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The Real Critic: Reviewers or Audiences?

May 6, 2011

Ok, so I have a confession to make. I’ve been away for a really long time. Like, more than a month. But I have a really good reason — I was in a play. Correction: I was in a play by Shakespeare. After a long rehearsal process where we spent much of the time improv-ing the scenarios of the play to develop a rich sense of purpose and history for the characters, we opened “TWELFTH NIGHT” at the end of March for a three week run into mid April.

For the most part, it was a successful run. We sold tickets. We had names added to our mailing list. We consistently had donations dropped into the bucket as patrons left the theater each night. Audiences remarked on how accessible we had made the Shakespearean language, and how much they appreciated the subtlety with which we told the story. We had patrons come back to see the show again and again, which is no small feat given that it was a three hour show (we made no cuts to the script.)

Which is why it was all the more puzzling that nearly every reviewer had this to say about what we were doing:

“We really love The Seeing Place Theater and their realistic, ensemble driven approach, but we think it’s a mistake to do ’subtlety’ with Shakespeare.” 

Give or take a few words.

And those were just the critics who agreed to post their reviews. Some reviewers love our theater company so much that they neglected to review it at all, stating that they’d rather remain mute than hurt our reputation with a terrible review. (That was nice of them. I think.) There were also some audience members who had a hard time with the fact that Shakespeare was being played as though each characters had a life off stage and an arc. Some were self-proclaimed Shakespeare scholars — most were people who had seen the play before and had a certain expectation going in. Given how untraditional our rehearsal process was, I was certainly prepared for some negative response from the purists.

As an actor (and an idealistic one at that!) I try to pretend that reviews don’t matter. In the grand scheme of things, they don’t — I’ll still give the performance that my director, ensemble and I have built together over hard won and long thought out rehearsals. But in day to day life as an actor, reviews can provide many highs and lows. You get to a point that you no longer read the good reviews because you are trying to avoid the bad ones. I always tell my students that getting a bad review means that you’ve made it to the next level – you’re now someone that the audience has to contend with. I still laugh about the time I was called the “nadir” of a production. (I had to look that word up. I was shocked.) I thought, “My goodness- I must have had a pretty big role to be hated that much!” And then I smiled. It’s those thoughts that make being reviewed a slightly saner process.

All reviews, good or bad, are valid when they’re well written and thought out — we may not agree but that’s the joy of living in a free society. But this last production got me thinking about the nature of reviews and their value. I pose these questions to you: our faithful readers of The Green Room:

Who are the real critics in the theater? The reviewers? Or the audiences? 

Who would you rather listen to when choosing to see a show? 

Many sites, like TheaterMania, allow patrons to log on and leave reviews of what they’ve seen. Would you be more apt to judge a show based on a cross section of the audience, or would you still hold the reviewers opinions as top dog?

POST A COMMENT: If you have thoughts about reviews, or want to share a story about how you determine which shows to see, I’d love to know about it. Leave a comment so we can all learn from you!

PS: If you like the play, “TWELFTH NIGHT” you might be interested to know that, during one show, I lived tweeted as the character, Maria!  I posted a transcript, adorned with production photos, on my acting blog. Enjoy!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Restless Dramaturg permalink
    May 17, 2011 11:14 am

    I can completely relate to your process for dealing with critics and reviews in general. I find that having a dialogue with audience members, not just reading what they have to say, has a greater influence on what I see than any revered critic’s input. Asking audiences questions about what they thought worked and did work can be very beneficial. I would even suggest Talkbacks as a great way to start these conversations.
    It’s a damn shame that most critics have followed suit in a way that leaves patrons with a “thumbs up, thumbs down” perspective of what makes good theatre. If something is NOT worth seeing, I want to know why! Cut out all the bull about who was the better actor or why there was one intermission instead of two. That really doesn’t interest me. I want to know what could have been done better. In my opinion, the main fault of today’s critics is that they never offer any ideas on improvement. Theatre bashing has come a long way in the modern world of internet info, blogging, etc. but if we can have a place to openly discuss what made a production great or what could make it better, I feel this would be a great service to the theatre-going community.

    • May 17, 2011 1:09 pm

      Yes! I love your ideas for what makes useful critique. And I totally agree with the idea of “thumbs up, thumbs down” reviews, although I had not been able to describe it as succinctly as you! For our show, we solicited feedback via Theatermania’s comments feed, and we also had talkbacks (though they were not well attended- a tricky thing to offer after a 3 hour show…)
      You know what I would like? I’d like to see a website/publication who sends several reviewers to shows from different parts of the industry. For example: a critic, a dramaturg, a director, an actor, and a “layman” audience member, etc. It would be neat to see these folks each review a single show, complete with star or grade ratings, and then the publication could give an overall rating as an average. This might give a cross section that solves the “thumbs up, thumbs down” approach. I wonder if anyone is doing this…?

      • May 17, 2011 1:30 pm

        That would be an awesome website idea! Don’t know that anyone’s doing that specifically, but there is a cool new site that lets anyone create reviews with star ratings and it’s cool to see how different people react to a show, as opposed to just the critics. I’ve been finding myself disagreeing with the critics more and more lately. I’m not sure if that’s just my theatre taste “maturing” into itself or not, but there you have it.

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