For Better or For Worse: A call for more rigorous reviewing of indie theatre
by Ali Joy Richardson (director, producer, & creator)
This is not a rant against reviewing. Or reviewers. This is a call for more rigorous, nuanced, and informed reviews about independent theatre.
Thanks to the internet, anyone can be a reviewer. This increase in people writing and talking about theatre is a great thing, but the ease with which anyone can now claim those sweet media comps means the quality of reviewing is unpredictable to say the least. Come festival season, when an abundance of indie work is staged, many online publications pad out their writing staffs and the range of writing quality widens even further.
What complicates the artist-reviewer relationship is the deeply-rooted expectation that indie artists should give free tickets to people in exchange for their reviews.
There are a few reviewers in our city who write truly rigorous, nuanced, and informed reviews. Why not cultivate more by being selective in our media comping? At the indie level, we scrabble for media coverage in an effort to fill our rented spaces…but I think we should expect better writing in exchange for free access to our work.
“Better writing” doesn’t mean more flattering or gentle reviews. It means deeper considerations of our art. Dissect that bunny. Caress that frog.
Sure, there isn’t a right or wrong way to review theatre (nor to make it). But I believe there are approaches that are better and approaches that are worse.
So I’ve started two lists:
- Relying predominantly on broad and general statements in the review. Using words like, “evocative” or “confusing”. Be specific in articulating what you’ve experienced.
- Not disclosing a close, bias-creating personal connection to the artists or the work.
- Getting shit plain old wrong: misinformation about the show, the company, or the playwright. Names, production history…don’t quote it if you don’t know it.
- Lamenting what wasn’t in the play, story-wise. Rarely is this interesting or useful. Focus on what was. It’s too late for rewrites.
- Talking at length about your “guest”’s reaction to the work in extremely basic terms: they enjoyed this, they didn’t enjoy that…they thought this part was “odd”…
- Suggesting script cuts and changes to published plays as if the producing company overlooked an opportunity to “trim” or “update”.
- N’s. And, above all, letter grades (which carry the clear, teacherly connotation of “I know best”).
- Charging artists for ad space on your site according to the letter grade you assign them.
- If you’ve been comped: publishing your review at the very end of the run…or after closing.
- Writing a single tweet in exchange for a media ticket.
- Identify the separate cogs in the machine — did you experience something as a result of the writing? The direction? The sound design? A certain performance? The quality of the audience on your given night? Your streetcar ride? The fact that you dated one of the actors and they robbed your summer of joy?
- Articulate what was being attempted in the production (for better or for worse).
- Evaluate how close these goals came to being achieved — and if the target was missed…why? (See #1)
- Suggest what might draw people to the show (whether or not these aspects align with your personal tastes and interests).
- Suggest what audiences might find challenging about the work. (#4 and #5 are both useful in connecting the work to new audiences…and I think we’d all like to bring more folks to the party).
- Give a heads up about any unusual requirements of the audience (of course one hopes the company will do the same): is it a promenade-style piece and it behooves me to wear comfy shoes? Is the space extremely small and hot? Any accessibility barriers to flag?
- Context: can you open up the piece for audiences by sharing deeper insight into the production history? The “true events” upon which the play is based? The creation process? Give us some of that sweet VIP media access to the art.
- Big picture thoughts: how does the work engage with socio-political issues and contemporary preoccupations? How does it reinforce or challenge what we expect from live theatre? Draw connections that audience members might not have the time or perspective to make.
Above all, abandon ye the petty blood sport of mean reviews. We don’t need help turning audiences off theatre. Again, reviews don’t have to be uncritically glowing to cultivate audience.
They have to be rigorous, nuanced, and informed…just like art.
Bigger audiences = better for us all — artists and reviewers alike.
Editor’s note: I met Ali when she was cast in an old show of mine at Hart House Theatre. She is currently running around Toronto participating in new and beautiful things. Keep a look out: Honest and playful, intelligent and sincere. One of Toronto’s notable up and coming directors, further weakening the gender divide and inspiring an echo of Fucking Cool.