What are reviews for?

15 Jan

The recent International Theatre Critics’ Conference in Anchorage was an amazing opportunity for intense self-reflection for many in my field, and that opportunity was taken by three of us.

On a desultory Wednesday afternoon, I attended a session entitled ‘What are reviews for?’ There was me, the speaker, and one guy nursing a hangover. Our colleagues were exploring the more pressing question of ‘When does the bar open?’

Here is the transcript of the paper given that afternoon:


What are reviews for?

Let me begin by saying that reviews are merely one way you can respond in writing to a piece of theatre. You can also write a letter of complaint to the artistic director. Or you can scrawl obscenities in red paint on the stage door.

Perhaps these approaches have one thing in common; the desire to evaluate. I think that’s what reviews fundamentally do; tell us whether the reviewer thought the production was any good. I’m not suggesting this is all they do, but it’s their crucial component.

Of course, you can write about theatre in other ways. In fact, one of the leading proponents of an alternative approach has honored us with her presence today. (Let the record state that at this moment I went through the motions of glancing around the auditorium, to humbly imply the speaker may have been referring to someone other than me.)

But reviews evaluate.

Have I answered my initial question so soon? No. (Let the record state that at this moment the guy nursing the hangover exited the auditorium.)

I think it needs to be asked what purpose do reviews serve for each of the major stakeholders; audience members, artists, and the critics themselves.

What the general public wants from a review depends on whether they’ve already seen the production. A surprising number of people read reviews the way they read letters to the editor; simply to see what crazy ideas are out there. And just like letters to the editor, there’s a warm pleasure in finding our opinions shared, but a more intense one in finding they’re not. This phenomenon explains the hyperbolic language many critics employ. It gives the theatre going public what they want; drama.

Paul Gilchrist ruining another of my photos from the recent (and entirely fictitious)  critics' conference

Paul Gilchrist ruining another of my photos from the recent (and entirely fictitious) critics’ conference

People tossing up whether they want to see a particular play also read reviews, but less commonly than you might imagine. Decisions to buy tickets are rarely based on carefully argued evaluations, but rather on the general buzz the publicity team manage to create. (For this purpose, a reviewer might include potential pull out quotes when they want to aid the publicist, or avoid them if they don’t. To the untrained eye, reviews can appear equally positive, but publicists see the difference. )

Artists are immensely grateful that reviewers come at all, and sometimes they read the reviews. That is, when they don’t have a publicity team to do it for them. It’s not that artist aren’t interested in the views of critics. No, a critic’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. And some artists care what other people think, though usually not the artists worth their salt.

For artists, the purpose of reviews is to help garner an audience. Obviously, it’s a calculated risk.

We reviewers need to keep in mind that if the artist really valued our opinion, they’d ask us to read the script before the production, or at least get us along to a couple of rehearsals. As it is, they ask us in when they’re finished. Obviously, they don’t intend taking what we say that seriously. (Analogy: We think we’re specialists, yet we’re only ever called in at the autopsy.)

I don’t want to overstate this. A friend* opened on Thursday, a review on Sunday claimed the play was too long, and by Tuesday the show was thirty minutes shorter, and by the writer’s own admission, half an hour better. We can push theatre in certain directions.

Which leads me to the final stakeholder; ourselves. Why do we write reviews? Perhaps for the money? I hear laughter. (Let the record state that there was no laughter from the auditorium at this point. None, whatsoever.)

Do we write in order to give consumer advice? Why would anyone do this, unless they were being paid? I never feel the slightest urge to write advice for anyone considering purchasing, say, a refrigerator.

I write in order to push theatre in the direction I want. I like to think I’m conscious of this (political) motivation behind my writing.

But perhaps I delude myself. Perhaps I write in order feel powerful. Or, perhaps, to assert my existence in a world so large that any of us can be easily overlooked.

Whatever my motivation, if I’m a reviewer, I wish to evaluate. Where does this desire come from? Why is it my purpose?


And then he, too, headed to the bar.

I sat in the empty auditorium, and told myself I don’t write ‘reviews’. I write what I call ‘responses’. Of course, they do include a bit of evaluation.

Perhaps I was just quibbling with words.

Well, if a writer can’t do that, I told myself, I don’t know who can!

And I headed off to do the other thing writers do.

Veronica Kaye

*The speaker’s friend was the obscure Sydney playwright Paul Gilchrist.

4 Responses to “What are reviews for?”

  1. lisathatcher January 16, 2014 at 8:01 am #

    This was lovely! And very entertaining.
    Thank you.
    At this stage I think I can only claim that I write reviews to practise finding the way to articulate my experience, but I also do it to try to encourage people to attend, read or listen to what I experienced.

    I also write – and I think this is my chief motivation at this point – to find solidarity with the creatives … To be a responsive, vibrant, thinking audience. It takes collaboration to bring all art alive, and it is possible that a collaborative listener, reader, watcher is a rare thing. To poorly paraphrase Sartre, art is an appeal to the freedom of the other – I freely choose to attend a performance, I freely choose to let it touch me, and I want to document my collaborative experience, the way the work came alive in me, to give the moment some timelessness beyond memory.

    Thanks a lot for this wonderful post. It gave me a chance to think differently about this question that currently obsesses me.

    • veronicakaye January 16, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

      Thanks for taking the time to read, Lisa. I very much like your comment about finding solidarity with the creatives. It is generous spirited and wise. And I very much agree, art is collaborative. As audience members we are not consumers; we are co-producers. And I think your writing beautifully engenders that spirit!

  2. Gina January 16, 2014 at 10:46 am #

    Reviews are good (umm sometimes) as it helps to inform the masses. It also provides an insight into the activities that are current in the realm of theatrics et el.
    I like you’re perspective and POV, with humour in the mix. Seriousness aside, it’s all very comical!

    • veronicakaye January 16, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

      Thank you for reading the post, Gina. Glad you liked it! As a theatre maker I’m very appreciative when anyone writes about the art form!

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