I am writing in response to no particular review or reviewer. I have been fortunate to have had a sizeable number of reviews written about my work over my career so far and this is a cumulative thought upon my own reaction to the more negative ones of which there have been several.
First of all though, I want to tell you a story...
When I was 21 years old, I was in the Dunedin Operatic Society production of Les Miserables. I loved every second of it. I was "at" university during the day and treading the boards in one of my favourite shows at night. I would finish performing at about 11.30pm, then we'd all go and get drunk next door and then I would stumble along the high street, stop at McDonalds to buy a 20 pack of chicken nuggets and then continue to wander drunkenly home. High on the euphoria of that heady combination of youth, hard liquor, the glow of the footlights and whatever the hell it is they put in chicken nuggets, I dripped along the high street in a state of happy delirium. The world was my oyster, all was right with the world...
I thought I'd imagined it... but no, I had definitely heard that word. I happened to hear it at about the same time as something bumped into my shoulder. It was a wide, almost deserted footpath so there seemed to be no reason why the shoulder barger should have needed to barge me, but there it was...
So... I could have continued down the street, eating my nuggets in peace. But I couldn't leave it alone. I stopped. I turned and shouted after them... "What did you call me?" I'm not sure why that particular question popped into my mind, especially because I knew exactly what they'd called me. They'd called me a cunt. In fact they'd said it quite clearly. What was it I was expecting from this particular interchange? I was effectively throwing a glove down upon the floor, my archaic notion of honour had been challenged. "Pick your weapon sir. Nuggets at twenty paces. Very well! Turn and throw you scoundrel!"
I had hoped of course that my "What did you call me?" challenge would either go unnoticed (in which case I win) or that I would elicit some sort of apology from my assailant (in which case I would also win). But every person reading this right now, knows that neither of those two things happened that night.
What happened was this... the fellow turned around and started walking back towards me. When he was about four inches from my face he answered my question... What did he call me?
"I called you a cunt."
Then he slapped me in the face and ran off down the street.
Apart from the time myself and a few friends decided to recreate fight club on the streets of Wellington, which resulted in a face being smashed into a cash point, this is the only instance of violence that has been inflicted upon me by a stranger. I suppose I should count myself lucky that it hasn't happened more often...
So dearest reviewer... I'm sure you understand where I'm going with this extended metaphor. Well, just in case it wasn't clear. You are the stranger that met me that dark night and whilst I was in a blissful state of euphoria, you called me a cunt, slapped me in the face and ran off down the street. I never knew who it was who interrupted by nuggetorial wonderland, just as it is likely I will never know you. But be aware, just like that midnight assault almost 16 years ago, your words will not be forgotten.
Reviews are very strange things. I love them and hate them. I crave them and despise them. I avoid them like the plague and yet I am drawn to them like a moth to the flame. Each one has the potential to make me grin with delight or sink into the depths of despair. It's the possibility, the hope, that I love so much... the hope that someone, somewhere, a complete stranger understands what I am trying to do.
Because believe it or not, generally speaking, writers don't intend to write sub-standard shows. We don't intend to write even a great show. I can't speak for others but I aspire to write exceptional work. I might not ever succeed in that aspiration, but it remains the full-blooded intention of every piece of work I engage with. This intention, this aspiration may not seem particularly important to you, but it should be. I'll tell you why.
Aspiration beyond means is the lifeblood of human endeavour. It should be praised. Not ridiculed, because if it is careless with it we may miss out on something truly great. You may argue that any artist who hopes to have a career should have a thick skin. I disagree. The only reason we have developed our thick rhinoceros-like hide is because of you. But that doesn't mean that's the way it has to be...
I am not by any means trying to curb your self-expression, or your opinion, or your right to say whatever the hell you please about whatever the hell you like. I appreciate that you are an artist as well, that in every review you put a piece of yourself out there. I appreciate that. However, there is a difference. I just spent years writing a show, your work was a matter of hours. It's not a criticism. That's just a fact and it can't be argued about. And it may be the case that yes, my show was terrible in your opinion. My question to you is this:
Is there a better, more useful way of saying what you have to say?
I'm not a reviewer so I don't know if this is possible. But as a composer and lyricist it's a question I grapple with every minute of my working life. Can I rewrite this line so my audience will understand it better? Can that lyric sing more? Can that melody shine a little brighter with just a little more work? What is the best way in which I can express my aspirations in the time available to me? Sometimes it's just the choice of word that can make all the difference...
You are writing for an audience. The general theatre going public. I wonder if you also know that I am part of your audience. I know you can't please everyone, good lord I know that much, and I know you shouldn't try to please everyone. People can be hard to please after all, but it's just something to consider. The writer is your audience too, whether you want us to be or not, I'm afraid you don't get to choose. And I think that can only be a good thing.
Because I believe, you owe something to the aspirations of the work you are reviewing. You don't owe the work anything at all. But without those tragic, ever-failing, star-clutching, podium-grabbing aspirations, where would we all be? It doesn't bear thinking about. Treat your review like the work of art that the show you are reviewing is trying so desperately to be. You don't have to respect the work itself, but give the aspirations their due. They are trying their best to be beautiful.
A writers aspiration to create great work deserves to be nurtured, not strangled.
And to return to my earlier metaphor. By all means, slap me in the face and call me a cunt. But then give me a friendly wink and a "You can do it!" pat on the back as well. Please don't just run off into the dark Dunedin night.
I may never well "do it!" but I'll want to keep trying and isn't that the important thing?
PS. I am prepared for an absolute slew of "you don't know what you're talking about" from all you reviewers out there in theatre land if you catch wind of it. And I also realise that I'm putting myself in a hole by asking reviewers for something which I have no right to ask of them. The fact is, I'd love to chat with you guys more about it, I'd love to hear the opinion of the reviewer. As a non-reviewer myself I'd love to get to know a bit more about your craft.