Reviewers on the Rocks – Is theatre reviewing a thankless task?
Having read with interest Amy Taylor’s well-written and extremely even handed article on www.thetaylortrash.com this evening I began thinking of the many unpleasant exchanges I have had with individuals and companies in response to pieces I have written since I began reviewing in 2006.
What many people do not realise is that the vast majority of critics do not get paid for their work, regardless of whether they are publishing their reviews on or off line. Of course there are free tickets to the productions, and occasionally a nice press function, but by and large critics are people who love theatre – or their chosen genre(s) – and give up their free time to see and write about it. In most cases critics will see the production and then rush home to write the review in time for their deadline, which is more often than not the next day. If you are also working at another job, as most freelancers are, this can mean you are under a great deal of pressure, particularly during a period as jam-packed and frenetic as the Edinburgh Festival. I personally reviewed 54 individual productions at Edinburgh this year, and saw a further 15+ of my own volition, and trust me – we want them to be good. I find a 60 minute show translates to approximately an hour of writing about it, and when you are seeing 8 shows a day a terrible show can be soul destroying, particularly as you have given up the opportunity to see another production in order to attend.
As a performer I have been in productions that have received reviews ranging from 2 to 5 stars (so far I’ve avoided the painful 1 star…) and negative press is a hard pill to swallow. That said, if you invite someone to review it you are presumably confident that it is good, and understand that in asking for someone’s opinion on your work you might be unpleasantly surprised. By all means be annoyed, particularly if you feel the piece has inaccuracies, but if that is the case contact the publication to ask for a correction or, quite frankly, suck it up. Shows I’ve been in have been given less than sterling reviews by publications I write for! If that doesn’t show a lack of bias I don’t know what does. I have personally reviewed shows where I have known one or more of the actors, or the writer, the director, or sometimes all of the above. I do not do this intentionally, however if you write and perform it is always a possibility, and those are the times when your professionalism is really tested.
As a general rule I always try to find a positive note, even in the direst of plays, but sometimes a show truly has no redeeming feature. Those are the 0 star shows, and I have yet to give one out (although one show at Edinburgh this year came close). If I can find a glimmer of hope or positivity it will be 1 star, and on two notable occasions – both solo shows – those reviews have provoked the unbridled ire of the companies who received them, along with allegations of unprofessionalism, “targeting” the performer, and public defamation. One of these experiences was in my second year of writing for Fringe stalwarts ThreeWeeks, while the other came two years ago while reviewing for The Public Reviews. Even though you, and those who know you and your work, are certain that the review you have written is one based on your honest response to a production you have experienced – and one that your readers will pay for if they see it (often at great expense) – it is still hard not to question yourself and take verbal and written attacks personally.
Like Amy I will not name the companies in question, but suffice it to say that both experiences were extremely unpleasant. The first individual, rather than contacting the publication or my editor to raise concerns, stalked me over the internet in order to get my personal email address to which they sent abusive missives suggesting my mission in life is to destroy the work of others. I did not respond, but forwarded it to my editor who replied on my behalf. I heard nothing further, but a couple of years later was reviewing a production and realised that this person was in the cast. As it transpired I knew the writer of the play I raised this as a concern and asked if they would prefer someone else review the show. I was told this was not necessary and duly attended the show in which the lady in question was very good, however on hearing my name she apparently hyperventilated and begged that I not use her name in my review, regardless of context. Although I thought this was unfortunate – given that I would have otherwise positively name checked her – I acquiesced and instead referred to a “strong supporting cast”. I hold no grudge against this person, but clearly she is still reeling from a review published more than four years ago and is unable to understand that it was a professional critique, not a personal attack, which is sad for a myriad of reasons.
The second incident was rather more dramatic, with my poor, long-suffering editor being inundated with emails and web posts from ardent supporters of the actor they felt I had maligned in my review. Fortunately for me I was not privy to all of these, and TPR has my eternal thanks for that, as I gather some were fairly unpleasant. The upshot, however, was that my editor received many calls for my review to be removed and for me to be banned for writing for the publication. Again it was suggested that this was “personal”, despite a positive 3 star review of another of the actor’s solo shows – written by me and published on the same site – was still in evidence on the site and ad received a grand total of zero complaints since it’s publication. In a bizarre twist, the actor in question latterly met my editor in the street and claimed he had nothing to do with the behaviour of his fans and said my review was helpful in improving his show, inviting me to see it in its new incarnation and offer my thoughts on whether or not it had improved. Finally a professional, no? No, because that same person told a colleague and friend of mine, only weeks later, that I am “evil”, “the devil”, that I clearly have it in for him and told her that my editor had banned me from reviewing him and would instead see all of his shows personally in the future. True? Not one word. Luckily the person he approached is a good friend, and someone who is often my plus one and knows my work, however I know he continues to hold a grudge and to blacken my name at every opportunity.
As a performer myself I do often wish I had begun writing under a pseudonym because of these incidents, but I didn’t and refuse to change now so far into my career. I hope that my writing continues to reflect my passion for and love of theatre, and that the reviews and features I write retain their positivity and impartiality as that is what companies and their productions deserve. I begin every show at 3 stars and work my way up or down from there, and always challenge myself over negative reviews to ensure I am being fair.
It is worth mentioning that these experiences are extremely rare, and that from the hundreds of reviews I have written over the years I have had far more thank you’s than screw you’s! I continue to enjoy watching and writing about theatre, along with a variety of other genres, and envision myself always doing so. If I stop enjoying it, or worse stop caring about it, then that will be the time to retire my paper and pen and go back to passive viewing.