Well of Course we all Take it Personally
One of the best parts of the Minnesota Fringe experience is Fringe Central. After a full day of fringing, you can spend time with the other artists producing shows and talk about your shared experience.
I mean, we’re all putting something out there and hoping like crazy that the audience likes what we are doing. When we do it any other time of the year, we don’t have the benefit of spending the evening drinking with a bunch of other people who are doing the same thing at the same time.
While we spend a lot of time talking about how much we liked each others shows, we talk about other stuff as well. We talk about why we decided to do the show we did. We talk about how we approached our work this year. We talk about reviews.
Ah the reviews.
The thing is, we are all insecure at heart. It’s why we keep doing theatre. We put ourselves in front of a bunch of other people so they can (we hope) tell us how awesome we are because we’ll always be unsure if we are really that awesome. I know, it’s neurotic and sad.
So no matter how many good reviews we get, we will all focus on the one negative review because that review is exactly what we think of ourselves.
Ohmygod, we cry, it’s true! I am just a hack writer who goes for the cheap laughs! I will never produce a show as good as the one I did two years ago! Every one of my choices was the wrong one!
Never mind that there are usually dozens of other people telling us how much they loved the show. That one dude who thought we could have done a better show if we’d cast it with howler monkeys is going to grate on us.
So, as is the way with creative types, I’m going to spin all of this back around to me.
“The Complete Works of William Shatner (abridged)” has been doing pretty well. Our audiences are quite large and they have seemed very appreciative. They have laughed loudly and frequently. We’ve gotten good ovations at the end of the show. Our reviews by press and audiences have been pretty positive.
We got complete savaged in the Strib yesterday. How bad? Well, read it for yourself:
The genesis of this show was undoubtedly late in the night, and deep into the last keg, of a theater party: Everyone who could stand was doing their best “worst” William Shatner imitation. Perhaps I should see this one-note/one-joke show again — drunk. Every clichd, over-acted “Captain Kirk,” “T.J. Hooker” and “Priceline Negotiator” mannerism and vocal affectation is played to death. There are a few amusing insider jokes for Trekkies, and the show offers a good solid eight minutes of fun. The problem is the other 42 minutes.
I can get really defensive about this review if I want. I could point out that I don’t drink so I, at least, was completely sober when I conceived of this show.
I can get really annoyed at the characterization of the show as a one-joke show because god damn it, it isn’t. We had a point. We have an arc. We wrote a show that was going somewhere because neither Bill nor I wanted a play that was just 50 minutes of Shatner jokes. There needed to be a reason for 50 minutes of Shatner jokes.
I can be annoyed that he didn’t comment that the audience in the theatre was laughing their asses off at our script. He could have at least acknowledged that this might not be his thing but other people did like it.
I can be frustrated that he insulted the audience that did enjoy the show by bunching them all in one category (Trekkies).
I could say that it reads like a review by someone who walked in ready to dislike the show. I could say that it feels like he didn’t even see the show I wrote.
I have, in fact, said all of those things. I just did it again.
But what really gets me is that the guy didn’t like the show. I know full well that nobody is ever going to write something that will please everyone. Somebody is always going to hate what you do.
What you hope is that you’ll never meet that person. Or read their review in a newspaper.
I can say that I think this review is wildly unfair – and I do. But the guy has a job to do. His job isn’t to write a review that makes me happy. His job is to write a review of the show he saw.
And while the show he saw is, to my thinking, vastly different from the one I actually co-wrote, that doesn’t matter. He has to be honest to his experience, not to mine.
My experience becomes one of wondering what I could have done to make that one guy happy.
It’s a useless exercise. If I figured out what would have made him like my show, the hundred people around him that did like it might not. You can’t make everyone happy.
As an artist though (god do I feel pretentious when I call myself an artist), you will automatically beat yourself up over that one guy.
Because – and here’s the point of my entire blog – you are that guy.
Before the show went up and people laughed at my jokes, I was constantly thinking “is this thing too much of an inside gag? Are there enough laughs to keep people interested? Is the point of the show too heavy-handed? Is it too subtle? Is that just a cheap laugh line? Am I going to be the worst Star Trek lizard creature ever?”
So for all the good reviews and all the people who have told me that they got what Bill and I were trying to say, I can’t help but dwell on the guy who seems to have heard my inner monologue and answered “yes” (or no – depending on the question).
So, all that said, I’m not suggesting that someone should write a good review or nothing at all. Bad reviews are helpful. Nick Decker wrote a review that, while mostly positive, has some good constructive criticism in it. I appreciate that stuff because I can work with that. I can see what he means and, if I agree with it, I can polish the play a little bit when it gets a remount.
I don’t think the Strib review is helpful at all. It’s glib, condescending and it insults the writers, director, actors and audience. That’s pretty hard to do with just one paragraph but he pulls it off admirably.
Even so, his review is one of many and it shouldn’t matter.
But because I’m an isecure artist, it does. It matters more than the positive reviews because I’ve already made all those people happy. Who cares about them any more? I want to make that guy happy because maybe if I make that guy happy, I’ll erase all the doubts I have about my own work.
The good news is this: at the end of the day I can gather with a bunch of people who are just like me. They have gotten this review before and it stung because they, like me, secretly feared that their show was every bit as bad as this guy says.
And they, like me, realized that one review is not the end of the world. No matter how much we may feel like it at the time.
Caveat: This post is absoultely not fishing for complements. It’s about the shared experience of a bad review and how artists all share insecurities about them. I’ll get over a bad review. We all do. That doesn’t mean we have to enjoy the experience.