If I didn’t like your play …

This is an article I’ve been thinking of writing for some time, but with a few comments lately about the ethics of reviewing, it’s spurred me into action. This is primarily aimed at my own reviews – however, most of what I say will will usually apply to other reviews too.

When I started this blog off, I never expected bad reviews to be an issue. Being a performer myself, I wasn’t comfortable with badmouthing fellow performers, so I used the tagline “review of stuff that’s good” and adopted a principle of only reviewing things I liked, similar to FringeReview’s policy (who, incidentally, also prefer reviewers to be performers themselves). However, what was a simple policy in theory has turned out to be more complicated in practice, especially after I started getting invited to reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. One thing I quickly learned is that most people prefer a middling review to no review at all – some people like constructive feedback, some people want reviews on the record as evidence that they’re out there. And when you’ve got a ticket for free, it’s harder to justify writing nothing in return.

So the principle I operate on now is that I write a review if I can either say something good or say something helpful, or both. Only a small number of plays I see are neither of those. Nevertheless, there is the old saying of “There’s nothing so damning as faint praise”, and if a review showing mild enthusiasm for certain aspects is next to a review praising another play in every way possible, I can see why it might be a disappointment. The only way I can see of avoiding this would be to be equally positive about everything I see. But I don’t think I would be doing anybody any favours if I did this. Once people cotton on to fact you say everything is awesome, praise becomes worthless, whether or not it was earned.

It’s never easy to predict how people will react – some people have been thankful over reviews I thought was only lukewarm, and other people have seemed disappointed even when I thought my review was quite good. But whatever your reason is, if my review was less than you were hoping for, this article is for you. This article is also for anyone who gets a less-than-enthusiastic review from anybody else. The short answer often given is that it’s only one person’s opinion, and that is correct. But looking a bit deeper, what does that mean for you?

Before we start: an important note

There’s one important thing I want to get out of the way before we get going. As I rarely write outright negative reviews on this blog, it is possible there are some people who read a lukewarm review of mine and assume that what I really meant is that I hated it. I assure you, that is never the case. If I think a play so bad that no constructive criticism can save it, I won’t write a review at all. And believe me, I write scathing reviews in my head and they’re nothing like the reviews you see here. (Anyone who’s heard my mouth off about a bad play can vouch for this.) If I’ve written a review, the absolute worst my verdict will be is that I’m not too keen on the play in its current form, but I see potential for something better, either in an improved version of the play or potential in the people who made it. This is supposed to be a good thing.

Oh, and in case anyone does the opposite misconception, the fact I saw a play but didn’t write a review doesn’t necessarily mean I hated it either. There are various reasons why I choose not to write reviews, most of which have nothing to do with whether I liked the play. If you know I saw your play and you want to know why I didn’t review you, you are welcome to ask me for private feedback. In fact, that applies to anyone I see, review or no review.

(Oh, there is one exception to this. For main productions from major producing theatres, I will normally write a review whether or not I have anything constructive to say. When you’re aiming your production at large audiences who expect something good, I expect the people in charge of the production to know what they’re doing. I reserve the right to give a mauling if they disappoint.)

That disclaimer only really applies to reviews from me. However, from this point onwards, you can broadly apply this to a review from anyone. (Also, to a lesser extent, this can apply to script feedback services, although there’s additional factors to consider – I may give my thoughts on that another day.) If you get a review that was less than you’re expecting, here’s the questions you should be asking.

Question one: Are there multiple reviews saying the same thing?

This is the advice given by any reviews site with integrity. As I already said, a single review is one person’s opinion. Regardless of what some more high-brow reviewers would have to believe, no-one’s opinion is authoritative, be it a broadsheet reviewer or a second year English Lit student for FringeGerbil. Until you get more reviews, you don’t know whether this is an outlier or part of widespread consensus. It might be when more reviews come in they will take different views. In that case, you can normally safely ignore the one that didn’t like what you did.

If, however, you get multiple reviews making the same criticisms, you are in trouble. It might be that the reviewers are part of a like-minded clique, but the more likely reason is that the reviewers are a representative of a similarly unenthused audience. How you react to this situation will depend on exactly what the issue is, some of which I will come on to in a moment. Alternatively you can double down with what you’re doing, and say that the world isn’t ready for your play or most people don’t understand it. This has sometimes worked, and plays that get a kicking in the mainstream can still have a lot of success with a niche who loves it, and/or be discovered years later – but they are rare exceptions. Most of the time, you are best off taking the criticisms on board.

If you are not in a position to dismiss the bad review as an outlier, the rest of the questions come into play.

