketching out what the zine would look like and the kind of content we wanted to include. Edmonton Community Foundation came on board to sponsor the printing and when that happened, we knew we were set to turn the idea into reality.
It’s technically not print-only. Many of the writers we have on the team have been posting their reviews to their own blogs, websites and social media channels. One of the goals of the zine was to find experienced theatre reviewers with their own online blogs and provide them with a print platform to run a selection of reviews they were already going to be writing. We were only able to afford to print 64 reviews but if you follow our writers, you’ll be able to find a lot more of their reviews that we didn’t print.
We will be looking into developing a website for BTR next year when we have a little more capacity to manage and maintain it properly.
Why no star ratings?
Assigning a numeric value to art is inherently problematic. Star ratings tend to strip away the nuance and thoughtfulness behind a writer’s reviews. We want our readers to spend time reading a review to get a better understanding of a show. Our goal is to provide our readers with information to help them decide which shows they should spend their hard-earned dollars on.
Who did the reviews?
We are so lucky to have a team of nine experienced theatre writers collaborating with us on BTR. Given the number of shows at the Fringe, publications must cobble together massive teams of writers to try and cover as much as possible. The problem is that many of these writers do not have experience reviewing theatre. The results can be pretty cringe-worthy and embarrassing for the publications.
Fortunately, BTR was able to approach reviewers who have years of experience covering the Fringe. Many of them come from the trenches of SEE and VUE when those papers would review every single show at the Fringe.
Paul Matwychuk was my editor at SEE Magazine back in the day. He used to quarterback the production of SEE’s every-show-reviewed special issue. That issue would hit the Fringe grounds on the first Monday of the festival. It was under his editorial eye that I learned the ropes of covering Fringe. And his editorial process very much influenced how we brought BTR together this year. It was great to have him on board to write for BTR.
We also have folks like Fawnda Mithrush, who has been covering theatre and the arts for more than a decade; and Michael Hingston, who has been bringing his kids to help review Theatre for Young Audience shows for years.
This whole project has sort of been like getting the band back together.
How much did it cost to make? How did you pay for it?
The issue cost a total of $5,930 to bring together and print. We cannot thank Edmonton Community Foundation enough for sponsoring the printing bill. This allowed us to allocate all our ad revenue to paying our writers and JoAnne Pearce, our art director.
What was the most challenging part?
Production day was the most challenging given the sheer number of hours Trent, JoAnne and I spent laying out and proofing the zine. We’ve been through this process hundreds of times before, but it’s always an exciting pressure cooker meeting that print deadline. We were up until 5am on Monday proofing so we could get the file over to Capital Colour by 9am. I have to give a huge shout out to JoAnne, who absolutely nailed the look of the zine. She went above and beyond to help make this happen.
Will you do it next year?
We want to! And if everything goes well, we would like to expand the zine to cover more shows. We’ll also be looking at expanding our online presence.
What has the reception been so far?
So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive. When we arrived on the grounds to start distributing, we were stopped by a security guard at the north beer tent. He said, “You’re finally here! I’ve had 20 people asking me where Beer Tent Reviews are today.”
The only complaint we’ve received is from artists who weren’t covered in the issue – which is a complaint we’re happy to receive. Hopefully we can include even more shows next year.
Go see some Fringe shows, people!
Here is a list of the 2019 BTR team and where you can find them online:
Andrew Paul – publisher
Trent Wilkie – editor
JoAnne Pearce – art director
Mel Priestley (you are here)