Topic: Theatre reviews
Part of the requirement in THEA 100 is to write a review of either 110 In The Shade or Hair. The review is to be a minimum of 1500 words (roughly, two and one half pages 12pt Times New Roman, single spaced) and it should follow the guidelines below. Reviews are to be written in MS WORD and placed in the appropriate drop box under the LESSONS tab on the THEA 100 ANGEL site.
Reviews for Hair are to be completed and posted no later than 11:30 PM on Friday 15 April 2016.
This assignment is to make you think critically about 110 In The Shade or Hair. It’s why it is in the form of a review. A review, hopefully, expresses a thoughtful, informed, critical opinion about the play and production. It tells the reader, first and foremost, about the play and the production of it in order to give the reader insight into their respective strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about whether you liked it or not; it’s about the play and its production.
Remember, a review is written for the benefit of the reader. The reader doesn’t really want to know about your experience per se. The reader wants to get a sense of whether he or she should go to see the play and get an informed understanding of what it offers, both positively and negatively. So, the focus is really on the reader and informing the reader about the show. What can you tell the reader that would be of value? What aspects of the show should you draw the reader’s attention to in order to help the reader make an informed decision to buy a ticket or prepare for the experience of the show?
So, think about the reader and frame your argument in terms of the reader’s possible experience. Ask yourself what aspects of the show shaped your experience and then let the reader know what those aspects were and why knowing about them might be of value to him or her.
Thinking About the Overall Point of View in a Review
A review is written in answer to the unspoken question: “Should I go to see this show…or read this book or see this movie or buy this product?” In terms of the theatre, it comes down to: “Should I go to see this play?”
There are basically three answers to that fundamental question: “Don’t miss it,” “Maybe,” and “Save your time and money.” Obviously, “Don’t miss it” is overwhelmingly positive; “Maybe” is both positive and negative, usually with a tilt towards one or the other; and “Save your time and money” is overwhelmingly negative. Although there are plays that fall into the categories of “Don’t miss it” and “Save your time and money,” they are very rare…and readers are justifiably wary of reviews that are “gushingly positive” or “viciously negative.” Most of the time, it’s somewhere in the miIDle.
However, it’s important to remember that, in most cases, the good to bad answer is seldom given directly in a review. Sometimes a show is so good or so bad that it’s impossible not to say, “Don’t Miss It!” or “Save your money,” but, most of the time, you should let the review answer the question of whether or not the reader should go to the play.
More important than a direct answer to “Should I go?” are the reasons that are given to answer that question…the reasons that tell the reader why he or she should consider going or not going. A reader wants to know what the strengths or weaknesses of a play and its production are and is looking for as informed and objective an opinion as possible.
So, a review is a kind of persuasive argument. You are presenting your opinion of what you have seen and heard and are seeking to persuade the reader that your opinion has merit. Like any argument, a review must have clear viewpoint and then present the reader with a logical argument with evidence to persuade the reader that your viewpoint is valid.
And it should be written in a style that is simple, direct, economical, and easy to read. The reader is more interested in what you have to say than how you say it. Avoid using a lot of clever adjective and adverbs. Avoid colloquial expressions and slang. Avoid writing in the first-person. Pick your words carefully. And make sure that your review is well written and free from errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
You want the reader to take your viewpoint seriously and that requires that you communicate that viewpoint in careful, thoughtful writing. A good review is well thought out and then carefully crafted. Take time to think about how and why you reacted to the play the way you did. It helps to discuss the play with others who saw the play before making up your mind about what to write about. Organize your argument before you begin to write. And, most important, write, re-write, check spelling and grammar and punctuation, and then re-write again. You cannot write a good review in one sitting.
The Structure of a Review
The Opening paragraph or paragraphs should capture the reader’s interest and give the reader a sense of where the review is headed. It should not give a summary of what is to follow in the body of the review. Instead, the introduction should give the reader a taste of what is to follow and whet the reader’s appetite for what you have to say. Here’s part of the opening paragraph from Jesse Green’s recent review of Hamilton:
When Hamilton debuted Off Broadway at the Public Theater in February, the rapturous reviews, including mine, all hailed its “groundbreaking” incorporation of contemporary musical genres, especially rap and various forms of hip-hop, as a way of refurbishing and selling an old story. A second look, as the slightly revised musical opens on Broadway for what will no doubt be a long and profitable run, suggests that something even more significant is going on. The breakthrough isn’t so much the incorporation of those contemporary genres; after all, Miranda already did that, throwing in Latin music to boot, in the charming In the Heights. But Hamilton not only incorporates newish-to-Broadway song forms; it requires and advances them, in the process opening up new territory for exploitation. It’s the musical theater, not just American history, that gets refurbished. And perhaps popular music, too. Call it Miranda’s manifest destiny, though one dreads the caravans of poor imitators that will surely trail behind.