Question two: Did the reviewer understand the play?

Most reviews will start off giving a plot summary (usually concentrating on the beginning to avoid spoilers) and some words about what the play is about. You might consider this a waste of time – why state what you already know when you could be getting on to what you thought about it? However, this does have one important use, which is that it tells you if the reviewer’s understanding on the play is the same as yours. It might be that the reviewer showed a good understanding of the play and its themes before finding fault with it, but quite often criticism can boil down to the reviewer failing to understand the purpose of the play.

But before you use this as an excuse to dismiss the reviewer’s criticism as invalid, be aware that a reviewer failing to understand your play is a problem in its own right. So the reviewer didn’t get what your play was about? In which case, how many other people in your audience didn’t get it? Blaming your audience for not properly thinking about it isn’t good enough – it is your responsibility to keep them interested and keep them following it. It’s not easy – you know your play inside out, but in order to be accessible you’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing. But it helps if you have multiple reviews – several people all misunderstanding what you were supposed to achieve helps you pin down what went wrong. It might also help to speak to people who saw your play and see what they made if it. Don’t try to steer what they say, just let them talk about how they perceived it. Ideally you want them to pick up what they were supposed to pick up without you prompting them – if not, you might need to look at where you’re losing them.

For my part, if I’m not sure I’ve understood a play how it meant to be viewed, I will say so, and leave it up to the performers to decide if they need to be more accessible. But identifying whether a mediocre review was down to not understanding the purpose of a play is about the most useful clue you can get on how (and if) to change things.

Question three: How much of the criticism was objective or subjective?

One myth popular in the upper echelons of reviewing is that their reviews are better because they’re “objective”. (Or, for the real wanky-pretentious version, they are not “reviewers”, they’re “critics”. “Reviewers” are the unwashed masses on their inferior publications with their inferior subjective analysis.) It is not made clear exactly what qualifies you as an objective reviewer, but it’s usually got something to do with the fact that they work for a prestigious publication, as if there’s a secret technique that is shared by proper reviewers on admission to their fold, a bit like the Magic Circle. I don’t claim this myself, partly in the knowledge that I would be laughed out of the reviewing scene if I tried that, but there are reviewers out there who have the attitude that their word is final, their word can make or break a show, and they deserve that power.

This, of course, is all bollocks. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD in English Literature, you review for The Times Literary Supplement and you get paid more than anyone else in the business – it ultimately comes down to whether or you not personally liked it. Experience helps (it’s a lot easier to rate a play if you know of 20 similar plays to compare it to), but it’s far from the final word. The best thing any review can offer is a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity. Sorting what’s subjective and objective is, in itself, a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity; but a good example of an objective criticism would be plot points highlighted to be contradictory, whilst a subjective criticism might be the set “looking a bit ugly”.

Even objective criticisms have a subjective element to it. One reviewer might rubbish a play for a terrible accent that ruined everything; another reviewer might agree the accent was bad but think it didn’t really matter. Nevertheless, anything that you can identify as an objective criticism – factual issues that no-one watching this would reasonably dispute – is worth giving more attention to. If you deal with this, you can be reasonably confident you’ll be making the play better.

Subjective criticism is harder. At the end of the day, a lot of this comes down to personal preference, and doing something to please one reviewer – even a very clued up reviewer – might make it worse in the eyes of everyone else. Again, this is where feedback from multiple reviewers is valuable – if several reviewers say the same thing, that’s a warning that the majority of people probably share the same opinion. One dissenting subjective criticism in a sea of praise can usually be safely ignored. If you only have one review to go on – that’s harder. There is no easy way to tell if other people will feel the same. Whether you heed this criticism or ignore it is a very tough call to make. I should know, my first review of Waiting for Gandalf wasn’t a good one, and after weighing up the evidence I decided to press on anyway. It turned out to be the right decision, but, boy, my wait for the second review (and first review from Brighton) was a nail-biter. It would have been a disaster if the other reviews had been like the first.

Where possible, I try to flag criticisms as personal preference where I think it’s 100% subjective, but that’s pretty arbitrary in itself. Yes, the decisions you make on how to act on opinions in reviews are about as confusing as the decisions on how to produce a play in the first place.

Question four: If the reviewer suggested changes, are you comfortable with them?

Reviewers are supposed to say what works and what doesn’t work in a play, not say what should be done instead. Nevertheless, there’s a fine line to tread. Criticising something about a play with no indication as to what could have been done better is not helpful. But go too far and it comes across as wanting to turn your play into their play. Whatever happens, advice can come in two forms. Some might be implicit to the criticism – if the reviewer says the music was drowning out the actors, consider that a request to turn either turn the music down or speak up. Other requests might go beyond this – for example, in a play set over several days, a reviewer might suggest condensing it to 24 hours.

