When you step off the well-worn path in the woods and venture forth into the brambles and briars you’re going to get lost and you're going to get hurt. That’s what happens. But what also happens is that sometimes you find something extraordinary that no one has seen before.
You bring it back for people to see. When you show people what you have found...
Some will not understand what it is...
Some will refuse to look at it because it does not fit into their vision of how the world should be...
Some will question why you needed to head off into the wild when there was a perfectly good path right in front of you…
Unfortunately, it’s usually these people who like to make their thoughts known to the rest of the world. They shout about your folly, and their voices are loud. People will listen to what they have to say, not because they are right, but because they say it with the authority of someone who simply cannot be wrong.
To those who question the need for new paths, let me tell you a short story… are you ready?
Once upon a time in a land far far away there was a deep, dark wood…
There. I told you it was short. Because, once upon a time dear reader, there were no paths, no trails or bridleways. There was just the wood… dark, ominous and forbidding. And, but for the courage and curiosity of an intrepid few that’s all it would remain, it’s treasures, beauties and gifts locked away within it’s depths forever…
But thank goodness for courage and curiosity. Because, once upon a time a storyteller stepped into that wood, cutting fearlessly with their machete, pushing aside the brambles, negotiating the gorges and fording the rivers with nothing but their expertise and their ingenuity. Because that’s what storytellers do. They are explorers of the uncharted territory. It’s why they are here. They are the pathfinders, the trailblazers, the ones who have the ideas that no one else has had.
“Fine. I get it.” the naysayers say, “But that was all a long time ago. Now there is a path through the wood. I’ve followed it, I’ve seen the treasures and the gifts and beauties. Why would you go off that trail into the wild when there’s a perfectly serviceable path in front of you?”
The storyteller, with a twinkle in their eye, beckons the naysayer close.
“Because the path isn’t going my way.”
If you know of what I speak, then may I direct you to ignore those critics mocking those who are busy making new paths to new places in the wood.
Go and see WASTED at Southwark Playhouse.
Chris Ash, Carl Miller and Adam Lenson are pushing fearlessly at the boundaries of musical theatre storytelling. They are cutting a new path into the wood and they are using all of their considerable experience, craft and ingenuity to do it. It’s full of intelligence, humour and wonder. These exceptional storymakers know how stories work, they have a huge amount of experience in creating them, they know the paths that have gone before. The choices they have made are not borne of ignorance. They know they stand on the shoulders of giants but they also know there are new paths to find. They know that their path involves danger and peril.
But it is imperative that innovative work of this kind not be dismissed simply because it is going somewhere we haven't been before. I'm not saying that the opinion of the critic isn't valid or important but, it is as ever as valid as the next person's opinion, but opinion it is and opinion it should remain.
So... a person, a small group of people stand at the edge of the wood warning you, dear reader, not to enter. Remember that the voice of the critic was never the voice of progress. Their job is an important one. Their job is to evaluate and compare against what has come before. But they are not the pathfinders, they are not the trailblazers and there is simply no way they can predict where we are going or what we shall do when we get there.
To quote from Wasted…
“Fuck off. I’m writing Jane Eyre.”
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.
It's an interesting process once you've written your show, once you've rehearsed it and then sent it off out into the big wide world to see what the audience and critics make of the little piece of you you've just sent them. It's even more interesting when people react in such different ways to the self-same piece of work. As a theatre maker with an ego (Hello Jasper Mountbatten III for those of you who've read before) I am incredibly reluctant to share any media critique that paints my work or that of my colleagues in a negative light. I suppose it's my instinct for self preservation kicking in, and in the absence of having to protect my fragile body from a sabre tooth tiger attack, I have decided to protect myself from a negative public image by pushing forward an image which is vastly skewed towards the positive.
I don't need anyone to tell me that this isn't healthy. In a similar way to the world of our everyday lives on faecbook and social media, we are able to control our public image to a huge extent (as long as we are not famous). I don't think this can be good for any of us. It holds us to the expectations of a reality that simply does not exist.
