Twitter has many purposes, not least to provide a fast forum for the spread of news and reactions to it, so that it has become a truly interactive channel in which news is owned not just by those making the announcement but absorbed and processed by those to whom it is made. News consumers are, in this model, no longer merely passive receivers of information, but reactive receivers who in turn help to distribute it, often putting their own spin on it first before passing it on.
But there’s a downside to all this free chatter: people are equally free to put out opinions there that are not exactly what others want to hear. That’s precisely the problem with free speech: people can speak their minds. And some of it may be personal. But if you read it and engage with it, you may have to be prepared to read things that you don’t want to hear.
Actors, like all human beings, like to hear praise; it’s less fun hearing that people don’t like you. But just as wise actors know that if you believe the good reviews you must also take the bad ones on board, they run the risk of encountering people who don’t like their work in online forums like Twitter. That’s what happened last week to Sofia Escobar, the current Christine in the West End Phantom of the Opera, who found a posting from a regular Phantom audience member — who had seen the show more than 80 times — saying, “Ah but u know I can’t stand Sofia …”
But Escobar didn’t leave it there; she replied, “”It’s OK cause I can’t stand you either ;) x” Nor did it stop at that; according to a report in the Evening Standard, Escobar’s boyfriend then weighed in with a reply of his own; and then the row escalated further, as Escobar tweeted comments to her own followers, and they in turn attacked the original tweeter.
That’s testament to the instant viral spread of Twitter; a casual comment reaches the ear of the person it was said about; she objects publicly; and before you know it, there are accusations flying around of cyberbullying. (The original tweeter has since shut her account down). But more than that, it has spread far beyond Twitter, to the pages (real and/or virtual) of the Evening Standard, Guardian and Telegraph, not to mention this blog now.
A tiny comment, which started in a conversation between two friends on Twitter, has effectively been overheard by thousands now; the first mistake, of course, is for the original tweeter to have made the comment on her public timeline, not in a direct message conversation, with her friend. The trouble is that public tweets are searchable, and can also be readily re-distributed.
But the reply that the person being spoken about made was likewise not made to the person that made the original comment alone; it, too, was made on a public timeline. And as part of the law of unintended consequences, no one comes out of it looking very good.
There’s an important lesson, though, to thin-skinned actors: while Escobar pointed out in one of her replies, “”Just because I’m a performer that gives people the right to insult me without me being able to defend myself? I don’t think so,” her over-defensive position to a comment that only suggested that someone couldn’t stand her has led to a lot more people, many of whom had never heard of her, feeling the same way.
Michael Simkins, a wonderful actor (who opened in the West End just last night in the return of Yes, Prime MInister) and terrific chronicler of actor’s experiences, wrote in a feature in the Daily Telegraph that pointed out that thin-skinned thespians are nothing new, but they’re now facing a critic in every seat: “With the brave new world of instant communication now thoroughly blurring the delicate line between ‘them’ and ‘us’, the days when the only feedback that actors had to worry about was confined to newspaper reviews is long gone. Now everyone is a critic, and actors frequently witness people texting friends and loved ones from the auditorium mid-show, presumably with an up-to the-second résumé of our efforts.”
He raises the immortal question always posed to actors about whether they read their reviews, and suggests, “In my experience there are only two sorts of actors - those who read their reviews, and those who read them but claim they don’t. One famous Hollywood star, who appears regularly in London’s theatreland, famously claims to never read his. So why did a friend of mine spot him in a café in Muswell Hill not so long ago, wearing dark sunglasses and with a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, devouring an entire stack of newspapers the morning after a press night?”
But he wisely cautions, “Reading our critics is one thing, but reacting to them in public is quite another. Dealing with adverse reaction is part and parcel of the actor’s life, and if you want a quiet one, it’s probably better to shrug off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and keep your own mouth firmly shut.”
And even if actors avoid their reviews, though, they can’t always avoid the public reactions of audience members: “One colleague told me of an instance at the Chichester Festival theatre some years ago, in which he had no sooner walked on stage than he heard someone in the audience mutter to their friend, ‘Oh no, not him again, he’s awful’.”
That’s more or less exactly what the tweeter said about Escobar. But instead of being said in a theatre where only those around them (and the actor it was spoken about) could hear it, it’s been heard far more widely now — and mainly because of her reaction to it. It’s the equivalent, again, of the Chichester actor stopping the show to protest. Just as he didn’t, Escobar should have let it go.