Why I don’t write “Bad Reviews”

 

 

It is better to create something that others criticize than to create nothing and criticize others -Ricky Gervais

Working Title: The Only Opinion Piece I may Ever Post; An Essay on the State of Theatre in Alberta

Alright folks. Grab a cuppa tea- better yet a glass of wine, and settle in.

I’ve been writing reviews for a long time, usually on a freelance basis for different publications. When a friend suggested I share my unpublished, uncut reviews in a blog of some kind, I decided to endeavour to broaden the scope of  how my personal and professional point of view could have a positive impact on how we think about, participate in, and create theatre.

My mission, if you can call it that, is to provide positive, informative reviews and listings to support theatre companies across Alberta and encourage Albertans to engage with their arts communities both locally and further afield. Without being too conceited, it’s safe to say that a well-written review can increase audience numbers, contribute to a theatre company’s continuing growth and prosperity, and provide actors with material they can use going forward in their careers as they pursue their next theatre gig.

In order to help our province appreciate the theatre on offer to us, and ensure theatre can continue to survive in this difficult cultural environment, I have made a conscious decision not to post any negative reviews.

I have written many bad reviews in my time, and we’ve certainly all read them; we voyeuristically enjoy their snide remarks, delighting in the sharp and witty retorts to laughably poor performances, wildly misguided direction, noises that could hardly count for music, translations that are downright insulting to the original playwrights, an aesthetic so uninspired it could only be improved by shutting ones eyes, etc.

Living vicariously through a colourfully cruel depiction of a theatrical flop, like watching videos of unwittingly sadistic toddlers whacking the groins of grown men with piñata bats, allows us the safety and privacy to indulge our fetish for Schadenfreude: taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. It’s as natural to us as breathing.

After all, we’re all built with the natural capacity to judge situations based on personal preference. It is our critical thinking that allows us to develop informed personal opinions that will shape our outlook in life and influence our decisions, our tastes.

It is natural too that we have a tendency, both within ourselves and within society, to focus on the negative over the positive.  Just as it is easier to brood over an insult than a compliment, so is it infinitely easier to write an unnecessarily scathing review for a mediocre performance than to write a fair review for a lacklustre production with redeeming features.

This well-documented trend illustrates our twisted desire to punish ourselves and others for committing the menial sin of “failing”.

The process of creativity demands that we constantly overcome what we perceive to be failure in order to eventually arrive at something which we perceive to be success. We then set our work and, whether we like it or not, ourselves on the chopping block to be judged as either a “failure” or “success” by the perceptions of others.

In art as in life, failure is a crucial catalyst for growth, learning, invention and reinvention, and success can be found in the smallest achievement. However the definitions of these terms have been so strangled and warped by the bias of subjective ideas of failure and success, they have lost both meaning and worth.

Creativity suffers when the fear of failure prevents us from taking risks, and the pursuit of success all too often becomes an obsessive quest for personal validation.

Only those who risk going too far can possibly know how far one can go  -TS Eliot

Some of you will have picked up on a double standard here and may ask “Is not a bad review akin to failure? Therefore if failure is a useful tool for creative development, is not a bad review an equally useful tool?”

To that canny insight I say touché, and I agree wholeheartedly. However it is how we deal with subjective perceptions of “failure” that is the root of the matter for theatre in Alberta.

Why should my perception of failure be relevant to others? What gives any one person the authority to tar any production with the bad review brush? How do we develop the maturity to deal with those subjective verdicts and use them to our advantage, to better our process of creation and shape our professional theatrical practice?

I am convinced that positive, constructive reviews are what Albertan audiences, theatre companies, and actors need at present to support a healthier, more informed theatre community.

HOWEVER , I have absolutely no intention of mollycoddling artists or awarding inconsequential and patronizing gold stars for participation; “an A for Effort” never did make sense to me. So though my reviews will be positive, this is the part where I unleash my usually bridled personal opinion. I assure you it comes from a desire to be constructive, not damning.

WARNING: sweeping generalized statements may upset some readers.

In the theatre industry, we understand that the judgement of our work and ourselves is inevitable and necessary. The nature of art must naturally elicit a response. So being able to decipher what is personal and what is professional, what most call growing a thick skin, is essential to our ability to accept the opinions of others, opinions over which we have no control, as opportunities.

 In most thriving theatre communities around the globe, professionals can put forward their creations, receive less than favourable press, and continue to thrive in their craft because of how they and their well-informed audiences use negative reviews as opportunities for growth, as feedback rather than condemnation.

It is my subjective opinion, I’m afraid, that the theatre climate of Alberta does not support a professional industry robust enough to withstand batterings from unfavourable critical opinions, be they informed or ignorant, for two primary reasons.

First hurdle; our audiences are sorely lacking in variety. NOT ALL, but many Albertan audience members are not seasoned theatre goers. Very few of us opt to leave the comfort of our homes to see a live show that interests us; it doesn’t seem to be in our culture. Look around you at any given performance and you will see mostly friends and family there to support the theatre habit of their “artsy” friend, son, daughter, etc. Many of them will only ever attend a show when they know someone in the cast. They give flowers or cards after opening night, gush over how impressed they are with their loved ones incomprehensible ability to memorize all those lines, and eventually retire to The Olive Garden to go through the program, pointing out who they did and did not like.

