Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don't try it. You should leave that to people who haven't been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.
-Oscar Wilde, Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest.
I just opened the The Importance of Being Earnest this weekend. That means we'll probably get reviewed this week, and it is a question that is nigh inevitable. Reviews. Good reviews, bad reviews, what do you do with them?
The best thing to do with them is ignore them. Never read them. Never discuss them. Never think about them until your show is closed. What are you going to do, change your performance? Reading praise or criticism will only serve to interfere with the process and values that you have worked so hard to create in rehearsal. What is important is your dedication to the character and your connection with the audience. If those things are real, if you are giving and receiving that energy, if you are feeling it happen, nothing else matters. And you know when you are not. Actors are so often their own worst critics. They are (as a whole) perfectionists. Tiny nuances that barely ripple in the consciousness of the audience are felt on stage. We obsess over tiny details of delivery and tone. If you are a performer, you KNOW if you had a good show. You don't need anyone to tell you. Ignore what people say, trust your heart, trust your audience, and trust your fellow actors.
And if you can do that... well you're a stronger man or woman than I.
I read them. I am almost obsessive about reading reviews, both mine and those of other shows. I want to know what someone is saying about me, particularly when they are doing so in public. Why? Well, because I'm human. Every person wants other people to say nice things about them. It's part of our DNA. Our instinct for the social and the collaborative enabled us to survive and spread as a species and in societies. I also want a good review because reviewers are audience members. I genuinely want to connect my performance with each person in the room with me. I want them to smile and laugh with me, to feel want and tension with me; I want them to share the story I'm telling. And a reviewer is part of that audience. Part that goes and writes about it after, but no less a part. Now in a 300 seat theater, someone, probably several someones, will not like your show. They have a cold or didn't get enough sleep or they were dragged there by their significant other and they just want to leave. You hope you can touch these people. You imagine, as a performer, they will come in disgruntled, but be so overwhelmed by your honest, entertaining performance that they can't help but be moved to laughter and tears. By the end of the show they will stand up spontaneously in applause, having forgotten their initial reticence, wrapped up in the moment that you have created with them. But... well that just ain't gonna happen to everyone. Sorry. Someone is going to hate your show (here are some one star reviews of Citizen Kane). And some of them are going to write about it in public. Accept it and move on with your life.
I suppose I also want a good review because it can drive ticket sales, though that's probably a smaller concern. You want people to come and enjoy your show, and the more people the better. But word of mouth (particularly social media now) is a much bigger factor. But on the margins, some people will be persuaded by reviews, and that's especially true of print publications. Say what you want about the death of newspapers, but many people, and especially older people (you know, the ones that vote and go to theatre in disproportionate numbers), still rely on them for information and advice. They also bring with them some sense of legitimacy (sometimes justified and sometimes not). But the main thing is, people do think "hmm, what's going on this weekend?" and pick up the paper or log on to its website. A good review might mean that they decide to come see your show instead of another, or going to a movie, or what have you. The dedicated theatre fan will look at the online only publications directed at theatre and the arts, but the casual fan, the type that is most likely to be persuaded by a review, is probably not reading those.
Don't get me wrong, I do think critics, no matter where or how they publish, are important. They are a record. They hold productions, and especially theatre companies to account. They are a needed part of the conversation, and without them the theatre communities aren't pushed to grow and improve. It is interesting to see the show from a different perspective. Part of theatre is thinking about it, arguing about it, even if it only consists of yelling at the computer screen. Theatre can become lazy, ossified, safe without someone willing to stand outside the production circle and voice their opinion. Art can't thrive on praise alone. But neither do we produce works for the praise of critics.
So the main thing is, if you do read them (and I do) what do you DO with them? How do you deal with them? Well, you do have to put them in a box. Remind yourself that this is just one person in your audience. If they gave you a bad review, but the audience gave you a standing ovation, who are you going to believe? Not everyone will connect with every piece or every performance, so let it go. But the flip side is important too. If they gave you a good review, don't break your arm patting yourself on the back. It's just ONE person. If you credit the good words of critics, you also give power to their negative ones, so be careful about the good words as much as the bad ones. Sure, maybe you can use a good notice to help get another part, but don't believe it, believe your performance. Second, either way, remind yourself of the reviews you have read (good and bad) that you've disagreed with. Remember when they loved the show you hated? Remember when they panned the show that made you cry? I almost never agree with every reviewer (almost never 100% agree with anyone about anything, that's human nature). When they write about a show I've seen and I disagree, I don't think "oh, well maybe I'm wrong." I don't question my judgement or belief in art. I think "that reviewer is wrong." So don't give a reviewer's opinion more weight than you would if you had watched the show. Finally, remember that what matters is the performance. What matters is the choices you worked on for weeks before you opened.
I want every review to be glowing. I want each one to mention my performance particularly as gifted, inspired, genius, and moving. Because I'm vain. Because I'm petty. Because I'm human. But the truth is... well the truth is on stage. It's what you give and what you receive. It is being there with your fellow performers and the audience as fully present and as fully invested as you can be. We are a society, a species, of story. Sharing story is as old as human language. We sit around the campfire and tell tales of gods, tricksters, heroes and devils. We share values, loves, beliefs through story. We even make decisions through story. Now the campfire consists of fresnels and par cans, but the process, the basic human need to share stories with each other, is the same. Keep that feeling. Be with your audience. And know you are doing it right.