Monday, December 19, 2011

What's in a Review?


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week Duncan Pflaster.


Hello there NYIT Readers! Very honored to be asked to be the final guest blogger of 2011! I thought it would be interesting to write about both being reviewed and reviewing, since I’m both a playwright and theatre reviewer.  First up, reviewing.

First a little background: I’ve been writing theatre reviews for BroadwayWorld.com since 2007. I am one of several freelance New York reviewers for the site. I mainly handle off-off-Broadway, but have occasionally done off-Broadway. I don’t get paid for it (excepting the free theatre tickets, which are occasionally reward enough). I don’t do it consistently, since being a playwright is my primary focus; whenever a play of mine is being produced, I don’t review for months at a time.  I was honored two years ago with 2nd Place in Stage and Cinema's New York City Theater Review Contest for my review of Banana Bag and Bodice’s Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. 

I think reviewing is an important skill that is too often undervalued in this day and age when anyone with a computer can spew their thoughts on anything all over the Internet simply by pressing a button. Without critical thinking and a concept of what theatre is or should be, these sort of message board “reviews” are pretty meaningless, and when anonymous, can easily become catty and spiteful.  I take a lot of pride in the work I do; I think that I have a lot of knowledge about what makes theatre work, because I do it myself (and am part of a playwrights group which meets every week to critique each others’ work), and I try to use that knowledge in my reviews. I always go in hoping a show will be great. 

It’s often been said, in many variations, that the three most important points to cover in a theatre review are: 1. What were they trying to do? 2. How well did they do it? 3. Was it worth doing? A lot of people lately will just skip to number 2, but I think it’s very important to examine the purpose of a piece of work- is it intended to make one laugh, make one think, make one cry, make one aware? Once the motivations of the creators (the playwright and director, usually) can be ascertained (if they can be), the work can be judged fairly on its merits for what it is. Then how well did they do it? (performer contributions get added into the mix here, as well as those technical aspects like set, lighting, sound, costumes…). Then finally was it worth it? Most often the answer is yes, though sometimes a qualified one.

I have seen and reviewed some absolutely jaw-droppingly amazing theatre, as well as some of the worst theatre of my life. It’s always easier to write the bad reviews, since critique lends itself to correction. Superlative reviews become monotonous, when there’s only so many ways one can write “fantastic” over and over (thesaurus.com is my best friend in these cases). But when writing a bad review, it’s hard to know when to put down the whip and stop flogging the poor thing. In the 4 years that I’ve been reviewing, I’ve grown a lot as a writer and critical thinker, and I always get something from every play I see, especially from the stinkers- there’s always something to learn from.

My contact information is freely available on the BroadwayWorld site, and people can comment on the review pages themselves. Occasionally a theatre artist will contact me, which is always very interesting. Sometimes it’s to thank me for saying something nice about them that they can put on their website, sometimes to complain about a perceived slight. I welcome sincere questions that can open a dialogue about the work, but I’m not always so lucky. One review of a NYMF show several years back ended up with the semi-famous composer attacking me in the comments section of my review (those comments seem to have been lost when the website was re-done to implement Facebook commenting) and through personal e-mails to the founder of BroadwayWorld demanding a retraction “and not a smarmy one at that”. A woman who’d written and starred in a one-person show that I’d criticized e-mailed to ask what I would have done differently- from her e-mail I honestly couldn’t tell if she was being sincere. I made the assumption that she was and gave her some pointers on exposition and how to make it seem more natural; never heard back from her. Several years ago, I made the mistake of referring to the size of an actor’s penis in unflattering terms- I fully admit that this was wrong, but it was in the middle of a rant about cognitive dissonance (saying something is one thing while it can be seen to be another), which was rife in the play, and I got caught up in my own cleverness. I retracted the statement, on the request of the press representative who’d invited me in the first place. I heard through the grapevine that the actor wanted to kick my ass; we’ve still never met. Mea culpa.

I don’t review shows that people I know more-than-just-socially are involved with, as I would find it hard to critique them honestly. Reviews can be an effective marketing tool if they're good, but obviously a biased review won't hold as much water. As I get to know and work with more and more theatre artists in New York, it’s getting difficult to find shows to review that don’t have someone I know in them. It’s an unusual problem to have- when I see someone give an amazing performance, I want to use them in my own work, but then after I’ve worked with them I really can’t review them again (and I myself can't get any reviews of my work from BroadwayWorld, since I know most of the reviewers personally). So perhaps sometime soon I will hang up my reviewer card, but for now, I'm having a great time; it’s been quite interesting and rewarding to get to see and think about so much theatre.  In my next blog post later this week, I’ll be talking about reviews from the other side, as a playwright. 

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