By Ilya Khodosh
Thank you for contributing to All About Solo. Arts criticism is an important and noble tradition, and it can be incredibly exciting, thought-provoking, insightful and socially relevant when done well. These guidelines offer ways you can make your review a high-quality and special piece of writing.
Take care to describe the show clearly, thoroughly and in specific detail. Give the reader all the information they need to understand what the show is. Critics are opinion writers, but they are also reporters. What are the show’s subject and themes? What is the plot? (You may or may not have a good reason to reveal the ending.) What is the performance like? What does the production look, sound and feel like? That doesn’t necessarily mean a play-by-play of the show from beginning to end. It’s up to you to decide how best to give the reader a vivid and accurate sense of the show. Process and turn over the show in your mind. Your description will contextualize and clarify your analysis and assessment of the show. Remember that your critical opinions will seem legitimate only if you demonstrate in your review that you have watched the show carefully and attentively, and thought deeply about it.
You may need to do additional research. If the show concerns a historical event, a real-life figure, a philosophical idea, or something from art, science or literature, you may need to familiarize yourself with these subjects in order to communicate whether or not the show does justice to them, or offers some interesting perspective on them. Arts critics are generalists who benefit from knowing something about the many different subjects about which artists create theater. Does this show belong to any particular artistic tradition?
Approach your writing assignment from a place of humility and respect. Assume that the artists did their best in good faith, and created the show they meant to create. Consider the show on its own terms. What were its goals? Whether its purpose was to provoke, inform, or entertain, was it successful in doing so? What were the show’s strengths and weaknesses? If this is a not a premiere, where has this play been produced before, and how was it received?
If you disliked or even hated the show, that’s perfectly fine, but the onus is on you to explain in detail why you found the show objectionable or offensive. Similarly, if you loved the show, you must clearly explain why, using illustrative examples. Balance your emotional reaction with intellectual analysis. Many great and interesting reviews have been written about bad shows. For a reviewer, no show is a waste of time. You may not have enjoyed devoting your evening to it, but even a bad show is a gift to a critic. Any show can be a springboard to a fascinating discussion.
You are writing for a general reader who may be interested in seeing the show, or may simply want to read a thoughtful and stimulating piece of writing. Do not frame your criticisms as advice for the artist – they have not solicited your advice. Instead, tell the reader what you wanted to see more or less of. What did this show make you think about? What about it delighted or frustrated you? Did it have something interesting to say about the socially or politically relevant subjects of our time? Are you sure?
Investigate each of your sentences. Will a reader who knows nothing about the show understand what you mean? Have you provided clear and full context? Clarity and precision are your number one priority – this is crucial. Only after you have mastered those can you effectively express sophisticated thoughts and ideas. Be efficient and succinct – take care that each word or phrase contains clear, precise and meaningful information.
Do not speak on behalf of the whole audience. You can mention an observable physical reaction (for example, if the audience erupted in laughter, or gave the artist a standing ovation), but you cannot presume to know what the audience thought or felt. And of course, there is no such thing as a homogenous audience that reacts to something in the same way. Be sure to speak for yourself, and don’t try to read the audience’s minds.
Try not to telegraph your displeasure using words like “unfortunately” or phrases like “it is a shame that…” Trust that your reader will understand and perhaps share your opinion if you thoroughly and precisely explain what you saw. That way, even a reader whose taste is different from yours will be able to form their own opinion.
As a journalist, use quotation marks only if you are precisely quoting a line from the show. Otherwise, make it clear that you are paraphrasing.
Double-check that you have spelled all names correctly. Differentiate between the play (the script), the performance (a performer’s acting style and choices), and the production (the overall staging).
Adhere to the rules of good expository writing and grammar. When in doubt, consult Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” If you are a beginning writer who wants to learn and improve, read quality non-fiction on a regular basis. The New Yorker is a good place to start.
After your review is published on All About Solo, make sure to read the edited review, consider the revisions that were made, and speculate about why they were made. From each edited review, you will learn about our publication’s house style and standards.
Congratulations on entering the world of theatre criticism, a necessary and fascinating genre of writing. We are delighted to have you on the All About Solo team.
Author: Ilya Khodosh, Senior Editor, All About Solo
Ilya is a DFA candidate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama. He is writing a dissertation about Ivan the Terrible, and has taught courses in theater history, comic theory, Shakespeare, medieval drama and Italian futurism. His translations of Chekhov and Bulgakov have been professionally produced. For fun, he recorded songs from Hamilton in Russian on YouTube. An occasional solo performer, Ilya has written and performed two storytelling shows at the United Solo Theatre Festival. He is a graduate of Williams College.