Cricket's Notebook "Saturday, 12 November, 2005 12:34 p m: <BR> "The Art of Writing [And READING] Reviews"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


These are notes for a talk given at the NEW ENGLAND THEATRE CONFERENCE on 12 November, 2005

"The Art of Writing

Before I start, I have a word of caution:

If you're here expecting that I can teach you anything about CRITICIZING Theatre, you may as well leave now. If you'd like to know more about that you'll have to go ask a real critic, like G. L. Horton or Will Stackman. I am not, I have never been a Critic: I don't know enough about theater to be a critic: I just review plays.

In any case, I do know the difference between the two, and I'll try to give you some pointers on how I do what I do.

My first advice is that you learn how to blink.
When your eyes fill with tears, if you blink them away you can still see the stage --- and very often a play's intention is to bring enough tears to an audience's eyes to make seeing it very hard. So learn to blink.
Because if you're going to review it, you'll have to see it --- but you'll also have to Feel it. Your objective is similar to the one Ernest Hemingway had in mind: to explain what it was in the experience that gave you the emotion.
Learn to blink.

And then, if you haven't already, learn to laugh.
That's another thing plays try to make you do, and performers expect, or at least hope for, laughter to let them know they're doing it right. I don't mean laugh emptily, but laugh when you see something is funny --- respond, naturally but honestly, don't sit there like an iceberg. Don't let the performers think you're going to come backstage later to say "You were so funny I could hardly keep from smiling!"
Actors tell me they know I'm in the audience because my laugh is, well, loud. I had a great speech teacher in high-school named Mary N. Small. She taught me to speak using my diaphragm, so even now I can say this without any effort at all. When I laugh, people hear me!
Now, I don't suggest you learn how to be loud at it, but I do recommend you let yourself respond to what's happening in the play you're seeing.

Making an audience respond is what theater is for, after all.

My third suggestion is that, if you can, break yourself of the habit of taking notes while the play is going on. Break yourself of the habit of thinking about what you might write before you actually have something to write about. Don't let making notes distract you from the show. Your first duty is to experience the show; writing a review about it ought to be emotion reflected upon in tranquility.
I took notes when I started, but my handwriting is so bad, even in the light, that whatever I wrote in the dark was unreadable, so I broke the habit pretty quickly.
I think people take notes merely to alert The Writer inside their minds that they are actually working, not just enjoying the play. Some need that reminder.

When I see a play, I ask for Two programs --- one to scribble on when I type up the actors' names, the other I save so I can look up names when nominating for the IRNE Awards. But asking for the second program is My signal to myself, as I enter the theatre, that I came for a specific purpose, that won't be completed until the review is written. What the second program says to me is: I'm working tonight.

After you experience the play comes curtain-calls, and applause.
Participate in that applause.
Centuries ago, when Broadway shows still came through Boston, someone would occasionally call me asking "Want to see a play?" That was because the audience was thin and they were giving out comps. And the unspoken deal was this: see the show for free, but stay till the end, and applaud the actors. You see, the actors didn't make up the words they say and sometimes they deliver those words in ways not they but the director wants. Still, they are the only Human part of the play, and they deserve to be thanked for the work they did --- regardless of whether you liked the result or not. Sometimes, they don't like the result either. At a matinee in London once, I watched a whole cast of Equity actors bow as though apologizing to the nearly empty house for the play they had just done. But they had done the work, and I applauded them.

And I'm going to tell you How to applaud.
In a New York TIMES article I once read that there are two ways to clap: flat-palm and curved-palm. Flat-palm people bring their hands together sideways, like kids playing patticake. I'm a curved-palm advocate. What I do is make a little shallow cup with my left hand, and slap the fingers of my right hand into it. It makes more noise that way. And that tells the actors I thank them for what they've done.
Theater, after all, is a dialogue between the play onstage, and the audience out front. Tears, laughter, applause, and later your review are ways of holding up your end of that conversation. I get free tickets, so I applaud.

And so I suppose I should say something about doin' the writin', right? Well, writing is a very personal thing, and you will really do it Your Way. For some people who send me reviews, I have sometimes asked whether they would like me to do a little of what I call "Therapeutic Editing" --- pointing out in the new review things I thought might be done differently. The first one that said yes he was eager to see my comments, never sent me another review. Another said thank you very much and then proceeded to ignore every word I'd said. So my advice about writing will be sparse, and accompanied by generous grains of salt.

I will say this: a review is a succinct Report about what happened on stage. If it doesn't do that, it's really something else. As they used to say in The New Yorker: "Just give the news, please."

With that in mind, consider who your reader really is. Reviews are written to inform people, who happen to like theater, about What Is There. And since everyone has different tastes and different theatrical backgrounds, it would be best to stick to facts you can prove, and let your readers decided, each for himself, what they think about such things --- instead of trying to impose your own tastes and ideas on them. "Just give the news please."

Another thing: reviews are read by people who have not already seen the play themselves, and they are more interested in what the show looks like than what you thought about it. Keep yourself out of the way so they can see the show.

And don't worry so much about Your Opinions. No one can be totally objective; what you Think about a show will show up in what you decide to talk about because you can never leave youself out of what you write. Thus, it's much better to try to be objective than to try to be --- critical. "Just give the news please."

If your reader didn't see the play, then there are some words you should think about.
First, don't say "I" and don't ever say "I think". Your by-line says that already. You say that when you sign the review. No sense repeating yourself, is there?
Don't say "you". Let the reader get the facts as you see them; and getting that "you" out of your vocabulary will help prevent you from arguing your opinions when you have factual fish to fry.
Don't say "we" --- "We" weren't there, You were and the reader wasn't.
Actually, whenever reviewers say "we" as in "And then we see..." it's a thinly disguised attempt at making the reader agree about something. Do them the courtesy of keeping your opinions to yourself.
Besides, the "we" all too often becomes a Royal "we" suggesting that the reviewer thinks himself an unassailable authority.
And saying "One sees" is just a way of weaseling your way back to a "we" a little more pretentiously.

