Reviews - A survival guide for theatre makers
NOTE: I would like to state unequivocally that I think reviewing is an essential part of the theatre making process and that this is not intended as an attack on reviewers or reviews. I don’t expect any reviewer to change their way of writing reviews. This is simply a guide for theatre makers so that you can read all the reviews (good and bad) you like and maintain a healthy perspective on your own hard work.
Following my experience with These Trees Of Blood, (a show that captured an array of reactions from critics from being the best theatre they had ever seen to being downright awful), I have learnt to take the opinions of reviews with more than a pinch of salt.(Down Jasper Mountbatten III, down I say!!!) It seems to be that my work continues to split opinion from 5 star to 2 star quite starkly. I’ve come to be alright with that, surely it is best to live on the edge as opposed to safe within a bubble?
But how do you survive such conflict of opinion? Or even how do you maintain your perspective in the case of overwhelmingly negative or even overwhelmingly positive reviews?
The first thing to do is to remember that is just opinion. You’ve been told that before by people who love you. And it’s absolutely true.
In my own experience, I think probably the best example of the fact that a review is no more or less than one person’s opinion has come from my latest show at the RSC’s Mischief Festival, The Day of the Living. What makes this slightly more relevant to the opinion argument is that it is part of a double bill, with #Wearearrested, a play based on the memoirs of journalist Can Dundar.
Have a look below and do read the reviews that I mention for yourself and you will find ample evidence of this…
The Guardian praised #Wearearrested, didn’t like Day of the Living.
The Stage praised Day of the Living, didn’t like #Wearearrested.
One review praises a particular song (“Not Not Normal”) from the show.
A different review singles a particular song (“Not Not Normal”) out as one that doesn’t work.
What’s even more wonderful is that the reasons The Guardian reviewer gives for her praise and dislike are precisely the opposite of the reasons The Stage reviewer gives for his praise and dislike.
So why am I talking about this again?
Because it’s an important mental health issue for theatre makers.
It’s not talked about enough and I know from my own experience and from conversations with my colleagues that a healthy perspective on the review process is absolutely essential for the good mental health of the artists involved, so we can all continue making theatre.
So what can you do to help yourself?
1. The Personal Approach.
Refer to reviewers by their first names (Hello Natalie and Ben, nice to e-meet you!). By so doing you have vastly diminished the power they have to affect you (both positively and negatively). These voices then no longer become a representation of a vast organisation of theatre experts. They become what they actually are. One person’s opinion, no more, no less. And as a human being they come with all the brilliance, individuality, flaws, hopes, baggage and history that people come with. It is also important to remember that a reviewer has come to the theatre with a purpose beyond that of experiencing the show. They have come to relay their thoughts and opinions to a further audience and you should keep that in mind. Yes, they have a larger reach of audience and thereby the ability to affect the future life of your show, but it’s important to remember that such things are irrelevant when it comes to how you should feel about your own work.
2. Fact and Opinion
Unfortunately, one of the reasons reviews can be so painful to read and also so wonderful to read is that established review style and the requirement to stick to a word limit means that reviews often state opinions as fact. They will say something “is this” or “is that”. Which simply isn’t true. The truth is that in their opinion they think something “is this” or “is that”. Which is a completely different beast.
So another helpful technique of putting reviews in the healthy place of your mind is this. Every time you see a sentence in a review that states an opinion as fact (and it will be almost every sentence) all you need to do is put the phrase “I think that…” in front of it.
What reviewer says:
“There is no doubting the production’s sincerity and commitment, but it isn’t quite enough.”
What reviewer means:
“I think that there is no doubting the production’s sincerity and commitment, but it isn’t quite enough for me.”
I’m sure that most reviewers know that they do this and take it for granted that theatre makers understand it. But from numerous conversations I’ve had with other makers of theatre, it’s clear that we all need to be reminded of this regularly.
So, theatre makers do yourself a favour, go back through your shows and find the worst review and the best review you’ve ever been given. Count how many opinions have been stated as fact and then open a big bottle of bubbly. Now, you’re free!! Of course on some level we all know that a review is only one person’s opinion, but the collective power of the written word is such that we can very easily forget it if not reminded.
3. The Downside (or Upside)
Just so you know, you don’t get to have it both ways! If a negative review is just opinion and not fact then you better be damn sure that a positive review is just opinion and not fact. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If someone says your the King of Broadway or the next Andrew Lloyd Webber, that’s just one person’s opinion. But the good thing about this is your brain won’t swing so wildly from joy to misery when twenty different people’s opinions appear on the internet about your work.
4. A Final Word
If the majority of people’s opinions are that your show doesn’t work, then maybe it’s worth looking at it again. Lyn (you know who I’m talking about) once reviewed a show of mine with some very helpful observations that we as theatre makers agreed with, we made the show better as a result.
It could be argued that the people reviewing for larger, more famous publications are more experienced and have been to more theatre than your average Joe. But theatre is not science, it is not mathematics. True you can study it and practise it but thankfully there are no correct or wrong answers in the theatre and there never will be.
Certainly, a reviewer who writes for a living gets more skilful at writing reviews… but you can’t practise your opinion.