Evolving a Philosophy of Reviewing

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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!)
  3. 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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

nytheatre.com Reviewing Squad Guidelines (2004 Edition)

I’m going to be talking about the evolution of our reviewing squad on nytheatre.com for the next several posts. To set the stage, I want to share some documents that have never before been made public. Below are the guidelines we provided to our reviewers for the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. With only a few modifications, these were the same guidelines we used through 2014. I’ve bold-faced the statement that most reviewers told me was their favorite; it was the signpost for our squad for more than a decade.

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Please DO:

– Be fair, open-minded, and objective when you’re seeing the show and when you’re writing your review

– Try to leave behind and/or ignore any prejudices or predispositions you have about the show or the company

– Write a review that is your honest response to the show: that’s all anyone can ask of you

– Think about the experience in the room and how it made you feel and what it made you think about

– Be clear: use vivid examples and simple descriptive language

– Be quick:  FringeNYC only lasts 17 days (for example); the faster we post the review, the more impact that review will have on the production, on the audience, and for the reviewer

– Get excited: if you love the show, let us know it in your review

– Give credit where it’s due:  Mention names, and not just of cast members but the behind-the-scenes folks as well.  Be sure to double check spelling of all names!

– Be respectful: if you hate the show, remember that the artists involved have gone to a great deal of trouble to make it happen—they didn’t put it up just to annoy you

– Remember that your objectives as a reviewer for nytheatre.com are to: (a) provide constructive, honest, timely feedback to the artists; (b) provide an interesting “read” for audience members that gives them an idea about what the show is like and helps them decide if they are interested in seeing the show themselves

– Let Martin know about something that’s extremely worthwhile. I’m always on the lookout for new plays for our annual anthologies and I’ll check a show out if you tell me about it.

Please DO NOT:

– Be mean-spirited. If you are, I will delete the offending passage(s) or even not publish the review

– Be egotistical: The review is about the show, not about you. Don’t use this as an opportunity to show the world how smart or knowledgeable you are, or how you would have done something differently.

– Compare the show to another production you once saw, unless it’s absolutely essential to the point you’re making. This goes for performances, designs, etc.

– Give away the ending or other surprises. The point is to entice the reader to see the show for himself/herself.

– Worry about writing a literary masterpiece. All we’re looking for is a clear, concise, honest reaction to the production.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO HAVE A GOOD TIME WHILE YOU’RE IN THE THEATRE AND AT YOUR COMPUTER KEYBOARD!

How To Go To the Theatre: Thoughts and Ideas by Michael Criscuolo

Here’s a piece from the old nytheatre.com website, circa 2007, written by then-assistant editor Michael Criscuolo. I don’t know that I agreed 100% with all of this even then, but we decided to include it on the site as a potential aide to our readers. Very interested in what folks think about it today!

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Etiquette

Rules of proper conduct and etiquette have been developed over the years by theatre professionals and regular theatregoers. These rules are commonly observed and new theatregoers are expected to follow them.

Please arrive at the theatre early. Give yourself plenty of time to use the restroom and find your seat without rushing. Getting to the theatre on time is of crucial importance to having an enjoyable theatregoing experience. Having to slide past people to reach your seats once the show has started can be highly disruptive to both the audience and the actors. For this reason many theatres will not seat latecomers until there is a reasonable break in the action, which sometimes is not until intermission.

Check your program before the show. Sometimes there will be an insert stating that an actor’s understudy will be going on in his/her place. There may also be program notes that provide helpful background information about the show you are seeing.

Photographic and video recording of every kind is prohibited during a performance. Camera flashes are a dangerous distraction to the actors onstage—they can break their concentration and momentarily impair their vision—while camera phones, digital cameras, and camcorders can be a supreme annoyance to other audience members. Plus, AEA rules stipulate that any unauthorized videotaping is against the law. Anyone who violates those rules may be removed from the theatre (in the best case scenario), or, perhaps, have their recording equipment confiscated (in the absolute worst case scenario).

There is no outside food or drink allowed in the theatre. Concessions are usually available at the theatre before the show or at intermission for those who would like some. As a rule, eating during a performance is heavily frowned upon and discouraged: rustling food wrappers, crunchy candy, and beverages slurped through a straw can also be very distracting to the actors and to those around you. In case of illness, unwrap your cough drops or other such items before the show starts. (But, if you are sick, then you really shouldn’t be out, should you?)

If you’re seeing a revival of your favorite musical, please don’t sing along. Yes, it’s fun to experience those songs in person, but keep in mind that the other audience members paid to hear the actors sing those songs, not you. If you want to sing along with the show, please wait until you get home.

Please turn off your cell phone or beeper before the show begins. If it rings during a performance, it can be especially distracting (and irritating) to both the cast and the audience. If you need to keep it on in case of emergency, switch it to “silent” or “vibrate.” That way you can still monitor any incoming calls without disturbing anyone. Under no circumstances should any phone calls be answered during a performance. There is no better way to start an audience uprising. If you need to take or make a call, it’s best to remove yourself to the lobby in order to do so. Cell phone etiquette is of utmost importance to today’s theatregoers and breaches of it are not tolerated.

If you are not enjoying the show, you are under no obligation to stay. Feel free to leave quietly during an acceptable break in the action, like a scene change, when it will cause the least interruption. Please do not stay and complain to those sitting around you. Remember: just because you aren’t enjoying the show doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Theatre is subjective.

Children

Bringing children to the theatre can be one of the most exciting moments of their young lives. Children love getting caught up in and entranced by the magic of theatre. Just as there are commonly observed rules of conduct for adult theatergoers, there are similar rules for children coming to the theatre.

Get your child involved right off the bat. Let them help you pick which show you all go see. Allowing them to put their two cents in will increase their interest level immediately. Make sure it’s a show that you’re interested in seeing, too, as your enthusiasm will be contagious.