A review should find most of its facts in the play on the stage, and things like previous plays or performances by these same people may be interesting, but they do take up space that could be better used. Such things should be mentioned if they are unavoidably relevant, but they're just distractions otherwise.
In that regard, beware The Press Packet!
When I see a play, I think of myself as another mere member of the audience, and no one sitting with me is privy to all the extraneous stuff the p/r people handed me to flatter me into writing a glowingly positive review. So I usually throw away the press packet unread.
That way, I will get the story from the stage --- and if I get it wrong, I can insist that it was the Cast's fault, not mine. They, after all, are showing the story to a whole naive audience none of whom have press-packets to help them. Why should I be any different?

There's an interesting quirk lurking in the cast-lists of a lot of plays: characters are named, but their functions aren't. That means your review will often contain a sentence like this:
"Hutton Mulroney, Carol's father (played by Larry Pine), wants her to marry Ken Parker (played by Reuben Jackson), the man he has picked as vice-president of his firm, even though Carol is still married to Lesley (played by Tim Ransom)."
Why are their Names so important? Can't I say
"Her father(parenthesis Larry Pine) wants her to marry the man he has picked as vice-president of his firm (paren Reuben Jackson) even though she still has a husband (Tim Ransom)"?
For the purposes of plot-summary, the character's Function is much more important than the name. And think what a nightmare it is sorting out all the work of specific soloists in "A Chorus Line" when all you're given in the program are twenty First Names!
I never said reviewing would be easy, did I?

One more word about words: be careful of the word "the"!
As I said, your reader knows only what you tell him about the show. So it's a good idea to include a summary of the plot, however sketchy, so the interrelationships between characters will make sense. So, who is what, and which person does something, should be clear.
Whenever I find a sentence in the middle of the plot beginning "And then the policeman..." I stop even before I get to the verb and ask "WHAT Policeman? Have I heard of a policeman before?" and there I go scurrying back up the column looking for the First reference to that policeman I've just met. And if he's not there, I immediately frown and growl "Ah, the reviewer means 'A' policeman, not 'The' policeman!"
Little words are sometimes more important than big ones.

But that's the general rule: Be clear.
It's a good idea to read over a review you've written, as though you were someone who has not seen the show, and then re-write or re-word whatever can be clearer.

Maybe a word about form:
If you really need a general, introductory paragraph, fine. But right near the top, a review should contain what I think of as the Lead Sentence: a brief statement of the Most Important Thing about the show you just saw. That could be the set, or a twist of plot, or a character, or an actor, or the way the characters look at their world. Then the whole rest of the review will explain why you decided whatever's in that lead sentence was so important. Along the way you'll have to say, briefly, what happens in the story or why one actor --- or the entire ensemble --- is unique. How that explanation unfolds is really up for grabs, since each reviewer is unique, and so is each play.

I tried to teach a class in reviewing plays once. The class lasted eight weeks, and at the end of the sixth I realized I had told the class everything I had to say! So I won't keep you for five more weeks.

But I will say this: whatever you want to write about plays, it's a good idea to start by learning how to write straight, no-bullshit reviews of what you see --- almost as a craft. I learned that craft from a very gifted editor named Joe Hanlon, and I still treasure conversations in which we'd argue for half an hour over the wording of a single sentence. His point was that he himself hadn't seen the show, so everything I wrote had to be clear to him.

After a while I absorbed his outlook, but then my reviews every week seemed to be the same stencil fitted over a new show. Until one night, I saw something I hadn't before. A new company called THE IMAGE THEATRE did first some one-acts, and then a short play. And what I saw was that each person who came onto the stage did so as though coming from a complete real world outside, and everyone listened to whatever anyone said, and responded from the depths of a complete characterization. And, for the first time, my reviews of those shows had a Subject, an aspect of the production that wasn't cut and dried. I had outgrown my stencil. And the craft of reviewing became, that week, an Art.

In my terms, reviews are factual reports about what happened on stage last night. Later, if more thinking about it is in order, a more reflective critique could talk about the playwright's or performers' past work, or aspects of life outside the theatre or of the history of theater that this particular play brings up. I think of the Review as the next-day report, and the longer, wider, critical one as a Sunday piece.
Basic to both, is the plain, no frills, no bullshit Review.

And now that you know all I do about that Art, I invite you all to write reviews of your own --- and to send them to The Theater Mirror. Even if it's just a paragraph or two, Your take on what you see will help me and the readers understand what you saw. Give us the news, and all of us will be the richer for your reports.

Okay, I've talked about how to write them, now I will say a word or two about how to read them:
First, trust yourself. Maybe the writer has an axe to grind, a point of view, an argument, an opinion. Fine, but that's the Writer's opinion, and not Yours. Be prepared to say "The hell you say" when reading anyone's review. Go into it with a sharp machete and cut through all the opinion to the bare facts --- and let Them tell you what You think.
And, regardless of the positive or the negative Opinions in what you've read, decide For Yourself whether you want to see the show.
And the clearer the reviewer is, the easier it will be for you to make that decision.

I hope the only people I have offended here are writers who are so in love with their own opinions they think writing Mere Reviews beneath them. It is true that most people who are paid to review plays think they are really critics. A couple of them actually are, but I say again to the rest of them:
I'll make up my own mind thank you. "Just Give The News Please."

Thank you all for listening.
And if you'd like to stay and talk about anything I've said, please do.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide