Interview With British Theatre Critic Debbie Gilpin

EXCEPTIONAL/PERSONA
by Anastasiya Kharchishena
20.12.2020
Debbie Gilpin started her way from the blog on WordPress and now she is constantly invited to review British theatrical performances. Anastasiya Kharchishena talked to the critic to learn about her professional path and to speak about the difficulties which theatres faced during coronavirus restrictions.
— How did you get interested in theater? Why did you decide to blog?
— I went to a few shows when I was younger (mostly school productions, with my friends in the cast, and also pantomimes put on by local communities), but I didn't get into theatre properly until 2012. I'm a big fan of the TV show Being Human, and one of the lead actors (Damien Molony) was starring in a play at the National Theatre so I thought I'd give it a go! A few weeks later I booked a short break to London to see Tom Chambers (my favourite Strictly Come Dancing winner) in Top Hat, and kept visiting the capital regularly until I decided it would be cheaper to move there rather than waste money on hotels each month.

As for the blogging, I had a dormant science blog on WordPress and that allows you to start various blogs under one username, so I set up a non-science blog. I had seen the musical Sunny Afternoon several times so thought it would be nice to write about it, and the rest is history! I had some lovely feedback from the cast, who had found it themselves, and I continued to regularly write about the show. A network of theatre bloggers found me and I suddenly started getting invites to review shows, so I've been learning on the job ever since.
— How did you come up with the name for your blog?
– Initially it was supposed to be a blog about things I got up to in London, or stuff that I wanted to complain about, so I needed a London-related name for the blog. It comes from the announcement that plays on the Tube at each station: «Mind the gap» became 'Mind the Blog'. It's short and memorable — and also now makes me think of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind The B*******, and the TV programme Never Mind The Buzzcocks!
— There is a lot of competition in this area. Were you afraid of the lack of followers? Or do you target a small group of people?
– There is definitely a lot more competition now than there was even when I started in 2014, though the beauty of blogs is that they don't have to follow any particular rules, so there are many different subsets of theatre blogs depending on the style and content people choose to provide. In an ideal world I would have more followers as it could allow me to monetise it in even a small way; unlike many of the theatre bloggers I know who are either students or have part-time jobs, I work full-time so there is only so much I can do to try and grow my audience without neglecting my writing. It's also a sad fact that some bloggers just want the publicity so will make their reviews more positive to get their names on posters, rather than be critical — I'm sure my honesty has cost me a few followers, but I'd rather attract people who trust my opinion and value my integrity. Ultimately I do it because I enjoy writing and believe I am good at it, and the fact that my hits are going up slowly but surely each year is a bonus!
— What do you think of the eligibility criteria for the Oscars? On the one hand, society wants to expand the horizons for people, to show how diverse they are. But do you think that cinema will cease to be diverse, will turn into a template, the violation of which will lead to a scandal in society? Do you think these criteria will threaten theaters in the future?
– As much as I'd prefer there not to be quotas, as it has the potential to make some people feel as if they've only been picked because they tick a certain box, it's clear that something needed to be done to try and encourage a wider range of nominations. I can't be massively specific as my film knowledge needs more work, but I know there have been plenty of worthy female directors who have been ignored over recent years — Greta Gerwig & Josie Rourke, for example. Representation matters, even if it doesn't result in a win, as you won't get diversity from the grassroots up if the inspiration isn't there at the highest level — it makes you think doors are closed and it'll be too hard to get anywhere. Interestingly, though, because the new criteria sort of have loopholes in them they may not make that much difference — I think only a handful of recent winners or nominees wouldn't make the cut. So is this just another example of performative allyship? Only time will tell.

It's all about balance. I don't need every production to do genderblind casting in modern-dress, say, but I also don't want the majority of films or shows to have white men as its prominent characters or voices; it's not representative of the world, and is also just rather dull. The Show Must Go Online is a great demonstration of this, as it has shown time and time again that you can get phenomenal performances from the most unexpected of places, and tell stories you didn't know were there.