Last time These Trees Are Made of Blood came out in March 2015 I made a big old point of promoting as much as I could of what people said they enjoyed about the show and attempting to hide any negtive criticism away (negative things got no retweets or favourites on facebook or twitter and I had to fight the urge to write to every reviewer who I disagreed with to explain to them that they had missed the point entirely). Fortunately I have good, clever friends who assured me that this would be a very stupid idea.
However, with this particular show something has occured to me. These Trees Are Made of Blood is a cabaret metaphor that explores the smoke and mirror tactics used by the military Junta to blind the citizenry of Argentina to the truth of their horrific human rights abuses. Simply put, they were doing everything they could to hide the truth from their people. Donald Trump and the Republicans are doing it right now. The Brexiteers did it. They do it by telling people what they want to hear. To quote a line from our show: "..the lies the audience choose to believe."
I thought therefore that it would just be too ironic for me to post only the brilliant things that people are saying about the show. So here, I'm going to post links and quotes from the negative reviews as well as the positive ones.
If any of my colleagues in the cast don't want to know about these please stop reading now!!!!
This review has both positive and constructive criticism, is very well written, thoughtful and considered and has aspects that we as creators agreed with and have since set about improving and changing.
The London Economic
A very complimentary review which obviously Jasper Mountbatten III enjoyed very much.
This is my first review from Lyn Gardner, obviously Lyn is an institution in the world of reviewing and (as a friend reminded me today) it's quite an achievement for her to even come and see the show. Again it's very thoughtfully written and has some wonderfully positive things to say whilst also offering criticisms on parts of the show. Again, useful thoughts, some of which we agreed with and are keeping in mind for the future.
This review from Ann Treneman was particularly brutal, in fact when our PR sent it through to us she prefaced it with a caption that said "Brace yourselves!" In this instance it was clear that our use of cabaret simply did not read with this reviewer and as a result her entire experience must have been pretty bad. In fact, it would have been bordering on completely offensive. It's a bit like going on a blind date and realising within three minutes that you and your date have a completely different sense of humour. In cases such as those, it's best to chalk it up to experience.
West End Wilma
Another lovely review which had Jasper opening the bubbly and laughing like a maniac.
This was our first review in and knocked the wind from our sails a bit, but again has some lovely things to say and also some interesting and useful things to mention about the second act in particular. So while it was a hit, I still appreciate it as it is well written and thoughtful.
My Theatre Mates
Carole Woddis has written a very complimentary piece and had some interesting things to say on the length of the piece which we are now acting on and cutting down to make it tighter.
If I'm honest, this is one of the most bizarre reviews I've ever read, almost every sentence in it reveals the reviewers contempt for the piece, and so the four star rating sits incongruously with the content. It is rare that I will say I completely disagree with a reviewer, but in this instance I find it difficult to take seriously the fact that they gave four stars to a "dud end of the pier show". Really fascinating!
I think that's about all the reviews that have come in so far. Obviously there are the twitter comments coming in from audience members which are miniature reviews in themselves but given that people who bother to tweet about a show tend to tweet unanimously positively about their experience I won't post them here. If you want to find out what the audience are saying you can look here:
YOUTUBE: Audience Response
What I find really fascinating about reading all these reviews is the fact that there is such a split of opinion. Some people seem to really hate it and others are referring to it as one of the more profound theatre experiences of their lives. As a theatre maker, I want to make something that resonates with an audience in a deep way. The difficulty of that proposition is that I don't get to choose my audience. We all have our own hatreds and loves and we bring those to bear in the way in which we measure and judge the work of others. It's not our fault, it's just the way we are.
I think that remembering this is a good way to handle negative criticism. As I discovered in recent conversations with some critics, their motivations for writing critique are as many and varied as our reasons for making theatre. So if something in a review chimes with you as being true, then try to act on it. If it's just a difference of opinion... just like that blind date. Maybe best to let it go.
I would like to encourage others in a similar position of having critique that splits opinion to share those opinions with the world. Trust me, it actually makes you feel better. Life is a little bit easier when you aren't trying to hide something!
BOOK TICKETS TO THE SHOW
If any of these have tickled your fancy, grab a possie together and come on down to the Coup Coup Club... it's certainly one that is causing quite a stir and a debate amongst the critics... why not come and see for yourself! After all, we think that this is an important story that needs to be told.
We're on at the Arcola Theatre until the 15th July!
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.