How to be a critic
You’ve seen plays, right? You’ve thought stuff about them. Now you want to share your stuff with the world. On behalf of the world – thank you.
However, your timing is not great. I hope you don’t want to be a professional critic. If so, you might want to look at a back-up career, like tape deck repair or sextant manufacturing.
Or perhaps you want to be a freelancer – one of the millions of online blogtastic amateurs who are driving the professionals out of business. Good for you! But you face the same dilemma plaguing the pros.
What is this dilemma? Let’s take a quick look at the history of theater in the Western World:
From the moment Thespis cast off his dithyrambic shackles, the progression of the theatrical arts has been shaped by revolution. An iconoclastic explosion sends a generation of artists in hitherto unimagined directions. Then, for a while, they drift, until the next creative Kaboom.
Theater, being a collaborative art, has traditionally lagged twenty to eighty years behind our brethren in the visual arts, poetry, and music. The Renaissance begins with Giotto, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo and eventually finds expression through Shakespeare. Neoclassicism starts with David and works its way to Racine. Romanticism catches fire with Goya and Delacroix, Beethoven, Coleridge and Byron, then finds Wagner a few decades later. The same pattern holds true for Realism, Expressionism, Surrealism, etc.
When we theater folk finally catch on, most often the flame has been carried by playwrights; sometimes, directors; occasionally, actors; and once or twice by critics. Critics with a disgust for what the theater had become and a clear view of what it could be. They armed themselves with ink and newsprint and savaged the old/stale/deadly and lionized the new/fresh/living.
Today, as we search for the next theatrical renaissance, we look to contemporary painters, sculptors, poets, and serious musicians and ask them "'’Sup?" The answer seems to be a big fat – "Not much." Some look at this dearth of energy and ideas and conclude that art is dead. . . At which point, their editors at MinnesotaPlaylist.com intervene and remind them that this is meant to be a humorous article and tell them to lighten up and get on with it. So they do.
The point, getting back to the dilemma mentioned above, is how do you craft a compelling review when you don't have a compelling point of view?
I’ve spent countless minutes studying the work of our Twin Cities professional critics, and I’ve come up with a few guidelines:
1. Clarity is not your friend. “This play is boring,” may be true, but it doesn’t get you very far. Your goal is not to make a point, but to get the reader to think – specifically, “This critic seems to be saying something, but I’m not sure what it is.” This creates tension in your writing. Try something like “The playwright picks her way delicately through the play’s milieu, teasing out a cantata of poetic banality.” Much better, right? Perfectly unclear, yes? Find yourself a good online thesaurus and remember: there’s no noun that isn’t improved with an adjective, no verb that isn’t improved with an adverb.
2. Foreign or foreign-sounding words are awesome.Stock up on ones like mélange, fin de siècle and spatula. Used properly, these will add to your review’s opacity and reassure your readers that you are very intelligent.
3. Indeed, the more you can work yourself into the review, the better. The more the readers will like and trust you. Add personal anecdotes. Sprinkle in casual references to Thespis and Goya, or, if you prefer, TV shows, pop songs, movies, blogs, etc., so the reader knows that you do things besides go to plays. You’re just like they are! Except smarter.
4. Summarize the story. Since there’s no better way to bump your word count without having to say anything, a summary can take up the bulk of your review. Be sure to include any important plot twists and the play’s ending. This may spoil the play for a few people, but it never hurts to remind your readers that you watched the whole thing.
5. List some people. There are a number of persons attached to each production that your readers don’t care much about, but listing them adds to your aura of theatrical insider. Feel free to name the director (picks out the play), the sound designer (records the announcement at the beginning of the play telling people to turn off their cell phones), and the dramaturg (helps the actors with accents and things like that).
A final warning:
Pay no attention to the audience. Sure, a play is a communal experience, but audiences are notoriously biased. They come wanting the play to be good. You can’t let this influence your judgment. However, being open to the performance but cutting yourself off from the audience is not easy. It takes practice. Do you like food? Eat some of your favorite meals with your nose plugged. This will train the mind.
Avoid clarity. Use foreign words. Remind the reader that you’re there. Summarize the story. List people. Follow these simple guidelines, and you’ll be writing crackerjack reviews in no time. (And if you find yourself reviewing a play that I'm in, remember that I respect you. And like you. Heck, I love you!)
See you in the lobby.❦