I also tend to use shows and films to learn more about the world; it's definitely the easiest way to pick up things about cultures and countries you may not encounter in real life, and the greater the diversity of voices that can be heard the better.
— I've read your feedback on the ShowMustGoOnline production. What do you think about online theaters? Is it possible that actors will have to present new performances in an empty auditorium constantly? Will it be enough for the audience to watch the show via the Internet?
– When it's done as well as The Show Must Go Online, it's definitely the best substitute for the situation in which we find ourselves. In fact, thanks to TSMGO, I didn't really miss theatre at all! I was impressed by the early-adopting theatres that started streaming shows from empty auditoriums over the summer, partly for their brilliant choices and partly that they were being proactive while influential voices were mostly complaining.

For those of us who enjoy live performance, it won't be enough to just have online productions, as there is something about gathering in a space with real people to watch other real people; when I went to my first show in six months I realised what I had missed was laughing and crying with a group of strangers, and locking eyes with a performer who makes it feel as if they're talking to you and you alone.

I do hope Zoom theatre continues even when it's not the only option, as it has become a genre in itself, sitting neatly between television and theatre. The companies that have sprung up have become incredibly inventive and I'd love to see what else they could come up with. It would also be nice if shows could be streamed to homes, whether the auditorium is empty or full — sometimes you want to see a show but can't face getting home at midnight after a three-hour performance. Any online theatre is also great for increasing accessibility; plenty of people who ordinarily couldn't afford a ticket or might not think it was their thing have been trying online theatre out and finding a previously unknown interest. This can only be a good thing as we seek to increase diversity in audiences and in future performers and creatives.
— Has there been a performance from which you expected much more? Why did it disappoint you? What would you have changed?
– I try to shield myself from expectations as much as possible, so I'm as fair as I can be about the show (especially when I'm reviewing), but sometimes it's inevitable that you'll have high hopes for a particular show or bit of casting.

In terms of shows, there are a couple. As I loved the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon and also liked The Small Faces' music I was excited to see the jukebox show of their back catalogue (All or Nothing) - however, the writer was also the director and had one of the starring roles. This controlling move is rarely good for a show, as objectivity goes out of the window and it becomes a vanity project. Basically what this show needed was a dramaturg (to clean the script up and make it less derivative) and to cut out all the non-Small Faces songs. Another big disappointment was the revival of Girl From The North Country (a show which held profound meaning for me). I'd always seen it as a play with music, but the new version wanted to push it as a musical and cast mostly musical theatre actors - it completely lost its soul. Some would overdo the riffing, one shouted a song rather than singing it - I ended up crying because it was so bad, rather than it tugging at my emotions.

In terms of acting, I have to bring up Mark Rylance. I'd seen him onstage before and loved his performances, thinking his casting as Iago in Othello at the Globe in 2018 was ideal - unfortunately from the first scene you could tell he was just going through the motions. He seemed to be playing it for comedy the whole time, rather than at carefully planned points, which resulted in the audience collapsing with laughter right up to the end; it let the rest of the company down, as any tension they managed to create got destroyed each time he provoked a giggle.
— Have you ever wanted to try yourself as a Theatre Director?
– I'm not sure about that. I definitely have ideas for concepts for productions of older plays (mostly Shakespeare) and have developed a reasonable eye for casting, but I don't know whether I'd want to take charge of the whole thing — there would be so much to learn as someone who's mostly been a spectator. I think I'd prefer to try my hand at writing a play, as I've also had some ideas of books to adapt and other subjects that would be interesting to watch onstage – this would be playing slightly more to my strengths.
— On Instagram, many of your posts are dedicated to Shakespeare. Is he your favorite writer? In which way is he close to you? Which character from Shakespeare's world do you associate yourself with?
– There's definitely been a lot of Shakespeare recently as his work has proven to be very popular during theatre shutdown! He probably is my favourite writer; he's certainly the one I'm most familiar with, having studied his work since I was about 13, and I've seen a lot of Shakespeare plays & other adaptations over the years.

