“Good Bad Reviews and Bad Bad Reviews”: Queen’s Students on Theatre Criticism

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When it comes to theatre criticism, there are dozens of different opinions about its pros and cons. Of course readers have their valued takes but if there’s ever a disconnect that draws a line, it’s usually between the folks writing and publishing a review, and the folks involved in the production. Recently, the Kingston Theatre Alliance (KTA) received an email about a review and subsequent editor’s article, both written by the Queen’s Journal, about the 2024 DAN Studio Series (DSS). The producers of DSS, Sabrina Marques and Kennedy Montanaro, reached out to share with us their opinion about the Journal’s negative review that seemed to draw not just a line, but one bolded and traced over in dark ink. They described how important it is to critique in ways that foster growth and evolution, specifically when it comes to students, and they believe that’s something the KTA does. Our organization has been no stranger to negative critiques and community controversy but at the heart of all our pieces, we do try to foster this. 

Having Marques and Montanaro connect with us seemed like the perfect opportunity to begin a fruitful conversation about theatre criticism. We wanted to know, how do Queen’s University students feel about theatre criticism and how does the Journal engage with it? Is there potential for us to find some middle ground between the two when it comes to DSS? We asked both Marques and Montanaro, and the Journal if they’d like to interview with us in hopes of creating a meaningful dialogue about reviewing student shows and polarizing perspectives that can emerge. The Journal declined our request for an interview but I hopped on a Zoom call with Marques and Montanaro to dive in about their take on theatre criticism. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

To kick things off, what exactly is [DSS]? 

Montanaro: [DSS] is theatre created by students for students… We’re putting on student-written pieces. It’s more of a workshop process than more of a formalized polished theatre process because it’s not really like we’re trying to make masterpieces, we’re trying to get people the opportunity to get their scripts out of their Google Drives. 

Marques: We have one faculty member that oversees the project just to ensure that we’re operating in a professional manner and staying organized… But the entire team is solely—the producers facilitate the entire team. 

[Is] that information available to audiences or to the public? Is that advertised? 

Marques: We did our best to post on our social media. We also do technically have a website link usually through our representing student government structure of the school but this year—last couple years—they dissolved and we didn’t have a government representative so that’s why we kind of struggled to get put on this year because we didn’t have the insurance to go or the funding to go. So we were really pushing to just make it happen.

Given all that information was public, is that something you would expect a critic to know going into the show and reflect upon after? 

Montanaro: I think context is very important, in any situation that you’re in, especially when you’re criticizing something. We provide in the program—we say, “Student-written, student-created.” We, in our intro speech every night, talked about how proud we were to be creating student theatre written by students, put on by students. We gave everyone a lot of opportunities to be able to consider the fact that this was completely student created… We don’t have a huge foundation behind us, supporting us, funding us, especially this year. When you come to see our show, you’re not coming to see a Broadway-produced show, and having that in mind is important. I don’t think having no standards is what you want but I think being able to switch your expectations based on where you are and what you’re intaking is important. 

In terms of a critique in general, a review in general, when does it succeed and when does it fail? And is it possible for a negative review to be successful, and be critical, and actually provoke thought for the cast and crew? Or does a negative review consistently fail? 

Montanaro: I think everyone who’s in the arts really values criticism and feedback. I think that’s how you foster development and how you foster your own crafts… But I think you need to provide pieces for them to work off of. I think just saying something is bad and something has failed doesn’t leave any room to grow.

Selfie of Sabrina Marques on the left and selfie of Kennedy Montanaro on the right.
Photo of Sabrina Marques (left) and Kennedy Montanaro (right).

Completely student-run is always a learning opportunity… If we were to [compare] student theatre and professional theatre, would they have different ‘rubrics’ for theatre criticism and what would those different ‘rubrics’ look like? 

