In Defense of Negative Reviews

In Defense of Negative Reviews

Vicki Trask

  • Calgary Columnist

This month saw an upsetting case of deconstructive criticism brought to the surface in the case of “Karlan Judd and the Cyberbully” (as criticized by this very blog not last week). Basically, a show’s creator publicly shamed an actor for posting a negative review. Both the comment and the review have since been taken down. 

Others have talked at length about how unprofessional it was for the creator to take a public stance on a negative review but I want to talk about something else that sparked my interest: the purpose of negative reviews and the role of the contemporary audience member.

Theatre – like everything in life – is subjective. When you enter the sacred performance space, you make a vow as an audience member to observe with an open mind and appreciate the work that is laid before you for better or worse. At least, I hope that is the decision you make. Whether or not you enjoy a particular performance, I encourage an open mind and a kind heart. 

That does not mean you have to love everything you see. If an actor, or a story, or even a set piece rubs you the wrong way ask yourself why. The beauty of performing arts – especially in this self-aware era of theatre – is that you are encouraged to think about what you’re watching. 

However, as an audience member, your job is not to be a critic. Your job is to enjoy. But I would be foolish to state that only critics are allowed to express their opinion. That makes no sense. The age of social media and information overload means everyone has an opinion and everyone’s opinion carries with it a certain amount of weight. Word of mouth is still the best way to put butts in seats and social media has become a great place for spreading that around. 

But I’d like to offer a little advice: think. As you’re encouraged to think about the performance you’re watching, also think about the words you choose when someone asks you: “did you enjoy the show” or even better “would you recommend this show?” 

Telling your friend “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” is one thing; but to state publicly that you hated a show with no context is rude and irresponsible. If you’re going to like or dislike, love or hate a show: have a reason. If you are so compelled to tell the world what you thought about that show: have a reason.

Do you see where I’m going with this? 

Now, you are allowed to dislike a performance.

You are allowed to walk out of a theatre with a bad taste in your mouth, and a furrowed brow, and a generally negative feeling. What you’re not encouraged to do is express that negativity with no basis or critical thought when posting online.

As a theatre goer in the modern age you know – you have to know – that sharing your opinion on social media has more significance than a simple comment to your friend. People see it; they take your opinion with them when deciding what shows to see. That’s not to say you should refrain from talking about a show but what I think needs to happen is a more open and critical discussion. 

There is great value in talking about theatre; breaking down scenes, and sets, and lights. Asking why the actor chose to say the line a particular way, why the director chose that movement and on, and on. It’s even more important to talk about a show if you didn’t like it. Very likely, there is a reason you didn’t enjoy yourself so ask why before posting a one-sentence insult. 

From an actor’s perspective, audience feedback is so important. Knowing what’s working and what isn’t is part of the learning process and is so beneficial in the long run. It’s important to get feedback – good and bad – so that theatre can continue to evolve. One of the best things about a live performance is that it is an ever-changing medium; a medium which can’t grow without feedback from the people who are paying to watch. 

That’s all I can really ask of you as an audience member: tell me what you think. I’ll only be offended if you hate without reason so please be critical but open.

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