I am amazed to this day that more and more people in the performing arts both cast and crew think that because they have worked hard on a project, negative comments are unjust. I get it. I’ve been there. You spend three months in the rehearsal space working your clacker off (not always), you discover things in your character that you actually believe or just tell yourself you believe, the people working with you pat you on the back and tell you how real and touching your performance felt (they aren’t going to tell you any different because they still have to work with you) and you go into opening night with the director telling you how great you are (if you are the director, don’t worry, someone will tell you how great you are, too). Then you have your opening night and you get off stage and hug one another and tell each other how great that was and how much you “nailed it.” You walk out into the foyer and your friends and family are there and they congratulate you and tell you how wonderful you were (despite Grandpa and Mum falling asleep half way through) and you go to bed that night on top of the world. Everyone in the performing arts has been through this, including myself. And yes, at times I was also vain enough to do some of this stuff.
Two days later your first review comes out. You and the show that you have worked so hard on (I reiterate, not always. Sometimes you took the shortcut because you couldn’t be arsed. Yes, I am again speaking from experience) gets slammed. You go backstage before the show that night and you discuss (bitch about) the review and pick it to pieces. You find any excuse to tell yourself that the reviewer ‘didn’t get it’. “The reviewer misquoted this line by a word so were they really taking notice?” or “The reviewer didn’t really understand that theme so their opinion is null and void.” or “I’ve seen their work and their stuff is terrible.” I’ve heard it all backstage, this desperation to prove why someone’s negative opinion is wrong or invalid. However this doesn’t necessarily make you angry because your producer asked this reviewer to come and write. What makes you angry is when you were standing outside on the second night having a dart and you overheard a huddle of people talking about how painful it was to sit through. That’s when you boil. Who the hell are these people to come in here and hate the show? Are they regular theatre goers? Do they even understand what theatre is about? How dare they come in here and judge me, they don’t even know me or the sacrifices we have been through! I’m writing this to tell you that they are absolutely right in their opinions and you asked for it.
You see, by doing this crazy thing we call a production, you all want an audience. I grant you that you all want the audience to enjoy themselves and have a good time and on the rarest of occasions, that might happen. By selling tickets, you are inviting people to come in and judge your work. You have created a piece of theatre that you are proud of (rightly or wrongly) and you are asking people (even the ones you don’t know) to come in and decide whether or not they like it, much the same as when an author pens a book or an artist paints a picture. You are creating something subjective for a member of the public to come and judge.
I have been involved in many shows, both directing and performing and have certainly been in my fair share of bad ones. A review of ‘Go Back for Murder’ where I played the soon to be murdered Amyas, finished with the line “this is one murder I would not go back for” and… they were right. It was a terrible show for many reasons which I won’t delve into. In another review for a production at La Mama called Roulette, my performance and castmate were described as ‘one-dimensional.’
We tend to forget that this is one person’s opinion and it is valid, whether we agree with it or not. Deep down, you know whether it is true or not (except those people that can’t ever be honest with themselves, but they have already stopped reading this article) and if you self-reflect enough, afterwards you can learn from these negative opinions and grow from them regardless of whether or not you agree with them. On a two star review I wrote last year I received the following comment “For an artist to put themselves on the line, just to be shot down, putting the rest of the show in jeopardy (sic), must be so disheartening and soul destroying.” Possibly it is. However, if you are mature about it, it wouldn’t be soul destroying at all. Sure, we don’t like hearing negative feedback but if you can pause and really think about what is being said instead of a knee-jerk anger comment, you may be able to develop on areas in question. And here is the best part, while someone’s feelings or opinion on your work is never wrong… you still don’t have to agree with them! Remember the subjectivity I spoke of?
If it is a bad review, a reviewer who is worth their pinch of salt will find ways to suggest making a production better, that’s why they review. Audience members go to the theatre to be entertained or challenged and that doesn’t always happen for them. They may share with you why it didn’t work for them and they may not, it doesn’t really matter. If you sit down and really assess anyone’s comments and be brutally honest with yourself you may agree with what they have said. Did you work hard enough or did you take some lazy days? Did you learn your lines in production week? Did you really feel it or can you just cry on cue? The beauty is, you have an opinion also. When you take the time to reflect you will realise that some of what people say is right. However, you can also decide you don’t agree and, if you have reflected properly, you will find by that point, the anger has already gone because you have spent some time considering another person’s angle.
My general rule, rightly or wrongly, is after final curtain has closed on your show and you are sitting at home, bored on rehearsal night and discovering what the inside of your house looks like again, reflect on the following comments. The comments from that one friend that you know will tell you the truth, you know who this is because the first time they told you they hated your show/character/performance, it hurt, but the second time they did it, it was a little easier because you know it comes from a place of love. The comments from reviewers, there is nothing in it for the reviewer to write a negative review, we want to come and enjoy ourselves and write wonderful things, the ones that are worth their pinch will write the tough words in the hope that you can better the piece of work or your performance or your directing skills or your sound or you lighting efforts next time you work on something. By the way, the reviews that just spend the entire 500 words describing the story, meant they probably hated it but don’t have the stones to write about it. Finally, and in my humble opinion, the most important, reflect on the comments from audience members who come up and speak to you and they have no idea who you are. That’s not normal. If someone has approached you after the show and you have no idea who they are (I’m not talking about the person your friend brought so they didn’t have to sit alone) and told you their thoughts, these are the ones to take on board the most.
It is so difficult to hear negative things about something you have worked so intimately on, however you can grow so much from them. You may sit and calmly decide that you don’t agree and that is ok too, but what someone feels about a piece of work is honest and true in their world, not wrong. When you start to get an audience, remember, you asked for their opinion by inviting them in the door, otherwise we would just perform to empty seats. Embrace it.