Sarah Crawford, our Theatre subeditor, offers some tips for how to review theatre and welcomes you to join our reviewing team.
Last week I went to see a show at my local community theatre. It was a good show, one I’d never seen before, with a decent cast, but I couldn’t seem to let myself relax and enjoy it. It’s probably the actor in me, and most definitely a good portion of the reviewer, but I find it difficult to sit through a show without focusing on everything little thing I would have liked to change to make it, in my opinion, better.
Sometimes it’s cast, or it’s the blocking; if it’s not the cast or the blocking, it’s the set or the lighting. Sometimes shows seem to miss the mark entirely. Worse than that is when a show is almost perfect but not quite, when you’re sitting in your seat seething because if you could just tweak that one little thing. Everyone once in a while I see a show that’s so good I almost want to hate it because I can’t find anything bad – or constructive, I should say – to write about it.
I think reviewers probably get a bad rep. Directors, actors, and producers work for weeks, dedicating a lot of time and energy, to put together a show. In comparison, it’s almost too easy to sit in the dark in the back of the theatre and pass judgement. And I’m not going to lie: writing a negative review is satisfying. Not because I particularly enjoy tearing apart what others have passionately created, but it’s cathartic. You can’t run onto the stage in middle of scene, saying stop, no, do this instead, no matter how much you want to. So you write about it. Oftentimes when I write a negative review I’m thinking if only they had a bit longer to rehearse or if I could just get my hands on it for a few rehearsals. A negative review isn’t there to be vindictive. I love theatre, and I really do care about the shows and want them to go well.
Writing a positive review can also be rewarding, especially if it’s a show you loved watching, especially if you’re usually nitpicky. On the other hand, if you’re busy with a lot of deadlines, sometimes you’re tempted to write, ‘It was good. Go see it.’ I believe positive reviews (overwhelmingly positive reviews, at least, not the average lukewarm ‘this was good, but’ reviews) should be rare. Though it’s possible a reviewer will be lucky enough to review all the semester’s best shows, it’s unlikely. If all a reviewer’s articles are highly complementary, then a good review from them means very little. It may be nice, it may make the cast and crew feel good, but it won’t be honest, and it does a disservice in the long run. If you’re encouraging readers to see a show, they should know what they’re going to spend their money on. Consider all the effort that goes into making a show: the proposal, the casting, the many, many rehearsals, tech, costume, etc. The cast and crew deserve a reviewer who exerts the same effort into making their article as fair as can be, who pays attention, considers all aspects of a production, and carefully reflects on each criticism.
Criticism isn’t there to be cruel, but to be constructive. It can be difficult to find the balance. You have to decide what kind of reviewer you want to be. It can be easy to tell yourself you’re being honest when you’re being mean. It can be tempting to sugarcoat the truth. Every reviewer is working from a different perspective and has a different background in theatre. For instance, in my first year, I reviewed one of my favorite operettas. It was a show I was very familiar with; I knew every song, every joke. I had expectations. Because of this, my review may have been harsher than a review written by someone who had never seen the show before.
At The Tribe, we rate every show on a five star scale. When I’m deciding how many stars to give a show, I try to base it on a comparison to other St. Andrews’ productions. For example, a five star show in St. Andrews may only be a three or four star show in a larger city like Edinburgh. When I’m writing the article, however, I don’t consider it in comparison to other St. Andrews’ shows. I write what I think. Because of this, sometimes I write a review that sounds very critical, but give the show four stars. This is the method that works best for me. It might not work for everyone.
In St Andrews, there’s usually at least one show opening every week. Shows typically only run for two or three performances. Because of this, reviews usually come out after the show has already closed. What I would really like to do this year is get some reviewers in to see some of the final rehearsals, so reviews could go up before the productions end. Of course, this would be dependent on whether directors feel ready to be reviewed before opening night, but it would be great if our readers could read a review before going to the show.
If you do decide to review for The Tribe, and I hope you do, you should know that the St. Andrews ‘reviewing scene’ is somewhat incestual, for lack of a better word. Most reviewers are involved in Mermaids or Just So in some way. It makes sense, after all, that people who love theatre want to do theatre. It’s a conflict of interest that’s unfortunately unavoidable in a town as small as St. Andrews. You’re going to review shows that your friends are in or that they’ve directed. You may review shows you auditioned for but didn’t get cast in. My advice is to use your best judgement. Don’t review a show if you’re overly invested in the production. Like I said though, sometimes it’s unavoidable. Be honest, but don’t be rude. Remember you’re reviewing students, like you. If you’re saying something negative, try to be generous with your phrasing. In my experience, most people won’t hold it against you.
Finally, please, please, please, come review for The Tribe! We’re always looking for more reviewers, and I’m always looking for more theatre nerds to geek out with! Reviewing is a very rewarding experience, it’s a great way to get involved, and, honestly, it looks good on a CV. (Plus you get a comp ticket for the show you’re reviewing! All for the low, low price of a 400 word article!) Mermaids has an exciting line up of shows this semester, from classics like The Glass Menagerie to the new, student-written show Tales of Our World. I look forward to getting to know you!
Sarah Crawford is our Theatre Editor. She has a team of reviewers at the Edinburgh Fringe this August watching some of the St Andrews shows, keep your eyes peeled for these reviews!