“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
After our debut performance of Snow White at the New Diorama, we Filskit ladies were ready for a well-deserved rest. After sweating profusely on stage from our double dose of shows, we breathed a collective sigh of relief knowing that the day was over – and that our costumes would soon be washed. It was a long day.
However, this was only a brief respite. For in this lull, before we start work towards Camden Fringe Festival, we have the briefest time in which to reflect. It is time to look back upon what worked (or didn’t), which moments to enhance or soften. This is usually something done over a drink after the show and later through numerous cups of tea and emails, feeding in different team members opinions; but there is another role in this process, that of the reviewer. We had been informed, prior to performance, that several critics would be present on the day. We received this knowledge and reacted with mock nonchalance.
For Filskit, and any young company just starting to make a dent in the big old world of theatre, we are highly conscious of the impact a review can have. A word from the critics can inspire audiences to race to the box office or conversely avoid it like the plague. However, there are also those odd examples of people who choose to go against this informed opinion based solely on the grounds that they dislike the individual critic in question. In a sense, the critic can almost be seen to play the role of mediator – attending on behalf of the general public to cast judgement on what lies before them. On an exaggerated scale, this conjures up the image of the Emperor figure in Roman times during gladiatorial combat, the thumb poised to judge its fate. But before we start getting images of Lyn Gardner in a toga, it begs the question, how important is the word of the critic and what role do they play in today’s online society?
We raise this topic as an extension to Improbable’s recent D&D session, hosted by the aforementioned Lyn and A Younger Theatre’s very own Jake Orr. If you aren’t aware of these ‘Devoted & Disgruntled’ sessions, we urge you to go along to the next monthly session. Using Open Space technology, it gives anyone the chance to raise a topic they feel strongly about and hold a discussion on that particular issue. It’s a fantastic, honest way of sparking dialogues which can help tackle, stir and even solve issues in the world of theatre. These conversations may finish there and then or, as demonstrated by the discussions the other night, can continue to blossom and grow beyond the sessions. The umbrella topic for the last event was “What are we going to do about Theatre Criticism?”
Casting a critical eye over your work is surely all part and parcel of performance. We do it as actors, (“I fluffed that line”), the director does it (“your timing was well off”) and audiences do it too (“well that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back”) – we hasten to add that these are all hypothetical quotes written for your amusement and do not represent actual feedback that we have received – honest! Regardless of age, sex or class, the attending audience will have formed some sort of reflective, critical opinion whether this ranges from sheer delight to mild boredom. But then we have ‘the critic’ – the regular theatregoer whose informed opinion is committed to print, for all to see. Heralded as the voice of wisdom in their field of expertise, their review is essentially there as one individual’s opinion. But that opinion can be the equivalent of marketing gold dust to a company. Their words can have an undeniably powerful role in the making or breaking of a show (‘Paint Never Dries’ anyone?) To quote the Spiderman catchphrase, “with great power comes great responsibility” – and let’s not even get started on Spiderman: Turn off the Dark…
This therefore brings in to question the role of the reviewer. Do they act as an informant to the masses on what to see, what not to see and why? Or perhaps a reviewer is a voice for the industry? They can be a means to champion and support good work that should be gaining support from both venues and institutions. A critic can also act as advisor to companies, indicating areas where improvement is necessary or how the show could be enhanced (although I imagine this would not always be well received). It is when assessing who the review is for (audience/industry/artists) that you can really call into question the purpose of the review. Perhaps the answer is that a really good review serves all these roles.
Fortunately, the reviews we have received so far for Snow White have been extremely positive. Trumpet blowing over, we are in all honesty very grateful to hear such encouraging feedback. It is a welcome leg-up giving us the momentum to say “Look, people have written things about us and our little show”. It adds a bit of professional gravitas, slightly better than just relying on your Mum… But with tweets and blogs the order of the day, critics needn’t be restricted to tabloid journalism. The online community is a levelled playing field where a range of voices can be heard. We have switched the Roman Emperor’s thumb for collective ‘Likes’ on Facebook.
It seems now that the collective response, such as the number of followers on Twitter, the ‘Likes’ on Facebook and hits on the website, are what an audience look for when assessing what to go and see. Does this mean we look to follow the direction of others in a sheep-like fashion? Or perhaps need more reassurance when we spend money from our dwindling budgets? Either way, it could mean that potential audience members are less likely to take risks, making the need for good reviews online as well as in print, ever more important to young and ‘unknown’ companies.
For Filskit, as relative newcomers to the family show genre, one of our main discoveries is that children are essentially your biggest (vocal) critics. Lining the front few rows and playing with glow sticks (our Snow White is quite dark so this helped combat the problem), we found ourselves looking directly into the eyes of the critics we were genuinely eager to please. While an online blogger may go home and type an immediate reaction to the show to post on Twitter, we are at the receiving end of the truly instant response. Young audiences aren’t shy of letting you know exactly what they think and feel about your performance. Their laughter and audible comments enable you to know exactly how they’re feeling, which helps you keep the ‘ball’ in the air. They will let you know if you’ve dropped it.
By the end of the second performance we were informed by a member of our stage crew that they had seen a number of children leaving with sweets and flowers that had been scattered over the stage. Although this may end up having financial implications on our show budget, we were happy to know that our audience had left wanting to take a little bit of our Snow White with them. Now that’s the kind of reaction we really want.