"If you believe the good ones, then you have to believe the bad ones, too. So I choose not to believe any of them."
That statement flummoxed me. I didn't want to believe that it was true, I wanted to believe that the bad ones were only a reflection of the writer's (poor) personal taste. Maybe the guy had a bad night, or maybe he had a personal beef with the artistic director, or maybe he's just a sad, lonely human with nothing better to do than make everyone else feel miserable. The good ones, I reasoned, were only a reflection of what was actually happening on stage; as mirrored by audience reactions and buzz at intermission.
I never said I was a logic wizard.
The truth is that artists are sensitive people - overly-sensitive, even. The process of creation and discovery is to lay one's self bare, to expose, prod, cajole, and rip our insides into something new - something different. In theatre, we do this process live, on-stage, and in front of a group of people we've often never met. It's terrifying. And because it's terrifying, we yearn for validation, for acceptance, for positive reactions to these soul experiments we call "art". Validation somehow equates success, even though as history has proven time and time again, critical success does not a box office success guarantee. But, because it's terrifying, we become distraught, petulant, and down right nasty when the reactions are negative, the validation unforthcoming, and the journey for acceptance rejected.
The birth of the modern theatre critic began with GB Shaw, as ornery a man as ever existed. Emerging from the pre-vaudevillian romantic era where the plays were fraught with Good vs. Evil plot lines, heroes and villains, and royal upper-classes - in short, uninspired, formulaic melodramas that in no way reflected the lives of its audience. Along comes Henrik Ibsen, and GB Shaw starts writing odes and protestations of greatness, all because Ibsen took the formula, smashed it, and created another in his own, truthful and modern image. And because of that process, GB Shaw inspired Britain to produce Ibsen, changing the face of Western theatre so drastically, we're still tied to it 130+ years later. By committing such a writing revolution, Shaw becomes (along with Emile Zola and August Strindberg and probably a few others) the first proponent(s) for artistic standards in the theatre, and art in general.
And that's what reviews were designed to do - hold a standard for all of us (audiences and artists) to aspire to. Audiences should absolutely demand a theatre that inspires, questions and empathizes with them and for them - that "holds the mirror up to nature" in which to better understand themselves and the world around them. And artists should absolutely demand that of themselves. But the trick is that, with Ibsen's broken formula, comes a big, illusive door of infinite options in which to achieve those ideals - not just modernism and realism, but ALL the 'ism's. And with options come personal taste, and with personal taste comes opinion rather than criticism. It's just the way human beings work.
I am waxing philosophical, but I've been grappling with these ideas recently, and how reviews can help or hurt a production, what the implications are, what's really being said in a review, and what all of this means in the social media age, etc. I have been fortunate in the last year to be apart of some really stellar productions. Well, I think they're stellar, but that's only my opinion. I should be specific - when I say stellar, what I mean is that I've been fortunate to work on projects that I'm proud of both as an artist and as a human being. And perhaps that has showed in my work, because the reviews I've received have been fabulous - glowing even! But I defer back to my friend's advice ... "If you believe the good ones, then you have to believe the bad ones..." goodness knows I've received some bad reviews - by the way, a truly bad review for an artist is a tepid review; if they hated you, then you did something right (I was once called "lacklustre"). There's nothing good about mediocrity on stage. How can an actor be terrible in one show, yet amazing in another?
Opinions are also the stuff of award nominations. I was nominated for my first award in June - and I will admit, I was flabbergasted with happy surprise for the rest of the day. I gave myself a full 8 hours to be proud of myself, and then I let it go. As my friends and peers discovered the news, they congratulated me sincerely, and I quickly said 'thank you' and changed the subject. In a conversation with another colleague, who congratulated me on the award (not the nomination), I corrected him and said, "I haven't won, it's just a nomination." He replied with, "The nomination is the award. The rest is just politics." And I believe that, too. I thought back to an interview with Meryl Streep, where the interviewer commented on the fact that she had surpassed Katherine Hepburn for all-time Oscar nominations (Meryl's been nominated 17 times, Kate had 12), and Meryl retorted something along the lines of, "But she has a better track record than I do. I've lost more that four times the amount I've won." Incidentally, Katherine Hepburn was nominated 12 times, and won 4. She had a 1 in 3 record. Not bad for someone who was considered box office poison for 6 years.
This is a very rambling, roundabout way of saying that all of it - the reviews, the accolades, the awards, the validation, the acceptance - is a beautiful mirage. We have to set a standard for ourselves, a constantly growing standard that clocks our independent progress and personal growth. We do the best with what we have when we have it and who we have it with. There is no zenith, there is no finish line. The race is long, and it's with ourselves as artists and as human beings. We must strive, and then strive again. And if you read reviews, read them as an honest insight into your experiment from the brain of another human being.
But you don't have to believe them.