Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What Do You Think About Anonymous Reviews?

There is currently a discussion on an Asheville website about whether posted reviews ought to be anonymous or signed. I believe that if someone is going to express an opinion, they should have the courage to claim it and not hide behind anonymity. I also believe that that is the sign of a mature theatre community -- that people can exchange ideas and opinions in a way that is honest and respectful, and that leads to growth on the part of those involved. Others believe that the theatre community is too tightly-knit to allow criticism without worry about consequences, and that anonymity allows people to express their opinions freely. What do you think?


Art said...

Hi Scott,

Just a little clarification. Is the issue about posting reviews to a particular theater's own blog or website? Or about posting reviews in general?

Scott Walters said...

It is a site devoted to posting reviews of Asheville theatre productions. Independent website.

Dennis Baker said...

I think in the arts people who are not critics are afraid to post anything "negative" and sign their name to it. I hear a lot of time artists (mainly actors) don't want to offend and run the risk of not working with someone down the road.

I have been thinking about this a lot with my previous comment under your teacher post and my recent post about the Rutgers MFA acting program. I too had the same mindset that I did not want to offend, but one can not live like that. I think if it is a well supported critique then hopefully that will do. A mindset that has to always be cultivated is that no one has the right answer to doing theater or how to be a good actor or director. No one is an expert and that should give freedom for discussion, but artists offend easily and have huge egos so that idea is easily lost in the desire to be seen as good and the best in this subjective quagmire called theater.

Director said...

One of the biggest problems I've seen is exactly what Dennis said: people are afraid of offending others, especially if it might mean burning bridges. The thing that he didn't mention was the flip side of that coin -- most people can't take criticism objectively.

If, for example, I thought that Jesus Christ Superstar was miscast or misdirected (Jesus was/made poor choices) and provided reasons (during the Bazaar scene, you didn't even notice Jesus until he came front and center, and ideally, he should be the center of attention at all times, no matter who or what is on stage), then the director/theatre should be able to accept that and objectively look at the show and say "Does this comment have merit?"

What normally happens is the critic's target usually says "That's stupid" and refuses to talk to said critic again.

In my experience, I've had a hard time finding people who will be honest. The only way I ever knew if I did a good job in a show was if I were cast again. Only once did one of my directors say something good. A (newbie) actress was uncertain about her performance in a scene with me, and Doc just looked at her and said "Director's a great actor. Just do what I told you and he'll make it work."

In the past I have asked for criticism. My family, of course, thinks I'm a brilliant actor. My castmates nod and smile and say "Good job". My directors never say anything bad because they don't want to offend or have a negative impact on morale. The audience doesn't know better, and even if they did, they wouldn't say something to me. There were only a handful of people I could say "Give it to me straight. What did you like, what did you not like?" and have them give me straight answers.

As far as your question goes, I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, if you have an opinion you should be proud of enough to say it. On the other hand, and I am a perfect example of this, some people prefer anonymity in order to prevent burning bridges in the future. It's not that I don't think my ideas have merit or that I'm hiding -- it's that I don't want something I wrote on the internet to impact someone's vision of who I am before they actually meet me. As you can probably attest, Scott, personae online are often different than in real life.

I say let anonymous people post. If it starts degenerating into flame wars and anonymous rude comments, then by all means turn off the ability to post anonymously.

Ben said...

As an actor, I can't post a review that is even a little bit negative without risking the black ball effect. People want to work with those they like, and they might not like me if I write a poor review of their work. It's too risky to not do this anonymously.

Jess said...

If you are going to assume the role of "critic" - you should absolutely put your name to the critique you offer. Always.

If you can't separate that from your "actor" hat, then maybe you shouldn't be criticising.

Don Hall said...

While I'm no fan of anonymous commenting, I think it really depends on what the post is saying. If the anonymous post reads like a legit comment then it doesn't matter who said it. If it reads like a kid poking at a caged animal, then they deserve to be punched in the taint.

Further, if you're so afraid of blowback then you should keep it to yourself. Anyone who feels criticized by me and thus does not want to work with me is too thin-skinned for me to waste my time with.