Marques: I definitely agree they would have different rubrics. A lot of professional productions will get a lot, a lot of funding, and we did not have any funding up until, I think, two weeks before the show run and at that point, Kennedy and I had paid for everything out of pocket… This is performed and created by students, who we very much stress when we hire them, don’t need experience. And it’s supposed to be a learning opportunity and it’s the start of our careers where we’re testing and we’re trying and playing with things and figuring out what our root is in the arts and this should be an opportunity to play with very low stakes… I would love to do it professionally but that is, like, a different level. I feel like there’s a different level of expectation… Throughout Queen’s drama program, we’re always discussing what is good theatre and how can you define good theatre? And in terms of that, at least for me, it feels undefinable because not everyone is going to like something. 

Something that I always consider when I go into critiquing a show is the questions I want to ask myself. For me, the most important one is, who is this piece for? 

Montanaro: As reviewers, before you’re entering the theatrical space, maybe check in, “What [do] I think the show’s going to be about?” Checking those expectations before, recognizing that they’re there, opening yourself up to intake whatever the show has to offer.

[What’s been] your experience with theatre criticism prior to the Journal’s review and have any theatre practitioners or professors at Queen’s ever spoken about theatre criticism?

Marques: When we talk about it with the professors, it is spoken about and it is known, but I don’t feel like it is spoken enough about at the school. And just in general, because when we went to professors to seek that reassurance that we did a good job… All of the professors are reassuring us like, “It’s just a review, the opinion doesn’t matter.” But I think you also have to think about it in terms of saying that to a student is easier said than done because that professor is in a successful position where they’ve had a great career and they’ve gotten to a point where they’ve created and they’re hired by the DAN School to work on drama. 

Montanaro: Also for professional theatre, a lot of times they have more than one perspective coming to see the show and unfortunately with this performance, we only had one reviewer come… It’s kind of conveyed as if it’s the public’s perception, that’s the opinion of our show whereas that’s the only person we’ve heard voice an opinion like that. It’s easier to brush off one bad review when you have others. 

Do you think it would be beneficial to have discussions about theatre criticism at Queen’s, maybe a class about theatre criticism, not just to learn about theatre criticism and how to think critically and critique a show, but also to teach students how to deal with negative criticism? 

Marques: Absolutely. I think that’s where it becomes tricky because our heart and soul are put into these shows and at this point in our lives, this is our life, this is what we do, and we’re trying to make something of ourselves… Learning how to deconstruct [a review] and separate the personal from professional is a very, very difficult thing, and having a course to guide us in doing so, I think would be really beneficial for artistic growth. 

Montanaro: I think it’s a mix of, maybe the Journal could benefit from providing their reviewers with, maybe a little more support. Give them some examples of really good reviews, give them some work to do of looking at how people who are professionally doing theatre criticism do it and how they go about talking about theatre they didn’t like… I think the authors of the Journal also need to develop their craft similar to how people working on DSS in the future need to develop theirs. We’re all learning and we’re all growing.

Do you feel there’s a way to prepare for [negative reviews]?

Marques: It is really difficult to identify how to step by step prepare for criticism because I think, in a way, that’s like predetermining that you’re going to have a fault, which I mean—if you were to identify it, having an open mind to receiving criticism allows for that opportunity of growth. And honestly, criticism is wonderful because that means there was something that you can grow from and continue to create… When we have these critiques, that fosters our growth. But it has to be done so in a manner that is genuinely helpful and provides clear reasons for faults. 

Montanaro: Fostering and facilitating development is something that I think differentiates good bad reviews and bad bad reviews. 

Sabrina Marques is a third-year Concurrent-Education student at Queen’s University, with a major in drama and a minor in geography. She has been involved in theatrical productions throughout her entire life thus far, and has truly evolved as an artist, both personally and professionally, through the roles she has taken on in her post-secondary theatre career with the DAN School of Drama & Music

Kennedy Montanaro is a fourth year Joint Honours Psychology/Sociology student at Queen’s University. She began singing for audiences in Montreal, Toronto, and NYC at seven years old. As she grew, so did her love for musical theatre and performance. She has flourished in directing, producing, performing, and leadership roles within her community. She is grateful for the creative outlets she has found within the DAN School community, and looks forward to learning, and growing throughout her future endeavors.

Find more information on the Queen’s Journal here. Find Marques and Montanaro’s letter to the Journal’s editor here and an additional letter to the editor on the topic, written by Darcie Watson-Laird, here.