I have no idea if anyone read my theater reviews, back when I was writing them. Presumably someone did, since my editor continued to publish my reviews, although I can’t be sure. No one ever commented. I never heard of an actor’s career being ruined or launched due to a review, nor am I sure my reviews influenced ticket sales. As a fledgling critic, I had fantasies of being Addison DeWitt; now I’d be content if just one person reading a review went to see a show I care about. Hell, I exaggerate: I just want a steady gig, like anyone else. Despite the apparent lack of influence and the definite lack of income accompanying theater reviewing, I continue to believe that the act of writing about the theater with honesty and passion is an important part of the theater world.
A central premise of theater criticism is that not all theater is created equal: Some is better than others. We know this in our guts and in our heads. A million things go into a theatrical production, and when most of those things go right the theater-going experience can be thrilling, even transcendent. Sometimes just one of those things goes wrong and the thrill is gone—perhaps for a moment, perhaps for duration of the show. A critic’s responsibility is to frankly discuss, with the artists and with the audience, a show’s artistic merit and explain its aesthetic standing. A thrilling show deserves to be championed. A show that doesn’t pass muster needs examination as to why. A show that doesn’t measure up at all means writing a negative or “bad” review. Reviewing, regardless, is a deeply personal experience shared with everyone who actually reads the review (if, indeed, anyone does).
I’d be lying if I said it always pains me to write a bad review. As anyone who has done so knows, writing scathing critiques can be fun. It’s an opportunity to show off wit and wisecracks, and in an age as ironic as ours, bad reviews can be fun to read. But there’s something more at stake in a bad review than wit or irony. I panned shows because they were either aesthetically unpleasing, failing to arouse either pleasure or interest; or because they didn’t represent the level of quality that I, as a critic, feel compelled to guard.
I don’t mean this ironically: One of the critic’s responsibilities is to promote theater that moves him or her. You have to love what you’re writing about, to believe in the shows that conform to your subjective definition of excellence. And you have to believe that both artists and audiences share your particular set of beliefs, at least partially. There is as much personal investment at stake in a passionately crafted review as there is in the creation of the show under review. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but only a slight one. While not always reflected in reviews, critics put their own particular version of excellence at stake in their critiques, with the hope, and arrogance, that such excellence is shared.
A few years ago I was interviewing Canadian actress Nicola Cavendish, and the subject of critics and reviews came up. When she was younger, Cavendish received some advice from actor Robert Clothier: “I was young and I’d read some reviews, because you did when you were young, and he said to me, ‘Now Nicola, if you’re going to read reviews, you better believe all of it. If you’re going to believe the good, you’d better bloody well believe the bad. So you don’t read reviews.’ And I’ve never read a review since. Such good advice, isn’t it?”
You better believe all of it, to paraphrase Clothier, a sentiment that implies a level of trust between critic, artists and audience, and as with any relationship of trust there exists the strong possibility of being hurt. Artists must trust that critics will exercise fair and consistent aesthetic judgment and that audiences will share, in part, those judgments; audiences must trust artists’ work and critics’ assessment of that work; and critics must trust that artists and audiences will believe them.
Writing and receiving reviews is deeply personal. Critics ask artists to believe the good, and to bloody well believe the bad. A vision of excellence is at stake.
Matt’s criteria for writing good “bad” (or negative) reviews:
1. The critic clearly states his or her objections to the performance and justifies those objections on theatrical and aesthetic grounds.
2. The critic is honest about his or her aesthetics, so if someone reading has a different aesthetic, they can get their own damn critic—or be their own damn critic (that’s what blogs, twitter, Facebook are for, yes?)
3. The bad review should be well-written and fun to read (this actually applies to all reviews, come to think of it).
4. Even if a critic is compelled to say a show violated all that’s theatrically holy, their bad review should recognize and respect that theater involves voluntary vulnerability. If doing theater, like writing about it, were easy then anyone could do it. We all know that isn’t the case.