Check and make sure that the show is appropriate for your child. If you’re not sure, call the theatre and ask: the staff will be more than glad to help you. This is a purely subjective decision, since every child is different. Just make sure to match your child with subject matter you know they can handle. (FYI: just because there’s a child actor in the show doesn’t mean that the show is for children.)

Talk to your child beforehand about being a good audience member. Acquaint them with the Rules of Theatregoing Etiquette. And remember: YOU set the example for them.

When the play is over, talk with your child about it. Find out what they liked and didn’t like. Encourage them to ask questions. The more they talk, the more it’ll help you figure out what kind of shows to take them to in the future.

Most important: have fun!

Attire

Knowing what to wear to a show can be stressful and confusing. New York’s theatre dress code runs the gamut from formal to extremely casual. The key to figuring it out is knowing what kind of show you’re seeing.

First of all: people still dress up for Broadway shows. It’s not uncommon to see men in a jacket and tie and women in fancy dresses. However, neither is necessary any longer. Business casual is an equally acceptable form of dress for Broadway shows now. Even jeans and sneakers have become acceptable, especially at matinees!

The same dress code applies to many Off-Broadway shows as well. However, the dress code Off-Broadway is also more casual than it is on Broadway. Casual wear is more acceptable Off-Broadway because the shows and the venues are more casual.

The Off-Off-Broadway dress code is even looser: anything goes, dress-wise. Sometimes, the lack of formality Off-Off-Broadway almost demands t-shirts and jeans—both of which are seen frequently adorning its patrons. But, formal wear is still more than acceptable Off-Off-Broadway: people often come to the theatre straight from work or dinner or some other engagement.

One thing that all New York theatres have in common, despite their classification, is a proliferation of cramped seating. Many venues have a stingy amount of leg room or walk space between rows of seats, making large coats, big bags, and packages difficult to handle.

 

Documenting MDD

Rob Reese reminded me of an interview I did with Micheline Auger on her website Theaterspeak in 2013.

Check it out.

It is, if I may say so myself, really good. I tell an even better version of the nytheatre creation story than the one I put up here. I talk a lot about how I learned about theater during my formative years (which I expanded on somewhat here). There’s some great stuff about how Kirk Bromley’s play Smoke the New Cigarette changed my approach to reviewing. (“What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in Smoke the New Cigarette is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is.”)

The interview also includes a succinct narrative of the history of NYTE and its various programs and accomplishments. And it features some very concise words of wisdom that I am still proud of (this is what Rob quoted in his Facebook post today):

Do the work you care about. Do your work: don’t write Facebook posts when you’re disturbed about something happening in the world; make a play instead.

This is probably even more relevant now than it was 4 years ago.

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Looking back at this interview prompted me to seek other interviews I have given online over the years:

  • Jody Christopherson’s The Life and Death of Nytheatre.com: An Interview With Martin Denton (Huffington Post, Oct 2013) – my favorite quote is this: “I look back over these 17 years and recognize all the astonishing things that I have done and that have happened to me as a result of founding and running nytheatre.com — from emceeing the Opening Ceremonies at FringeNYC more times than anyone else, to being a character in a play that Gus Schulenburg wrote for Nosedive’s gala a couple of years ago, to just actually knowing all the remarkable, talented artists I have come to know since 1996. Not to mention that one podcast when there were two accordionists in my living room.”
  • Doug Strassler interviewed me for the NYITA Blog (Oct 2013) – Doug talked to me about the initial conversion of nytheatre.com into an archive-only site and the rise of Indie Theater Now.
  • Loren Noveck’s The Great Play Download (The Brooklyn Rail, Dec 2011) – Loren talked to lots of associates and colleagues as well as myself in crafting this piece about the genesis of Indie Theater Now.
  • Zack Calhoon featured me in the People You Should Know series on his long-running theater blog (Visible Soul, Feb 2011) – Zack asked, among other things, about the genesis of our publishing program for this piece.
  • Tim Cusack’s Not the Same Old (Stage Directions, March 2010) – on the 10th anniversary of the Plays and Playwrights anthology series.
  • Christina Hamlett interviewed me for her Inklings series (Independent Publisher, January 2005) – favorite quote: “Right this minute [sometime late in 2004] there are about 188 current productions listed on nytheatre.com, plus more than 160 coming attractions. Time Out-New York, which is known for its comprehensive listings, has about 140 this week. In September 2004, we reviewed 51 productions on nytheatre.com; in contrast, Time Out-New York and the Times reviewed about 35 apiece.”

Thanks to Chris Harcum’s Martin Denton, Martin Denton, I’m being interviewed again lately: we did a piece that we hope will soon be in The Brooklyn Rail, and TDF Stages is calling on Wednesday. So the documenting continues…

 

 

The nytheatre.com Creation Story

[I’ve told this story dozens of times to a variety of audiences over the years. Here’s a good succinct version from a 2004 interview conducted by Christina Hamlett.]

I started nytheatre.com as a hobby, never imagining it would blossom into the full-time endeavor that it has become.

In 1996, I was working in a senior management position at Marriott Hotels, Inc., and I decided to take an Internet class to learn about this new technology and how it might apply to my work. After I took the class, I decided to try and create my own website, and so I built, for fun, something that I called “Martin’s Guide to New York Theatre.”

In those days—not so long ago, but seemingly eons in Internet time—it was easy for a new website to get noticed by people, and my site about New York theatre caught on. Within a year, it had morphed into nytheatre.com and become a valuable resource for people interested in finding out about the theatre scene in New York City. Eventually, I decided to leave my job at Marriott and pursue the theatrical part of my life full-time. We created The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., which is a nonprofit corporation whose primary activity is to support and promote theatre.