To Read or Not To Read

The Gamble of Being Reviewed

Do you read reviews?

Sure you read the one that everyone posts on your Facebook wall with "congratulations!" next to it. And you know you're not supposed to read any reviews because "if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones." (Polly Carl says to never read reviews ever because who cares what they think. And we try to follow every bit of advice she offers).

But would you ever go out of your way to read one that wasn't so kind in order to "learn something" or "make yourself a better writer" or "give yourself a reason to drink heavily?"  No. Again, Polly says "Negative reviews will never be constructive because they are just too damn personal." We agree.

Negative reviews will never be constructive because they are just too damn personal.

All this begs the question of whether reviews should ever include dramaturgical thoughts like: "the second act needed to be shortened" or "the subplot with the incest didn't work." Is this a specific request to the writer or director? Is this so that the audience will go into the show preparing to dread the second act? We know that a review is not studied dramaturgy but rather personal opinion. (If it was dramaturgy the note-giver would see the show more than once, read the script, ask the writer why the second act was written that way before proclaiming a solution to something the writer/director does not think is a problem).

We think this practice, when it happens, is weird.

Which gets us to the strange and harrowing experience of getting reviewed. Being reviewed feels more and more like actual gambling, doesn't it? You know the game well (the game is your craft), you show up prepared (prepared means you've put on the best show you've got), but you cannot control the cards you're dealt (the day the reviewers come, the mood they are in, the plays they just saw, what they had for lunch). Unlike poker, you get one chance to win. You don't get another deal (unless you're Spiderman).

We think the poker metaphor remains apt because of the amount of money and cred you can lose with a bad review. The company loses money and the writer loses chances for further productions. The only thing that comes in droves is either pity or schadenfreude.

Then there's the happy amount of tweets, Facebook posts, and pull-quotes you gain with a good review.

We know there's no immediate solution to this nail-biting gamble you go through with every production you do. And we know amazing shows have gotten slashed in the press while other plays get glows. It's all taste. Some people's taste just goes on the front page of the arts section.

We'll stick with Polly's advice. Don't read them.

Scratch that. Just read the ones on NYTCriticWatch.com and participate in a short survey to help us understand what reviews are made of and how they affect American theatre.

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A reader-fueled experiment attempting to chart the NYT's effect on American theatre.

New York Times Critic Watch Project

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Speaking as a critic, it would take me more time than I have right this second to compose an intelligent rebuttal to all this. I will try to do so soon, but I have reviews/critiques to do first. But in the meantime, let me simply repeat a Facebook posting from my friend Rick Pender which may have been quoting Brantley. It was something like: Reviewers do not see their criticism as omniscient, infallible pronouncements from on high; they are the beginning of a conversation among theater patrons and practitioners. I also am compelled to ask why theater professionals are always saying they don’t pay any attention to critics, yet say they do pay attention to what the chief usher says, or to how an audience in general responds -- to the point of adjusting the performance or the production, This, when the critic is a far more astute and experienced observer. Bill Hirschman, FloridaTheaterOnStage.com

Seems to me that the American reviewing tradition tends not to engage the larger traditions of criticism that can help bring audiences and artists together in cultural exploration. This question of "I liked it" or I didn't like it" is the least interesting conversation possible to have around a work of art. It would be very unusual, in the other mediums (let's take painting), to read a review that didn't include a discussion of the larger moment in painting, the precursors to the work, the departures at hand, the inspiration working in the piece and the new ground that was or wasn't being broken. If they wrote the way theater reviewers typically write, the review of the Whitney Biennial would focus largely on whether or not you wanted the pieces hung over your couch - which is not a relevant question. While I think a subjective response to the work - the "like it" or "don't like it" level of criticism - is at least better than the occasional book reports we see ("this happened, then this happened", etc), it's pretty great to take a look at French reviews for example, and consider how we might encourage the conversation about our life's work to expand beyond "like it".

I read them all, pull quotes from them, and have generally been blessed with favorable reviews (I'm a director). However, reading them all and using them etc - it's been in a very few instances that I have felt like I was engaging with a serious aspect of the field when working with them. While there is something essentially right about there being a Pop aspect to what we do for the public, I would enjoy the engagement that the other mediums seem to have cultivated, possibly because they are inherently less conversational.

It is all subjective, and some people's opinions do get wider circulation than others, but I don't know that I buy into the idea that if I believe the good ones I also have to believe the bad ones. Why? Why can't I just disagree with the bad ones? (This is all based on the premise that I already think my show is awesome). Why not read the good ones for the pleasure of knowing that my work actually made that connection, it worked, someone got it. I've seen some great reviews that function as an extension of the dialogue playwrights strive to have with the audience, with the world around them. That's fuel, I love that.
For the record, I've also seen rave review that rave for all the wrong reasons and clearly didn't get it, and those go in the same 'un-useful' pile with the bad reviews that I disagree with.
But why shut off the dialogue based on the principle that all reviewers (aka audience members, albeit with a platform, but still) are the same? I feel like if I can emotionally filter my way through an audience talk-back, I can filter my way through reviews. Box office aside, what's the difference?
(again, this is all assuming I'm reasonably proud of the work. If not, I don't want to hear from anyone, audience or reviewers.)

I've published several studies on the political effects of New York reviews, and am currently working on a book-length manuscript on how reviews and mainstream theater in the 1980s/90s affected the U.S. gay civil rights movement. If you'd like, I'd be happy to send you the chapter examining the 1985 premiere of The Normal Heart and its reviews, which is currently the most polished. You might find it interesting.