Under the right circumstances, this can be invaluable – this also applies to script feedback services. If someone can identify where the play is going wrong and show you how to put it right, I believe that even deeply flawed productions can be turned round and made into something good. But – and this is the big but – this can only work if you are happy with the changes. There is one thing you know better than any reviewer or script reader, and that’s what your play is trying to achieve. Even the most well-meaning reviewer’s advice is counter-productive if it’s trying to shape the play into something it’s not meant to be. A play can lose the confidence of reviewers and still succeed, but there’s no chance of success if you don’t believe in what you’re being asked to do. If it’s a choice between taking the advice of reviewers – even ones who really know what they’re doing – or staying true to your goals, always choose the latter.

As you may gather from this, I err on the side of caution when suggesting fixes to other people’s plays. However, the offer is there for anyone who wants to. I do not undertake to rewrite your play for you, but if you want me to go beyond what I write in a review and give my honest opinion on what I’d do to improve it, you’re welcome to ask.

Question five: Did your audience like it?

A common rebuttal to bad or mediocre reviews is to say how much the audience liked it or how good the ticket sales were. If this is you, well done. The verdict of your audiences always trumps the verdict of the reviewers – if they liked it, what does it matter what some theatre blogger thinks?

But watch out – this might not be quite such good news as you think it is. There are many reasons why the audience liked your play. It might because because your play’s great, but it might also be because you’re got a supportive home crowd, you’ve picked a subject that got a lot of people interested, you expressed an opinion that attracted an approving audience, or many other reasons. Which isn’t an issue if the performance you’ve just done is as far as your ambitions go – you can safely rest on your laurels. But if you’re setting your sights on grander things – that’s when it could be dangerous. The worst manifestation is people who take the easily-earned praise from a local audience as a signal to go straight to the Edinburgh Fringe. Going to the Edinburgh Fringe without knowing what you’re doing is a bad enough idea as it is, but assuming it’s going to be just as big a hit in Edinburgh as it was back home is about the worst idea you can have. A reviewer who’s harder to please than your audience should be thought of as a taste of what’s to come in more competitive climes.

Incidentally, this can work the other way round. If you have a supportive reviewer in who says everything is great, that might give you a false sense of security – that’s one of the reasons I don’t praise everything. Always treat five stars with caution if the reviewer dishes out that rating willy-nilly. But most importantly, if you have get an Eeyore in a crowd of Tiggers, listen of what Eeyore has to say before dismissing it. This might be your only warning that stands between you and disaster.

Question 6: Is the review a hit piece?

I hope that no review I write would ever be viewed as a hit piece, but unfortunately this happens, and more frequently than many reviewers will admit. And if you are unlucky, you’ll get a reviewer who writes those. There are many forms a hit piece can take, but there’s broadly speaking three different types of writer: people who see a play having already decided they hate it; people who make adverse moral judgements and try to pass it off as artistic merit; and people who are more interested in the entertainment value of a bad review than doing anything helpful.

When you get a bad review, it is very tempting to dismiss it as a hit piece no matter what it says. Try not to do that – not everyone who didn’t like your play has it in for you personally. Nevertheless, try to learn how to spot a hit piece when you see one. It’s difficult know for sure the motives of the reviewer, but personal attacks or jokes at the performer’s expense are strong warning signs. In fact, it would be good if you can learn to spot hit pieces against other performers. The better you get at spotting other people being treated unfairly, the easier it gets to spot if it’s being done to you.

What you can actually do if you get a hit-piece review is another matter. It is sometimes worth complaining, but that depends on whether the editorial board of the publication behave better than the reviewer. If the review publication is open about its editorial policy and complaints procedure, it’s worth giving it a go. Other publications *cough*Scotsman*cough* are a waste of time as they always respond to criticism by doubling down with more of the same. But what you should always do once whenever you spot a hit piece is to ignore it completely. That’s the easy bit. The harder bit is trying not to let it get you down – I’ve noticed that some performers unlucky enough to be shat on by a reviewer attached to a prestigious name tend to think they must be doing something wrong even after the reviewer in question has been discredited. Please do not give these reviewers the satisfaction of thinking “But what if they’re right?”

Responding to bad reviews: a footnote

Now for a touchy subject amongst reviewers. Not everything I say here is going to be popular. I’ve already talked about the option of complaining to the editor if you think a review was unfair, but some editors dismiss complaints out of hand. So the other option is to go public: tell the world what the review got wrong and, if warranted, have a go at the reviewer. Amongst those reviewers who’ve expressed opinions on this practice, they tend to say one of two things. One is that it’s completely unjustified and it amounts to little more than personal attacks on hard-working reviewers. The other is that it’s completely unjustified and it amounts to little more than personal attacks on hard-working reviewers, unless it’s about a reviewer they don’t like, in which case go for it.

So here’s my unpopular opinion: if you want to respond to a review in public, you are 100% within your rights to do so. Reviewers criticise other people’s work on public forums all the time, so they have no grounds to complain if someone responds in kind. A point commonly made is that reviewers work for little or no pay, often long or unsocial hours, and therefore it’s not fair to be so unappreciative of what they’ve done. Which is a fair point, but you can say exactly the same thing about most of the artists they review. The argument that hard-working underpaid artists deserve to be shielded from criticism is not accepted by reviewers, so why should it be different the other way round? Obviously, don’t be a dick: the right of reply does not extend to abuse, legal threats over opinions, or turning up to a reviewer’s address to give a piece of your mind. Personal attacks are also generally off-limits, although if a reviewer really overstepped the line and made personal attacks to you, I’m not going to stop you reciprocating.

(And before you ask: this includes me. In fact, I have a right of reply policy specifically to cover this, and comments dismissing my reviews are allowed as long as they’re not abusive.)

However, whilst publicly responding to bad reviews is usually a legitimate option, it is rarely a wise option. Nine times out of ten, it is in your interests to do nothing and move on quietly. Why? Because good reviews are easily highlighted and bad reviews are easily buried. Even one-star Edinburgh Fringe reviews – arguably the most damaging review you can get – attract very little any attention after the fringe you got it in, and if the review was as unfair as you think it is, it won’t take long to get some good reviews to drown it out. Contrast this to going to war with the review on the internet. If you win the argument and discredit the review – so what? That’s not a big improvement on waiting for the review to be forgotten. If you lose, however, you are going to make things a lot worse for yourself. The lost argument and the bad review it was over will linger in people’s memories a lot longer. Bottom line is that in a public fight over a review, you have little to gain and much to lose.

If you must go down this route, pick your battles carefully. Most disputes over reviews will mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t seen your play. However, if a reviewer says something that’s clearly bang out of order, you’ll be in a much stronger position to get people on side. I strongly advise you to respond politely even if the reviewer was rude – actually, make that especially if the reviewer was rude. Keeping calm and composed in the face of bile is one of the fastest ways to make your adversary look like a twat. Better still, get someone to raise this for you if you can. It’s tricky to speak out against your own reviews – even unfair ones – without looking bitter, but if you can convince an independent third party it’s unfair (and I mean independent here, don’t get one of your mates to shill for you, you will be found out), you will be a in much stronger position when they speak out.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, you’re better off letting it go. Life’s too short. You can settle scores in the future acceptance speech for your Golden Cleric award.

In closing …

So the simple rule for how to react to bad reviews is that there is no simple rule. Few people dispute to old adage of “It’s only one person’s opinion”, but in terms of what you do that could mean anything. There are times when it is wise to take criticism on board, and there are times when it is wise to complain, and there are times when it is wise to take no notice. There are a lot of things to consider when you deal with an unenthusiastic review, and little consensus on what to do under what circumstances. The only piece of advice that most reviewers agree on is that you need to take the criticism more seriously if you get multiple reviews saying the same thing. That’s a big warning sign something isn’t going right.

I will add, however, that almost everybody gets negative reviews at some point, both of the fair and unfair kind. Nobody gets in right the first time, and there will always be times when constructive criticism will move you in the right direction, but there’s also times when it’s unconstructive criticism you didn’t deserve. Most people get a fair share of both types. So a bad review should not be a cause for despair – you’re only in the same boat as everybody else. Learn from if if there’s anything to be learnt, then move on.

And finally …

Going back to my own reviews, if you’ve read all of this and you still want a review of you taken down, ask and I probably will. With the exception of some of the worst plays from from the biggest theatres, I only publish reviews if I think there’s something helpful to be gained from it – but that’s ultimately your prerogative. If you think it’s harming your prospects then it goes down, no quibbles.

And once again, I have an open offer on private feedback for anyone who requests it. It doesn’t get requested often, but when it does it sometimes has steered plays back in the right direction.

And good luck. I am of the firm belief that anyone can write if they are given the chance to know what they’re doing right and wrong and have the fortitude for the long haul. Even if your play didn’t work out, I hope you are one of these people.

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