The Body of the Review
Here the answers to why the reader should or should not go to the show are presented. This is the heart of the review and it contains the reasons that a reader is interested in finding out about. If the overall view is positive, it’s best to follow the introduction with those things that are positive and save your negative opinions until later in the body. If the overall view is negative, it’s best to follow the introduction with those things that are negative and save your positive observations for later in the review.
The reader does not want a plot synopsis. Obviously, the reader wants to know what the show is about, but in a brief few sentences. They should get a basic understanding of the story and not much more. Remember, the reader is considering going to see the show and doesn’t want the review to spoil the show by a review that tells too much about the story. It is especially important not to give away the ending.
Whether positive or negative, there are only a few major points that should be focused on and those few points should be clearly important. The reader doesn’t want to know everything, but does want to know about the most important aspects of the show that led you to believe that it was worth seeing or not. Some things are obvious. The reader wants to know if the story is good or not, if the characters are interesting or not, if the production of the play is good or not, and anything else that you believe would be of value for the reader to know about. If it’s a musical, you should probably let the reader know about the music and if the performance of that music was good or bad. If it’s a costume drama, you should probably let the reader know about the costumes. If it’s a thriller, were you kept on the edge of your seat and, well, thrilled? If it’s a comedy, was it funny? And so on.
In any play, you should probably let the reader know if the acting was good or bad.
However, more important than the answers to those questions, the reader wants to know why you arrived at your opinions. The reader wants to know – as objectively as possible – why you found those things to be good or bad. You need to explain the logic of your opinion and cite examples to support your opinion.
And critically, the reader is looking for some depth in a review. A reader wants some insight into the play or production that goes beyond a mechanical understanding of its strengths and weaknesses: “Tell me something I wouldn’t know if you hadn’t told me.” The reader wants some insight into why the things you focused on were important.
In a way, the idea of pursuing meaningful critical insight is the result of continuing to ask the question “Why?” until it leads you to its ultimate importance. Using Jesse Green’s review of Hamilton as an example of pursuing the question “Why?”:
Why was Hamilton special? Because it incorporated new musical genres like rap and hip-hop. Why was incorporating new musical genres important? Because it changes the musical language of the Broadway musical. Why is changing the musical language of the Broadway musical important? Because it changes the very nature of the musical and opens the musical up to “new territory for exploitation.”
Again, the reader wants to know about only a few things – four or five is usually enough in 1500 words – but wants to know about them in some depth to understand why they were important. And, since nothing is perfect, the reader also wants to know about a few of those other things – fewer than your main points – that did or didn’t fit into the major focus of your argument. There’s always some bad with the good and some good with the bad.
A good review should not end with a summary of the points raised in the body of the review. Rather, it should be a synthesis of your overall argument. It should be a coherent result of what was written about in the body of the review. Here’s Ben Brantley’s closing to his review of Hamilton:
Hamilton is, among other things, about who owns history, who gets to be in charge of the narrative. One of its greatest accomplishments is that it leaves no doubt that these scrappy, adrenaline-charged young folks, with their fast way with rhyme that gives order to chaos, have every right to be in charge of the story here.
In temperament, they’re probably a lot closer to the real men who inspired this show than the stately figures of high school history books. Before they were founding fathers, these guys were rebellious sons, moving to a new, fierce, liberating beat that never seemed to let up. Hamilton makes us feel the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born.
Writing in the First-Person
In general, writing in the first-person causes a lot of problems in a review. The most obvious is that it shifts the focus of the review onto the writer and the writer’s experience rather than the play and its production, which is what the reader is actually interested in finding out about. It also tends to lead the writer into what’s called “conversational tone” or a style of writing that imitates human speech as in a casual conversation. This tends to lead to sloppy, unclear writing peppered with colloquial and slang expressions that do little to give the reader the impression that the writer is interested in providing a serious critical assessment of the play or its value.
First-person also encourages superficial rather than substantial critical insights. Rather than attempting to get at the heart of the matter, first-person usually focuses on what the writer liked or didn’t like in contrast to what was important.
However, there are times when writing in the first-person is helpful in a review. Occasionally, a purely personal insight can explain things that would otherwise by more difficult. As example, it might be easier to say, “I simply couldn’t hear what the actor said for most of the second act” than trying to explain that problem in some other way. Sometimes a personal insight can also give the reader a valuable piece of information. As example, “I saw this production when it first opened and found it to be long and boring. However, since it opened, the cast has found the energy and focus that was missing and now it is one of the best productions of this play that I have ever seen.”
However, writing in the first-person should always be viewed as an exception rather than the rule.