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Reviewing Criticism

How do we offer balanced and productive critique?

I was struck by our conversation in class yesterday about the dearth of good theatre critics in Boston. We do have plenty of local reviewers though. So what what makes the difference? And what could a good culture of theatre criticism look like?

I think we know what press on theatre shouldn’t look like; it shouldn’t be simple I-liked-it-or-not, snarky, nit-picky fault-finding, voice from on high descending to pass a formal, anxiety-provoking, final word on the artistic merit of a given production.

review, n. I.

The action or an act of looking over or inspecting…. esp. a ceremonial display and formal inspection of troops or the fleet by a monarch, commander-in-chief, or high-ranking visitor.

-Oxford English Dictionary Online

Truthfully, I’ve read (and honestly, for coursework written) too many pieces that fall toward this end of the spectrum. Instead of inviting a dialogue, they’ve offered an arms-crossed, chin up, head nodding final opinion. Where is the forward movement, the way in, the discussion, in a piece like that? Where is the dramaturgy?

In an ideal world, I’d love to see a A true critical perspective, open to dialogue and discussion. It would not be easy to create or maintain; rather than simply writing a review on the aesthetic experience of a show or judging it of a single performance a writer would be in dialogue with the production dramaturg, would know the history of the aesthetics of the designers and directors and their past collaborations, the context of the play and its author, and be willing to take the play on its own terms. The critic would need to want to see the play succeed, and to be open to discuss their thoughts rather than being some scary official entity. How do we connect the different critical eyes?

critic, n.1

2. One skillful in judging of the qualities and merits of literary or artistic works; one who writes upon the qualities of such works…

-Oxford English Dictionary Online

The community at HowlRound also seems to be concerned with the lack of a productive journalistic critical dialogue in American theatre, and Polly Carl is working to spark a new model. I would add a point that emerged from our class discussion yesterday; the three questions of the critic (which seem to me to also be the questions the production dramaturg asks throughout the process):

  1. What was the playwrights goal?
  2. Did they achieve their goal?
  3. Was the goal worthy?

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