This is how it happens; you are on stage, you are in character, and everything feels right. Suddenly beyond the glow of the lights something in the darkness on the other side of the fourth wall catches your eye. Someone in the audience has entered your awareness and now their presence cannot be ignored. Perhaps it’s because your subconscious recognized them or perhaps it is because they looked away from the stage to write something down, whatever the reason there is now an additional player in your creative space: the reviewer. If you let yourself slip you will find your mind full of questions rather than your lines: What are they writing? What are they thinking? Will they mention you? Will they fail to mention you? Which is worse? Most importantly: Do they like it?
I have been that actor on stage, I have been that reviewer in the audience, and I have most certainly been the theatre going reader who wants to know what there is to see on Saturday night. Who are reviews written for and what is their purpose? Should they be written in a positive light to promote our developing community? Should they be written in a critical manner to raise the standards of our art? Should they be simply informative for potential audience goers? Should they somehow attempt to be all of these things? One thing is for certain; reviews are important, they affect audience attendance and therefore box office revenue. I have even heard artists say “I want to produce X show but I know that X reviewer doesn’t like that script so I won’t.” This is the power of the review.
Many actors I know prefer not to read reviews of their own work while a show is running. They have faith in the choices made by their director, their scene partners, and themselves during the rehearsal process and they do not want to be influenced by an outside element. Some actors I know do not read reviews even after a show has closed for these reasons. Out of respect for these choices reviews are often not discussed among performers. As an actor or director I choose to read reviews even during the run of a show with some mixed results. I find an outside perspective interesting and I want to be able to use positive reviews to help promote my work. Most importantly as an artist who is still developing the foundation of my craft I am looking for feedback. I have, however, sometimes regretted the choice to satisfy my curiosity; criticism can be a tool for growth, it can also sometimes be hard to digest.
When I have had the opportunity to write reviews I try to reach a balance between these three priorities; expressing my personal opinion, offering constructive feedback to artists, and describing to the reader what type of audience might enjoy the performance so that they can determine if it is of interest to them. While trying to balance these elements it is also important not to spoil the action of the story and say it all in 500 words or less. It can be challenging. If one of these three priorities must take the lead then, in my opinion, the review should be directed primarily at the theatre goer. Although it is impossible to be unbiased due to personal preferences the reviewer is in many ways a proxy for potential audience members and should write for them. This must be done with an awareness of the singular opportunity that reviewers have to challenge and support artists in their community.
As I ponder the importance of the review in the life of an artist I am struck with a conflicting feeling. When I find myself on stage with a pen and paper moving distractingly in the corner of my eye the instinctive feeling that I have is that the review doesn’t matter at all. There are dozens of other bodies out there in that darkness and each one is watching a different performance. Whatever that pen put to paper and eventually to print has to say, in the end that is just one person’s opinion.