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January 2, 2013

The reviewer and the reviewed

What it’s like on both sides of the curtain

Two free tickets, a paycheck and a fun night out in exchange for a writing assignment is a pretty sweet deal, especially when you love going to plays but can’t always afford them. Depending on what night you go, you might only have 24 hours to complete your play review. The story is just your personal response to the show — what worked, what didn’t.

It can be one of the absolute hardest pieces to write.

Sometimes I take pages of notes with details about standout actors and their strengths, moments that don’t quite read, key words and symbols of the play, even colors and textures of the visual elements. Other times I leave with a blank page with only the title of the show scrawled at the top. I can pump the review out in less than an hour or wrestle with it all weekend and still not be satisfied. There’s no set formula I use — it just depends on what happens in those few hours at the theater and what I learn in additional research.

I try to be gentle when it comes to reviewing. I hate the idea of ripping a show apart, but when a show has its flaws, it’s important to point them out and explain what the problems were — being as specific as possible. Positive and negative feedback are constructive for the actors and directors; being an asshole and a snob is not. If a show flops, it flops, and the people who’ve spent more than six weeks working on it have the right to know why, without being insulted. An unnecessarily nasty review can be hard even for the thickest-skinned actors to shake, and it can create low morale throughout the cast, killing the energy for the rest of the run. I’ve been there.

It’s tricky, because you don’t want to be too nice in a review, either, because you want to give readers an honest testimony, and if you get too crazy with your praise, your piece starts to sound like an advertisement and may not come across as sincere. You also have to decide what limitations of the show are excusable and which ones were damaging. A show at Actors Theatre with professionally trained actors is going to be a different experience than a community theater show with a $70 budget — but it doesn’t mean anyone’s work is less valid.

A review is just your opinion, though, just like this piece. I write about theater, but I also perform in community shows around town, which is a luxury because I have the perspective of both sides. I’m certainly no expert, though — I just know what it’s like to peek through the curtains and scope out the reviewer to see if he looks happy, and also what it’s like to be that reviewer.

No matter what, someone in the audience loved the play, someone hated it, and someone else just didn’t get it. And somewhere in the mix, the reviewer is the messenger that can encourage or dissuade hundreds of people from seeing the show. No pressure.