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Writing Great Reviews: Theatre

In this series we ask professional critics for their guide to writing, editing, and pitching your thoughts and opinions to a publication. This time - writing about theatre and performance.

Bryony Taylor is a theatre critic and researcher currently working on a PhD. Her work has been featured in Broadway World, Everything Theatre, and The Play’s The Thing, among others.

What do you keep in mind while you’re experiencing the play/performance you’ll be writing about?

This might sound a bit cheesy, but I try to let the event wash over me. I am a theatre critic, but to truly experience it as an audience member, I leave my critic’s hat at the door when I come in. When I leave the event, I will put it back on again and work through my thoughts and feelings.

During the performance, I find it useful to stay aware of how I’m feeling. So, at intervals, check in with yourself: are you bored? Are you happy? Are you relating to what you are seeing? If you can be aware of the way that a performance or piece of art is making you feel, then afterwards you can think in more detail about how it achieved that.

I have found that being too focused on the review I will write afterwards might shift my focus away from the piece. My favourite position to put myself in is that of an audience member… because that is what I am! Just a human being witnessing something. The fun part afterwards is translating that into a piece of writing which communicates to others how that experience was created.

After the event, how do you get started writing your review?

The journey home from a performance is crucial to my writing process. If I’m walking home, I’ll take notice of what memories immediately come back to me. What naturally drifts into your head when you’re considering the performance? What moments had impact? Why? If I’m on a bus, train or tube, I’ll challenge myself to hand-write a review as I travel, writing down anything that comes to my head: moments, quotes, or feelings, for example. This usually makes the writing-up process quicker, too, as there’s a visible stream-of-consciousness for me to unpick when I sit down at my desk.

With digital work in the pandemic, this has proved a little tricky, but the process remains the same. I might sit for ten minutes without my laptop and make notes. Working outwardly from your experience is crucial, and finding methods which help you to process these thoughts is a good tactic!

What’s the best way to structure a review?

Once I realised that my critical process started after the performance, more exciting things started to happen in my writing. I felt more able to be inventive. Giving myself the chance to experience a performance as an audience member gave me permission to enjoy myself: to take the pressure away from creating a review afterwards.

For example, if I was reviewing an improvised comedy show, I would think about what my favourite part was and write a creative review. Take this review I wrote of a show by the comedy troupe BattleActs. One of their sketches entailed each performer helping to develop a humorous story, with each contribution being a sentence which had to begin with a letter of the alphabet, following all the way from A-Z. I decided to structure my review in the same way – writing 26 things about the performance, structured under each letter of the alphabet.

‘[C]olin the Caterpillar cake just got brought on! What a national treasure! Trigger warning: he does not survive. It’s player Anna Leong-Brophy’s birthday and she’s been challenged to eat an entire Colin. I am jealous, and a little sickened.

[D]one a sneaky Google search, and there are 2,760‬ calories in a Colin. I am firmly against calorie counting, but blimey. Heartburn.

[E]nglish Actor Denise van Outen might be offended by Brendan Murphy’s characterisation of her. All those years learning to dance and he’s portraying her as a sassy sort of…

[F]lamingo!

[G]od, I’ve just messed this up because flamingos just featured, and I’ve just used my F. This is hard.’

This felt like a fun way of showing people what it was like to be an audience member at this event. I had a lot of fun at the show, and this felt like a great way of making that visible. The structure is sympathetic to the performance, giving people a taster of what to expect. This was an enjoyable way of creative writing, developing a critical eye whilst cultivating an inventive style.

If I’m reviewing a play or a musical, I might be a little more methodical, making sure that I comment on different aspects of the production: did I enjoy the plot? If there’s music or songs, which were my favourite? Was the set design particularly intriguing? Does the way that different aspects of the production interconnect enhance the overall experience, and why?

My approach to reviewing has always been to be critical but kind, making sure that if I mention particular cast members or creatives, that it is to be constructive or to praise them. As a critic, you will come across performances or works that you do not like. When I am faced with this, I make sure that I am carefully considering how to put this into words. Be critical, but respectful.

What are your top tips for new critics? Or is there anything they should try and avoid?

Centre your enjoyment! Also, challenge yourself to review things that you might not usually have chosen to see.

When you are new to criticism, reflect on what helped you to write your review. What assisted the process? Was it writing extensive notes during a performance, or was it waiting until afterwards to think about what you saw?

Every single critic will have a different way of approaching their review, finding yours will be a course of trial and error. Personally, I have found it fun to play around with styles, formatting, structure and the tones of my reviews. Remember, it’s okay to lead with your individual voice. We need critics from a diverse range of backgrounds, and it’s always a privilege to see young critics experimenting with their critical voice. Write in a way that excites you, not what you think a review should look like. I try and write for platforms who will champion this flexibility.