How to Review a Play
(and how to be reviewed)
By Jonathan Wallace
I recently had the privilege of watching my fifth full length play in a full production. I have been lucky enough to receive at least one rave review for every play, but have also had my share of mixed and negative reviews and a couple of outright pans. I feel I have learned a lot about the rules of reviewing plays, and that there is also a set of rules worth discussing about how to be reviewed. This essay is my attempt to set forth both proposed rule-books.
So you will know that the motivation of the following is not sour grapes, here are a few of the nicest things anyone ever said about my work:
The Shadow-Pier: “brilliant….It is not often that one sees a play that takes genuine aesthetic and structural risks while having something real and vital to say. The Shadow-Pier…is a masterpiece…” offoffonline.com, July 24, 2007
Shapeshifter: “The story is wonderfully human and expressed with much poetry so that [it] reminded me of a modern retelling of The Seagull….the play soared…” The Fab Marquee, March 2008
Pawnshop Accordions: “This play has a lot of potential, a terrific cast, and, most significantly, heart and humanity.” nytheatre.com, August 9, 2008
As famous playwrights have often observed in interviews, reviewers have tremendous power; in any era, there has usually been one man (always has been a man so far) writing for the New York Times with the power to kill a new play.
At my level
of theatre, off off Broadway in
Instead, the people who review our small and humble efforts have a different kind of power: to hurt us or crush our dreams; even to persuade us to give up our art. W.B. Yeats said (of a woman he loved and not of reviewers):
Had I the heavens’ embroidered
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”
What follows is NOT a plea for untruthful reviewing, and not even necessarily a plea for compassionate reviewing (though I think that’s a good value for a reviewer to bring). It is primarily a plea for non-negligent, careful reviewing.
We do not make any money producing our own plays. Mine cost me about three times what I make back from selling out a 40 seat theatre for 8 or 12 performances. Instead, we do it for love and the psychological necessity of producing art. I analogize myself to an aging bar band guitarist who secretly believes he plays as well as Eric Clapton but knows he will never have anything approaching Clapton’s career. My personal mantra is, “I will play any gig I can get”. My purpose in putting up plays is to watch them, and watch an audience as it watches them. The biggest reward I get from it is when people are clearly involved in the action, leaning forward, wide-eyed and still, and to hear some of them gasping at the reveal. But the experience of reading a review by someone who clearly GOT the play, who is not merely sharpening their skill at sarcastic one liners, is an important one too.
So here are some proposed rules for reviewers, some of which are obvious and some of which may not be.
Come with an open mind. A reviewer who walks in with preconceptions is not doing her job adequately. Should a food critic who hates ice cream be sent to review a new gourmet ice cream store? Should a reviewer who hates every opera Puccini ever wrote be sent to review one?
I do understand that reviewers have to see a ton of theatre which is not wonderful in quality. So burned out by bad experiences you can’t bring an open mind to the next play? Don’t be a reviewer any more.
Pay attention! Everybody I know, myself included, has received one review accusing a play of being a jumble or morass. Some plays are (Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall”?) I think, however, that in most cases “jumble” is a code word for “I, the reviewer, did not really listen to the play.” Anything can be persuasively described as a jumble; for example:
“Fairies, monsters, princes, drunken sailors, lovers, chess games, songs. What story is Mr. Shakespeare trying to tell? Every time he embarks on one story line, he flits to another. The play might be a finished work if the playwright would just make a choice among story lines and strands. Instead, "The Tempest" is a morass of undigested elements.”
Again, if you can’t bring a certain minimal attention to the play, you shouldn’t be a reviewer. Reviewing is a job, and involves doing some work, and not necessarily having the play presented on a platter.
Try to look past the limitations of the production. We all do our best, but at the “off off” level of reality, where nobody is getting paid and everybody has a full time job, plays may be somewhat under-rehearsed, sets may be skimpy, light and sound cues may be missed occasionally. To review this play as if the playwright and producer mis-spent a million dollar budget is unkind. If you are reviewing a play in the context of a festival such as Fringe or Midtown, be aware that the production has some additional limitations—the set must be put up in fifteen minutes and unloaded in the same period of time. Some reviewers make a big deal of the minimal nature of sets in productions where there is no other choice. My first full length play received only a single review I could quote on my resume: the reviewer thought it was a clunky production of a “unique and compelling” script. Years later, I am still grateful to this writer for being able to see through the production to the script.
Let the play’s aspirations be your yardstick. Many reviewers use a “Procrustean bed” approach, judging every play by the same standards. Shouldn’t it matter if the play’s aspirations are modest or ambitious? Farces should be judged based on whether they are funny enough, plays of social commentary should be reviewed based on whether the ideas are fresh, the delivery not didactic, etc. Certain reviewers seem to complain that more ambitious plays didn’t “entertain” them as much as a farce (or, conversely, that a farce didn’t challenge them as much as a Pinter play). The question of how close the production came to delivering what the script wanted to be is worthy of consideration in a review.
