As an artist, I share a part of myself with an audience of strangers, and am constantly looking for approval or validation when I perform. I know all too well the rigorous work required to put on a production, from the thousands of hours (often volunteered time), to the sleepless nights, to the challenging obstacles along the way that inevitably pop up in each production. I have performed in more than 80 productions since I was a young child; I have worked in a wide variety of theaters, including Equity theaters, touring shows, summer stock, college and school productions, as well as community theaters. I have also served as the director and producer of many shows and founded two theatre companies. Regardless of the show or company, hard work, much sacrifice, and a piece of myself is given to each project. Recently I have explored another side of theater: theater criticism. I soon found that (much to my surprise) critics also put themselves out there in the public eye, just like actors and directors.
I remember back when I was 17 years old and had been cast as Will Parker in a regional theater production of Oklahoma! I had a big head, being the only cast member under 18 and in a lead role in an important production. Being the leading man in my high school theater department was one thing, but being cast as Will made me feel validated. Opening night came, and then the weekend reviews hit, and I read many positive comments about my performance as Will. However, I came across one article in the local paper and there I was on the cover of the Entertainment section. I skimmed the article for my name and there it was: “Johnny Hebda does not fair as well as Will Parker. His performance was so exaggerated that it takes away from the character.”
My world just came crashing down. My initial thought was, “What does Anjanette Weathers know about theater?” I wanted to immediately discredit her opinion. I spent time figuring out who she was and found that she wasn’t even an actress or a trained theater professional; I had done more acting than her. Besides, I had worked hard. I hit every note. I spent hours and hours perfecting my dances—including the rope tricks and a challenging tap solo. Did she not notice this? No mention of all the good I had done, just two simple sentences.
However, I had a lot to learn, my first year at the acting conservatory a year later confirmed; I had a ways to go as an actor. My first semester of acting classes beat that cockiness out of me, and I reflected back on what Ms. Weathers had said. And I realized, she was right! But it took me a year to realize this—a year that I didn’t grow as an artist. Since that time, I am happy to have come a long way, and to have received many negative and positive reviews. I now know that I can still remain friends with someone who gave me a negative review and even invite that person back to review my next production.
The natural inclination (indeed, mine when I was younger) when artists or companies receive a negative review is to immediately find a way to discredit the reviewer’s education or training. I’ve seen people write online, “UTBA is just a bunch of bored housewives,” or “Why does anyone bother to read UTBA?” or “There were some typos in the review. That means it’s not credible.” Others search for a reviewer’s ill intent, a conflict of interest, or an ulterior motive.
Yet I have never known a reviewer to intentionally go into a show thinking ahead of time he would not like it. Reviewers, particularly volunteer reviewers like UTBA’s, specifically pick shows that interest them and steer clear of shows they either dislike or do not feel they have the experience to adequately review. For example, I generally avoid reviewing Shakespeare, children’s theater, or new works because I feel there are much more qualified reviewers at UTBA with greater experience in these genres.
The review is for both the public and the company itself. After a negative review, some Utah actors and companies try to improve the weaknesses in the show or apply the feedback to the next production. Other companies and artists ignore the review all together (or simply choose not to read any reviews). These are professional ways to respond to a negative review.
However the unprofessional way to handle a negative review is to discredit the reviewer. In other words, choosing to do what I did when Ms. Weathers reviewed me. A reviewer is an audience member, just like the untrained theatergoer, the ten-year-old, or the senior citizen. All have unique perspectives that may be beneficial to hear. After all, isn’t it the audience we are performing for?
Artists can grow and learn from one another and improve their craft. Or they can defensively respond to any negative criticism and attack those offering it. The irony in the latter response is that it will lead to less criticism—reviewers who receive personal attacks will avoid reviewing at a particular theater in the future, and friends and colleagues will be less likely to give honest feedback. Instead such organizations will stop getting reviews, actors will get the generic “good job” or “you were great.” But is that really what you want when you get a review? Yes, it’s a subjective art form, but do you want a review or a pat on the back? Those actors and companies who graciously accept every review whether positive or negative are true professionals and will continue to improve their craft; those who don’t will remain stagnant or regress.
