What do You Want From Your Critics?

There’s been a lot of discussion about critics and their place in our theatre scene around here lately. Established critics are reaching out, new critics are popping up, and so I think the time is ripe to hear from you about what exactly it is that you expect when you take in a review.

I’ll start.

The main function of a play review for me is to provide a general idea of the quality of a work before I budget the time and money for it. I’m not long on spare time or money these days, and nothing will put me into a foul mood more easily than spending some on a stanky play (or movie, for that matter). And I hate filmed trailers for theatre, even the best stage work translates terribly to a little 2D box on a monitor, and marketing copy speaks only to content, not quality. So unless I know someone that’s already seen the play I have only the critics to trust…that is, those that have earned my trust. There are those here in town whose opinions I have disagreed with so often in the past that I don’t use them any more, and I’ve come to rely on the rest to help me with my play-going decisions.

Not that I pick plays exclusively from the opinions of a particular set of critics. I’ve gotten to know their voices and I know where my opinion differs from theirs. And the strength and history of a particular company or director or performer plays into it as well. But for the sake of this discussion, I would like to talk plainly about the mechanics of criticism.

So there it is: I’m a pre-play review reader. As such my bar-none, number one, all-time pet peeve is the descriptive spoiler. Why any reviewer feels that it’s okay to detail narrative business is beyond me, unless they think that the only people reading them have already seen the work too, and are looking for someone else’s opinion, or something. You can comment on context, intent, message, metaphor, tone, success, failure – virtually anything opinion based, but please don’t waste word count on anything that physically describes what you have seen. If all else fails and you can’t come up with any other way to examine your experience, please consider the ol’ default standby: “and then – well, I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s [insert intensifier-adjective here]”.

I’ve read some reviews that are almost entirely composed of the tourist version of the narrative. That’s not writing a review, it’s composing a study guide, and it’s selfish. Stop it. If I’ve paid for it, I want to experience it all – from the first glimpse of the set to the director’s blocking to the big revelation in the third act – without any presuppositions.

I would also like you to tell me why you think a particular aspect of the production succeeded or failed, taking into account the intent of the artists. Not good enough to say that something is ‘great’ or ‘not-so-great’. A frame of reference is required.

Enough from me! It’s your turn. The critics are listening, what do you want them to tell you? What do you love in a review, what do you hate? And for any of you new critics out there, please feel free to jump in and introduce yourselves and ask any questions you may have of your audience. Reviews, like theatre itself, should be dialogue, not monologue. Let the conversation begin!


  1. I wish I could remember the name of the critic who’s book I read back in a dusty library of my undergrad years. He was amazing, reading the collection of his reviews was like reading a history of the american stage. I suppose what I want from critics more than anything is context and an ability to talk about the work in ‘time.’ Not a thumbs up, thumbs down but a real entering into a dialogue about the situation of the work within the context of the now.
    Basically critics at their best are historians, researching the current climate of expression and excited by it’s definition and its potential and its failings. A critic should be passionate about the relationship of art to the world as a primary drive.
    Ya, so this book was amazing in that it was preoccupied with a curiosity for diverse performance expression and attempted to uncover the beneath factor, and took on the responsibility of a kind of inclusiveness that went into a place of dialogue with the art as opposed to praise/dismissal. Truly interesting and situational and provocative. Critique could be that.

  2. Great point Britt, if we’re trying to create a paradigm of local theatre (we are doing that, aren’t we?) a chronicle of the scene as a whole in a historical context would be a wonderful mandate.

    John Lahr, theatre critic for the New Yorker, has a wonderful book along those lines called “Light Fantastic”. Critic as historian, great stuff.

  3. Hi guys,

    I once wrote a letter to a local arts weekly about how bad I thought one of their critic’s reviews was. They never published it, so here’s my chance (I’ll change the name of the critic and play, just to keep things nicey-nicey):

    “[Your critic’s] review of the play [“Play Name”] relies too heavily on assumption-laden statements of fact to arrive at its conclusion that “the play isn’t quite up to scratch”. From this review, we learn that the “script is frequently purple”, “the second act is much too pat” and there are “over-relaxed turns from the rest of the cast.” But what does any of this actually mean and where is the evidence to support these charges? It reads as if [your critic] has foregone the rigorous critical thinking required to arrive at a thoughtful review in favour of glib and sweeping declarations. The resulting argument is not persuasive. It also does a disservice to the artists involved (who might otherwise benefit from more thoughtful criticism). I wish [your critic] had taken as much care with the rest of his critique as he did with his final thought: “[The playwright’s] dialogue spells out emotions that have already been made abundantly clear through [the choreographer’s] evocative choreography.” This strikes me as a genuine and balanced piece of insight. I would have liked to have read more observations of this calibre, and much less of the shallow rhetoric.”

