Well done us.
But before I celebrate, let’s remember the Baz Luhrman singing ‘Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ offering advice to college leavers. There is one line that says ‘whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either. Careful if you listen to it, though – it always makes me cry. Stand-up teacher Jill Edwards echoed this advice to me in Brighton. You can go on too much of an ego rollercoaster if you’re not careful and that’s why a lot of comics and performers become depressive or alcoholic. One night people think you’re great, one night people think you’re not. So, are you great; Or shit? Let’s not do a Tony Hancock and fire everyone around us to prove to ourselves that we’re the funny one.
Reviews however cannot be ignored. They are often the main point of marketing that connects you with your audience and a bad review can curb your audience numbers. My first directorial experience at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in ‘99 coincided with my first Scotsman review. We got 1 star. The review described my cast as ‘rampaging toddlers’ and despite flagging it as a great idea for a show, and pointing out ‘an impressive backwards farce skit’, we were damned. I remember the first line clearly, though it was around 12 years ago now: ‘This is the hell that is student theatre’. I had to take my cast to one side before the next show and explain to them that it was one person’s opinion and that if they believed it was a 1-star show, then it was certainly going to come across like a 1-star show. To add insult to injury, we failed to get any other reviews for the whole festival and therefore our Scotsman diatribe was the only voice out there. If we’d had another terrible review at least it would be consolidated. If we’d had a good review, we could understand that people have different tastes or perhaps we’d caught the Scotsman on a bad day or a bad show. The cast went on to be on the Big Breakfast spot ‘Edinburgh Cringe’ and I was too sore to be a part of it. At the tender age of 20, it was a big blow.
I have read the Artist’s Way several times. It’s a 12 week course in creativity and quite clearly a self help book, but it’s a good self help book and really looks at some interesting issues that come up for all creatives. There was a section on criticism which I found particularly useful. The author pointed out that poor criticism just makes you upset, whereas constructive criticism makes you happy, because you can see a way to make your show (painting/book/dance) better. ‘Yes’, you think, ‘that bit didn’t work and now I can see that if the audience understood Clive’s motivation, then it would be a stronger piece’. Or whatever. A good technique for dealing with bad reviews is to review the review. Take apart the reviewer’s language and point of view. Also, if you’re particularly cross, Google them, find their own failings and attribute your bad review to their personal experiences. Don’t send it to them, it’s just a catalyst!
It’s always nicer to be part of a group for reviews – being part of an improv troupe instead of a lone stand up for example. One of my favourite reviews of all time was a 2-star ThreeWeeks review for the Maydays’ first show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006. Regarding our revolutionary new short form show, the reviewer summed it up as ‘reused drama workshop games’. She wasn’t wrong – I mean, that is the root of modern short form improv (thanks, Viola Spolin). Over the next few weeks, we thoroughly enjoyed describing Richard Allston dance as ‘just a bunch of people keeping fit’, Rhod Gilbert as ‘just a bloke doing a bunch of jokes’ and Camille O’Sullivan as ‘just a woman talking at various pitches with some people on musical instruments.’ Incidentally Chortle came to the same exact show and gave us a glowing 4-star review that we still quote on our publicity.
This is all very well, you say, but you started this with ‘I got three great reviews’. Yes, but I strive to be no more affected my high praise than I am by being rubbished on paper. I have a good idea about what was wrong with all of these highly praised shows and they are things that we strive to improve continually. There will never be a point in improv when you are done. Even TJ and Dave, Baby Wants Candy and all my favourite shows vary in quality and as an improviser that is satisfying in a way. If your show feels safe, it probably isn’t that great. If you’re not pushing boundaries then why are you improvising?; If you’re wheeling out your five favourite characters for the umpteenth time then why don’t you write a script for them?
The magic of improv lies in risk. If you’re lucky, your risks will pay off and you’ll get a good review. If not, well done you for expanding your range and striving for something better. Another sage piece of advice from Jill was that you learn nothing from a good gig, but you learn loads from a bad gig. I think that translates very well from stand up to improv.
So, my advice is that if you want to get ecstatic about 5 star reviews, you have to be depressed about 1 star reviews and your ego isn’t worth all that trauma. In my opinion, we didn’t deserve a 5 star review for Saturday’s Music Box show, but I also believe that we have done some brilliant 5 star shows that weren’t reviewed. I’m very pleased that we get to use that review to tell people how good we can be. I don’t feel like we can sit back and enjoy that we’re perfect. Still, I might quietly crack open a beer...
– Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen)