Going Public: What playwrights feel about their reviews

Playwright and tutor Steve Waters explains the power of the review, and offers advice on how to deal with them, whether they’re good or bad.

Steve Waters

As I sat down to write this piece, I was waiting for reviews for two new plays of mine: Amphibians, a project I have developed with Offstage Theatre Company, and Little Platoons, part of the Schools Season at the Bush Theatre. Going public with a new piece of work induces a strange psychotic state in a playwright that I have never got used to – in the breach between opening night and judgement day, it feels like the world is talking behind your back.

jacket image of LITTLE PLATOONS

Little Platoons by Steve Waters

Writerly paranoia of course. But it’s interesting to compare it with having a book published, or indeed working in other media. David Greig has described the impact of a radio play being broadcast as something akin to someone farting in a large room – OK, you might get a nice comment in the Radio Times or some vituperative stuff on an online message board, but by and large life goes on as before. Likewise when my book The Secret Life of Plays came out in the autumn, there was a rash of congratulatory emails and positive reports from friends and relatives, and then a painfully protracted silence before the reviews started to appear.

There are heroic alternatives to running this gauntlet. I admire those who proclaim they never read reviews, as if they have somehow exited from public judgement altogether. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t even read the reviews of other people’s work, which strikes me as going too far – surely a little schadenfreude from time to time is perfectly healthy?

jacket image of THE SECRET LIFE OF PLAYS

The Secret Life of Plays by Steve Waters

I’ve forgotten the innocence of life before notices. What did I do with myself? The odd reference or exam result or school report was all I had to go on. How on earth was I able to evaluate myself? When my first show received a raft of bruising brush-offs I felt I had been mugged in public – the sad, knowing smiles of people around me seemed to confirm my misjudgement of my own worth. The first casualty was my own capacity to believe in reviews myself – having innocently imagined them to be acts of public service, they suddenly looked like collective malice.

I think the poignant delusion behind these anxieties is the hope for justice. Rather like composing your own obituary in advance, there is this naïve craving for a fair trial – no, worse, the laughable need for absolute praise. Being a playwright is not always a sure sign of psychic balance.

The most tortuous aspect of it is the slow release of reviews, like a deadly spread of some toxic gas, undermining your glow of self-belief over a week or two. I have never been addicted to a drug but I imagine it would be akin with the undignified scramble to get online followed by the glum or gleeful hit that ensues. Four stars makes your day, two stars makes you head for Finland.

The proliferation of online reviewing has made this worse not better. More is not merrier – at least with newspaper reviews you know who counts and you know how long they take and you have a vague sense of where they might land. Blogs, websites, and message boards simply demolish your smugness more thoroughly.

Having now been through this on about ten occasions you might hope I could dispense some wisdom. I wish I could. But what follows are merely notes to myself on a good day:

  1. Assume the worst.  As a congenital optimist this is hard work for me. Like Jarvis Cocker I have been composing my own notices for some time and unsurprisingly they tend to the positive.
  2. Dont commit the inductive fallacy. I think Bertrand Russell came up with this term to unpick the logic that because something has happened before, it is likely to happen again. His example is the turkey who blithely assumes he won’t be killed for Christmas since a happy year has passed in the turkey farm and he is so far unscathed – but tomorrow is December 24th. There’s an admixture of rationality and the irrational in the process of being reviewed that must be taken into account. The fact that a critic has been kind in the past is no guarantee of anything – indeed, your luck may have run out. Journalists can’t afford to be predictable, they live and die by their copy.
  3. Don’t take it personally. OK, that was easily writ, but there have been certain reviewers in my career who I always imagined very keenly shooting up their hand in the editorial meeting ahead of my show, hungry to go forth and shaft me. But that way madness lies…because what if the good reviews also stem from some undisclosed personal tie? What if they’re just being nice?
  4. Never respond. Oh God, the hours wasted composing tart and uber-eloquent rejoinders, light as a meringue yet laced with toxins, or the fantasies of Berkoff-style punch-ups next time round. But pause, remind yourself what an arse you will look, and move on.
  5. There is no such thing as neutrality. Everyone has a vested interest in their judgement – your partner to shut you up and pre-empt your insatiable questioning, the actor whose arse is on the line and needs to look on the bright side, the right-wing newspaper with a certain constituency, the left-wing one ditto, the blogger avid for attention. You will never, ever get to the bottom of what you have really done.
  6. Nothing lasts. Yes, damage can be done. But here I am, the survivor of at least two collective maulings. Equally, the presumption that a pat on the back ensures plain sailing thereafter is unsound. Critics are no more nor less than another version of the audience. And as with the audience, even as everyone’s baying with laughter, someone will be looking at their watch; and when everyone’s baying for blood, someone will be smiling wryly to themselves.

Steve Waters’ play Little Platoons opened (with glowing reviews) at the Bush Theatre on 24th January. It is published by Nick Hern Books, as is his book on playwriting – The Secret Life of Plays. To view the full list of NHB titles by this author click here.

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