Reviews. They are the double-edged sword that writers and performers grasp at, desperate for a quotable extract and the right number of stars. A good review provides validation and elation, a negative review can send the recipient plummeting into despair, doubting their life choices and career.
The thing is, reviews are completely subjective, and we all know it. Why do we take it so personally when someone we don’t know, who doesn’t share our interests and may have no specific experience in our area of expertise can’t recognise the point of our work?
Some years ago, at the press night of one of my own productions, we had 5 reviewers in. We received three 4* reviews, one 5* review, and one really harsh 2* review. It was as if they’d been at different shows. Even when we discovered that the play had been voted “Most Audience Recommended” of the festival, the 2* review rankled. It was especially tough as most of the criticisms had been of elements which were not the writing or the acting, two were about the venue and one was that she didn’t approve of me - the director - acting as the stage hand. She commented that she disliked immersive theatre and would never have chosen to come to a performance of this type. I found it really difficult to put it to one side and enjoy the overwhelmingly positive and supportive feedback from everyone else.
On another occasion, a different show received poor reviews on a tour date from two reviewers who had specifically come to find me at the end of the evening to tell me independently how much they’d enjoyed my work. Bearing in mind that they were anonymous members of the audience to me, there was no reason for them to seek me out or acknowledge me at all. It was shocking to see these nit-picky, hostile reviews after their congratulations and warmth only the night before. At the time, I had a Google alert running for any mention of the play and came across a conversation that had taken place between these same reviewers after seeing the show. They were encouraging each other to write progressively harsher comments about the show that they openly admitted they had enjoyed. They were discussing their views that readers enjoyed a negative review more than a positive one, and that all publicity is good publicity.
How did I respond?
I did the same thing for all 3 of these reviews as I did for any others, I thanked the reviewers for taking the time to see the show and said I appreciated their comments. To my surprise, one of the “one-upping” pair then messaged me directly to reiterate how much they’d enjoyed the production and to say that they had recommended it to their friends!
At this point I decided to change my views on reviews, and let go of any anger and resentment that they might provoke. I finally understood that the people whose opinions matter are the rest of the audience. A reviewer has been given a free ticket, and may even have had a free drink. They are on a deadline, and their experience may also be coloured by the kind of day they’ve had and how the review slots are allocated, for example whether they are allowed to select from within their realm of interest. The person next to them has chosen to spend their hard-earned money and come out to see your work over everything else that they could have been doing at that time. That’s a big deal.
For just over a year, I have been reviewing for a respected publication, and I find it a huge responsibility. I write for a supportive reviewer, which means that only those worth 3* and above are automatically published. If a show falls below that threshold, the company is offered the option of feedback and/or publication if they choose. I try and treat the experience as if it’s my choice to be there and arrive with a positive attitude. I owe it to both the production and the readers to be honest, fair and objective, and having now sat on all three sides of the fence (?) I’m very aware of the potential impact of the words I use.
Right, I’m off to do another one. Hope it’ll be a 5* experience!