Does The Critic Inspire Important Conversation, Or Silence It?
I wanted to be a journalist before I wanted to be a playwright. Years ago, as a university student, I did what we were all encouraged to do and reached out to multiple publications, offering to write for free. This is how I started reviewing theatre. At the time, it was a wonderful opportunity to critically respond to the craft and the execution of story. Having the privilege to see as much theatre as I did, and an excuse to unpack it, I quickly developed an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. I flattered myself into thinking that this was why reviewing was important: feedback is necessary in order for the artform to improve! And giving feedback was exactly my job description, right?
But did I mention I was just 18 when I wrote my first review? Yes indeed, a production that’s a minimum three months in the making, involving a minimum of twenty creatives, was giving its all for the word of an unpaid eighteen year old theatre enthusiast.
Now, though a welcome cliché (“Yeah, remember the reviewer is just a bitter, failed actor…”), this isn’t always the case! There are plenty of arts writers who have the necessary knowledge and training to publish a response to a piece of theatre. I’d go so far as to suggest that everyone, as a human being, has a right to respond to a piece of art. It’s subjective and it’s not designed to dictate an opinion for its audience. But, by the same token, a response is an opinion. And thanks to the model of reviewing, some opinions have more weighting than others. This, I venture, is a problem.
Not long ago, Australia’s own Eddie Perfect posted on Facebook about the confused response to his Broadway Musical “BeetleJuice”. To summarise, a show his team had poured four + years into got an objectively appalling review from Ben Brantly in The New York Times. Naturally, this was a devastating experience for everybody involved. Perfect then goes on to describe his daughter’s response to the show and her adoration of the music. Then, there’s the 8 Tony Award nominations, and the enthusiastic audiences.
Does that make the reviewer wrong? Or the people who enjoyed themselves unintelligent and/or too commercial in taste? Does the reviewer know better? One of my all-time favourite films is ‘Mamma Mia!’ It, simply, makes me feel good. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave this film 1/5 stars. This well-respected, professional critic actually wrote the words: “one more scene and I’d a great need to vom”. Yet, when it came out in 2008, Mamma Mia quickly became the highest-grossing film in British history. Bradshaw didn’t prevent this from happening, the same as Brantly didn’t prevent Beetlejuice’s Tony nominations.
Do reviewers need more respect, or are they justifiably becoming increasingly irrelevant to the success, or otherwise, of a production?
Most performers, writers and directors I know vow never to read the reviews. The reviews are simply not seen unless they are pleasant and so are shared by somebody’s enthusiastic nanna to a cast-member’s Facebook wall. There’s generally an attitude of ‘this person doesn’t know us, and how much this project means to us… so why should I read what they think?’. Often, the only people who read the negative reviews are those thinking of attending the performance. This in itself is almost definitely the overall purpose of reviewing: to recommend or to warn away; a service that is not for the theatremakers, but for the general public. An author’s first concern should be their relationship with their readership. Even this function is questionable, however, when I think about all of those people who might have felt what I did when I watched Mamma Mia!, and might never get around to it because they read some old guy’s review!
I like the people in the world of arts reviewing. I generally believe that they are there because they enjoy the artform, and they are passionate about promoting it. But does this mean they’re only useful when they’re positive? Haydon of The UK Guardian is concerned this is the case:
“As far as theatre PRs go, aren’t the occasional raft of poor reviews worth taking on the chin so that the raves can be harnessed? While some shows might take a pasting, there are plenty of others that can be bolstered by quotations plastered over every available bit of space in front of house”.
At the same time, Haydon confesses he sees little worth in straying too far from the star system, and toward long-form analysis, because “if one simply presents a beautiful interpretation of the piece without any mention of the fact that it isn’t much fun to watch, one isn’t doing one’s readership any favour”.
Two years ago, the Australian media community suffered some shocking cuts to arts coverage, prompting outcry. When Fairfax announced they were cutting more than one hundred writing jobs in a bid to de-prioritise arts review and feature writing, entertainment figures nation-wide spoke out in protest. Wesley Enoch asked “how else are we going to get informed debate and discussion about some of the big cultural issues that happen in this country?”. The outrage is appropriate: not only did people lose jobs, but the arts were, seemingly, dismissed as unimportant; as if it doesn’t contribute to cultural growth and unity. Enoch’s question brings to the fore the problem I grapple with: do reviews contribute to a discussion or do they silence it?