    Ok. So that was how I felt about one bad review. Generally, I also think many critics spend far too many words telling us about the plot. That bugs me.

    I also hate the star rating system.

  4. Right on Ian. Critics have to accountable for the reviews they write, and be able to dialogue about them when someone takes the time to engage with them. That’s so weak that they didn’t publish your letter.

    I once wrote a local paper’s editor about a poor review of a play that I directed. And I don’t mean poor as in the review was negative (which is certainly was, but she wasn’t the only critic that thought so – fair play there) but rather the review itself was so shot through with conjecture and fictional allegations that I had to say something. By way of example; she wrote that I was unable to direct the female lead of the play into believable intimacy with her stage partner because of our own intimate relationship. My girlfriend at the time found that a particularly interesting read.

    The editor wrote me back immediately and asked if he could publish it, which he did along with a retraction from the reviewer.

    That particular critic was shortly thereafter absent from the masthead. I’m not saying that has any relation to my letter whatsoever, just stating the facts. Facts are important.

  5. Thanks for the post, Simon.

    When I began this blogging adventure two months ago, I didn’t do it with the clear intention to become a critic. I was watching Rabbit Hole at the Stanley when the idea to review performances popped — randomly and for the very first time — in my head. With neither writing experience (aside from keeping a journal, and well if you count the poetry I did in high school), nor theatre experience (again, there was that one year back in high school), I simply thought, “Why not? Let’s see where this will lead.”

    But as I got more involved, I naturally began to wonder how I fit into the the bigger picture. Your May 29 posting (Critics are your friends. Meet your friends.) made me think — perhaps for the first time — more seriously about the role of a reviewer. Since then, I’m understanding more about the value of critics to an art scene — and along with that, the very real responsibility of doing the job properly.

    My blog is a hobby; my education (business) and profession (jewellery) has nothing to do with theatre. I’m also still hoping to maintain a layman’s point of view (although I’m not sure if that’s sustainable). But regardless of my lack of theatre expertise, or my chosen layman point of view, I still need to aim for quality in the way I write.

    And so I heartily welcome you and all theatre-lovers to help me out by critiquing my critiques. Please…

  6. It’s a very important niche that you fill Larry, I wish there were more civilian theatre bloggers out there. You’re providing an invaluable viewpoint: the audience’s, and we theatre artists really need to hear more of that. We exist, quite literally, for you.

    That’s why the blog format is so great, you’re not getting paid for it, you’re talking about theatre because you love it. The greatest service you can pay us is to always be completely honest, even if you think we might not want to hear it. It’s your opinion that we want to hear, that we need to hear.

    Well, some out there might not want to hear it, but they should, because they’re charging you money. And people thinking about seeing the show really want to hear it. Keep it up.

  7. I am glad to see a distinction emerging between a reviewer (a boring pain who provides a plot summary and then says they liked it or hated it without really saying why) and a critic.

    I agree with comments about social and historical context for the writing, which can enrich the audience’s experience.

    But, for me, the critic must do two more things to be taken seriously: Firstly, they must be vulnerable to the work and willing to change their criteria for criticizing it if they crash into something unexpected. Secondly, they must dare to be creative by striving for the most elegant, tight, jewel-like writing — so that the piece becomes a small, delicious work of art of its own.

    In other words, a great critic must be twice vulnerable, just like any good artist. Here is an example from my favourite critic at the moment — the visual art critic, Peter Schjeldahl:

    “I remember my first encounter, in Germany, in 1992, with Koon’s famous “Puppy,” the forty-three-foot high Scottie dog enveloped in living flowers. As I was judiciously taking descriptive and analytical notes, a bus arrived bearing a group of severely disabled children in wheelchairs. They went wild with delight. Abruptly feeling absurd, I shut my notebook and took instruction from the kids’ unequivocal verdict.”
    (New Yorker, June 9&16 2008, p 130.)

    Jeff Koons’ work lasts about as long for me as a stubbed toe — but Schjeldahl’s writing? Long time.

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