How to write a theatre review ... part 1
Want to know how to write theatre reviews? Peter Brown reveals all the insider details and explains the science behind the art in the first part of his guide to writing reviews.
Sunday 21 January 2018
Some time ago, the Guardian's theatre critic Lyn Gardner wrote an informative piece about writing theatre reviews.
I am certainly not about to challenge what Ms Gardner had to say in that article, but I thought there were practical tips I could also offer for people eager to get into the business of writing theatre reviews.
And for those of you who have no intention whatever of writing a review, what follows might help you understand what reviewers and critics go through in order to land-up with a review you might find worth reading.
Because this blog post was getting rather long (over 5000 words at the last count) I decided to split it into instalments.
So, below is the first with at least 4 more to come very shortly (I hope!).
Forget the rules ...
The first and most important thing to remember is that review writing is an art, not a science.
As Lyn Gardner sensibly pointed-out in her article, there are no rules to follow.
How you write your reviews is a matter for you - all I can do is offer some pointers, ideas and concepts to consider, try out and then (probably) ditch in favour of what you learn 'on the job'.
First, you really need to decide whether you'll be writing simply for your own pleasure and satisfaction, or whether you want to get your work published.
It makes a difference to the way you'll organise your work and time, as well as how you'll actually write your review.
I have met several people who visit the theatre regularly and keep a log of everything they have seen - the actors who appeared in each performance and what they thought of the productions.
Think of it almost like a theatre diary.
They are only doing this for their own enjoyment and possibly to remind them of what they have seen for future reference - and, perhaps, because they are obsessives!
Other people are happy just to add a comment to someone else's published review, or to write a Twitter review by sending a tweet about a show they've seen.
Yet others have ambitions to get their reviews published - and I'll be focusing on helping them in the rest of this series of posts.
What I set out below comes from my work in writing hundreds of reviews over well over a decade.
I am not speaking for all reviewers who, no doubt, have their own unique working methods - this is a guide, not a reflection of how reviewers in general go about their business.
First, you may want to consider which theatre shows you want to review.
You could specialise in certain types of productions, eg musicals or drama or fringe shows, physical theatre, comedy and so on.
We list hundreds of shows on ActDrop and they cover a dazzling array of genres.
Obviously, what you review depends on your interests and whether you want to focus on particular niches, which might give you the knowledge in due course to become an expert in a particular field - that may help you get your work published.
I think most reviewers are generalists rather than niche specialists - in other words, they tend to review anything and everything in the theatre world.
But some reviewers are fairly choosey, even if they are generalists - they might only review shows at certain theatres, West End venues for example.
If you're just starting out, then my advice is to spend some weeks or months seeing anything and everything first, which may then help you decide whether you want to specialise or not.
Having a broad picture of the different work on offer provides you with valuable comparisons and illustrations for your future writing, and also gives you a general idea of what is being produced and any current trends.
When you're just starting out, you don't always need to go to a theatre to see a show - you can watch shows on TV, in cinemas, and on YouTube - the important thing is to write about them afterwards.
Doing that will enable you to see more without breaking the bank (if you have to pay for your own tickets) and build-up your experience and knowledge.
Tools of the trade
Most of the tools you need to undertake reviews will be pretty obvious.
But, just for the sake of completeness, here's a list:
Word-processing package, or simple text editor
Books on theatre, possibly
If you have your own computer and an internet connection, you'll already have most of the things you need.
Planning and organising
Most people don't realise that reviewing shows is a lengthy and time-consuming process.
It certainly isn't just about writing - a lot of work is concerned with planning and organisation, and those activities happen long before you even get to collect your tickets at the box office.
First on the agenda is to book tickets to see a show.
When you become known as a reviewer, you'll get theatres or production companies inviting you to review their productions.
When you're just starting out, you will have to contact the theatre, producer or PR agent to ask for (FREE!) press tickets, or you may have to buy tickets at least to start with.
If you're going to try for free press tickets, you'll need to do some emailing to make contact with PR agents, producers or theatres - but remember if you get some free tickets, then you MUST write a review of the show!
When I'm arranging press tickets, I always ask the organisers to confirm that they have booked me in for a show - if they don't reply to confirm, I don't go.
If they can't be bothered to confirm, I can't be bothered to go out of my way to travel for maybe an hour or more (EACH WAY!) to find that there is, possibly, no seat for me.
And, believe me, that does happen though usually the theatre will go out of its way to give you a seat anyway.
Some theatres, PR agents, producers or production companies are really on-the-ball and will remind you of your review date.
Don't take that as a criticism of your organisational abilities!
Other times, you're on your own and you have to remember which day you're booked-in to review a show.
So, keeping a well-organised diary is not simply a good idea, it is absolutely essential.
And you need to check it regularly.
I find I usually check my diary at the weekend for the week ahead - and then dates I'm out that week usually get fixed in my brain.
But you may want to check your diary every day, particularly once you're reviewing regularly.
Of course, there are times - like when illness strikes - when it's impossible to get to a show that you're booked in to review.
In that case, always inform the press contact or theatre that you can't make the date and, where possible, ask to re-schedule.
Otherwise, courtesy dictates that you MUST turn up for a show that you've agreed to review.
OK, that's the first instalment completed.
Stay tuned for part 2 which will appear very shortly.
When I've finished all parts, I'll combine them into a single article for convenience as well.
All the best
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Other theatre blogs
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Top Theatre Blogs (Vuelio)
Guardian Theatre Blog
Rev Stan's theatre blog
PocketSize Theatre Blog