What is the Point of Theatre Criticism?
What is the Critic Looking For?
What a loaded question!
Let me ask you one.
What makes great theatre?
I’ll even tell you the answer.
You want artists to be there. Artists, technicians, administrators, engineers, carpenters, bartenders, ushers, whatever their job title, you want these masters of their craft there. You want them in there doing what they love to do; making theatre happen. Ideally, you’ll find artists who are good at what they do and are passionate about their work. If our community wants great artists, we have to foster a setting in which they can thrive. So, how can we do that?
This question isn’t as complex as it might seem. Performance is like any other skill; it can only be improved upon by challenging and encouraging those who practise it. And one thing that the theatre community is amazing at is helping each other learn and grow, it’s the nature of the artist. We are always looking for ways to be better storytellers, and critics are no exception.
As a theatre critic, I know that my presence can affect a performance. The added stress of someone being there specifically to assess the work and share a personal opinion can put things on edge. So, in an act of good faith I wanted to offer an opportunity to level the playing field and offer you a small glimpse as to what the critic is looking for when reviewing a show.
Where and When is the Work Being Staged?
This must be one of the first things considered when staging any kind of performance art. The artist/s must have an understanding of their individual experience in the endeavour, the community they are offering it to, the larger social ecosystem their community exists in, and a global perspective of what the work is exploring. The social climates towards the themes explored in any production should be considered in the creative process and inform the staging. Is the work making a point of addressing a hot topic issue? Amazing! Do you have a team that reflects those impacted by the themes in question? Even better! Having that is going to add a layer of understanding and passion to the work. It shows when something put on is driven by an individual desire, and that informs the action on stage. One way to avoid a show from coming off as wish-fulfilment is to invest in dramaturgy. By expanding the dramaturgy (the addition of theatrical composition to dramatic work) of a show; it can only help create a more nuanced final product that has new offerings for an audience. As a huge advocate for dramaturgy, I’m always so pleased to see it given due consideration. Asking this question while reviewing a show can help me see where the creators implemented dramaturgical practice and the impacts it has on a show’s themes.
What is the Goal of this Production?
The reason for a performance must be clearly on display for me as a critic. If your goal is to offer levity to an audience, I’m onboard. If your goal is to share a lived experience or explore a theme not often seen in your theatrical community, it should be reflected in the work from the very moment of a show’s conception. If your goal is to stage a well-loved classic, then the dramaturgy should shine through every inch of the experience. The goal of a production is great to keep in mind when seeing a show, if they are clear to me as an audience member, it makes finding areas of improvement as well as areas of excellence easy to spot.
The mission statement for the piece—the reason these artists put their time, money, and effort into this work—must be reflected in all aspects.
Whose Story is This?
This is where things get mucky. We can’t have a world of totally individualised theatre where every show and story speaks to every person who comes in contact with it. Hopefully we are more cognizant of who is under-represented and are eager to diversify our work so that even more audiences are able to find the love of theatre.
Now, this isn’t to say that traditional stagings don’t have anything to offer. It’s a long standing practice of theatre. But, I would argue the surest way to keep audiences coming back is to offer them things they can’t see anywhere else. Productions of classic musicals put on by theatres are everywhere, but restagings of classic musicals with new and interesting artistic direction are by definition unique, and might be more enticing to audiences that wouldn’t traditionally go out of their way to see something at the local theatre. My goal with theatre criticism is to encourage my fellow artists to do what we do best, and become more interesting storytellers. The only way to do that is to find new ways to tell our stories, and to find and share stories that are new to audiences. What is gained from putting on a classic show in a new style? Or putting on new work from emerging artists? You may not know until you find out. What is gained from doing something everyone has seen in the same way it’s always been done?
What can I Gather About the Creative Process from the Final Product?
Something I love to see on stage is an element that the cast (and in some cases crew) are obviously excited about (think an energetic and fun dance number). Unfortunately, one can also see the aspects of a show that are obviously dreaded (think a stage kiss that wasn’t given proper intimacy training). These attitudes can help me tune into the creative process of the show and make sense of the action on stage.
My advice for artists is this: what goes up must come down. So, only throw things up in your process that you want to land on the stage.
What was Successful About This Performance?
This is my favourite part of a review to write. Even a show or performance that I didn’t entirely enjoy has something that I appreciate and want to highlight. It’s what I think about before, during, and after the show. Looking for the success in something is an attitude that I have adopted in my everyday life and it can totally change how one consumes entertainment. I like having the intention of finding the successes, big or small.
In conclusion, theatre criticism is a part of the performance process. It’s how we gauge the work as a bigger picture and how all artists grow. It cannot be understated how these wonderings affect the landscape of theatre. Consider any review you read of a show, negative or positive; did you take that into your next creative endeavour? Did it inform your work?
That’s the goal of my theatre criticism.
This article was edited on December 1st, 2023 to update formatting.