“I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.”
- Dorothy Parker
The human animal is a fallible beast; we are hypocritical, egotistical, emotional and vulnerable. We don’t like being criticised, and when we are, we get defensive.
If you got a bad review, or a review that you’re not entirely happy with at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, or if you got a bad review anywhere else; I’m sorry you got a bad review. I’m sorry you’re angry, and I’m sorry you’re disappointed.
So, what do you do when faced with a bad review of your work? Here are some ideas that will help you feel better and perhaps even work a bad review to your advantage – without pissing off the writer/publication.
Get Someone Else to Read the Review
One of the first pieces of advice that I’m going to give you is after you’ve read a negative review of your show or your performance, then ask someone close to you to read it.
Getting another person’s perspective on the review can allow you to look at the article in a different light; it could make that sentence that you felt was pretty damning seem reasonable, it could point out if you’ve actually misread something.
Sometimes even just talking to people about your bad review can be helpful, and also cathartic, so speak to someone you trust and get their perspective on the review, it could really help make you feel better.
Contact the Publication
You have every right to contact a publication and ask for a mistake to be corrected. Minor errors, such as spelling mistakes, factual errors, etc, can be easily corrected, and most publications and editors will be more than happy to correct them when they are pointed out.
Case in point; I reviewed a production of Wondrous Flitting, a Lyceum Fringe production, in August 2010. In my admittedly negative review, I said that the show was a co-production between the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the Traverse Theatre, because while it was a Lyceum production, it was staged at the Traverse.
A day after it was published, one of the Lyceum’s press officers sent me a very polite email, informing me that Wondrous Flitting was not a co-production, it had been created solely by the Lyceum, and was only staged at the Traverse. As soon as I was informed of my error, I corrected it, and apologised to the Lyceum, who very graciously accepted my apology, and didn’t even mention the fact that the review was a negative one.
I had made a simple error, they informed me politely, and I was happy to change it, because errors like that are not only embarrassing for the company, but embarrassing for the journalist too.
When to Ask For More
There are instances when a company may be within their rights to ask for the publication to review the show again, either by sending the original reviewer, or a different writer.
For example, last year, I was contacted by an editor that I know well, he asked me if I would be able to review a show that another critic had reviewed a few days previously.
This critic had arrived 15 minutes late to a show, and for reasons known only to them, be it deadlines, or the wrath of the editor (who is actually a very nice man) they decided to write a review of the show despite missing so much of the piece.
The first 15 minutes of this show, or indeed, any show, is very important; it introduces the characters, and explains the way the show is structured. The critic missed this, and wrote a very negative review, which the performer was understandably not happy about. They complained about the review, and the editor decided to send a reviewer that they could trust, which in this case was me.
When Not to Contact
If you have legitimate reasons for contacting a publication to complain about a review, such as the errors listed above, and you ask politely, then any good editor will go out of their way to help you and to attempt to make the situation better for both you and them.
However, not liking a review isn’t grounds for asking for another reviewer to be sent to the production. You have every right to have a grumble about a bad review, and you always have the right to reply, but ask yourself whether complaining about a review is the right thing to do.
For example, if a critic mentions that a piece feels under-rehearsed, or that the scene changes are awkward, or a line was forgotten, or there were technical issues, and these things did happen, then that’s something you have to accept.
Here is a list of legitimate complaints that I, and other critics I know have received from productions about reviews we’ve written, they range from the reasonable to the odd, and some are pretty eye-opening.
- The actor that complained about a review because the director had died while the play was in rehearsals, and stated that the review would upset the director’s widow.
- The director that complained that the reviewer had said an actor was wearing white gloves, when they were wearing black gloves. They threatened legal action because of this.
- The PR that complained one year after the review had been published, claiming that the reviewer had “obviously come in during a preview” and they would never have allowed the reviewer to come in so early. The reviewer had booked a press ticket which had been confirmed by that same PR.
- The actor who complained that a negative review named her, and a handful of other actors in a production that they were no longer involved in. It turned out that the company hadn’t updated their publicity materials since the cast change.
The L Word
In a perfect world, the threat of libel would be used sparingly, because everyone would get along and nothing nasty or incorrect would be written about anyone, anywhere, ever.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, and libel exists to protect people from having vicious lies spread about them in print or online. The threat of libel should always be a last resort if neither party can come to a satisfactory conclusion. Yet, there are more and more stories of companies threatening journalists with libel over reviews. It happened to me last year, it happened to a critic I know this year – on Twitter, no less – and it’s a deeply worrying trend.
The only advice I can give on the subject of libel is this; if you react defensively and threaten legal action against a publication, then you will get a defensive reaction in turn. They will seek legal advice, they will be advised not to engage with you, and all communications will cease. Is this what you want? Probably not, especially if you’re only complaining about a misspelling, or the writer saying an actor wore a pair of white gloves instead of black gloves. Libel should never be used in this way.
Does It Really Matter?
If you get one bad review, then you have to ask yourself; does this review really matter to me in the long run?
Should you pay attention to a bad review? Will one bad review haunt you forever? Will it follow you around various countries and festivals for the rest of your days? No, but your reaction to it just might, so look at the bigger picture, you got a reviewer in, you got a review published, you can either choose to ignore it, or add it to your flyers and posters ironically.
How you react to a bad review is up to you, just remember, the reviewer is critiquing your show, not you personally.