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How to write about theatre performances

It’s the theatre season in my town of Ashland, Oregon, and I’m keeping up with the play reviews and talking with reviewers about what makes a good review. Reviewing a play is different than reviewing a book or even a film. For those of you whom might find yourselves called on to write a review, here are some tips.

Minimize the summary— For book reviews, summary can be useful, even necessary. In a play, not so much. Unless it is a premiere, the play’s plot is likely to be well-known and many will have seen it before in other theaters. So extensive summary is usually redundant.
Identify the vision—Instead of telling what happens, focus on the director’s vision of the performance. How does the director give the work a new relevance or cause us to think about the work in fresh ways? How does the piece reach out to new audiences or challenge old ones? Or both.

Research the production—If the company has performed the play before, readers may be interested in how this version differs from previous ones. If a work is new, the research might touch on how it came to be written.

Take good notes while you watch—It’s hard to write in the dark, but don’t rely on your memory for details. You want to be an active play-watcher, noting key lines, details of performance, set, and costuming, and even your impressions that a particular actor is good at being smarmy or seems waif-like. Does something jump out at you that will be the opening hook for your review?

Talk to the audience—At the intermission or after the performance, talk with members of the audience. See if their impressions of the play match yours. Did seniors appreciate the music? Were younger people engaged in the story? Are there some audience members who have special knowledge of the theme that you can tap for a comment?

Draft it asap—The longer you wait , the harder it is to get started, so write a quick rough draft right after the show, even if it is late at night. You can come back to it after a good night’s sleep and see if it still holds up.

Ask follow-up questions—Sometimes you still have questions after you’ve looked over your notes and drafted your review. If you do, contact the director or theatre’s press officer. They can often provide a definitive answer to lingering questions about artistic choices or pesky details.

Put it all together—As you write it all up in a final draft, take into account the whole experience—the play itself and its adaptation, the set, lighting and sound design, and the acting and casting. Did everything work together? How do the parts relate to the whole? Be honest but tactful, acknowledge the work, and remember by the end of the run, the performance will have evolved.

Remember, it’s not about you—Readers want to learn about the play and whether it is worth seeing, so connect your recommendation to your analysis. And if you don’t think the play is all that great, resist the temptation for clever snarkiness. That’s all people will remember about the review and many readers won’t think it’s that clever. Honor the effort even if it falls short.

Proofread—Autocorrect is not your friend, so it pays to double-check the spelling of the names of the cast, crew, and anyone you’ve quoted, and to fact-check the historical details you may have mentioned.

Own the review—Occasionally you will get some feedback—or pushback—about your analysis or opinion. Acknowledge the point if it is a valid one, and don’t feel too bad if people sometimes disagree with you. After all, that’s show business.

Featured image: “Stage in the theater” by Paulius Malinovskis. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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