In the world of amateur theatre, a review, comment or critique can have such a big impact on you, no matter what area you’re working in. I remember coming across an interview with Tim Minchin on YouTube, where he mentioned he was doing a concert and he received 100 good reviews, and then a single bad one haunted him for the rest of the tour. A single negative comment can completely overshadow all the good ones, and this does not bode well for those of us who perform – myself included. As they sing in Legally Blonde, "Keep it positive!"

Theatre People spoke to Ian Nisbet, a well connected Victorian amateur theatre contributor and the founder of the Facebook page titled, “Positive Theatre Reviews”, and asked him what his thoughts are on this issue.

When asked why the page was first started, Mr. Nisbet responded that he, “had a theatre friend move here from another state, and, already being in the community myself, I didn’t realise how hard it could be to get a look in amongst some of the politics and cliquey-ness around here. They made me aware of the judgement, criticism, and putting down that goes on, and, after mentioning their experience to others, I found a growing group of people who had/were having the same experience.” This caused Mr. Nisbet to “start spreading some positive vibes out there to put the fun back into amateur theatre, and hopefully balance out the judgement/negativity a bit."

As for me, I think what Mr. Nisbet has done is a great idea in terms of sending a positive reinforcement to our amateur theatre community. I’m not sure how many people can relate to my sentiments when I say this, but I’m very picky and hard on myself as a performer and it’s such a relief when someone – whether it be a fellow cast member, production team member or audience member – compliments you on your performance. Turning a negative comment into a positive can have a far bigger impact than just a flat out negative.  For example, something like “though I wasn’t a huge fan of the show itself, that big dance number at the end of Act 1 was awesome!” or “the lighting in that death scene was amazing!” You can definitely keep your integrity intact when it comes to complimenting people on their work – theatre does not have to be about elitism or snobbery, as some people from outside our world seem to think.

Above: The cover photo for Positive Theatre Reviews, which quickly outlines all that the group has set out to accomplish.

When talking about theatre reviews and if they should all be positive, Mr. Nisbet made a very good point on what his Facebook page was meant to be discussing: “Positive Theatre Reviews (…) is the original name I used back in July when I set it up. I’ve had to update the group description a couple of times since, as some members have thought it an advocacy group to fight against ‘negative’ reviews, whereas I really only intended it to be an opportunity to share positive vibes, particularly to those who don’t often get a guernsey in official reviews (ensemble members, musicians, etc.). I’ve since tried to change the group name to ‘Positive Theatre Vibes,’ but Facebook won’t let you change the name of a group with over 200 members – so Positive Theatre Reviews it is.”

“I’m nervous about using the term ‘positive’ when discussing ‘official’ reviews. I’m fine with it in the group as it’s really more about individual grabs of positivity, but for ‘proper’ reviews (for want of a better term), I’d prefer to say ‘constructive’ rather than ‘positive.’ Reviewers don’t have to like everything they see (and often they don’t), but there’s two different ways of responding to that. One can be overly critical and, simply, harsh, while the other can be more constructive/supportive. To be completely honest I’m not even sure how much weight ‘real’ reviews carry these days (when was the last time Ben Brantley closed a show?). In these times of social media word of mouth is infinitely more important, and how often do you listen to what your friends think compared to a reviewer?”

Mr. Nisbet commented that he was incredibly chuffed at the amount of recognition his page is getting – there are now 1,017 members, and whenever Mr. Nisbet sends out a “chookas” message to a newly opening show, many members of Positive Theatre Reviews like the post, or add their well wishes. “Obviously there was a need in the community. Turns out there are a lot of other people feeling the same way I/the people I was talking to did and wanted to inject a bit more fun and positivity. People can be really intense with amateur theatre and I’m sure they get good results with their shows when they do. For a lot of us, though, theatre is about having fun and making new friends, and a lot of the time I think that gets forgotten. (…) While community theatre has it’s own definition, I sometimes prefer the term ‘community theatre' to ‘amateur theatre,’ because of the image of community involvement, and a community like ours should be supportive and inclusive, rather than critical and marginalised.”

The page has had an astounding response that no one was expecting, so when I asked Mr. Nisbet if he was shocked by the response to it, he replied, “Absolutely! I thought it would start off with just a trickle of my own friends but then the requests started flowing in and we recently surpassed 1,000 members. I’m really proud of everyone involved as they’re such a positive and supportive group who are also really active with their posts. Things are quietening down a bit at the moment due to Christmas/end of year stuff, but I’m really looking forward to watching the vibes start flowing again in the new year.”

If you want to be all intense and serious with your company, go for it, just don’t pass judgment on others who are there to have a bit of fun (and vice versa, positive peeps). And that’s not to say that those that are having fun aren’t making great theatre, too. Some of my best experiences have involved shows that had a good balance of serious and fun – we wanted to do a great job but also enjoy ourselves along the way. (…) What I hope we are doing, is slowly changing people’s perceptions of companies and the community – for every positive comment that goes out into the world there’s a positive result, and, while it may only be a comment directed to one particular person, then that’s one more bit of positivity to start chipping away at the negative.”

Is praise and positivity the key to maintaining a fantastic level of theatre?  Mr. Nisbet and Theatre People are agreed that the answer to this question is multi-faceted. “Yes and no. Praise is great, but not always constructive. If you want to evolve and develop you need constructive criticism, which is a completely different animal to criticism itself. Also, praise can be easily veiled – in the group we try to promote real expressions of positivity rather than the old ‘Oh, you were great!’ in the foyer. Positivity, on the other hand, is always important. You can stay positive even if something’s challenging, and that’s kind of what the group is working at, too. Sometimes people don’t have the best feeling about a show they’re in, and one little positive comment can turn that right around. Share the love, people!”

You can become a member of Positive Theatre Reviews on Facebook, and join the hundreds of people who are calling for more camaraderie and inter-company support now!