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Practical Advice for Reviewers

Reviewing can be a daunting prospect, especially for those new to the discipline.

As Editor of ISEC, I am pleased to share a handout written with undergraduate/graduate students in mind.
Much of its content will be second nature to new or established Shakespeare reviewers, but there might be practical advice that helps those less sure of how best to approach reviewing a production. The handout should also answer some basic questions about the review process and pre-performance preparation.

By no means a checklist, this Theater Reviewing: A Twenty-First Century Survival Guide offers some general advice and structure for those seeking a focus for their first review.

Theater Reviewing: Where to Begin

Theater Reviewing: A Twenty-First Century Survival Guide

Theater Reviewing is a useful and transferable skill. Whether you have experience of the theater, or movie or TV watching, the skills you develop when reviewing a play can be transferred to other parts of your daily or academic life. Concentration, Observation, Appreciation, Memory, Description, Interpretation, Expressiveness, all form part of a good review and all can be developed to improve your writing and communication skills.

Reviewing Technique: A Rough Guide

What is needed to write a good theater review? Looking at the list of skills that can be developed, let us consider how these can be applied in a theater environment.

1) Observation is the most important skill. It is no good going to a play and expecting the production to ‘entertain’ you – to wash over you like a wave of artistic endeavor – and for you to do nothing in return. No, to review a play you need to engage with that play. The best way is through observation. When you arrive in the theater think about what you are about to see. If the stage is visible, consider what the setting is telling you. If it is invisible, observe the reaction on you and your fellow audience members when the scene is first revealed. Is it exciting? Is it shocking? When the play is in performance, observation is still key. Only through observation can you really engage with the play. Good observation requires another ‘-ation’ word: concentration. Only by engaging with the play – by concentrating on what it is trying to say or do – can you comment on what you have seen with intelligence and insight. Note-taking will be an important part of this process. Some of you might be blessed with a photographic memory, but most of us will need to write down reminders of what has interested or excited or intrigued us. Take notes – during the play, in the interval, or after – and be aware that these should not be essays. It might be very dark in a theater. Therefore, write key words or phrases – snippets of dialogue – impressions – indeed, anything that will trigger a thought or a memory about which you can later comment.

2) Homework, Playtexts – Do some homework before you see a play. There is nothing better for improving your powers of observation than to have an understanding, no matter how basic, of the play you are about to see. It might be the first time you, or anybody else, has seen it, but there is plenty to know about the writer or the style or the background or the history, all of which impact on the way you will view it. For a sure-fire route to all the necessary information, try the theater websites. All companies promote their plays and will tell you something of their history or narrative. Also, look at the playtexts themselves. Most often, plays can be found on the Internet. You might not have time to read the whole thing, but see how the writer describes the opening scene and characters – look at the structure of the play – look at the way the actors’ parts appear. Is the dialogue fast and furious or are there long set-pieces? You will then have an idea of the writer’s original intention and how much this production adheres to or differs from it.

3) Know Your Facts – When you describe a performance, make sure your description is factual. If an actor is playing a certain role, be sure of the character’s name and of the actor playing that character. Avoid vague generalizations. Directors and designers and actors and writers make specific choices when constructing and presenting a play. When you write about these practitioners and creatives, make sure that names and information are spelled correctly.

4) Program Notes – It is amazing how useful the program notes can be when writing a review. Not for copying out whole chunks of information, but for putting the production you are seeing in a wider context. The program will often contain short articles by academics or theater practitioners, all eager to give their take on the play. These essays can open alternative avenues for discussion within the review. Also, the program notes are the best place to look so that you know your facts. When, after the play, you look at your notes and they mention a moment when this actor said this, or that actor moved like that, the program will be the first place to go to confirm the character’s name and the actor who took on that role. Many reviewers write their notes on their programs. Short words or sentences scribbled in margins or over pictures can provide a permanent record of past plays that you have seen. No notes to lose and all the information at your fingertips!

5) Constructive Criticism – What is meant by this? Well, the most important thing is to differentiate – to make clear the difference between – what you consider a fault that can be attributed to an actor and what is an overall fault of a production. Be aware that when reviewing a play you are not out to criticize in order to make yourself feel or appear more intelligent, or to entertain others with the sharpness of your tongue. Criticism is a good thing but it has to be constructive criticism for it really to work. Constructive criticism needs you to know your facts and to have done your homework. Then you will have earned the right to comment on a performance. If you are new to the theater, then differentiate between what you felt was successful for you. What spoke to you, what was communicated to you? Did you feel there was honesty in this portrayal? Did the characters address issues that you could relate to, even if they might have been speaking in an old-fashioned way and in old-fashioned costumes? Constructive criticism allows you to differentiate between what you consider to be good and what others might recognize as good.

6) Subjective versus Objective – Remember also to differentiate between your subjective and objective reactions to a play. Subjective reactions might involve you commenting on the personal or political implications of what you see. You might find the attitudes of some of the characters offensive. Or you might see the director as offering a biased point of view. You might feel that the leading actor reminds you of a particularly hated member of your family or of an ex teacher or partner. Your reactions to the play and the way you express them will, understandably, tend to be subjective. If, on the other hand, you think to yourselves, “How might I react if these things happened to me?,” or, “What if I had been brought up to expect this or that from society or from my family, might I react in a similar way?,” your review will be more objective. Also, remember to consider not only how the play affects you but also how it might affect other members of the audience. You can be objective when saying that an older generation might find this acceptable but that younger members of the audience would not; or that men in the audience might not find this as offensive as women; or that those from one cultural background could empathize with a character far more easily than those from another cultural or ethnic background. All these approaches to reviewing the play will assist in making your intelligently subjective review as objective as possible.

7) Honesty and Toleration – with objective observation will come honesty and toleration. It is very important that your responses to a play are honest. Honesty not only means honesty towards the performers and the production, but also honesty to yourself. You have the right – indeed, you have the responsibility – to express how a production affected you. What aspects touched you spiritually and emotionally? Such subjective responses offer your reader a wealth of information, both now and in the future. Ensure, though, that there is toleration in the description. It is no good deciding that the whole thing is garbage and then trashing all that are in it. Even the most obscure play was written with the intention of saying something! If you don’t understand – if the message is just too obscure for you – then admit it! There is nothing wrong with being honest and saying that you didn’t understand, or that you couldn’t agree. As long as you show toleration – say that someone else might understand this if they came from that background or loved that person or hated that way of living. All these things add to the honesty of your review.

8) Expression and Personal Style – How you eventually express yourself when writing a review is the most important part of the process. It is your expressiveness that will paint a picture of what you have seen. It is your voice that will allow us to consider the ‘message’ of the play and how well it has been communicated. It is your voice that will tell us what affect the play had on you. Don’t get hung up on being too flowery in your language or desperately searching for obscure, intellectual-sounding words. Be simple in your writing and your mode of expression. Think what to say and then say what you think. It is your opinion we are seeking. It is your reaction to the play that is of interest.

Theater Reviewing should be about capturing the essence of a moment and expressing intelligently and honestly how that experience has affected you – affected you on a personal level. You can comment on how you think it might have been done better. You can compliment those you thought did it really well. If you are really brave, you can express dismay if you felt something was done really badly, but make sure you get your facts right and that your comments are as objective as possible. Most importantly, enjoy the process of going to the theater with a purpose. You are not there just to experience a play, but to be a participant in its message. You will write about that play, and what you write – the memories and feelings that you share with others – will become a permanent record of this one person’s reaction to a theatrical event that can never, ever be reproduced. That’s a great responsibility.

1) Observation
2) Homework, Playtexts
3) Know Your Facts
4) Program Notes
5) Constructive Criticism
6) Subjective and Objective
7) Honesty and Toleration
8) Expression and Personal Style

Useful Websites

http://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/issue/theatre/tcs-guide-to-theatre-reviewing/ – (The Cambridge University students’ guide to theatre reviewing, intended to act as benchmark for their college magazines)

http://www.ehow.com/how_2188321_write-good-theatre-review.html – (‘Things you’ll need’ guide which stresses the importance of a good memory, note-taking abilities, and a passion for theatre)

Reviewing Websites

http://www.theguardian.com/stage – The Guardian Theater page

http://newyork.timeout.com/section/theater – New York TimeOut Theater Guide

http://www.nytimes.com/theater/shows/all-reviews.html – New York Times Theater Reviews

Permanent link to full entry 01:27:54 pm. Categories: Info  

Getting started

To participate in the activities of the Chronicle, you will first have to create a login identity and a password for yourself. Click on the link Register in the left-hand column and fill out the form you will see there, entering a password (twice). Enter the letters or numbers you see in an image (this is a step that prevents you from later receiving spam). Then read the Terms and Conditions and create your account.

Important: You will be sent a confirmation email with a link that will validate your account; you must keep your browser open until you receive the email if the validation is to work.

Once your your logon id and password have been validated you become a guest reviewer, and can enter reviews and comment on those posted.

You can learn more about activities on the site by clicking on the FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) in the sidebar to the left of your screen.

Permanent link to full entry 07:01:25 pm. Categories: Info  

Writing a review

1. First, make sure that you are on the correct page for the play you are reviewing. To go to the page, select the play from the pull-down menu just below the banner at the top of the page, and click “Go.”

2. Select “Add a review” from the sidebar on the left of the screen.

The name of the play you are reviewing will be chosen in the pull-down menu at the top of the page after the heading “New Review.” If you are on the wrong page, choose the correct play from this list and you will be taken immediately to the new page.

3. Now you must select the production you are to review. There are two pull-down menus above the space where you will enter the review:

• First select the company.
• Then, from the second pull-down menu, select the production.

Important: if the production you wish to review is not listed, you will need to create an entry for it – see “Requesting a new production” below.

3. Write the review in the field provided. You can, if you wish, write your review in your usual word processor, then copy and paste it into the field on the page for entering reviews.

The Web page will preserve very little formatting (italics and so on) from your word processor. To retain your formatting, follow these steps:
• Make sure that all paragraphs are separated by a blank line. This will create a new paragraph on the Web version.
• Go through your review, highlighting any passages you want to appear in bold or italics, then clicking on the button just above the space you pasted your review. This will insert the correct encoding for the formatting. You can also add links in the same way.
• Format verse quotations with normal line breaks. You may set off quotations of verse or prose by highlighting them and clicking on the button “Block quote.”

4. Click on “Preview” to make sure that your review is ready for publication.

Note: this is an important step, because you will not be able to edit your review once you click on the “Save” button.

5. When the review is ready for publication, click on the “Save” button and your review will be immediately available for others to read.

Permanent link to full entry 06:59:31 pm. Categories: Info  

Requesting a new production

If you cannot see the production you are reviewing listed in the pull-down menus, click on the link just below them, “If the stage production is not listed, click here to request it.” You will be taken to a form that will allow you to fill in details of the production. Most of the information should be available in the theater program for the performance.

Important: please be as complete and accurate as you can in entering details, since this information will be stored permanently in our main database of Shakespeare in Performance.

If you cannot see the country, the company, or the theater in the pull-down menus, select the alternative (at the bottom of the list) “[Other]” and the form will change to allow you to enter the additional details.

1. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk. Fill in others if you can, but you may leave them empty.
2. Fields are accompanied by a short explanation.
3. When you have filled out the form, click on the button “Request the production” at the bottom of the form.

You will now be able to enter your review by repeating your earlier steps; this time the production will be available in the pull-down menus. The details of the production are forwarded to our office where a research assistant checks the details and enters the production permanently in the database of Shakespeare in Performance.

Permanent link to full entry 06:54:26 pm. Categories: Info  

 
 

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