Someone at the theater always tells you which critics are showing up on opening night, so the stomach acid is churning long before curtain. You try not to make eye contact, or at the most, you muster as friendly a smile as you can and shake hands. During the show, you watch them (you may as well, you’re watching everyone else in the audience, anyway). You count the laughs. You count the gasps. You ask yourself stupid rhetorical questions like, “Would I rather have eight small laughs, sprinkled throughout the show, or three, good bellylaughs?” And when it’s over, if you have any social skills whatsoever, you shake their hand again and thank them for coming.
Then, you analyze. You ask yourself, “Did they like it?” You sprint to the newspaper machine when the arts section drops. You haunt the websites. You refresh the blogs. When a bad review hits, you throw stuff and complain to your significant other and receive sympathy drinks from other playwrights. But even worse is when there’s no review, because now you ask yourself the worst question of all: “Did the critic think so little of my play that they deemed it beneath their attention?”
Go ahead and laugh. It’s funny. But consider this…how neurotic would you be if somebody walked in on your job—not everyday, mind you, but only after the project you’ve been working on for the past year was complete—and critiqued it, publicly, in a major newspaper where complete strangers could read it? What if your job hinged, in part, on what that critic said? What if readership spiked whenever they wrote a truly scathing review, essentially rewarding them for crushing you?
If you know a playwright who has a show running, you should hug them. And buy them a drink. And say something cool like, “You are one, tenacious son-of-a-bitch.”
Here’s the thing—and it might be that I’ve entered middle age or that this is far from my first rodeo—but I think maybe we should do the same for critics. They have crappy jobs, if you think about it. I’m sure they want to see good theater, but most theater sucks (let’s face it), and they have to watch it anyway and write something intelligent. Sometimes a critic elevates a show, and if the show is small with little press and people go see it as a result, it must feel terrific. But sometimes they need to pummel something with their tiny fists, because it’s their job, and if they don’t, little Timmy won’t get that orthodontry he so desperately needs.
And no review is much worse than a bad review. That’s doesn’t sound true, and I didn’t always believe it, but I think it’s right. And these poor bastards are the ones to do it, like an army of the damned, condemned to scour the slopes of Purgatory, searching for any gleam of sunlight and finding, on the whole, mud.
So, if you see a critic, hug them. And buy them a drink. And say something cool like, “Once more unto the breach, you poor bastard.”