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Stephanie Street: What do actors think of theatre critics?

Everyone’s a critic: the best reviewers capture the exchange between performers and audience, deftly placing a piece of theatre in context Everyone’s a critic: the best reviewers capture the exchange between performers and audience, deftly placing a piece of theatre in context. Photo: Shutterstock.com
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One Friday, a good few years ago, my brother, at the time a very junior doctor, came home after a tough day in the operating theatre. He’d assisted on the surgery of some complicated head and neck tumours and it hadn’t gone well. The patient died of complications over the weekend. My brother was devastated – it was his first direct loss of life.

Every time I give in to the bleak introspection that is an actor’s inner soundtrack, I remind myself that there are many people out there whose working lives are much harder, much more full of risk than ours. Nonetheless, the actor’s reality of constant judgement, appraisal and assessment by total strangers is not a bag of laughs. Most people’s work speaks for itself in direct results (patients recovering or not, your class’s GCSE results); actors are subject to endless value judgements – in the first place, whether or not we’re given the job, and then of the quality of the work it results in. The things being judged are often pretty oblique: what we sound like or look like, too fat/ tall/ freckly/ foreign and so on. Stuff over which your average human being hasn’t got much control.

There’s at least one critic I’d gladly plant a fist on

It was from this point of sensitivity that, at the start of my working life, I avoided reviews of my work. This wasn’t so difficult at the time. You had physically to buy a newspaper in 2001 to read a review (you actually had to part with real cash for the privilege) so it was easy enough to steer around in daily life. And I’d share this particular foible with the people I worked with. After all, we knew how hard we’d worked, that what we’d done mattered. I didn’t need Charles Spencer to pick it apart or ratify it for me.

On one job in particular, the company went to extraordinary lengths to keep the critical wolves from our dressing room door – internet rationing, partners and spouses removing pages from all newspapers at home, lots of fingers in ears. And the play was a knockout success. Of course we soon realised the reviews had been good because you couldn’t get tickets for love nor money. But still, when I came to read the slew of four- and five-star reviews after the run finished, I felt a little slump.

You see, for an actor (and I’m sure for most creatives) your work, during its short life, becomes your world. Any kind of summation of it, positive or negative, inevitably chips away at that direct line connecting your heart, your soul and the work. The things reviewers love are rarely the aspects of the production you cherish; when they condemn elements of the production or performances in it, I often feel as I imagine I might if you told me you disliked my daughter. And then there’s the bleak reality of going completely unmentioned or unremarked – memories of sitting on the sides, unasked, at the school disco, anyone?

Of course I’ve been in shows or seen shows with people who read their reviews and it’s hard not to notice the impact. You can see a tangible disengagement from the work if it hasn’t been well-received, an unspoken “I wish I didn’t have to be walking and talking through this godawful dud every night.” Or the opposite: I’ve seen many actors swell copiously into moments or scenes that critics have ‘loved’.

But, but, but… Something shifted. It was probably about the time I started writing the kind of work I wanted to watch and be in. I have never been a fan of theatre that disregards or disrespects its audience – my interest lies in the transaction between audience and the live performance, that’s why theatre is my chosen vice. And I started to understand that well-written reviews should and do articulate that exchange.

Everyone involved in making theatre has their particular expertise. The creative work, from directing to sound design to acting takes place entirely in the present tense. Like an athlete running a record-breaking 200 metres, creatives do their best work in the moment, without too much self-reflection, which tends to muddy the waters. Good critics, on the other hand, offer the long view. In addition to capturing the exchange, they will deftly and intelligently place a piece of theatre in a context. Some of the most engaging reviews I have read are of shows at theatres I’ve never been to. These reviews are able somehow to convey the significance and reality of a piece of theatre that is either physically or culturally distant (Avignon festival, for example), while making it totally alive and graspable to me, a fairly English (in its broadest sense) theatre-maker. It’s pretty clear that to have these two approaches to the work of theatre is ideal.

We reduce the scope of and need for criticism, therefore, if we see critics as the gatekeepers to a sellout show, or the arbiters of our industry. When critics (you know who they are) trample all over a piece of work because it’s not from The Club, or blow smoke up its arse because it is, they are making themselves – their voice – the most important thing in the exchange. Equally, the actors or directors who slag all critics off in the ‘those-who-can’t-do-review’ vein… well really, loves, just get a job that pays properly, go into therapy and manage your insecurities in private. Note that the ‘all’ is important there – there is at least one critic out there I’d gladly plant a fist on.

Critic SearchWhen I was studying English at university, literary criticism sent me into a tailspin: Stephen Greenblatt and Freud’s accounts of Lear, say, would have you believe that they were writing about two different plays. Those critics I lent towards, hugely influenced by my own politics, set lightbulbs off all over the place in what I read. The same applies to theatre criticism. The critics whose reviews I enjoy (I’m not naming names but they’re a mixed bag across broadsheets and the blogosphere) throw beams of light on a work of theatre. They don’t operate on the binary yes/no axis, but dig deep into the production, the play and the live moment of performance. Furthermore, it’s hugely heartening when critics engage with wider issues in the industry. I will gladly name Lyn Gardner and Andrew Haydon here, who have thrown their voices and participation into the vital debate ongoing about diversity in the industry. The Act for Change Project gains enormously from the kind of analysis and input they can offer.

Theatre has always struck me as being a game of equals. No one person’s creative input is more important than another’s: neither the creatives nor the audience are more important. Everyone needs to bring their best attention and focus to make the most of this uniquely composite artistic enterprise. While I’m aware that sounds like rampant idealism I do believe that’s how it should be.

Read more about The Stage Critic Search

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