How should artists respond to reviews?

Last week, the lovely Honour Bayes discovered and shared a series of reviews, collated by theatre critic Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times. The reviews were of the one man show, Critical Mass, created and performed by Ian himself in ’97.

Along with the reviews on his own website – most of them positive – Ian provides “self-serving footnotes” and although these are really supplementing the reviews, they got me thinking about how artists respond to critics, what they think of reviews and how to make and receive a useful response to a review.

For the most part, when I’ve seen responses, they’ve been in written form, published online and they’ve been defensive, snide and/or dismissive (Ian’s footnotes are none of these). However, I have had proper, you know, real-life conversations with theatre-makers about their shows which were a lot less negative but perhaps still not as useful as they could have been for either party probably because of the inclination to be polite from both artist and reviewer when involved in an in-person discussion.

To me, a good review explains how the show felt, what the show made the reviewer think of, questions it made them asks or things it made them reconsider. I think a response to a review should do the same. What did my review make you feel/think/reconsider? Did it affirm anything? Did it piss you off? Why?

So here are some general thoughts about how, if you’re going to respond to a review, you could make the reviewer really think.

Tell me what I got wrong – but accept my opinion
Differentiate between something that can be responded to, figure out where there’s room for discussion or persuasion – this will probably be when I propose and idea or a question or when I make a stab at what your play is trying to say.

It’s kind of pointless responding to an opinion that probably won’t be changed like “I can’t bear Keira Knightley…” but it is useful to point out what others have said if they’ve qualified their opinion. For example, if I’ve said the acting sucked – hopefully I’ll have explained why – feel free to rub in my face how others described the performance as long as they’ve said something more helpful than “fantastic!” or “superb!” – those opinions aren’t useful to me once I’ve formed my own but what did the actors bring to the performance that I missed?

Could your PR agent be useful?
Maybe they have experience with journalists and know which one would be open to discussions and which ones you should probably leave be? It might also be useful to have another person, who is not part of the company, read the review (dunno if your PR is the best person for this but), they could be helpful.

Don’t be snide
We’re grown-ups discussing the point at which our industries meet. Looking clever should not be a priority for either of us. If I’ve said something you think is snarky, you’re in position to point it out and take the higher ground by not retorting. But my job is to be creative with language so I doubt that singling out a metaphor I’ve used would be that helpful.

Ask Questions
I usually think my reviews are crystal clear, I’m probably wrong. Tell me if you think my opinions need clarifying – that’s helpful to me especially if I’ve said something that offends you.

Or you could do what Ian did. I’d be happy to read your “self-serving footnotes”, they’d probably be most helpful of all. And if not, maybe they’ll come with his good humour.

Image by danielle_blue

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