Vinay Patel is a playwright and screenwriter. Here he offers advice on handling criticism.
Getting critically evaluated, be it by Lyn Gardner or your 12-year old cousin is nauseating. Even if the review is good, you’ll probably feel more relieved than joyous. Happy that you didn’t throw up on your shoes rather than suddenly assuming you’re a God. And every time I think “I’m used to it. I won’t care.” Every time I’m wrong. I suppose it’s good in the sense that if you find yourself not caring at all then that’s probably a bad sign. I want to care until the end of my days because to me it means that I’ve invested in it and that I’ve left a bit of myself behind in the work. But how is that possible? In a world where even the most addictive substances create a tolerance, how is there no inoculation to this horrible effect?
These are the main approaches that I’ve seen other people try and those that I’ve tried myself. You won’t find what’s best for you until you give a few of them a go. Also, some techniques work better for different projects.
It’s also worth noting that each carries a different load of stress. Nothing you do will make the experience *entirely* stress-free or less nauseating I’m afraid, that’s just part of the deal of putting your stuff out there to be publicly judged, but you have some say in the *type* of stress you have which I suppose is some comfort.
Anyway, here’s what you can do:
1) Don’t Read The Reviews
2) Read Them, Don’t Engage
3) Read Them, Engage
DON’T READ THE REVIEWS
This is something I see writers do once they’re a few plays into their career (using the term ‘career’ loosely here). They might look at them after the fact, but the aim is to not go anywhere near them whilst the play is running. For a writer just starting out, I think it’s pretty impossible to bring yourself to not look at reviews, hoping as you are for critical validation (who doesn’t want to read a good review? And they’ll be good because you are, obviously, a genius. Or at least so you think. Sometimes.)
When I started out, I found this approach a bit high-minded. It felt so dismissive – “I don’t care what they say. I know it’s great.” By the time An Adventure came around *totally* got it. I was so sick with worry, felt so fragile and that play was so close to my heart that I couldn’t bear to sit and take what might be a mauling. So I tried very hard to not read the reviews. And you know what? I managed it and felt great. For a bit.
Because the big problem with trying not to read the reviews is that they will probably, in some way, leak out to you.
Basically, this approach is probably the best thing for your mind, but it’s also really, really hard to maintain, especially if you’ve got a long run and still have some plugging to do for the show. If that’s you – there’s an app called Buffer that lets you set up social media content ahead of time and not see the replies or have to go on the platform itself. Invaluable. Otherwise, get off social media and make sure you tell absolutely everyone and their mum that you don’t want to hear anything about the show. Get the hell away for a bit if you can. This isn’t an approach that I think works for me long-term because I find it hard to cut myself off from the world. I like to stay involved in the show, I like to be able to talk to the actors as much as I can, I like to hang around the theatre, I like to talk to audiences after, I like to suffer and celebrate communally so I’ll never be able to dodge the feedback. But if you can do it, you’re an absolute hero and have my respect.
READ THEM, DON’T ENGAGE
This is my default (and mostly where I ended up with my show An Adventure after my attempt to dodge reviews failed). Partly it’s out of curio-vanity, partly it’s because I don’t want to hear it from anyone else and partly because I want to be able to respond to questions or concerns within the company with the full knowledge of what they might have seen. It’s hard to be an effective cheerleader for the team when you don’t know where they are in the league.
A way to do this that’s kind to yourself is to not try and seek them out as they come in. Instead, go do something completely non-work related the day after press and then set aside an hour or two by yourself in a quiet place and Google away.
If the thought of that makes you queasy, find a partner or a good friend, and ask if they’ll look at the reviews and give you a summary. At least that way you get to maintain some distance.
Try to resist the urge to dismiss responses out of hand, even if you think they’re unfair. The horrible thing about an unfair critical opinion is that the critic won’t be the only one to have it. That review will speak for at least one other person. So if you’re interested in understanding the range of responses, you’ve got to face it.
The benefits of this approach is that you get to know and move on. It provides some degree of that looked-for inoculation. Once you know that someone has had that opinion, it makes the next time you encounter it easier. Let me tell you, this is particularly useful with something like Doctor Who. The consolidated viewing figure for my episode was eight million people in the UK. That, like the vastness of the universe, is a fucking terrifying thing to consider when lying in your bed late at night. However, that’s not eight million opinions, that’s probably about four or five generalised responses. Knowing “Ok so broadly people love it because of X though some folks really hate Y” made it easier for me to just get on with my life.
With plays, once you’ve taken in the reactions, more often than not things get brighter because there’s so much to enjoy about your work being on; the way the actors’ performances deepen, the way the scenes get tighter, the morbid thrill of seeing how different audiences respond, the utter weirdness that sets into a cast’s inter-personal relations when they hit the four week mark.
READ THEM, ENGAGE
Red Alert. This is the most fraught approach. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes tonnes of emotional fuel. I’ve only really done this once with a theatre critic who’d reviewed my first play and given away a massive plot point and I wanted them to adjust the review to not do that. Unless they’re massively misrepresenting your play to a potentially broad audience, I think there’s little to be gained from engaging with critics, especially if it’s in response to a negative review.
Having said that, audiences can be different, and I don’t think engaging with them is bad per se. I liked doing a tweet-a-long for Doctor Who that exposed my process and I made a point of doing it with Murdered By My Father because it felt important to talk to the young demographic that we were targeting with researched-backed knowledge and clarity about the quite harrowing piece they’d put themselves through and how it manifests in the real world. Talking to people about An Adventure and what it had meant to them made all the work I put into it worthwhile. Even playing whack-a-mole with trolls on social media has its charms (as long as you don’t let them burrow too deep into your head).
If you’re going to respond to/engage with either critics or audience members, be sure to ask yourself what master it is in yourself that you’re serving. If it’s ego, be wary, if it’s curiosity careful to not mine too deep or you might end up in self-loathing, if it’s anger or hurt, take a step back and breath before you dive in. The world of the creative industries is small. If you have to piss someone off, make sure you’re super clear about why you’re doing it. People can be arseholes. Categorising the arsehole helps diminish their power and it useful when explaining their arseholery to others (ok, this image needs work.)
Some other tips: Learn to take a compliment. Even if it’s just “thank you, that’s very kind.” Resist the urge to tell the person who’s told you they like what you’ve made a list of the things that are wrong with it. They probably don’t care and it’s only really you who needs to reflect on that. If you’re a leading creative on the project, get in the habit of spreading praise amongst the team (Please remember your goddamn designers, lads) and reasonably absorbing blame rather than reflecting it. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’ll do you well in the long run.
This is a shortened version of Vinay Patel’s full article on the topic of handling criticism, which you can read in full on his blog.
You can find more from Vinay on Twitter @vinaypatel
or on his website: www.vinaypatel.co.uk