I spend a lot of time traveling with work, and I have made it a point to read and pull up local reviews of productions in different cities I am visiting. Generally, the harshness or level of criticism is much greater elsewhere than in Utah. With the number of productions in the state and the amazing amount of talent we have here, there is no reason Utah cannot become a major theatre hub. However, one essential part of that is an increase in the professionalism of the theater community’s interactions; theatre criticism is an intricate part of this. Therefore, I wish to share what I consider to be good etiquette in responding to a review.
5 rules of etiquette when responding to a negative review:
- If you are involved in the production in any way that was reviewed, don’t respond. Let your work on the stage speak for itself–that is your job. If your work is good, it will not need defending or explaining. Leave it to your audience to decide what they took from the show, what they liked or didn’t like. Let them discuss it. Different people will interpret the show in different ways. They don’t need the director or actor telling them how to think or what they should have gotten from the show, and a reviewer is just one of your audience members sharing their opinion and perspective through the lens of their life experience. Everyone already knows that if the review was positive or complimentary that you agree, if it’s negative you disagree. No need to drive the point home.
- Never personally attack the reviewer or try to discredit him or her. Just as the actors put themselves out there, so do reviewers. An artistic disagreement is not a reason to demean the reviewer’s opinion or experience. The reviewer may not have the education or experience in theater as other members of the production do. But attacking a reviewer’s resume, or theater projects the reviewer was involved with, is the ultimate mark of the amateur. Discussions and differing opinions are interesting, and if you do wish to respond to a review, state what you agree or disagree with in the review, but keep the focus on the content of the actual review, not the reviewer. Your opinion is just as valid as the reviewer, and both people can be right. That’s what’s great about theater; there is not one right answer.
- Posting anonymously is cowardly. And anonymous comments lead to assumptions that the author has something to hide or has ill intent. This is why I agree with UTBA’s policy of banning all anonymous comments. The reviewer put their name on their review, so you should do the same. If it’s a comment that you wouldn’t want associated with your name, you probably shouldn’t be posting it, right? As a friend once said, “Don’t feed the trolls: Trolls are losers who live under a bridge, or in their mother’s basement. They just live to get you upset and force you into responding to them. After all, bad attention is still attention and the illusion of ‘control’ feels almost like the real thing! Don’t feed them. And don’t be one.”
- Asking friends and family to defend you is pathetic. A reviewer is entitled to their opinion. No need to have your friends and relatives come to your aid as if to protect you from a bully. A reviewer is not attacking you as a person, simply observing the performance and stating what worked well in a show and what didn’t.
- Accept criticism graciously. If every theater and artist would respond in this fashion, reviewers would be more comfortable being honest and giving direct feedback. If artists and theaters can look at the review and try to see it from the reviewers’ perspective, artists and companies will improve. Read every review in the spirit of self-improvement and humility. This attitude is what will collectively improve the quality of theater in the state. If artists and companies continue to tear down reviewers and reviewing organizations for their critical feedback, reviewers will stop being honest, or avoid returning to that theater again. I know personally that I have a list of theaters that I will not review at and so do other reviewers. Such theaters instead get the gentler reviews that offer little to no criticism, and consequently such theaters remain stagnant or complacent in their work.
Today very few media outlets in the U.S. have full-time theatre critics, so organizations like UTBA are more important than ever. As a director, an actor, a producer, a board member, or production team member, I have benefited the most from negative or critical reviews. I don’t always appreciate them at the time, and it’s nice to get a glowing review (I am human and have an ego, too). But in hindsight, it’s the critical ones that have lead to my greatest improvement as an artist. It is my hope that we can encourage a culture where honesty and critical feedback is appreciated and encouraged. I see great things in store for theater in Utah, and learning how to accept criticism is an important step towards helping this community live up to its potential.