In Australia, The Telegraph no longer reviews, The Australian generally doesn’t unless it’s the initial premiere of a mainstream show, and the Guardian simply don’t have the funding to do more than the few that they manage to. The Sydney Morning Herald, similarly, only do eight reviews a month. In response to the 2017 Fairfax cuts, Marieke Hardy (performer) comments “the world needs independent journalism now more than ever”.
The coverage is valuable and we miss it, but is that because of the content or what it stood for? Was the outrage for the cuts to the reviews, or to the long-form articles? Is it true that some reviews feel more important than others? Perhaps those who note the importance of long-neglected themes (representation of minority groups, relevant commentary on class and privilege)? Maybe that’s it - maybe we like how media outlets have the power to shove the importance of something down an unsuspecting reader’s throat.
The Prop started as a platform for a podcast and for Sydney theatre-based interest-articles. But when companies began to reach out and ask for reviews, of course we said yes! We said yes because we like theatre, and reviews are part of the accepted ‘model’ for getting work on, and getting it promoted. It’s nice to see a show we like sharing our words on social media platforms. It’s nice to think that it might convince somebody to buy a ticket.
But, I cannot be so deluded to put myself on a pedestal and claim to know what you will enjoy or won’t enjoy. Based off most post-show conversations with friends, I’ve definitely missed the mark on this many, many times.
Research in this area bears results that are mixed. According to one study, film reviews that are both positive and negative have a direct correlation with box office sales in the first eight weeks. What’s more; negative reviews hurt film’s sales more than positive reviews help them. Another study analyses the effects of voluntary online reviewing on movie sales, and concludes that the actual user-based star-ratings of films don’t mean as much as the number of reviews. In short, word-of-mouth is the strongest tool of promotion. A case study on two esteemed film critic’s impact on box office sales in their opening week, suggests that a reviewer’s influence is detectable, though minimal. It appears that there is little publicly-available study on the effects that stage critics have on theatre ticket sales. However, one case-study based in the Netherlands, drew interesting results: negative reviews of one production did not affect consumer-behaviour. This is a positive result, as audience members reported enjoying the show, without any knowledge of the opinions expressed in the reviews. Interestingly, however, the study finds that reviewing by large media outlets has the ability to affect the perception of a performance, even after the audience member has seen it. According to Boorsma and Maanen, this is especially the case for negative reviews. Such a result points me back to a Guardian article I referenced earlier, wherein the author asks if he would have enjoyed a piece of theatre more, had he first read a particular critical analysis of it, which unpacked its message and, basically, “made the piece much more interesting than watching it had been”.
This provides an interesting but, sadly, unresolved, exploration into the value of reviews for serving two purposes: influencing sales, and prompting discussion/critical thought. It’s my feeling that one is more effective than the other: the one leading to discussion. At the same time I’m still not entirely convinced it’s happening to the fullest potential, probably because at some point we started to talk about reviews strategically, as if the sales are all they exist for.
I’m certain that as long as reviews continue to be respected, and the critic’s good word the goal, then we need more of them. If some shows manage to obtain reviewers, and others don’t then we have a problem. Immediately, the latter group lose a level of legitimacy in their production. As such, certain online independent publications are (admirably) rising to fill a hole which needs filling.
Even in acknowledging all of this, The Prop will no longer review theatre. Instead, its readable content will be limited to long-form interest articles and short essays, written by members of the theatre community. In turn, it will herald the opportunity for a discussion in providing comment and platforms.
I’m not interested in hurting anybody’s hard work. My job isn’t the same as the writers working for bigger media outlets, because my duty is to the theatremakers, not to the general public. I was first attracted to reviewing because I thought it played a role in advancing the art-form. Presently, I’m challenging this notion. If helping is what I came to do, that’s what I’ll do. First step: stop reviewing. Second step: start a conversation.