The big turning point was probably my first trip to the Globe — coincidentally my first experience of Emma Rice's work, as it was her 'Dream' in 2016 that introduced me to the space. I discovered then that I'm not a Shakespeare purist, by any means; what's most important to me is the storytelling and ensuring the meaning of the words come through – if it makes his work more accessible to change words and cut scenes then I'm all for it. Shakespeare truly did understand the human condition, which is why parallels from the present day can be made to any of his plays — I particularly enjoy finding the political aspects of his stories which can help to explain what we're going through now.

There's a bit of Viola (Twelfth Night) in me, for sure; I admire her approach of allowing events to play out and hoping that time will ensure everything turns out alright (sometimes), plus she's disguised as a man for nearly all of the play in order to make her way in the world and be treated as an equal — something most women can still identify with as the world is designed with men as the default. As something of an outsider throughout my life, I can identify with Feste (also Twelfth Night) as we both enjoy a bit of wordplay — though I get the feeling I occasionally come across as a bit of a Nick Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) when I get too enthusiastic about my interests around other people!
— Tell me about the hero of your Instagram — your Shakespeare teddy bear. Who presented it to you?
– He really has stolen my thunder! He was a birthday or Christmas gift from my parents from about 10 years ago; I'm not sure exactly why I was so keen on having him at that point as I wasn't as into Shakespeare then — but I have always loved history (especially the Tudors), so that probably influenced it. I didn't have room to bring him with me when I moved to London, so he's waiting on one of my old bookshelves until I can rescue him!
— What was your favorite toy in your childhood?
– I think it's a tie between two... My oldest soft toy was a Mickey Mouse — you can definitely see he's worn down over the years! I was absolutely obsessed with Wallace & Gromit when I was younger, though my favourite character was the cheeky Shaun the Sheep. I bought myself a plush Shaun once I'd saved up the money, and I still have him to this day!
 
Interview With British Theatre Critic Debbie Gilpin
EXCEPTIONAL/PERSONA
by Anastasiya Kharchishena
20.12.2020
Debbie Gilpin started her way from the blog on WordPress and now she is constantly invited to review British theatrical performances. Anastasiya Kharchishena talked to the critic to learn about her professional path and to speak about the difficulties which theatres faced during coronavirus restrictions.
— How did you get interested in theater? Why did you decide to blog?
— I went to a few shows when I was younger (mostly school productions, with my friends in the cast, and also pantomimes put on by local communities), but I didn't get into theatre properly until 2012. I'm a big fan of the TV show Being Human, and one of the lead actors (Damien Molony) was starring in a play at the National Theatre so I thought I'd give it a go! A few weeks later I booked a short break to London to see Tom Chambers (my favourite Strictly Come Dancing winner) in Top Hat, and kept visiting the capital regularly until I decided it would be cheaper to move there rather than waste money on hotels each month.