Be broad-minded as to genres and styles. Theatre
reviewing is for inexplicable reasons more primitive than music reviewing.
Critics who started out reviewing hip hop are deemed capable of reviewing a
country song and do so seriously and carefully. They may privately feel no
connection to country music but can still render judgments about the freshness
of the lyrics, the quality of the music and arrangements, etc. Theatre critics
seem more likely to rule out entire genres, like the critic who recently began
a review of my play by saying she generally detests “seedy underbelly of
Use adjectives! In producing my five plays, I have learned that reviews tend to be on a bell curve—there is one rave, usually one pan and often three or four reviews in between. One feature common to the middle section is that the reviewer goes on, sometimes for ten or more paragraphs, without telling me what they think of the play. You can get the impression from some of these reviews that the critic rather liked your play, yet has given you not a single “pull quote” you can use on your resume or marketing materials. Some of these reviews are not really reviews at all; they discuss the mechanics of the play or summarize the plot without ever saying if the writing was fresh or the production was engaging. In order to help their readership understand what they thought of the play, and to give the playwright something to go on, critics should use adjectives.
Don’t tell us how you would have written/produced//directed the play. This is closely related to the last point. The middle-of-the-pack reviewers often spend their ten paragraphs telling us how they would have executed the same theme. For example, a critic complained of a play of mine set in the dot-com world that it could have taken place against any background. Of course it could; it was a play about sibling rivalry. This critic should consider, if the theme interests him, writing his own dot-com play, and I will be happy to come and see it.
Don’t be nasty. I have reached a point in my own life as a playwright where I can read an honest bad review with a lot of resilience, and learn something from it too. But I still suffer from a malicious review. This is no different than the experience we have any time we discover there is someone in the environment whom we have never harmed, but who hates us and is looking to hurt us. It makes you doubt yourself, wonder if you are a bad person or have done something to deserve this treatment. Malicious reviewing makes a playwright doubt her own talent, or at least may break the link between the playwright and the particular play she worked on so hard with so much hope.
Anything which can be said derisively can be said gently as well. A reviewer said of one of my plays, that at ninety minutes, it was an hour too long. This is funny and clever, but the sub-text is that I wasted my time, his and everyone else’s. If he had written instead, “At times the action seemed to drag” or “The playwright would be well advised to consider making some cuts to the script” he would have given me something to go on. Instead, the message is, to go away, stop writing and never darken anyone’s doorway again.
It is of course, useless to advise people not to be in bad faith, as malicious people will not listen to such advice. In worst cases, some critics have agendas which have nothing to do with the actual play under review. A few years ago, a critic persuaded his employer, a web-based magazine which wouldn’t normally review off off Broadway theatre, to allow him to review some plays in a summer festival. He panned all of them in excruciatingly nasty terms. Later we heard he had been in the same festival himself the year before—so he if anybody, should have understood the limitations on production values, and also the hopes and dreams which playwrights and everybody else involved bring to summer festivals. In this case, it was probable this individual had an axe to grind with the festival itself, and took it out on the plays.
That raises an interesting question, whether playwrights should be reviewers. On the one hand, who is better equipped to understand the dynamics of a play, what works and what doesn’t? On the other, there is a built in conflict: every playwright-reviewer is essentially reviewing his own competition. His reviews may also please, or antagonize, the very theatres and companies he himself hopes to do business with later. Also, as the playwright moves through the theatre world, there is a queasy ambiguity: we never know how to take him; is he in the room as a playwright or critic? My own commitment is that I will never review small theatre.
Critics would be well-advised to remember the Golden Rule and to treat others as they would wish to be treated. People who write slashing, nasty, derisive reviews would hate to be on the receiving end of the violence they are inflicting. There are some reviewers out there who seem to have the cowardly psychology of schoolyard bullies.
Be honest. I am including this one, which is fairly obvious, as a corrective to some of the other points I raised. This essay is not a plea for critics to lie to playwrights or give them false ideas as to their own talent or prospects. Again, there is a helpful, non-derisive way to tell the truth.
Be compassionate. I said at the outset that compassion is not necessarily a factor in good or honest reviewing. However, I believe that every human enterprise is best performed with an element of compassion.
Think about not reviewing the play. I know this is a quixotic suggestion; any reviewer assigned by a publication to review something is potentially losing income, or even his job, if he does not turn in a review. However, some of the nastiest things that get said about us are by bloggers, self appointed reviewers who are not assigned or paid by anyone else. There may be circumstances in which the best decision is to say nothing at all. You don’t really have a mission from God to protect the world against the eight performances of an off off Broadway play you didn’t like. In the book reviewing world, a bad first novel by an unknown author is unlikely to get a review at all, let alone a ten paragraph pan.
* * *
....and, How to Be Reviewed
Just as there is some art in reviewing plays, there is an art of being reviewed.
