I used to review events as part of my work in broadcasting. It was never comfortable. TV shows, movies – not so bad. But live productions that cost a lot of money? I had a hard time telling people to pay to see something I had seen for free. Unless I was completely blown away by it. And few things blew me away.
I also had a problem telling people to avoid a performance by small theatre companies because, having been a theatre performer myself back in the day, I know how much sweat and hope goes into launching a show.
As a result, many of my reviews were on the fence. Here’s what’s good, here’s what’s bad, the rest is up to you. Maybe it’s because I also knew what it was like to be broke. Disposable income is different for each of us. What if I say blah-blah-blah is a must-see and you spend your monthly entertainment budget on it only to hate it? I felt like I had a hand in peoples’ pockets. Truly, I had no idea whether anyone ever paid attention to my opinion, but I certainly took it seriously.
Reviews That Went Awry
After seeing Penn and Teller live in Toronto I told a friend that she should go, too. She and her husband went to the show. They were amused, until Penn – or maybe Teller – set giant foam dice rolling over the audience. My friend didn’t see the die coming and it hurt her neck when it collided with her head. As a result, she hated the show, regretted paying for it and didn’t ask me for recommendations again.
I loved Miss Saigon staged by Mirvish Productions in the early 1990s. But after its premiere, I was singled out and called racist by an activist group because my on-air review didn’t include that they had screamed at me on the red carpet. Protesters called the radio station and berated me for not mentioning them. Strange, I thought I was there to review a show. The controversy was covered by our news team. I didn’t feel it was my responsibility but there I was, getting angry phone call after angry phone call from the same few people. Fortunately, there was no social media at the time, but it was an ugly moment.
I can only think of one show that I completely trashed and it was well deserved. (I tell the full story of Tiananmen Dreams in Make the Media Want You.)
My New Review Policy
Now, I no longer review or mention shows I don’t love.
We are season ticket-holders at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre. I have raved on social media about a couple of shows there this season. But one was a stinker, so instead of trashing it, I said nothing. A friend with tickets asked me what I thought. Had she only been thinking about going, I would have been open about it. But she already had tickets so I begged off “spoiling it” for her. She didn’t like it, by the way, but we both agreed that a bad afternoon at the theatre is still not a waste of time.
I found a review of the play in question that was frothy and overly complimentary. Did we see the same show? I looked into the reviewer and found they were a peer of some of the actors. As a fellow performer, it’s in their best interest to make all theatre seem amazing and worthy. I think Port Stanley Festival Theatre IS amazing and worthy. Every production is not. That’s theatre, baby!
I don’t think I’m alone in placing the opinions of friends higher than those of people I don’t know. There has to be some trust, some context. I feel good about giving my opinions on the Gracefully & Frankly podcast. But I’m among friends!
The Hidden Reasons Behind a Review
Unless someone is a professional reviewer, it’s fair to look into what their angle might be. Going to a show for free is different than being a paying customer. Sometimes, there’s an unspoken quid pro quo – “I’ll give you tickets and you’ll write something nice!” Professional reviewers won’t be swayed by free tickets to write something they don’t believe. And a friend will tell you the truth.
I suppose I’m advocating for skepticism with regard to reviews, like I hope people have for news. Check the legitimacy of the source. See whether they have any reason to be overly critical or overly positive. Like, if their last name is the same as the Director’s, maybe it’s best to take their word with a grain of salt!