I wrote the following for members of the nytheatre.com Reviewing Squad in 2012, eight years after I came up with these guidelines. I think a lot of what is here is right on the money.
I’ve written about 3,000 reviews over the past 15 years, give or take; and I’ve edited and/or read at least 4,000 more. So while I’ll be the first to say that there is no one right way to write a review, I also think I know something about what goes into a well-crafted theater review. In this essay, I want to share some of my observations with you. The place to start, I think, is with the mission of the theater review. What are we writing these for, anyway? Some possible answers might include:
- To give potential audience members/ticket buyers information about a show, so they can decide if they want to see it.
- To give the artists feedback about their work.
- To provide a permanent, reasonably objective record or account of the work.
- To initiate a conversation about the work, and by extension about theater as an art form.
- To address themes raised in the work, possibly to make some larger point about society/the art/the world in general.
You can do some or all of these things in any given review, but for me, the main goal of a review is always to get people to see the show (or, if they can’t see it, to read the play or engage with the artists so the play can be done where they are). Often we will see shows that we don’t want to encourage people to see, and those are harder to write about. But when the art is worthy, or has worthy qualities, the review should always be intended to entice people to partake of it. This leads to several reviewing tenets that I have picked up over the years that I think are really important:
- The review must tantalize. Don’t give away the stuff that thrilled you–don’t reveal any of the show’s surprises or twists. You can offer a taste, but you must make sure that you’re giving the reader the chance to savor the entire wonderful experience that you got to have when you saw the show. This is often difficult, and a lot of reviewers (including me, sometimes) break the rule–we just can’t resist passing on the delightful detail or hilarious joke. But we must resist! Try to eliminate anything that seems to be telling the reader what specific things they should be expecting. Let the show do what it means to do to its audience on its own (amuse, convince, shock, whatever). Our job as reviewers is just to get them there.
- The review must be honest. Hyperbole has a purpose, but must be used sparingly. A show I just reviewed was in the style of Ionesco, so in the review that’s what I said; I didn’t say it was as good as The Chairs, just that it was in the same tradition.
- The review should be concise. Less really is more when you’re writing a review. Say enough to whet the reader’s appetite; explain the story enough to support what you need to say about the themes … and then stop writing. (The suggested word count really is useful here: a review that’s more than 1000 words long almost always needs to be cut!)
- The words you use should be clear, direct, and substantive. Nothing is more boring and more useless than a review that contains only empty adjectives like good, great, terrific, fine, excellent, etc. You will need to use these some of the time–absolutely!–but be sure that the meat of your argument is made with persuasive, concrete language.
Reading so many reviews over the years has also taught me some things not to do. For instance:
- A review is not a report card. We are not grading the artists, we are responding to them.
- A review is not a prescription. We are not teaching the artists how to do their job better, we are responding to the job they did. And similarly, we are not suggesting what the show ought to have been about, we are reacting to what it is (or seems to be) about.
- Most people aren’t famous. When I read a review of a star-studded show like the 2012 revival of The Best Man on Broadway, I am certainly curious about James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Angela Lansbury, et al, and their roles in the show. Most casts are not star-studded, though, and so we can’t expect that our readers will know or care about the people involved with them. If we want them to know and care, we have to give the readers good reason to do so. If we have nothing important to say about them, we really don’t need to mention them.
I haven’t yet talked about how to write a review of a show you don’t feel enthusiastic about. So let me deal with that now.
- Choose shows carefully, so that the chances of feeling enthusiastic are as high as possible. (By which I mean, NEVER ask to review a show you think you won’t like. It doesn’t do anybody any good.)
- Engage with each show that you review on its own terms. I see lots of shows that I don’t personally love or even enjoy but that nonetheless I am able to appreciate for what they are. Keep that in mind when you start writing the review. Nobody expects anyone to like everything, but it’s not the show/artists’ fault that something isn’t to your taste. Don’t punish work solely due to your personal preference.
- Weigh the available resources against the result. A FringeNYC show has little to no control over the lighting, sound system, and other technical elements; don’t focus on those when you’re reviewing at FringeNYC (unless dazzling results have been achieved) because it’s just not fair. On the other hand, a big-budget Broadway musical many years in development ought to have its act together, especially when it’s charging $100+ for tickets.
- Always err on the side of generosity. To bring back a saying I often share with nytheatre.com reviewers; no matter how much you hated the show you just saw, remember that the artists didn’t do it just to annoy you. In the indie theater world especially, making theater is tough work, and the people making it are doing it at substantial sacrifice, almost certainly because they have something they feel compelled to share with an audience. Honor that impulse always.