Don’t respond to reviewers. In many playwriting classes, there is a rule that the playwright must sit silent while her work is being critiqued. This is a rule which makes tremendous sense. It is a basic human impulse to defend your work, yet in classes which permit it, we tend to have hours of conversation which are analogous to the following:
A: “I don’t like mint chip ice cream.”
B: “How can you not like mint chip? It’s the best ice cream there is.”
In defending our plays against criticism, we also tend to forget that the author’s intentions are basically irrelevant to a literary work, which must be judged as if the author was nonexistent or dead. Any audience member, critic or not, establishes a relationship with a play which takes shape during the performance and (if we have done our job well) continues afterwards based on the bond formed while watching the play. The playwright is not there to fill in any blanks or gaps or clear up any ambiguities. So responses to criticism which begin, “What I intended…” or “what the play is really about…” are useless. If the play did not communicate your intentions, there is no way to fill the gap (except rewriting the play before the next production).
Every once in a while, the Times Book Review used to publish an angry letter from an author responding to a review. These letters universally seemed embarrassing and pathetic, along the lines of “my book was really good mint chip ice cream”. Life is full of situations in which trying to explain just makes things worse, and no-one will listen. Henry Ford said: “Never complain, never explain.”
So my first proposed rule of being reviewed is: Suck up anything anybody says, in silence. I find it very useful to remember Joyce’s words about “silence, cunning and exile”, which are quoted at the end of this essay.
Not every review is meaningful. It is good to acquire a critical faculty when it comes to reading reviews—review the critics, in other words. Reviewing is not an exact science. If you built a car, there would be little or no ambiguity about how many miles it gets to the gallon. There is a lot of built in confusion and disagreement about whether your play is any good or not. Some people love mint chip ice cream, some do not. If a reviewer clearly did not get the play, or declares at the outset of the review that she does not favor the particular genre, I typically discount the review. On the other hand, if a critic clearly understood what my play was about and what it aspired to be, I take extremely seriously anything negative the reviewer said about pacing, clarity, execution, etc. I suggest that the first question you ask about any review is whether the reviewer “got” the play. (If enough reviewers failed to get the play, however, your message may be obscurely delivered.)
On the other hand, a number of reviews saying the same thing may be statistically meaningful. One play of mine got one rave, and five or six negative reviews which mainly seemed to find the play and the production static and constricting. Under the circumstances, though most of these reviewers (most of them self-appointed bloggers) did not seem to take the trouble to understand what my play was about, the fact that they all had the same problem with the play tells me something important. The fact they didn’t get the play also made me ask whether it was unclear in its theme. If they all had different, unrelated issues, I wouldn’t regard them as seriously.
Decide whom you are writing for. This follows closely from the last two points. The play mentioned above (one rave, mainly negative reviews from everyone else) was my most ambitious script, and deliberately had a somewhat circular, nontraditional structure. I had to face the question of whether I am writing for everyone (in which case I failed) or whether I am happy if one person out of ten understands my difficult, complicated play.
Listen carefully to what the audience tells you, especially when they are silent. Critics are not the be-all and end-all. Many famous, successful playwrights continue to suffer inordinately from what they regard as bad faith or clueless reviews, and some of them have raised the point in interviews that reviewers should mention, as a counterpoint to their own negative opinions, what the audience thought. If a reviewer notices that an audience is rapt, wide-eyed, laughing and otherwise involved in a play, shouldn’t she say in her review: “I hated it but the audience seemed to love it”? This is enough of a stretch that I didn’t add it to the proposed rules for reviewers above. It does however emphasize that the audience may be telling you something very different from the critics, and that you should listen to them.
Observing the audience’s body language during a play may tell you more than what they say to you when it is over. Friends and family and even strangers may be reluctant to tell you anything negative, of course. (This is why it is good to have a dramaturg who will always tell you the truth—but not necessarily more than one or you may get confused by contradictory input. Machiavelli said a prince should have only one advisor.)
In the second act of one of my plays, a character who had been silent up till then uttered the following non sequitur: “Your wife and my husband had a thing.” The gasp we heard from the audience every night at this moment will stay with me the rest of my life.
Consider why you want reviews. One of the most prestigious and exclusive
summer festivals in
Trust your talent. Some time ago, after fifty plus years on earth, I got to the point where I finally believe myself to be a very talented writer. (Of course, the two people who wrote the worst pans I ever got would probably claim I am self-deluded to the point of being psychotic.)
If you have faith in yourself, the worst things critics can say become vastly less important, though they still hurt.
After five produced plays, I feel I have a holistic activity that is central to my life, of writing, producing and watching my plays, where the thoughts of critics, though still important, are off to one side and not crucial to the enterprise.
Here are two quotations which have given me a lot of comfort in dealing with malicious reviews.
NOW all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.
W.B. Yeats, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”
“I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”
James Joyce, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”