Theatre practitioners are always very concerned about reviews. This is not surprising since they have put in a considerable amount of time into a production. A review is a kind of evaluation, and everyone craves feedback therefore actors, directors, producers etc. take reviews very seriously. Reviews are also considered by many in the community to be an essential promotional tool. Bad reviews can kill a show and positive reviews can bring in the crowds—or so the thinking goes. Is this really the case?
It might surprise you to know that positive word of mouth is ultimately what fills seats for all the arts. When audiences are asked why they attended a show, the most frequent response is invariably: “I heard about it from a friend or family member.” People trust the opinions of their family and friends much more than those of a professional reviewer.
This is not a new phenomenon and has been the case for a long time. What has changed is the speed at which word of mouth can travel. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and cell phones have forever accelerated this process. We live in an age where everyone in the audience is now a reviewer and should be treated with the utmost respect.
I believe that traditional professional reviewers still have a role play to in the process (just not a critical one as most believe). Reviews are a good way of keeping the “story” of a show alive. Any publicity is good publicity. If people are reading about and discussing theatre they might be encouraged to go out and see it as well (providing their friends/family are interested).
In large markets (New York, Toronto etc.), or during festivals like Fringe, reviewers can also serve as a means of filtering out what is worth seeing. Even in this case, a bad review won’t kill a show. A one star show can attract as much attention as a 5 star show. Anything that differentiates a show from the pack can be leveraged successfully by promoters.
Because Ottawa is still a relatively small market, it is quite possible to see every theatre performance currently in production during the “regular” season. In short, there is no need for the review filter. The choice for the audience becomes “do I want to see a play this evening or not.” It is crucial to recognize that audiences will be making that decision based on what their peers, families, and friends think. Everything else is secondary (at best).
I do feel reviews can start important conversations or focus the discussion of a show in interesting ways. This is why I write reviews and what I hope to do with my work. To achieve this aim, I am attempting to build relationships with my readers (in person, via social media, and this blog). If I am successful, it will not be because I am considered a professional reviewer but because my readers consider me a peer or friend. Theatre practitioners should strive to create these kinds of relationships with their audiences. That will ultimately bring more success than any 5 star review could ever bring.