Reviews, and how to handle them…

So, the reviews are beginning to come out.

“Eeek!”, says my nonexistent friend who is sitting next to me, “I scared, Rafe. What if they good? What if they bad? I want see them, but I scared” etc. (I have no idea why he speaks like the Crocs out of  ‘Pearls before Swine’ on the Metro cartoon and puzzles page. He just does). He has, in fact, been whinging about this pretty much all day. So, time to address reviews, reviewers, and how best to deal with both.

Firstly, lets take a look at the reviewers. Reviewers are just people. They snore. They occasionally break wind. And they have to sit on the throne at least once every day or two. Just like us. Nothing to be scared of there, then.

Why, then, do we so often have the mindset that we have to tippy-toe around whenever they come to the show? It’s because, of course, that for some strange reason we have tied the presence of the reviewer at our show with the future of our whole careers.

Let me give you an example. I was in a great little show once, a few years ago, at the Kings Head. Treasure Island, with four actors. One young chap played Jim Hawkins, and the other three of us played all the other twenty-seven parts. In one of my favourite scenes, we were playing nine characters talking to young Jim at the same time. Hectic craziness, wig and prop swapping which invariably drew laughter and applause from the audience. One good question, then, is why did we get an absolute stinker of a review in the Evening Standard? And even more, why I would resurrect such a stinker of a review deliberately? (The answer to the latter is that it’s a decent opportunity for reflection and learning, and we should never be afraid of opportunities to learn and get a better understanding of our industry…)

I do know for sure that most houses loved the show. Fiona, sadly, didn’t. And here are two of the most important points to remember – who is your reviewer, and how are they feeling when they arrive at your show?

These are contributory factors over which you have no control. If they’ve had a long day, an argument with their partner and a nasty burger before they come and see your show (possibly the eighth of the day for them at the Edinburgh Festival), then it’s fairly unlikely they’re in a positive state of mind when they come and see your show. If they’ve just had a nap after a nice dinner with a friend, chances are they’ll be rested and receptive to what you have to offer. Either way, there’s nothing you can do about it, so just do your show the way you normally do it, and have faith in your own abilities.

However, reviewers are a great barometer for people who are working out what shows they should buy tickets for. Let’s take Fiona, for example. Lots of audiences liked that show, but Fiona didn’t (or had a bad day, or we got her on a flat show or something). Fiona, though, has people who follow her, because they share a common taste. If their past experiences are that when Fiona says a show is good, and they go and see it and agree, then Fiona is a good barometer of what they might and might not like. She performs an admirable function, both bringing an appropriate audience into a show, and keeping the ones that will hate it away. For example, there’s a publication I follow that I almost invariably disagree with. I’ve learned that if that particular publication isn’t keen on a show, then chances are I’ll like it. If they think it’s fab, I won’t bother to get a ticket. This reviewing business works both ways, you know…

Yes, it’s great to get five star reviews. Heck, it’s great to get four or three star reviews. Twos can be dodgy, and one star can go either way, dependent upon your mindset. So, here follows my advice on handling your reviews, especially at the Edinburgh Fringe:

If you got four or five star reviews, then get them on your flyers now. I really mean those italics. Do It Now! Do whatever you have to do to get them on the flyer – print out and cut paper strips with the stars on and credit which publication gave them to you, and staple them to each flyer. If you’re nifty with tech, do it on printed stickers and then stick them to your flyers – it’s quicker. Either way, get them on. Remember I was talking about word of mouth before, and how important it is? This is word of mouth one stage removed, and you need to make it work for you. Don’t miss a sales opportunity by thinking you can always do it tomorrow. Not if you’re serious about this business. You need to fill seats. Now.

The three star reviews are up to you. Three stars alone won’t sell your show. But if they’re three stars from a major national newspaper, they’re well worth putting up – just make sure that the major national newspaper credit is big and bold. Having their name attached to your show (even with three stars), says a lot about it. Let’s face it, if the Guardian or the Times could be bothered to just turn up and review you, and you still pulled three, then there must be something interesting in the show, right?

If you got three from an online or less well known reviewing publication, then look at the content of the review, and pull the quotes that work to sell you show. However: Be Careful! If the original sentence read “This show is a travesty and should be wiped from the face of the planet. It in no way could be considered to be an example to anyone of good theatre”, and you abbreviate it to “This show is…an example to anyone of good theatre” you’re being both morally bankrupt, and breaking the law. If you look at a three or a two star, you’ll usually find something decent in there to quote. Get that quote, lose the stars, and get the comment attached to your flyer.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Which leads us nicely to the one star review. The ol’ kick in the teeth. They came in on the first week, and completely shattered your chances of a good audience.

Or did they?

This one takes balls. Ones the size of watermelons. But you’ve committed money to this, and you have to sell those seats. For what it’s worth, if I picked up a one star at the Edinburgh Festival, here’s what I’d do: I’d turn it on it’s head.

I’d pull the worst quotes from the review. I’d have one star featured as prominently as possible, wherever possible. And I’d try to sell it as “Possibly The Worst Show In Edinburgh”; “It’s a must see. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.”; “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, we guarantee it’ll get well more worserer, bruv!”

I could go on forever with marketing ideas like this, but the point stands. You’re there. You invested the money. You’ve got to sell the seats.

Do not let your heads drop if the reviews are bad. Nor if they are mediocre. If they are good, remember that there may be people out there who may choose to stay away just because a certain publication’s review team thought it was good.

Reviewers. They snore, they fart, and they have to do number 2’s, just like the rest of the human race. Don’t be scared of them – embrace them.

Not literally, of course. You might get a bad review…!




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