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Phil Willmott: 7 tips for dealing with bad theatre reviews

I’ve waited a little while to write this, until I don’t have a show running or about to open, so that it won’t feel like I’m responding to a particular set of good or bad reviews. My work has always attracted plenty of both.

These days there are so many theatre blogs and review sites [1] with conflicting opinions that anyone below the rank of Dench will probably be able to find something to unbalance them (good or bad) on the internet if they look for it. Even critics are subjected to others slagging them off. I think dealing with the fallout from public criticism or praise is one of the trickiest psychological challenges we face in our professional careers but discussing the agony or ecstasy feels almost taboo.

Here are a few tips to fortify you at 2am when you’ve foolishly Googled your latest project…

1. Let yourself feel hurt

It’s natural to feel hurt and angry if someone writes mean things. As a director, it’s like overhearing a stranger insulting your children. There’s no point pretending you don’t want to punch that stranger in the face. (NB. Don’t punch critics in the face.) Allow yourself these feelings for half an hour. Have a cry or wake someone up and have a rant, although not for too long, as they’re only pretending to care and they’ve got work in the morning.

2. Don’t be overwhelmed

A screen full of sites saying something about the project you’ve just poured everything into can feel overwhelming. Remember you’re the only one who’ll see everything catalogued like this. No one else is likely to Google that exact combination of words.

3. Get some perspective

No one reads the reviews on ineedfriendsandvalidation.com or whatever new theatre blog has started up that week. All their traffic comes from you and your fellow cast members. Bloggers bitching about you is utterly irrelevant. Quote the good ones, ignore the rest.

4. Be strong

If you’re not in the West End or a production of Sweeney Todd it’s increasingly difficult to get reviewed by newspaper critics. If you are, hardly anyone will remember what they wrote in approximately 48 hours. Contrary to how it feels, the review will not have been read by everyone you know. Metro stopped running theatre reviews because of the pitifully few people clicking on them. Be psychologically strong and shrug bad reviews off. It’s an entirely appropriate response.

5. Don’t let it linger

Try really hard not to carry reviews with you, in heart, mind or pocket when you go to give your next performance. The worst repercussion from a slew of bad reviews is that the company needlessly lose pride, respect and discipline.

6. Think of the critic

Remember the critic was never cool enough to hang out with the drama crowd at university. Slinging mud or praise was/is his or her attempt to be part of the group. But sitting and then writing alone will never be as much fun as you have actually making art happen, something they’re jealous of and will never have experienced. (In the interests of full disclosure I admit I’ve been a professional critic for 20 years. It’s my day job.)

7. Respond

It used to be the form to never ever respond to a review. I say screw that. If someone’s set themselves up to judge you in public, it’s fair enough to judge them back in the comments. Have the courage to do it under your own name and don’t forget to say thanks for the helpful stuff. My fellow critics are nice people, and human too.

Are you interested in becoming a professional critic? Enter The Stage Critic Search [2] (until May 29, 2015)