Bad reviews can be really damaging to a show. They can completely derail weeks of performances. I’ve seen actors fall to pieces over a comment by a reviewer. I’ve seen whole dynamics shift amongst the cast when a review praises one while criticising another. I’ve seen people who were performing well start to second guess all decisions made in the rehearsal room under the careful guidance of the director. Anything can happen as the result of a bad review. As Stage Managers, we are usually the first to notice the changes to performance. And the ASMs are usually the first to notice the changes to the atmosphere amongst the cast. We can’t take completely prevent these situations, but we can take measures to mitigate the damage to the show. Over the years I’ve followed some basic rules to pre-empt the damage a bad review can have.
1. Don’t talk about the reviews
Good or bad – don’t mention reviews at all. I usually ask cast and crew to respect this rule too. It is everyone’s personal choice whether to read reviews or not, and it’s very difficult to avoid them with social media constantly shoving them in our faces. However, we don’t need to discuss them amongst ourselves. A casual mention can make someone go looking for a review when they wouldn’t usually read them. That can start a chain reaction that leads to it impacting the show. It’s not worth it. By not talking about either the good or bad reviews, we are not giving them any airtime, and we can be left with doing the business of putting on a great show. Also, I always make the crew aware that it is not acceptable to talk about reviews anywhere in the building. A number of times I’ve witnessed a crew member talk about a bad review for it to be heard by the entire cast over stage-sound.
2. Read every review
By knowing exactly what every reviewer has said, you can prepare for whatever may come as a result. It gives you a running start. If you have a vulnerable actor who is slammed in a review, and you read it as soon as it comes out, you can watch for any signs of anxiety or depression and be ready to support the actor. I always make it my business to read every review and I encourage all SMs to do the same.
3. Tackle them head on
If you discover an actor has read a review, talk to them about it right away. Even if it hasn’t affected their performance yet. Find somewhere private (so you can respect rule 1) and ask them how they feel about it. Usually talking about it makes people realise that it isn’t as important as it once seemed. A review is just one person’s opinion and it isn’t necessarily the opinion of all those dedicated, paying theatregoers who are really getting something out of the show. Facing the problem means that you are able to get in the way before an actor’s thoughts start spiralling down into a festering bubble of self-evaluation.
4. Be available
Sometimes all actors need is to discuss how they are feeling after reading a review. If they know they can trust you and come to you at any time, they’ll seek you out when they read a bad review. I’m more than happy for someone to call me during the day and discuss a review they have read. Many of the actors I work with regularly know that I read all the reviews but never discuss them in the theatre. These actors will call me and tell me how they are feeling. Sometimes all they need is some encouragement that the decisions made in the rehearsal room are good ones. Sometimes they just need to you say that the reviewer in question never writes good reviews for anyone (which is true of some cheeky reviewers). Sometimes they just need to talk through their thoughts out aloud. I don’t mind. I would rather they did that than start making changes in their performance that will flow-on to disrupt everyone else.
5. Deal with the fallout
Once a bad review has started to influence the performance, it is much harder to rein it in, but must be dealt with immediately. I usually warn the Director or Assistant Director with a phone call, and tell them how I intend to deal with it. Some directors are happy for me to deal with it, but some directors like to come soon after bad reviews to give the actors a fresh set of notes and keep them on the right path. Start by talking to the actor about how their changed performance is affecting the show and the other cast members. If it is having wider implications for the whole cast, talk to them as a whole group (I know this seems to break rule 1, but you can actually do this without talking about the review itself). Sometimes having the whole cast together can diffuse the problem.
Over the years, these five rules have enabled me to mitigate the negative impacts of a bad review on a show. If you are clear with cast and crew about what your expectations regarding reviews, and how you intend to deal with them, everyone can work together to minimise the fallout.
If you have any other suggestions for dealing with bad reviews, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.