#URstage: In Defense of Negative Reviews : Part 2

Vicki Trask

OnStage Calgary Critic

I talked last year about forgiving yourself as an audience member if you didn’t like a show, and the importance of critically thinking about theatre (regardless of whether or not you’re a reviewer).Today I want to expand on that.

I am in the very unique position of writing reviews in a community in which I actively participate. Theatre is not just my interest; it’s my job – my love. It’s where I go when I’m sad, and it is my daily classroom. Part of my learning comes from watching others perform. When I attend a show and review it, I’m analysing what I liked or didn’t like in the context of growing as an actor and a writer.

In a year of working for On Stage, I’ve had the honour of attending so many incredible shows around Calgary – and I’ve also participated in a few. As an actor, the stage is simultaneously the safest and the most vulnerable place we can be. The stage is home and the audience are guests and invaders. We invite them in to bear our souls and they evaluate our performance based on their entertainment. From the old couple in the corner grumbling about content, to the reviewer in the back, to the friend trying to find a response to the question: “what did you think?” everyone is watching with intent; and I think that’s how it should be. Theatre is not idle so we should not ask our audience to be. 

From an actor’s perspective, audiences are terrifying. It’s encouraging for some to see a friend in the audience and yet they are often the people we struggle to impress the most. Knowing that everyone out there is judging, in their own way, is disheartening for some and motivating for others. For me, it’s a dare. When someone tells me that I’m bad or that I will never be good enough, I am heartbroken – and I wallow for a while – but then it becomes a challenge. I put the pressure on myself to step up my game. I know that’s not the case for others. For some it’s an attack, for others it’s a sign. There’s no wrong way to feel but there’s also no way to know or change people’s feelings when you answer the question “what did you think?” My suggestion is to be honest.

As much as theatre involves pretending, it’s about truth. It’s bearing our souls and exploring emotion while other people judge our interpretation. It’s not an easy profession – nor is it in an easy hobby. Community theatre has always been a tricky area to critique. The people on that stage are not professionals but they still have talent and passion for what they’re doing and people have paid to see them. I don’t believe a paycheque should define an actor’s ability to perform and be critiqued for that performance. If you’re taking pride in your work shouldn’t others be allowed to see and analyse it the way they would a professional performance?

Now, reviewing is not an excuse to be a horrible person. When you leave the theatre, you should have something to talk about. If there is something that you didn’t like, ask why.

Discuss, review, blog, draw, understand; figure it out. Don’t leave on a negative note. For actors I say: don’t lose heart because of someone’s interpretation. For reviewers I say: be realistic but not cruel. 

What I’m advocating for is open and honest analysis of a very vulnerable medium. It sounds emotional and scary but I hope everyone can grow from it.