Illustration: Guardian Design/Alamy
When an unfavorable review came out recently about her new show, Australian director Janine Watson did something she’s never done before. She contacted the reviewer.
Tim Byrne had called his 2022 production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors “waddlind”, and “full of errors, but by no means comic enough”. Nonetheless, she thanked him.
“The review was actually very thoughtful,” Watson says. “He confirmed some problems.”
Reviews are a necessary evil for some filmmakers, who crave them as much as they fear them. For others, they must be ignored at all costs. Guardian Australia spoke to directors, actors and playwrights who had been subjected to critical criticism to find out what happened next.
“Reviews can take my attention away from the show”
For Watson – who was a Bell Shakespeare actress before becoming a director – it depends on the hat she wears.
“If I’m acting, I don’t read reviews — good or bad,” she says. “They take my attention away from the show.” As a director, however, he always looks for them: “Because some actors read them and I want to know how they feel,” he says. “You can see it in them when they’ve read a bad review.”
There were no previews – we were right on the street.
Janine Watson on The Comedy of Errors
In the case of The Comedy of Errors, he knew the show wasn’t quite over before he left Melbourne to go on tour. “There were no previews—we were right on the street,” she says.
Byrne’s review was so “clever, incisive and honest” that Watson asked him what further insights he had. As a result, when the show reached Sydney, Watson cut the first half and changed the tempo in places so it was sharper to better support the comedy.
Byrne tells Guardian Australia that Watson’s note was “the most professional, mature and thoughtful response I have had to a review in a long time. He saw it as a dialogue with his practice, a struggle with the work that hones his skills ”.
This is highly unusual, Byrne says.
“I don’t think the role of the critic is to improve an individual work, or to teach or even judge the quality of the art,” Byrne says. “The role of the critic is to contextualize, extend and perhaps… deepen the conversation about art.”
“It was very difficult to go back to the theater the next night”
Whether it’s acting or directing, Mitchell Butel reads all the reviews. He finds it worthwhile if the critic has done their job of “neither praising nor blaming, but questioning whether the message intended by the director has been communicated”.
He doesn’t share them behind the scenes, though—he knows that others prefer to avoid reviews.
He still remembers literally the whippings he received from La pazza di Chaillot in 2007; a production in which he starred, which “disappoints on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin” (the age) and which has left another reviewer who “never left the theater feeling so empty” (the Aussie .)
“It looks like fun now, but it was very difficult to go back to the theater the next night,” says Butel.
It could have been worse, he says.
“For that particular show, we kind of knew the production hadn’t quite worked out. It’s more disappointing when everyone has worked very hard doing the best job they can, yet the critic disagrees.
It’s rare, Butel says, that production changes are made if its creators truly believe they’ve gone the intended path. “Ultimately my allegiance is with the writer and the director, and the vision we created together,” he says, advising his colleagues to “develop a tough skin and appreciate every opinion is subjective”.
However, two instances come to mind where reviews have influenced his work. Counterintuitively, it was the excellent review that was less helpful than the negative one.
The reviewer said Butel’s portrayal of grief over his character’s dead son in the 2008 Brisbane production of Stones in His Pockets was one of the most keenly observed and sensitive moments he had seen on stage.
“I kinda loved myself for getting that review,” says Butel. “And I got to that moment the following night and the tears didn’t come – I couldn’t find the emotion inside of me; arrogance got in the way. It took me a few shows to get back to the truth of the moment and move away from that self-consciousness.
Meanwhile, Jason Blake’s review of Butel’s 2010 performance in The Grenade as “stuck in a gear”—that gear is “caffeinated”—proved more helpful. It led him to change his performance.
“The next night I thought, I might just turn it down a bit, maybe take a Valium,” she laughs.
“We changed the show and I took more acting lessons”
Blake had a similar effect on actor Yannick Lawry in his 2016 portrayal of The Screwtape Letters; his review suggested that Lawry failed to make a complete connection with his fellow actor or audience.
Reviewers do not write a show with the intention of submitting director’s notes.
“He stopped short of saying the show was boring, but he hit hard,” says Lawry. “[So] we worked on the characterization and added a direct address of the audience”. And the actor has taken other lessons as well, to create more of a connection with his art than he does.
Blake says he’d be surprised if it was that often.
“Reviewers don’t write a show with the intention of submitting director’s notes,” he says. “As a rule, a show is what it is on opening night.
“Productions evolve throughout the season, but this is almost always the result of the artists experiencing audience feedback in the moment.”
“It was brutal”
Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s first production of The Great Australian Play received a “brutal” review from Van Badham in The Guardian, but in presenting another at Old Fitz recently, the director “owed rather than hide from” that which he calls the “highest profile review of my career”.
When quotes from Badham’s review appeared on the deck during the presentation pitching the show to the theater for a new season, “sad music was played to showcase the same self-deprecating humor you’ll find in the show.”
The second season of production even referenced the review in the script.
“The work itself is very meta, and is about the failure of making art,“ says Lusty-Cavallari. “We mostly stuck to a similar script, but wrote in one line about getting ‘the worst review of our careers,’ a reference to Badham’s critique.”
Negative reviews can haunt playwrights years after publication.
Playwright Melanie Tait’s first play, The Vegemite Tales, earned an ominous review: a star in the Scotsman at the Edinburgh Festival.
“It was devastating,” says Tait.
Though the show sold out in London and Edinburgh, that one review, says Tait, “didn’t help, or spur me on. He just supported my immature notions of being worthless and a trash artist.
Even today, thinking about it makes her anxious. “I was 23 years old. I didn’t write another play until I was 38. I’m now 42 – she kept me from doing the work that fills my soul for almost 20 years. I was so embarrassed.
The return, as he did, to dramaturgy confirmed his path.
Her critically acclaimed comedy The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is currently being picked up for a major streaming service.
“I’m still pretty terrified of reviews,” she says, but adds, “I don’t place my value as an artist on reviews that much. If a company wants to program my show, an audience wants to see it and is moved by it, and tells their friends to see it? This is the review I care about the most.