Theater reviewing as an honest and open dialogue

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I started writing for TC Daily Planet in the spring of 2008. My first story was a theater review for a Brecht play at Frank Theatre. Since that time, I’ve written stories on all kinds of different topics, from education to the arts, to community-based stories, protest stories and various other topics, but throughout that whole time, I’ve always written theater reviews. 

I don’t get paid very much for them. I really do them more for the free ticket than anything else. I also do them as a personal exercise in honing in my own feelings about what makes an effective theater, and I do them so that in my own small way I can be a part of the dialogue with the broader arts community.

Over the years, I’ve gotten criticism about my criticism — that I was too snarky or mean, that I have too much of a conflict of interest in that I do theater in town myself, that I don’t understand what the artists were trying to do. And believe it or not, I do listen to these criticisms, and take the ones that I think are valid into account. Could I say this in a way that isn’t personally attacking artists? Can I do more to understand the mission of the company?

The last few months I’ve done a whole slew of reviews, and with this batch, I feel I’m going about it a little differently than I may have done in the past. I’ve reviewed shows of companies that I know pretty well- either the people, or the work they do. They are all small or midsize theater companies, who don’t necessarily always get reviewed for every show in the bigger media.

I’ve tried to write the reviews more with the artists themselves as my intended audience. That’s not to say that I don’t also know that potential audience members might read them as well, but I was thinking more like I was writing as a peer, offering what the production did well, and perhaps suggestions for improvement. I wrote them not necessarily to be entertaining in themselves, but rather, to be useful in some way.

An example of this is my review of Matthew Everett’s show, But Not for Love, which had a run at The Warren, produced by The Flowershop Project and Work House Theatre. A few years ago, I was in Matthew’s playwriting group, where playwrights brought in scripts to read and critique. Over the years, Matthew and I have reviewed each other’s shows, and I think it’s a good example of a critical relationship that is both respectful and honest. Both Matthew and I are theater artists who work in the community but also write criticism. I would argue that we offer a unique perspective because of our training and experience actually doing theater. As a reader, I tend to trust Matthew’s reviews over others, because I think he really understands the art form.

To me, it’s an example of what theater criticism can be, where artists and critics can have an honest dialogue that ultimately helps the artists to grow, benefitting both artists and audiences. A bit idealistic perhaps. But it doesn’t hurt to try.