I got one of those calls yesterday. You know the ones: the calls that ask, ‘what do you do when you get a bad review?’
I’m asked this quite often, partly because I have lived through a few beatings. A couple of them have been truly devastating, but since then I have re-assessed my relationship to criticism.
Firstly, I want to state that I have immense respect for the majority of reviewers I have met. My favourites are so thoughtful in their approach and so aware of their voice as part of an ongoing artistic conversation: they’re not simply there to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but to deconstruct.
I had a conversation with my mother recently which went like this:
Me: They got one and a half stars.
Mum: Very mean.
Me: Not mean – the reviewer justified it well – but very painful none the less.
Sometimes reviews hurt us and this is okay. Sometimes they make deliberate, personal attacks. Sometimes they make a joke out of someone’s art and sometimes they are poorly educated theatrically and their work unresearched, which is less okay but it is also part of being an artist. Making art makes you vulnerable. It has to. The reason that we are good at our jobs is that we want to be good at our jobs, so hearing someone’s vitriolic diatribe is never easy. But these are a few tips for making it better.
Putting your shit review in perspective in 6 (not always) easy steps:
1. Look, here is the thing: a review can only end a career if the artist decides to end their own career as a result. The rest of us will be working on another show before our sleep cycles have had a chance to recover. The people who hire us have all received bad reviews in the past and few audience members will google search your name before booking a ticket. Reviewers are absolutely entitled to their opinions and they provide a vital service to the arts-going public and to artists by creating an ever-evolving record of our work, but you must never make the mistake of thinking that they hold enough power to destroy you for more than an afternoon.
2. Know your reviewers. Decide if you care about their opinions before they come to your show, not after you have read what they wrote. This doesn’t mean that you have to ignore someone’s entire body of work, but study your reviewers. This attention to the tastes of individual reviewers has completely changed how I feel about them. For goodness sake, if you know someone hates dance theatre, don’t be devastated when they hate your dance theatre. If you know that they have conservative tastes (and we all know the reviewers who do) don’t be surprised when they lash out at your verbatim theatre (on ice) made from your spam emails and performed in arseless chaps.
This is a particularly salient point at Fringe time in Adelaide because, in order to cope with the excessive amount of art on offer, you get a lot of reviews being written by people who don’t know a whole lot about the art form they are critiquing. Last year, our Insomnia Cat Came to Stay was reviewed by someone who usually wrote about real estate. She pointed out that actor Joanne Sutton “relies on her face and voice to show emotion” which we all thought was fantastic.
Remember that you can’t only listen when someone say nice things about you and dismiss them the rest of the time. This leads me to my next point.
3. You must be able to form your own objective opinion of your work. I don’t mean that you need to sit there on opening night and rate your work but, once time has passed, you should be able to know in your heart the quality of the production regardless of reviews. Too many people make the mistake of only listening to the reviewers and not trusting their own opinion of the work.
In 2012 one of my plays, Awake, received a 4.5 star review in Adelaide. Naturally we used it for publicity reasons but my regular collaborator Danny Delahunty and I both agreed that the show was actually more like a 3-3.5 star show. This candid judgement also helped when later it received 1.5 stars from The Age. This range (1.5-4.5 stars) shows just how subjective reviews are but, through it all, it helped to have our own firmly held opinion of where the show sat.
In Conversation, Rob Reid said “We as artists get so focused on what Cameron and Anne-Marie and Alison and those guys think because it is the only tangible feedback we actually get. I would guess that a lot of the artists who are really focused on that stuff would often have difficulty sitting in a room where their work is being performed and being able to pick up the cues from an audience to get feedback. Or maybe they won’t even sit there. Or they do it on opening night – which is again a skewed kind of feedback anyway – and then maybe go back on closing night and miss all the feedback from an audience as to whether or not a thing is funny, whether it is working, what the impact is.”
4. Don’t take a review as director’s notes. Don’t let it change the show. Trust the product that you have made. Watering it down to appease one critic’s response will result in a watered down play and some very, very distressed actors.
5. Reviewers aren’t the only ones with opinions. They are a voice in the crowd and they are not always the most informed. Sometimes (often) the best feedback will come from your fellow artists, who know your work and where this particular production sits within your larger creative manifesto. There is an art to taking criticism but there is also an art to giving it. Find the people that know how to critique your work in a way that starts a conversation rather than ends it. As brutal as it may be, criticism should make you want to race back to your desk and keep working. If it is crushing your love of the story then perhaps you are valuing the wrong opinions. Criticism is so important for our growth as artists but don’t make the mistake of thinking that criticism is all about reviewers.
6. Give it time. Look back on it in six months and you may well find a few lessons to be learnt from even the most brutal review. You may… disagree with the wording or the rating and you may still hurt a little but perhaps there is something buried under the hurt that you can agree with. That’s usually why it hurts, right? But in the meantime, while those wounds are still fresh, go and watch Tim Minchin’s Song For Phil Doust and swear along with him. Then have a cup of tea and go make another show.
Programming note: I have plagiarised myself a little here. Some of this first appeared in an interview I did for Aussietheatre.com with Anne-Marie Peard. The original post can be found here.
Thanks also to today’s proofreader extraordinaire, Chrissie Robinson.