Everyone in the Audience is a Reviewer

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.

Any thoughts?

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18 responses to “Everyone in the Audience is a Reviewer

  1. nadinethornhill

    Yeah. What you just said.

    As you point out, the line between audience member and reviewer/critic has become blurred. The audience has more power than ever before to spread the word good or bad. However, I’d like to think that I’d extend the same respect to my audience, regardless. The people sitting in the seats have given me their time, attention and most likely their money. That’s reason enough to give the best I can in return.

    As a theatre practitioner (is that a term?), I tend to shy away from reviews…at least until the run is done. I have a terrible habit of letting other people’s opinions co-opt my instincts. In the past I’ve gobbled up reviews, to the detriment of my performance. The tone of criticism doesn’t matter. Bad review, I wilt. Good review, I morph into a ham.

    p.s. I had Phil read your review of Oreo. After he gave me the (litera)l thumbs-up, I circulated it far and wide as publicity but didn’t read it until closing night. 🙂

  2. I don’t think most theatre practitioners actually consider the review as “feedback”. Getting a critical review will probably not alter the state of the show the reviewer just saw. At least not with the very short runs we have hear in Ottawa.

    Personally, I believe that the reviews are a promotional tool. With fewer media outlets out there doing preview pieces on a performance and the inability of small companies to buy advertisement space in mainstream media, the review is practically the only way to get your show in the minds of the general public.

    As an actor though, I am an absolute masochist and will devourer each and every review before crying myself to sleep if it’s bad. Actors are sick sick individuals. You wouldn’t be an actor if you weren’t.

    Oh and your idea that a one star can also sell a show? Been there, done that, bought the earing, but it still did not work. :p

  3. Not so sure about the star system myself; although — as several people have pointed out to me — no one who ever got 5 stars for a review failed to use it in their marketing, I still think the star system makes for glib and superficial reviews. Theatre should be — at least in part — about inviting the audience to think, whereas a throw-away categorization scheme like star ratings seem an invitation to do the opposite.

    As to the point about everyone being a reviewer, through word-of-mouth, I think that is true.

    Actual written reviews are important though, because they provide points around which we can build the conversation about the play; “I thought so-and-so was dead wrong when she said …” When you respond, even in your own mind, to what others have said, you are having a conversation about theatre, and I think having (and enjoying) those conversations is a big part of why people in this town are starting to keep an eagle eye out for what is playing next.

    • Hello Evan:
      Welcome to the Many Faces of Wayne and thank you for replying.

      I agree completely that the conversations a review can start about theatre ,or give direction to, is what makes written reviews useful.

      You raise a lot of good points about the star system in general. I have chosen not to go down this path. That will probably be a post at some point.

  4. This is a great post, Wayne. I agree whole-heartedly on a few points: that everyone can be a reviewer- even a thirty second watercooler conversation with someone who has seen a show can sell tickets- or not sell them.

    Also, I dig the concept of a review continuing the story or the experience. I like to read previews before I go to a show, to give what I’m about to see a little more depth. Following a show, I do like to read a review and then engage in a conversation in my head with the reviewer- did I agree? Disagree? Have a completely different perspective?

    But I’m crazy like that.

    My personal predicament is that I know reviews sell tickets in the theatre world. A good review brings in a good crowd. Now that I work in dance, we do 3 nights of performances in a house that holds thousands. After a review has run, it’s too late, and one of my stand-by marketing tools (when I know I’ve got a good product) has vanished into thin air.

    • I like what you say here Meg:
      “even a thirty second watercooler conversation with someone who has seen a show can sell tickets- or not sell them.”

      In fact, marketing research suggests that this is how the majority of tickets get sold. This might be useful for your current predicament if you find ways to nurture these kinds of conversations before or during the run. I’m thinking social media (Twitter, bloggers, facebook etc.) here. What methods have you tried since written reviews are not as useful to you?
      I would love to hear more about your experiences with marketing especially the successes. 🙂

  5. I agree: many producers and performers give too much weight to reviews.

    Reviews, good and bad, can be helpful but only if there is a pre-existing relationship to nurture and the production team uses the review as a catalyst to nurture the relationship.

    For example, to get a person even to read a review, they need to be interested in theatre, interested in seeing theatre in the very near future, and interested in the production under review. I’d even wager that most people only read reviews because someone else called their attention to it.

    Those of us in theatre lose sight of the pre-existing relationship because we all already care about theatre — that is, we already have a strong relationship with it.

    I’d also wager that good reviews help primarily because it motivates the production team to work harder. For many, it’s easier to promote a show when some third-party authority has given it the seal of approval. Good reviews may seem to fill seats magically but I am sure it is “the boots on the ground” which are ultimately responsible.

    There really is only one way to deal with reviews: produce theatre you think is worthy of a five star review and then promote it like a five star show whatever some third party might say. If you don’t believe in your work, why should anyone else?

    I support the star system but will reserve my comments for your star-system post. 🙂

  6. I love your post. And I was just thinking about the “word-of-mouth” thing. It IS the only way to sell tickets — it’s been proven over and over again and I know it absolutely from my years of personal experience.

    There is a weird cultural shift, though, that has come with the online component: people tend to accept as “truth” things that they hear online without checking into them for themselves. Take this week’s bizarre “Zach Braff is dead” rumour online. It doesn’t take much to “fact-check” a rumour like that, but few people can be bothered. If someone I trust reads a headline like that, and believes it, and then says “oh, I heard Braff DIED” at the watercooler — well, I believe it too. And poor Zach Braff — who is very much alive — has NO control over the viral spread of that information.

    In the theatrical vein, if someone I trust says “oh, I saw a review of Yaddayadda and apparently it’s not very good”, I believe what they say — even if their perception of the review differes from mine, or if they only read the headline, or looked at the stars and didn’t read the text, or just heard it from someone else. Thus bad word-of-mouth is just as poisonous as good word-of-mouth is fertilizing, and thus publicists still need to be very careful about keeping track of what information is being published, wherever it is being published.

  7. An off topic, but tangentially related, question:

    If it has no audience, is a work of art a work of art?

    • I can always count on the good Dr. to raise an interesting question for discussion. Here is my take: It depends on the art. Theatre definitely needs an audience. Without an audience theatre does not exist. The audience is the key piece that makes it art.
      I think other art forms are different. They are as much about the artist’s relationship with the work as with the works relationship with an audience. Songs can be written to never be heard, same for novels, poetry, paintings etc. While I value art that is shared more than I value art that isn’t, both can make a claim to being art. Art is the product of an artistic process. For theatre the product isn’t complete until someone sees it. I sense you are about to blow my mind. What do you think?

      • Well, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. You say theatre is different because without an audience, a theatre performance cannot exist, but I’m not sure about that. Obviously, it would seem pointless, but why would it be conceptually any different than a song that is never heard?

  8. A script could definitely fit in with your theory. A theatre performance that is cast, rehearsed but never performed would be conceptually equivalent to clay pottery that is left unfired. Performance is the key word. Performances have to be witnessed by an audience.

    • Hmm. I’m not sure I’m convinced by your definition of performance. If a dramatic “performance” is taped for television, it’s not a performance until it’s broadcast?

      • A theatre perfomance has to be experienced live otherwise it is not theatre (by my definition). A taped theatre performance would be a different art form entirely (film?).

    • I should mention, I don’t have a theory here, just working through some questions about unapprehended “art” (brought on by going through my archive of unheard music, which, I should self-promotingly note is going to up on the Interwebs soonishly).

      Anyway, I think we’re muddling definitions here. I accept the idea that theatre — as an artform — requires an audience. But I don’t think a (generic) performance does (in other words, performance does not equal artform). When I play music for myself, I still consider that performance. I think performance can be defined as the physical(-ish) activity. To return to the taped drama analogy: in both the live (with audience) and the taped (without audience), the “performative” aspect remains conceptually the same (though, of course, a live audience provides real-time feedback which affects the performance). Only the medium by which the performance is communicated to the audience changes. The question is, however, are uncommunicated performances art? Am I right in saying your position that performance is not the physical(-ish) act, but rather the communication of that act?

      (Also: I can cut through the Gordian knot of unheard performances by pointing out that the performer itself is the audience — I think Barthes says something along those lines in his “Musica Pratica” essay.)

  9. I’ve been thinking about this review business because lately I’ve started noticing that the big productions here in London rely on reviews to the point that they make fancy signs permanently declaring “‘Riveting’ – paper X”, “‘A fine ensemble cast’ – paper Y”. ie taking movie marketing strategies to catch people’s attention.

    That’s not to say – necessarily – these productions aren’t good, but I’ve found I’ve enjoyed shows the most where I hardly knew anything beforehand, other than the theatre itself (which is a good indication as to whether it’s going to be good or not).

    Also I’d suggest the dynamic here is much different than in Ottawa. The target market isn’t necessarily theatre connoisseurs, but more casual people and tourists. And there is of course so much more competition for attention. Some shows can also be helped by the celebrity factor, which tends to make tickets rather difficult to secure sometimes. Not that that helps things, by far the worst play I’ve seen here starred Richard Dreyfuss, but it was a total mess.

  10. Great to hear from the expatriates in the UK! I’m not sure that the target market in Ottawa is theatre connoiseurs (there is quite a diverse market here now). This I think is an important observation:

    “I’ve enjoyed shows the most where I hardly knew anything beforehand, other than the theatre itself (which is a good indication as to whether it’s going to be good or not). ”

    I suspect those that are “good” are the theatres/companies who have consistently put a quality product on the stage, built relationships with their audience and the community, and established postive word of mouth. Am I right?

    Thanks for your comment Matt. I hope to hear from you again.

  11. Pingback: A First For Me « Many Faces of Wayne

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