On Reviews In General

My last post explained where I was coming from so that anyone reading this blog would know my bias up front, but I didn’t really explain what I do, as an audience member, to feel entitled to review a piece, so here’s a step-by-step of what a reviewer ought to do. It works for an audience member as well.

1) Take It All In

Start reviewing the second you walk in the door. A smart company has considered the venue when they read the piece, and they designed the front of the house to be a part of the show. And almost certainly, for the independent theater world, you just met the producer, the director or the playwright when you bought your ticket, so they’re a part of the show. Take in the pre-show music, take a look at the audience, get a sense where everyone is coming from. It’s not a book, it’s a play, you’re in a room and all of that has been considered by the company, so let it be an active part of your experience.

2) Bring Your Prejudices With You

Don’t lie. You’ve seen six other shows they’ve done, 0r you’ve seen nothing. You hate one person shows, or you love drag queens. Own it. Make sure you are fully aware of your excitement, or your disdain, when you sit down because it’s a LIVING THING, and as an audience member, you are going to affect it. And you will be affected by those around you. If you love an idea, then watching it with an audience who loves it will make you love it more, but if you hate an idea, then watching it with an audience who LOVES it will make you hate it twice as much. So be aware of that – hating a show because the people around you loved it too much is just unfair.

3) Let Go Of Your Prejudices And Focus On What They’re Trying To Do

Spend the first half hour without trying to adjudicate. Just try to figure out what the company is trying to say or do. It could be as simple as “they want me to laugh”, but it’s gonna take a while for you to figure that out. You have to be there, you have to stop being you, you’ve got to spend as much time as you can trying to be us – the production. Are we trying to upset you? Are we trying to turn you on? Are we trying to make you identify with someone we normally would write off? Are we just trying to crack you up? IT’S SO IMPORTANT – because if you don’t spend any time considering what we’re trying to do, there’s no point in reviewing the play. If you don’t know what we’re *trying* to do, then you won’t know if we *did* it. It seems so obvious, but it’s one of the biggest holes in theatrical criticism.

4) Decide If It’s Working

Sometimes you can’t do this until later, but this is an immediate return world, the play is happening now and if you wait a week to let it sink in, the play will close. You need to post your review tonight, I get this, so start thinking about whether or not it worked. The third and fourth part of this advice is the only really important part, if you have three paragraphs to review a show, then you should have Plot and Names Of People shoved in there somewhere, but basically all your readers want to know is a) what were they trying to do and b) did it work.

This is where it’s important to have a complete knowledge of how a theatrical piece is put together, because if it’s working, you can then know WHY, and give credit where it is due. Too many reviewers think that “pace” is the one thing that a director is responsible for, and “truth” is the only thing an actor can give us. You have to know what the sound designer *does* and what the lights can do, you have to know how much a set can be responsible for the mood of a piece. You have to do your work on “What Are They Doing” and then almost your entire job is explaining to your audience how and why it either worked or didn’t, explaining what the artists have done to create this.

And then, once you have done this, a sprinkling of you –

5) Tell Me How You Feel About It

Yeah, you should do this. I’ll come out right now and say, as gay as I’ve been, as many gay guys as I’m in love with, and as much as I love outrageous and over-the-top theater, I walk away from Drag always feeling a little crappy. Drag shows make me feel bad, and that’s the opposite of what they’re supposed to do, and the opposite of how almost 100% of my friends feel about it. *Women* dressed as drag queens make me just as sad as *men* dressed as drag queens, it’s not a queer thing at all. So, if I’m ever talking about a drag show, at some point I’ve got to say, “it made me feel sad”. Unless it didn’t! But, although the personal affect is an important *flavor* to a review, it isn’t your job. If you are offended by a show, then I hope you’ve done parts 3 and 4, and you’ve investigated whether or not that was the point.

I’m writing this not in response to any one review (although I’m sure my close friends will think it is so) but rather a response to what I hear so many lay-people say. A play is not what the playwright put down on paper, that’s the script, and most of what you’re responding to is the 18 other people that had a hand in the creation of this piece. There’s no *information* in the phrase “ably-directed” or “rounded out with wonderful performances by the ensemble”… these are the kinds of phrases we use when we talk about role players on basketball teams. There aren’t any winners or losers, we aren’t trying to figure out whether anyone did these things “right”, which is the implication when we describe actors as “stealing the show” or whatever. I’ve seenĀ  a hundred productions where the static characters were played with perfect restraint in order for the scene-chewers to do their work, and when I see that I credit the actor out front, the actor in back, the director for knowing how to block it and knowing how to keep the background active without being distracting, and the playwright for understanding the balance she has to achieve to keep her story clear. I also credit the set designer for understanding the space, the sound designer for creating a vacuum for the actor out front to fill, and the lighting designer for keeping the actor in focus.

I know, there’s no way to write the reviews I want to read in the small publications who cover our productions. But what I hope is that WE, at least, don’t resort to the short hand of the reviewers, who have to sum up our shows in 250 words. When we see each others’ work, and when we talk to one another, let’s not fall into the easy trap of What’s Gonna Move and Who’s Selling Great or Who’s Selling Out. Ultimately, we’re the audience, and the production doesn’t get to come out and defend itself – their part of the dialogue was the show itself and our part is the discussion. But we don’t have to discuss our shows as thumbs up or down, or even in shorthand. We need to commit to a higher conversation… it’s the only way we’re gonna continue to achieve anything.