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.
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!