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October 3rd, 2017 donnahoke


Whether it comes in the form of feedback from a reader, a blog post, or formal newspaper review, harsh words sting. Devastate. Create self-doubt. No less than Teresa Rebeck has talked about how difficult it was for her to recover from a bad review. But in a subjective, collaborative, artistic world, they are going to happen. Here’s what to do when they do:


It doesn’t have to be this way…


1) Every review, the good and the bad, is written from a place of the reviewer’s truth. We all want to see ourselves on stage, and, if we find ourselves, that’s where we attach, where we focus. Reviewers are no different. It sucks when a reviewer who doesn’t align with our play in quite the way we’d like (even the good ones often get the details wrong—sometimes even the plot, right?), but it doesn’t mean what they’re saying is completely unfounded. Even if there are inaccuracies and misunderstandings—or meanness—perception is reality; there is truth in what’s being said. Find it. Learn from it. Even if you don’t accept it 100 percent, it’s important to know it.



2) A good friend once told me, “If your only defense is they don’t get it, then you don’t get it.” But, but, but…  Stop. Defense is natural, and your arguments may be logical. They may even be true. It doesn’t matter; just as the reviewer’s reaction is opinions, so are your defenses. Read this excellent article about how liberating it is to free yourself of the need to explain yourself, and know that the only thing that is indisputable is that you wrote a play that elicited a particular response. Accept that. Be self-aware enough to create the debate in your mind, and see the places where your arguments may fall apart. If you can’t do this yourself, ask objective parties where the review and your defenses collide. Or if they do. Or how much. Most importantly, why. All art is subjective. There is never one right answer, just one you can live with.



3) While a review in print represents just one person’s opinion, no opinion lives alone; other people share it, whether you’re made aware of it or not. The difference between a hit and a failure is how many people share this opinion (even Hamilton has detractors). Unfortunately, smaller productions don’t usually get ten, fifteen, or twenty reviews as New York shows do. They don’t always have the luxury of balance, or even consensus to know if one review is an outlier. All we know is that if one person feels this way, others do, too. It may not be possible—or even desirable—to overhaul the script, but you can comb through it and find ways to minimize the cause of perceptions you don’t want.


4) Even when a review is bad, if the language and word choice are such that it seems more attack than critique, know that this was the reviewer’s choice. There are many ways to say the same thing; if things are said in a way intended to harm and hurt, rather than help, it is more a reflection of the reviewer as a person than it is of you as a playwright.


5) Bad reviews are part of this passion/life/life force/necessity that is playwriting.  David Henry Hwang told me that when you get a bad review and don’t give up, when even in face of it you still want to keep writing plays, you’ve cemented your identity as both a playwright and artist. Be proud of that!



6) Bad reviews do not define you. It might feel like it when those barbs dig in deep and don’t let go. They probably never will, but wounds do scab over. You can still defend your play, but when the urge hits too hard, pull back and respect someone else’s truth—no matter how it was arrived at. That doesn’t take away any other audience member’s experience, and it certainly doesn’t take away yours.



7) Every play is a step in the evolution of a playwright. Evaluate the play that got the bad review and understand how it is part of yours. Did you try something new? Experiment with form? Expand yourself in some way? That is the success. Your success. No review can undo it. And far beyond the bad review, those lessons will work their way into your next piece. And the piece after that.


8) Bad reviews show you who your friends are. And I don’t mean a would-be syncophant, but someone who reaches out to say something akin to “I saw that! How are you?” and asks what you need. That is worth more than any good review you could ever get.



9) Your play got fucking produced. Don’t forget that.


10) It’s going to happen again. Return to number one. Breathe. Vent. Evaluate. Reassess. Write. Keep writing.



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Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.

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  1. 1 Patrick Gabridge said at 12:50 pm on October 3rd, 2017:

    Great piece. All very important lessons to keep in mind.

  2. 2 Daniel Pinkerton said at 5:52 pm on October 3rd, 2017:

    I loved reading this wonderful blog entry. While I am temperamentally not the kind of person who is devastated by bad reviews, and I don’t think critics are stupid or intentionally mean. I sometimes feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, saying, “LISTEN to your critics or people at feedbacks who are puzzled or say the play didn’t work. What are they saying, and how can their critiques help you strengthen your work?” You have articulated everything I would ever say to a fellow playwright much more clearly than I could. Thanks!

  3. 3 donnahoke said at 9:53 am on October 5th, 2017:

    These days, with all the blogs etc., it’s so easy for anybody to be a critic. While more avenues for critique–and therefore balance–are a good thing, the lack of understanding of the profession can also, at times, be problematic.

  4. 4 Jack Lyons said at 2:06 am on October 4th, 2017:

    Donna… I read your piece and the advise given to playwrights. It’s on the nose, however, playwright candidates need to have discipline, the skin of rhino, and the tenacity of a terrier with bone or rag doll.
    As a critic and member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) I am very sensitive to anyone willing to lay their most inner thoughts on paper, or a stage. I factor that and other elements into my theatrical and film reviews. I remembered what Marsha Norman, the Oscar and Tony-winning playwright, said to a group of critics at one of our conferences. She said I was so traumatized by a bad review… I didn’t write anything for four years. I never forgot that and I’m still very conscious about balancing my standards with those of the playwrights I review. You’re right, however, to inform your readers to hang in there. Without you and your colleagues we critics would be out of a job. And we’re almost there thanks to the great god greed and bottom-line oriented CPAs. Both of us risk becoming an endangered species. But I digress. Oh, and keep on writing!

  5. 5 donnahoke said at 9:52 am on October 5th, 2017:

    Jack — I think critics who are serious enough about their work to be members of ATCA probably have a better view of the symbiotic relationship between critics and new work than the many newspaper stringers and online bloggers. It’s a profession, but, especially these days, it’s a field that has attracted a wide range with varying degrees of ability in and understanding of it. I appreciate that you heard Marsha’s words and remember them when you write; that’s all we can really ask for–respect and balanced criticism. Thank you.

  6. 6 Roy O'Neil said at 9:28 am on October 4th, 2017:

    9) Your play got fucking produced. Don’t forget that…But the run will be shorter and it might not get produced again.

  7. 7 donnahoke said at 9:55 am on October 5th, 2017:

    From a single bad review? Ticket sales are more likely to determine the length of the run (and really that’s only going to be applicable in places where runs are open; most are preset to a season or availability of space), and if the reviews are all uniformly bad, one has to wonder how every reviewer came to the same conclusion.

  8. 8 Mahin said at 7:15 am on October 5th, 2017:

    That was very good. Thank you.

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