A theatre reviewer’s role

By Ande Jacobson

There are many approaches to writing theatre (or any arts) reviews, and there is significant debate over the role a critic should assume. The varied opinions don’t seem to be unique to a particular sector of readers, be they performers, theatre owners and staff, or potential audience members from all walks of life.

Many readers look to reviews to provide them with some insight into a production, in part to determine whether or not to spend their hard-earned money to attend a performance. Within this group, some are specifically looking for ratings, while others are looking to understand what to expect to gauge whether they’d enjoy a particular show.

Some readers from within the production being reviewed are looking for kind words of encouragement. Others are looking for critical feedback to allow them to understand, from the audience perspective, what works, what doesn’t, and how their interpretations come across.

For most readers, two things are clear: they are drawn to reviews that provide them with the answers they seek, and they value a style that they enjoy reading. If they are lucky, they get both.

Just as readers are looking for different things in a review, the reviewers writing them also have varying opinions on what should, and should not, be included. While I cannot speak for all reviewers, I can shed some light on the philosophy behind the reviews I write for A Good Reed Review.

A review, no matter how objectively it is written, is still the opinion of the author. That said, I take the position of being a reviewer very seriously and prepare for each review I undertake.

For a theatrical production, preparation includes reading the script, if possible, to understand the material. I further research the playwrights, and in the case of musicals, the composers and lyricists, to understand their intention in creating the work and to familiarize myself with the music and lyrics of the show. In addition, I read any press materials I receive to gain further insights.

This preparation is very much an academic pursuit, but added to that are the years of experience I possess as a performer (both on stage and under it) and as a creative staff member in the theatre world. After seeing the performance, I combine all of this preparation with my engineering discipline to write a review that provides a critical look at the production.

Critical doesn’t mean biting negativity, but it does mean that constructive criticism, both positive and negative, is likely to be included. One thing that I strive for in my reviews is to provide that criticism diplomatically, not with the intention to offend. Rather the intention is to inform through an honest assessment of the work. As a performer, I greatly appreciate honest feedback on my performances. As with most reviewers, I provide the kind of criticism I would like to read or receive in a review.

One important point. For me at least, whether I personally like the show is irrelevant. Many shows maintain very high production values, presenting a compelling performance that upholds the intention of the material, and that’s key. That’s where, as a reviewer, it’s important to maintain a somewhat detached perspective. Yes, the critique is still the opinion of the reviewer, but critics need to view theatricals as objectively as possible based on the merits of the production, not their personal taste.

I’ve often been asked whether I review professional theatre differently than amateur theatre. The simple answer is no.

If a company takes on a show, it needs to do its homework to present an interpretation of that material that is in keeping with the intention of the author (i.e., playwright, composer, lyricist, etc.). The creative staff of a production has a great deal of freedom in staging, lighting, sound design, costuming, musical and dance interpretation, and so forth. Likewise, the performers have a certain amount of freedom (depending on the directors) to interpret their roles, be they actors or musicians.

Whatever the overall level of the theatre group, the choices in casting, interpretation, and design can provide greater or lesser depth to the presentation. As a reviewer, it’s important to look at the overall production and its production values, not to cast aspersions on the venue or the presence or absence of glitz.

The caveat is of course that exceptional aspects of a production would often be noted, and in some cases, would only be found at the professional level, although what constitutes a professional theatre company versus an amateur group is the subject of significant debate. Look for an upcoming commentary on the fuzzy line separating professional and amateur theatre.

Ratings are not used on A Good Reed Review. The goal with A Good Reed Review reviews is to provide as honest an assessment as possible based on the material being presented in a production. That means a critical account, but just as it doesn’t matter whether I personally like the show, providing a rating is also meaningless in this context. In order to have a rating add value, there has to be a consistent basis for comparison against some standard. It might be relevant to rate 20 different productions of The King & I against one another, but short of that kind of comparison, ratings don’t fit the intention of the reviews on A Good Reed Review.

The worlds of theatre and music are constantly evolving, and reviews provide a more detailed and lasting response than applause at the end of a performance. In a sense, writing critical analyses of the arts is in itself an art form, but hopefully in the process, it helps grow greater appreciation of those special worlds.

Additional Reading:
A Theater Criticism/Arts Journalism Primer: Refereeing the Muses, by Bob Abelman and Cheryl Kushner
The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, by Arthur Miller, Robert A. Martin, Steven R. Centola
Critical Theory and Performance, edited by Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach

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