As for the blogging, I had a dormant science blog on WordPress and that allows you to start various blogs under one username, so I set up a non-science blog. I had seen the musical Sunny Afternoon several times so thought it would be nice to write about it, and the rest is history! I had some lovely feedback from the cast, who had found it themselves, and I continued to regularly write about the show. A network of theatre bloggers found me and I suddenly started getting invites to review shows, so I've been learning on the job ever since.
— How did you come up with the name for your blog?
– Initially it was supposed to be a blog about things I got up to in London, or stuff that I wanted to complain about, so I needed a London-related name for the blog. It comes from the announcement that plays on the Tube at each station: «Mind the gap» became 'Mind the Blog'. It's short and memorable — and also now makes me think of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind The B*******, and the TV programme Never Mind The Buzzcocks!
— There is a lot of
competition in this area. Were you afraid of the lack
of followers? Or do you
target a small group
of people?
– There is definitely a lot more competition now than there was even when I started in 2014, though the beauty of blogs is that they don't have to follow any particular rules, so there are many different subsets of theatre blogs depending on the style and content people choose to provide. In an ideal world I would have more followers as it could allow me to monetise it in even a small way; unlike many of the theatre bloggers I know who are either students or have part-time jobs, I work full-time so there is only so much I can do to try and grow my audience without neglecting my writing. It's also a sad fact that some bloggers just want the publicity so will make their reviews more positive to get their names on posters, rather than be critical — I'm sure my honesty has cost me a few followers, but I'd rather attract people who trust my opinion and value my integrity. Ultimately I do it because I enjoy writing and believe I am good at it, and the fact that my hits are going up slowly but surely each year is a bonus!
— What do you think of
the eligibility criteria for
the Oscars? On the one hand, society wants to expand
the horizons for people,
to show how diverse they are. But do you think that cinema will cease to be diverse, will turn into
a template, the violation of which will lead to a scandal in society? Do you think these criteria will threaten theaters in the future?
– As much as I'd prefer there not to be quotas, as it has the potential to make some people feel as if they've only been picked because they tick a certain box, it's clear that something needed to be done to try and encourage a wider range of nominations. I can't be massively specific as my film knowledge needs more work, but I know there have been plenty of worthy female directors who have been ignored over recent years — Greta Gerwig & Josie Rourke, for example. Representation matters, even if it doesn't result in a win, as you won't get diversity from the grassroots up if the inspiration isn't there at the highest level — it makes you think doors are closed and it'll be too hard to get anywhere. Interestingly, though, because the new criteria sort of have loopholes in them they may not make that much difference — I think only a handful of recent winners or nominees wouldn't make the cut. So is this just another example of performative allyship? Only time will tell.

It's all about balance. I don't need every production to do genderblind casting in modern-dress, say, but I also don't want the majority of films or shows to have white men as its prominent characters or voices; it's not representative of the world, and is also just rather dull. The Show Must Go Online is a great demonstration of this, as it has shown time and time again that you can get phenomenal performances from the most unexpected of places, and tell stories you didn't know were there.

I also tend to use shows and films to learn more about the world; it's definitely the easiest way to pick up things about cultures and countries you may not encounter in real life, and the greater the diversity of voices that can be heard the better.
— I've read your feedback
on the ShowMustGoOnline production. What do you think about online theaters? Is it possible that actors
will have to present new performances in an empty auditorium constantly?
Will it be enough for the audience to watch the show via the Internet?
– When it's done as well as The Show Must Go Online, it's definitely the best substitute for the situation in which we find ourselves. In fact, thanks to TSMGO, I didn't really miss theatre at all! I was impressed by the early-adopting theatres that started streaming shows from empty auditoriums over the summer, partly for their brilliant choices and partly that they were being proactive while influential voices were mostly complaining.

For those of us who enjoy live performance, it won't be enough to just have online productions, as there is something about gathering in a space with real people to watch other real people; when I went to my first show in six months I realised what I had missed was laughing and crying with a group of strangers, and locking eyes with a performer who makes it feel as if they're talking to you and you alone.

I do hope Zoom theatre continues even when it's not the only option, as it has become a genre in itself, sitting neatly between television and theatre. The companies that have sprung up have become incredibly inventive and I'd love to see what else they could come up with. It would also be nice if shows could be streamed to homes, whether the auditorium is empty or full — sometimes you want to see a show but can't face getting home at midnight after a three-hour performance. Any online theatre is also great for increasing accessibility; plenty of people who ordinarily couldn't afford a ticket or might not think it was their thing have been trying online theatre out and finding a previously unknown interest. This can only be a good thing as we seek to increase diversity in audiences and in future performers and creatives.
— Has there been
a performance from which you expected much more? Why did it disappoint you? What would you have changed?
– I try to shield myself from expectations as much as possible, so I'm as fair as I can be about the show (especially when I'm reviewing), but sometimes it's inevitable that you'll have high hopes for a particular show or bit of casting.

In terms of shows, there are a couple. As I loved the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon and also liked The Small Faces' music I was excited to see the jukebox show of their back catalogue (All or Nothing) - however, the writer was also the director and had one of the starring roles. This controlling move is rarely good for a show, as objectivity goes out of the window and it becomes a vanity project. Basically what this show needed was a dramaturg (to clean the script up and make it less derivative) and to cut out all the non-Small Faces songs. Another big disappointment was the revival of Girl From The North Country (a show which held profound meaning for me). I'd always seen it as a play with music, but the new version wanted to push it as a musical and cast mostly musical theatre actors - it completely lost its soul. Some would overdo the riffing, one shouted a song rather than singing it - I ended up crying because it was so bad, rather than it tugging at my emotions.

In terms of acting, I have to bring up Mark Rylance. I'd seen him onstage before and loved his performances, thinking his casting as Iago in Othello at the Globe in 2018 was ideal - unfortunately from the first scene you could tell he was just going through the motions. He seemed to be playing it for comedy the whole time, rather than at carefully planned points, which resulted in the audience collapsing with laughter right up to the end; it let the rest of the company down, as any tension they managed to create got destroyed each time he provoked a giggle.
— Have you ever wanted
to try yourself as a Theatre Director?
– I'm not sure about that. I definitely have ideas for concepts for productions of older plays (mostly Shakespeare) and have developed a reasonable eye for casting, but I don't know whether I'd want to take charge of the whole thing — there would be so much to learn as someone who's mostly been a spectator. I think I'd prefer to try my hand at writing a play, as I've also had some ideas of books to adapt and other subjects that would be interesting to watch onstage – this would be playing slightly more to my strengths.
— On Instagram, many
of your posts are dedicated to Shakespeare. Is he your favorite writer? In which
way is he close to you?
Which character from Shakespeare's world do
you associate yourself with?
– There's definitely been a lot of Shakespeare recently as his work has proven to be very popular during theatre shutdown! He probably is my favourite writer; he's certainly the one I'm most familiar with, having studied his work since I was about 13, and I've seen a lot of Shakespeare plays & other adaptations over the years.

The big turning point was probably my first trip to the Globe — coincidentally my first experience of Emma Rice's work, as it was her 'Dream' in 2016 that introduced me to the space. I discovered then that I'm not a Shakespeare purist, by any means; what's most important to me is the storytelling and ensuring the meaning of the words come through – if it makes his work more accessible to change words and cut scenes then I'm all for it. Shakespeare truly did understand the human condition, which is why parallels from the present day can be made to any of his plays — I particularly enjoy finding the political aspects of his stories which can help to explain what we're going through now.

There's a bit of Viola (Twelfth Night) in me, for sure; I admire her approach of allowing events to play out and hoping that time will ensure everything turns out alright (sometimes), plus she's disguised as a man for nearly all of the play in order to make her way in the world and be treated as an equal — something most women can still identify with as the world is designed with men as the default. As something of an outsider throughout my life, I can identify with Feste (also Twelfth Night) as we both enjoy a bit of wordplay — though I get the feeling I occasionally come across as a bit of a Nick Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) when I get too enthusiastic about my interests around other people!
— Tell me about the hero
of your Instagram — your Shakespeare teddy bear. Who presented it to you?
– He really has stolen my thunder! He was a birthday or Christmas gift from my parents from about 10 years ago; I'm not sure exactly why I was so keen on having him at that point as I wasn't as into Shakespeare then — but I have always loved history (especially the Tudors), so that probably influenced it. I didn't have room to bring him with me when I moved to London, so he's waiting on one of my old bookshelves until I can rescue him!
— What was your favorite
toy in your childhood?
– I think it's a tie between two... My oldest soft toy was a Mickey Mouse — you can definitely see he's worn down over the years! I was absolutely obsessed with Wallace & Gromit when I was younger, though my favourite character was the cheeky Shaun the Sheep. I bought myself a plush Shaun once I'd saved up the money, and I still have him to this day!
Made on
Tilda