I know. I’ve been there. Many times. I’ve been there, I’ve eaten the pasta, I’ve received the ridiculous bouquets given to me simply for doing my job, I’ve asked my family repeatedly to quit treating my cast mates like the gladiatorial contestants they boo or cheer for as they sit on their couches at home watching “The Voice”. It’s embarrassingly unprofessional.

I certainly do not intend to patronize these supportive audience members. The encouragement many young performers receive from their family and friends is vital to building their self-confidence. However I cannot stress enough how extremely detrimental it is to the integrity of our audiences, how we experience, participate in and think about theatre, when we continue to ignore the merit of the work as a whole, forgoing how the story has impacted us rather to judge which of the actors we did or did not like as if every theatre event were “America’s Got Talent”.

It is equally damaging when we as performers forget that the audience of a professional production will be filled with strangers who have no emotional obligation to pat us on the back for a job well (or not so well) done.

Theatre is made for everyone, not just theatre-lovers, and we need to encourage everyone to participate in theatre, not just because they know someone in the cast.

Second hurdle: we do not equip our young performers to deal with negative press. The system most performers go through in Alberta, despite the efforts of many wonderful mentors, fails to give them essential professional tools and rather perpetuates an attitude that the arts are a vehicle for personal acceptance, a fun way to overcome struggles with social confidence, a handy outlet for the zany antics of the artistically inclined, a way to make new friends, a way to express ourselves once we leave drama school, once we’ve gotten it out of our systems.

There is nothing wrong with using the arts for this purpose, however every professional actor knows that your job is to express the story, your characters journey, not use theatre as your own personal form of therapy.

Before I continue in this vein, I want you to please forget about the stigma around the word “amateur”. Shake off its negative connotation and just focus on what the word actually means. An amateur actor is someone who participates in what we have come to call “community theatre” and does not choose theatre as their profession. They contribute to the arts in an equally important but very different way to professionals.

When there is no clear distinction drawn between the amateur and the professional, a certain attitude about actors impedes and demeans those who would pursue a serious vocation in the arts. This attitude threatens to plaster all actors with the ignorant label of drama queens who have yet to outgrow their vice for attention.

Sadly, this attitude tends to spring from trusted sources. Those very family members who support our performances, albeit with embarrassing flair, are often the ones reinforcing the idea that once you’ve gotten your “artistic phase” out of your system, you can nurture it as a hobby, make new friends with similar interests, and go on to apply the skills you’ve learned to your “real job”. These ideas (perhaps) unwittingly contribute to the dangerous and wildly inaccurate notion that pursuing a career in the arts is self-indulgent and irresponsible.

As a result of this vote of non confidence, our theatre world is flooded with performers who have been bullied into forsaking the arts as their main vocation and only a fortunate few can afford to appease their love of the arts with the odd performance here or there.

This completely warps how we value performing and everything that goes into it as “work” and participating in theatre becomes a community activity to pacify suppressed creativity met with substandard expectations rather than a respected profession.

It is therefore completely pointless for any reviewer to go out into the theatres of Alberta and rip to shreds the actors, directors, and theatre folk who have already endured so much discrimination for their choices, artists who have not been given the proper professional support needed to develop the wherewithal to believe in themselves as professionals. Many of them are fragile and they need constructive support, not scrutiny.

So it is my belief that the best way to bolster our Albertan theatre culture is to encourage higher volumes of informed audience members and recognize the productions that deserve them.

Despite the quality of the work, it is a far far better thing to encourage further work, continued growth, and it is my fear that the climate of Alberta’s theatre community is so fragile that an honestly bad review would further discourage already shy audience members from attending their local theatre events and cut short the already ephemeral artistic journeys of many young theatre-makers.

So although I have seen three plays this week and had hopes to post reviews for all of them here, I will not be sharing any new reviews yet. Some of these may be in desperate need of a bad review in order to improve their skills and check their overblown egos, but I cannot be so selective and must stick to my rule.

I would much rather leave productions to enjoy their remaining performances. After all, the majority of productions here have but fleeting runs of 4 to 14 days, an unfortunate side effect of our unhealthy theatrical system. Companies work on ridiculously drawn out timelines, rehearse for unnaturally long periods, usually on evenings and weekends to accommodate their actors’ “real jobs”, accumulate huge space-rental expenses, only to allow the work to struggle towards a brief existence as a living breathing thing over a handful of performances… I suppose that will be my second opinion piece.

As you can tell from my long-winded ramblings, it is frustrating for anyone in the arts to be muzzled from expressing their honest opinion. Art is meant to provoke us, to encourage critical thinking and move us to discuss our thoughts with each other.

After speaking to audience members, directors, actors, stage managers, sponsors, many varieties of theatre-folk, it is clear to me that our theatre community here in Alberta is desperately seeking support. They want to build more honest, competent work. Those productions that I may perceive as failures need to be given the support to continue failing, continue creating and growing, and eventually we may overcome the desire to win popular validation and find the strength to forsake our dreaded “Will they like me” complex in favour of more stimulating professional risks.

 I will continue to write reviews that encourage audiences to step out of their comfort zones and enjoy the real experiences our artists are desperate to share. I hope this will enable us to grow together toward a healthier, more vibrant, more professional artistic culture which focusses on stories that get us all talking.

 

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