The Ethical Reviewer

Posted on 04 April 2013

Art is largely about sharing our humanity. The more in touch a person is with their humanity: their hopes, concerns, vulnerabilities, hates, fears, loves, and capacity for compassion, the better the art. Anyone you know about from a distance will tend to seem either super or sub human. Nevertheless, if they are an artist of any sort including comedy, then they will be a bundle of rich sensitivities.

Reviewers as writers can be a part of the spectrum of artists. You would hope this would engender some empathy. The field of journalism also expects a certain amount of integrity that seems to pass over the heads of some reviewers. They may feel, “What does this have to do with me? I watch a show, I tell people whether it’s any good, end of story.” No sense of bigger picture is coming into this viewpoint.

First, let me share with you what reviewing is not:

  • It’s not about showing off what a genius you are.
  • It’s not about showing off your ability to write the next literary classic.
  • It most especially is not about abusing your power when you are forming public opinion.

The instant reviewing becomes about you and not about your audience and the artists, you have lost your way. Words have power. People’s lives can be seriously damaged by your words. People’s hearts can be understandably broken, resulting in such tragedies as suicide. This sequence of events has happened more than once recently. Think about the doctor on the French version of Survivor who killed himself when reporters started suggesting it was his fault that a contestant had died. Maybe it was, but it is irresponsible to suggest such a thing without good evidence.

Next, let me share with you what reviewing is:

  • It’s about informing your audience. What’s this show about? Who are the performers?
  • It’s about educating your audience—helping them to recognise skill and talent.
  • It’s about directing your audience to shows they might like, taking into account a diversity of tastes.
  • It’s also about building up and encouraging the local arts industry, helping it to be at its sparkling best. Go team!

Poisoned pens kill the very industry from which reviewers are deriving their paychecks and/or reputations. When I was a theatre reviewer in Seattle many shows decided to open in that city, because New York was taking to pieces any and every show that was trying to make it on Broadway. A much better bet was for theatrical companies to abandon New York, take their shows to Seattle first where the bright gems could be properly discovered, then eventually return when they already had some promising reviews beneath their belts.

High-handed reviews are a sign of laziness. So are reviews that come straight from a press release or are just a series of catchphrases in the hopes they may be put on a performer’s posters. You lose reputation as a reliable reviewer if you don’t put some thought into what you are doing.

If you don’t like someone’s show, don’t bother saying anything. They could be beginners and it would be unfair to shoot them down this early in their career. They could just be having an off night. They are human and this happens. Or it could be an ill-conceived show with talentless performers, who will figure this out for themselves when they face a sad sorry house with no audience members.

Your readers don’t want to know what isn’t any good. You are wasting their time. They want to know what is new, fun, exciting, moving, hilarious. Some of the new acts may not be perfect, but if you can see some promise, be the one who “discovers” them. Giving audiences exist, without a doubt. I did enough amateur theatre as a kid to know this for a fact.

Most importantly: a good reviewer has a heart.

Peace and kindness,


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