Jess said...

btw, Scott - a link to the Asheville Reviews site? Jason sent it to me once-upon-a-time, but life has been happening alot since then.

Jess said...


Taint Punchers.

I think that's gonna be the name of my new band.

Jeffrey said...

I come from a metropolitan theatre community in which we have an excellent online forum for discussion, auditions, what's playing, etc., however criticism is something that is lacking. In fact, one of the recent forum threads is regarding criticism and whether or not to allow negative posts anonymously.

There are all kinds of excuses as to why we should be allowed to post anonymously. Mostly stemming from the thought that the online community is so tightly knit it would destroy your career to say anything with a critical tone.

The moderators and online forum creators are part of a clique and they are responsible for most of the comments. It is easy for new members to become alienated and only check the threads that interest them and then logout because of the sometimes incredibly personal comments made. Regardless of who posts or if you were able to post anonymously the moderators/creators would still be able to know who posted it. You still have quite a bit to fear as they are a large part of the theatre community.

A big problem, I feel, is that the forum allows you to write about anything. From Home and Garden, General Gossip, Sports, etc. It is definitely more of a community forum that humanizes the theatre artists rather than preserves that aire of artists of collaboration. Some moderators host gatherings so that the community can get to know one another and so forth.

I know many of these ideas have strayed from your initial question, but I too wonder the same thing. I would desire to say something critical of another show, but it is good work if you can get it. As Dennis said, as long as the critique is well supported I don't see any reason as to why criticism can't be aired.

Here's the trick -- shows that are well received often get pages and pages of positive reviews and personal notes on this website: "Jennifer was amazing! Go see this show everyone!". I will admit to doing this for shows that I especially enjoy (with more substantial info than singling people out). While the shows that either have too high a ticket price, lack much of the community connection to the website, or that were poorly received only get a few pages - perhaps no more than the dates/times/ticket prices plus a few show participants comments hyping it up: "last weekend!", "pay-what-you-can night is Monday!".

The praise, or lack thereof, can be enough of a tell and will do the duty of making or breaking the show -- without criticism. What is not being said is the loudest criticism of all.

In short, own what you say, utilize what you hear.

Thanks for the blog and thanks for letting me ramble.

Anonymous said...

this blog sucks.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Just kidding . . . that was me. Theatre Ideas rocks!

Ben said...

"If you can't separate that from your "actor" hat, then maybe you shouldn't be criticising."

Jess, it's not me I'd be worried about. It's that person I'd be criticizing. If I have to work with someone in the future, and all they can focus on is what I wrote or said about them in a past review, that is a negative that should be avoided at all costs. The only way to avoid that is to leave my critique anonymously.

I don't think that "you shouldn't criticize" is a good answer. If we leave the criticisms solely to those who get paid to publish them, that's not fair to the artists or to ourselves. Our theatrical experiences are too subjective for us to have to ignore.

John said...

An anonymous review is a phone message from a stranger.

A signed review is the beginning of a conversation with a person.

I usually just delete the phone messages if I don't know who left them.

Director said...

To extend John's metaphor a bit, if I received two dozen anonymous messages that said basically the same thing -- "The lighting was distracting" or "So-and-so was unconvincing" or "I just didn't enjoy the show" or what-have-you -- then there might be something there to look at. But if I got one and the rest were positive, I'd feel justified in ignoring the negative.

I think Don Hall summed it up best. If it reads like it's legit, it probably is. If not, kill em. Okay, maybe not kill them. Punch em in the.. what was it? The taint.

Rodney Robbins said...

People can't handle the truth! Heaven forbid you suggest that just perhaps, maybe, possibly the script was a bit bland, or the stage was too dim. Without a screen name to hide behind, you would have to PAY people to criticize plays--oh wait, that is why we have paid critics and why we love to hate them!

That being said, anonymous haters annoy the crap out of me. "Your play sucked, jerk off!" I think useless comments like that should be edited out by the website administrator.

Of course, as a playwright, I do know "The Secret" for obtaining honest feedback: Buy your friends a few drinks, then start talking about other people. The bites will be deep, but the pain will be exquisite!