It's nothing personal until it is

14 April 2017

Callum Kenny pockets his £20 like a trooper


Criticism isn’t personal.

That’s what they say. It’s constructive, it comes from a place of support and it will help you do better.

Except that criticism is personal. Regardless of the intention, it can be wounding. It takes a resilient person to stem the flow of blood and patch themselves up. Because it doesn’t matter how many people tell you that they loved your show; it’s always the harsh words that stay with you.

Having been an actor and a reviewer, I feel torn about the value of criticism. There is undoubted bravery in creating theatre and inviting people to see it. Making art is, of course, exhilarating and galvanising, but it is simultaneously exposing and terrifying. That bravery, however, is the fundamental benchmark of performance – you have to overcome those fears to even get your show to the stage – and therefore it is rarely commented on.

As theatre-makers, it is worth reminding yourself that the masochistic impulse to bare all before an audience of complete strangers is remarkable. The critic, by contrast, is not nearly so vulnerable. I understand Miriam Schechter’s sentiment that critics “are a TUNC anagram”. It seems very easy to hide behind a MacBook Air and forensically examine the corpse of a play you have just bludgeoned to death. Her poem in yesterday’s issue of Noises Off was an attempt to turn the tables and deflect the spotlight on to the reviewer for a change.

In an interview with Kate Wyver, The Stage critic Mark Shenton commented that “you have to go out there and be bold and make a statement. But our job isn’t to kill dreams.” Shenton gets to the heart of the matter. At NSDF, critics are rarely playing with the livelihood or professional future of actors and theatre-makers. That responsibility is, thankfully, removed from the equation at this early stage of budding careers.

But hurt feelings can leave deep scars, and in this intense environment, even the most constructive response can leave a legacy of damage. The festival is designed to be an empowering, inspiring experience for young creatives, and while it is important not to mollycoddle people, we must maintain an awareness that a confidence knock in this space, on this platform, can be shattering. 

The “stain on the wall” will heal, though. If Schecher lets it. To side with the editorial team of Noises Off, l think that the responses to performances across the festival have upheld the responsibility of the critic. I don’t think that any dreams have been killed nor do I believe that any performance was genuinely bludgeoned, only winded for a time.

If bravery isn’t necessarily the prerequisite for criticism, integrity is. If the critic can’t express their interpretation as they see it then the role is redundant. Feelings may be hurt for a time, but it really isn’t personal.

Even though it always is.


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