Theatre Criticism Part 1: What’s a Critic?

In the summer of 2014, I must have read upwards of 200 reviews. Maybe more. I was interning in the Marketing department of a major non-profit theatre in the DC area and I was tasked with finding, reading, highlighting, printing, and delivering each review of each show we did that summer to the desks of all major staff of the company, including the artistic director. At the end of the summer, I combed through every review of every production at the theatre in the last 5-7 years, to find snippets to place in our new season brochure.

As I skimmed review after review, my eyes adjusting to grabbing buzz words, I began to notice a trend.

These reviews were, usually, written so sparsely I couldn’t believe anyone would voluntarily want to read them. They all operated on the same format:

  • Outline the play, and in the process give some of the magic away, but not enough of the magic to constitute a #spoileralert
  • Name all the names of every artist on the production, and attach a single adjective to their work. The costumes, “artfully done,” the set, “sparse,” the lighting, “bold.”
  • Sum up the entirety of the piece, no matter how vast in emotional or theatrical scope, in a pithy cliche.
  • Rate the piece on a scale of one to five stars (or some banal equivalent), as if that has anything to do with anything.

I was bored to tears, and surprisingly ticked off.

Now, before I go any further, I should probably say…

I am a theatre maker, an actor, a director, someone who is usually on the upstage side of the fence. I understand that I operate with a considerable bias around theatre critics, akin to that scene in Birdman that I know you love as much as I do. And I’m not the only one who tends to think this way, as seen in this article on HowlRound that lists many more examples of the ways in which we have villainized the theatre critic.

Particularly in an educational environment, it’s hard for me to see exactly why we even need critics in the first place. So much of my training as a young theatre artist has been to become self-critical, to be able to stay in touch with how my work is landing on the audience and to always be trying to make the thing better.

Do you know what that makes me think of?


Recently, while reading the introduction to Words at Play: Creative Writing and Dramaturgy by Felicia Hardison Londré, I stumbled across this quote:

“The critical voice still sits in judgement on theatrical first nights but now more frequently can also be heard inside the theatre itself, influencing its entire creative process.” – Barry Kyle (in an introduction to Words at Play: Creative Writing and Dramaturgy)

To what extent is a Dramaturg the critic on the inside of the production? To me, this quote clarified one aspect of a dramaturg’s job, especially if we think about theatre criticism in its most pure form – as a way to respond to the piece in order to help it grow. A dramaturg must be involved in every aspect of the production and yet still be able to sit in the house and take a few mental steps away from the piece in order to see it in its entirety.

But on the other side of the curtain, to what extent is a Critic the dramaturg on the outside of the production? Perhaps we must charge critics with this task: responding with the level of empathy and accountability and investment with which a dramaturg works, and writing reviews in order to clarify and uplift each production, rather than tear them down or write a trite plot summary.

I want to work towards undoing my personal bias against theatre critics, but I’d also like to see a change in theatre criticism that looks a little more like dramaturgy and a little less like a “hot or not” list.

I think that’s a fair compromise.


(Stay tuned for Part 2…)

3 comments on “Theatre Criticism Part 1: What’s a Critic?

  1. As a theatre critic, I often think the main difference between me and a theatre maker is not what I do, but when I do it. As you suggest, creating theatre is an endless series of decisions – do you stand on the left, do you stand on the right? – each of which has implications for the production. The critic assesses the effect of those decisions at the moment of performance, but the artist has been making assessments right the way through the process. One thing the critic can bring, though, is the perspective from outside the theatre’s walls: what this event means in the greater scheme of things. More thoughts here: http://www.howtowriteabouttheatre.com

  2. […] my first post about theatre criticism, I tackled the notion of the critic, my personal biases against them, and how criticism can (and […]

  3. Mark,
    Thanks so much for reading and responding! I definitely appreciate your perspective, and I think you’re right to add that a critic has a broader scope of the theatre landscape than someone like a dramaturg or director.
    If you’re interested, I wrote a second part to this series which can be found here: https://dramalit.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/theatre-criticism-part-2-accountability/
    It talks about accountability and actually addresses your very point about the critic having a greater impact, and how I think that manifests for better or worse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: