Guidelines for Writing Your Live Viewing Critique
If you are not used to writing about your experience of drama, the live viewing assignment can seem a bit challenging. These guidelines are designed to help you create an essay that both clarifies your own thinking and deepens your enjoyment of the plays you’ve seen. I’ve also included an example of a well-written critique done by a student in a previous section of this class. I have annotated it in order to show you what I think was effective in the writing.
It is important to begin your critique soon after the viewing event. This way you will have a fresh set of impressions to work from. Even if you only jot down a list of key thoughts, or an outline, it will help you write a better essay. Resist the impulse to procrastinate. You should try to view, digest and write within a one-week period. Professional critics do it overnight.
I allow submissions of this essay up until the end of the quarter or the semester as specified. This policy is designed to give you the broadest possible array of viewing choices. It is not designed to encourage you to wait until the minute to throw something together and then submit it. I cannot give comments and feedback on assignments that arrive during the last week of instruction before the deadline.
In the upper left corner of your critique, there should be a bloc containing the following information:
Title of the Play – Be complete and accurate. You’d be surprised at how many student writers make themselves sound foolish by misstating the title.
Author – Who is credited with writing the “book”, and where appropriate, the music.
Producing company – Note: this should be the actual group that created or presented the piece. This is not necessarily the name of the theatre where you saw it. E.g. a play that you see at the Geary Theatre was probably produced by ACT, but one at the Strand Theatre could be the product of a variety of different companies who are renting the space. Similarly, the Golden Gate and Orpheum are “road houses” they host touring companies of Broadway shows, but don’t actually produce them.
When and Where you attended the performance – You needn’t confine your viewing choices to the Bay Area, but remember, the viewing has to be within the period you are enrolled in the course.
Type of production – The level of production should influence the standards you apply to your critique. Your choices are:
Professional Theatre – plays and musicals performed by actors who perform for a living (often their membership in Actors’ Equity Association is indicated in the program)
Community Theatre – plays and musicals done by avocational performers who perform for the love of the art and the pleasure of doing live theatre.
Academic Theatre – plays and musicals whose production is primarily intended to instruct the participants in the skills required for effective performance.
The preferred formats for submission are .docx or .pdf . Avoid using software that turns out exotic file types that are software specific or require add-in translators. I will read your submission in either Word or Acrobat, but if I can’t read it, you don’t get the credit.
This is a tricky issue because so much of length depends on your own writing style. Obviously economy of language is a virtue, but don’t substitute terseness or generalization for clear, demonstrated thought. I would think that 450 words would be minimal and 650 words would be a good average length, although 800 words would not be inappropriate. Much above that, and although I would applaud your enthusiasm, I think you would be straying beyond the intention of the assignment.
Much of your approach should be determined by the audience for which you are writing. In this case, imagine that your critique is to be read by your fellow classmates. This will give you a sense of the style of communication, the level of language and terminology you can use, and also the preexisting knowledge of the subject matter that you might expect. You could, for example, refer to other plays studied in the class, and refer to concepts that have been introduced in the course.
Don’t be afraid you share your feelings, either positive or negative. They are the ultimate indication of how the experience affected you. It is important, though, to acquaint your reader with any biases or strong tastes you might have that influence your evaluation. E.g. “My boyfriend was singing the lead role” or “I’ve always detested Stephen Sondheim’s music”.
Generally, you should write with the same intentionality as a professional newspaper critic: Assume that your reader might be interested in going to see the play that you are reviewing, and assist them in making an informed choice. Allow yourself to be guided by the level of information, description and value judgement that would give them the tools to choose effectively.
It might surprise you to learn that most theatrical criticism address pretty much the six same points, and it might further surprise you to learn that these points were identified about 2500 years ago.
Aristotle, writing The Poetics, his aesthetic consideration of art as it existed in Classical Greece, posited that the form that would come to be known as Theatre was identified by six characteristics. They are:
Plot – The sequence of events that tell the story of the play
Character- The dramatic creations who enact the plot
Theme – The underlying idea or “takeaway” of the play
Diction – The use of language
Music – Sung or instrumental elements in the performance
Spectacle – The visual elements of the production
Having identified these “Six Elements of Drama”, it would be good to look at how you can address them in your writing. I’ll also give you some evaluative stands to consider, but don’t feel limited to these. You want to develop your own aesthetic as well. Remember, though, that the critical standards must be rooted in the conventions of the particular type of play you are critiquing. You don’t judge baseball by the rules of tennis.
This point usually addresses the obvious question “what was the play about?”. You want to give your reader enough information to gain a sense of the issues in the conflict and how the story line is laid out, but you should resist the temptation to fill the essay with every last nuance and plot turn. Don’t over-describe and certainly don’t spoil surprise endings.
Also, in the event the play is very well-known to your readership, describing the plot can be largely unnecessary. Overly-long plot descriptions are a common flaw in the many hundreds of papers I have read in this class over the years.
Some evaluation standards you could use: Is the plot interesting? Is it plausible? Can you follow it? Are there subplots? Is the resolution satisfying?
Here you are considering the complex motivations and tactics that the playwright has given the creatures that inhabit the drama. You should talk about the major characters, and include such minor ones as the playwright or the performers have brought to your attention. There are two main things to evaluate:
The writing of the characters – Are their motives and interactions plausible? Can you relate to them? What is their function in the plot?
The performance of the actors – Who are they? Are they well-cast? Do the actors achieve the depth and complexity required of the characters? Are they technically proficient, given the level of the production? What were the key moments, and were there displays of virtuosity?
Not all plays will have an equal emphasis on all of the elements. For example, a political play is likely to have a much greater emphasis on theme or idea than perhaps a light romantic comedy. Interpretation of theme can be subjective, purposely so in the case of a play that is written in a didactic style where opposing points of view are given equal weight.
Evaluating a play on the basis of theme should factor in such questions as, Is the theme given appropriate emphasis for the type of play? Is the theme expressed with appropriate clarity? And very importantly, Is the theme something worth knowing? Does it make the world better?
This element does not refer to how clearly people speak (although that’s important, too), but rather the use of language in the play – the choice of words. More so than it’s “sisters,”, film and television, theatre tends to be a language-driven medium and diction, used in this sense, is important.
One major point to establish is where the play falls along the line between vernacular or commonplace use of language and poetic expression. Sometimes, in the case of Shakespeare for instance, this is apparent. But in the case of many modern authors (e.g. Tennessee Williams, David Mamet) the poeticism of the language is more subtle.
In any event, standards applied to the diction of a play should consider the appropriateness of the language to the conditions and status of the characters, the effectiveness with which it conveys plot and theme, and where appropriate, the display of creativity and how satisfyingly it “lands on the ear”.
In Aristotle’s day, all plays incorporated music as an essential element. In the present day, that is not always the case, although music is present in a surprising number of “nonmusical” production, and often in subtle and effective ways.
Of course opera, or musical comedy are the obvious examples of the use of music in theatre. Here a critic could mention the quality of the performance, the quality of the composition, the interaction of song and story.
Less obvious, but still worthy of mention is the use of music in a “straight” play. It can be used as underscore, to create mood. It can be used to articulate changes of scene or passage of time. It can be a narrative detail to help establish period or setting, or it might even be performed by an actor in the course of the story as a means of creating character detail.
Again, standards revolve around the appropriateness, effectiveness and creativity of the use of music in the production.
All of the visual elements of the production, including scenery, props, costumes, lights, makeup and staging fall into this category. As a critical writer, you should pay attention to and acknowledge these very important elements in the design of the play.
Oddly, many of the components of this element are most effective when they are not “spectacular” at all. Except in the case of flashy musicals, most lighting, set, costume and makeup designers strive to be unnoticed, and their work is valued most when it merges seamlessly with the work of the writers and actors. Similarly, the director is at pains to create stage pictures that facilitate the storytelling and impact of the narrative without appearing “stagey” or artificial.
When critiquing this aspect of the production, apply the usual standards of creativity and appropriateness, but also bear in mind that often “less is more”. Many production concepts require minimal or inconspicuous use of spectacle.
When composing your critique, you don’t have to rely solely on your own notes, recollections and knowledge. There are resources readily available that can be used to bolster your opinions, fill out your information, and enrich your readers’ appreciation of the play.
When you handed the usher your ticket, chances are you were handed a program in return. This can be a very useful resource. Not only will it contain the names of all of the actors and designers associated with the production – and you should include their names in your critique when you mention their work-but there are also likely to be other notes as well.
Depending on the resources of the theatre, somebody (often called a “dramaturg”) may have spent quite a bit of time researching the play and the playwright. The results are displayed in the program and you should read it thoroughly, both for your own enjoyment and also as a resource for your critique. You can quote from this material with attribution.
Information about the play, the author, the production history and the historical context of the action is only a few clicks away. It is easy to find material that will enrich your critique and your readers’ understanding of the period in which the play was written or set. Of course the usual caveats apply regarding taking any undocumented claim as “true”. Remember that most of what you read on the internet is not vetted scholarly research, but with proper consideration and attribution it should be sufficiently reliable for your purposes.
Of course, there are frequently film and video productions of the play you’ve seen also streamed on various web sites. Be careful in how you use and reference these. Interpretations and production standards vary, and the video can be deceptive. Also, you are reviewing a live performance, experienced in the company of other audience members. These streams, viewed in isolation on your computer screen are anything but that.
You don’t want to copy the opinions of others, but it can sometimes be useful and interesting to see what other reviewers have had to say about either the production you are reviewing or other productions of the same play.
Search daily publications that employ theatre critics as well as publications that cater to theatre goers. Entering a search term like “playname reviews” should yield results. Remember, if you do quote –attribute.
This may sound obvious, but if you have seen the play with a date or a group of friends, chances are you’ve talked about it. Think about what people have said. It may give you insight into how effective one or another aspect of the production was in the eyes of other viewers. It is also fair to observe other audience members during the show and report on how well the play seemed to be received. You can also report on any aspects of the physical space (seating, sightlines, acoustics) that had an impact on your overall viewing experience.
While you want to communicate on an easily understandable level with your reader, try to use appropriate critical terminology when referring to the play. It is designed for greater precision and clarity of expression – not just to sound “snooty”.
For example, using terms like “props” when you mean “scenery” or “acts” when you mean “scenes” can make things confusing. Refer to the terms we’ve used in this class to develop your vocabulary. Also, this is another instance where reading professional reviews can be helpful. Notice how these writers introduce the various elements, and the terminology used to discuss them.
Needless to say, it is important to give a fair assessment of the viewing experience. This doesn’t mean that you have to compliment poor or careless work, or pretend to have enjoyed something you’ve detested. But you should strive to include all aspects of the production in an evaluation that is fair-handed and which gives criteria and reasons for the judgements expressed.
It is important to factor in the level and intentions of the production – you shouldn’t judge a middle school musical by Broadway standards. On the other hand, it was your time and money that was invested, and you are entitled to report on whether you felt well-compensated.
Overall, your writing should give an honest sense of how the experience met your expectations, and answer the most useful questions your reader might have. Remember, you are trying to help them decide whether they might like to attend the play.
Important Note: Be sure that you have a clear idea of the genre of kind of play you are writing about, and identify this to your reader, either directly or indirectly. Why? Because genre is defined by the conventions of the production – the unspoken contract between the audience and the performers concerning what stylistic choices constitute “reality” for this particular play. These conventions must form the basis for your critical observations. Without this consistency, the writing will seem arbitrary and loose at the center.
Here is a live viewing critique, submitted by one of my students that I think is a good example of a generally successful realization of this assignment. I have notated it with my observations in blue.
Play: The Andersonville Trial
Theatre Company: Wasatch Theatrical Ventures
Venue: Burbank’s Grove Theater Centre (GTC)
Good data bloc. Note how the writer differentiates between the venue and the company.
The Andersonville Trial Play Review
On April 10, 2016 I went to Burbank’s Grove Theater Centre (GTC) for a showing of The Andersonville Trial. This play was a unique and remarkable telling of a piece of American history that is often overlooked. While the Civil War continues to be studied and analyzed, forever leaving its mark on this country’s psyche, stories such as the one told in The Andersonville Trial are somehow pushed into the background. This is a shame because The Andersonville Trial tells a terrifying story that should be known by all. The premise is based on a the real trial of Captain Henry Wirz for war crimes committed during the Civil War in which he imprisoned tens of thousands of Union soldiers in Andersonville, Georgia. The Union soldiers were starved and tortured to death.
This is good and useful information about the context of the plot and tells us that this is a historical drama.
History was brought to life with incredible acting and performances by its main characters. The defense attorney was dynamic in his examinations and the performance by the actor was effective. The actor that played Captain Wirz was equally as effective allowing the character to be both frustrating and likable. The play that is about navigating murky moral dilemmas needed actors that were dynamic and realistic. This allows the characters to be complex humans and helps illustrate the complexity of the subject manner. The play is layered with controversial topics and issues and requires actors that can manage this.
This evaluation of the characters and acting is a bit generic. Terms like “dynamic” and “realistic” really don’t help the reader visualize what the writer found praiseworthy in the acting. Also, the actor’s names aren’t mentioned.
The most compelling aspect about this play was the central issue of whether Captain Wirz was guilty. While the defense lawyer argues that Wirz is innocent because he was only following orders, the prosecutors argue that orders cannot protect a person from the rules of law. This moral issue is relevant even today and is what made the play worth watching. While watching the play I made parallels with other wars such as World War II. Many war crimes were committed in that war and many people had to pay for it.
Discussion of theme is effective from a personal perspective.
Additionally, what I found so unique about this play was the staging. Using the setting of the courtroom, the director crafted the small audience so that it felt as if the audience was the jury listening and judging.
We’re into the “spectacular” element here. A few more descriptive details would help us envision the scene better.
The audience had the power to agree on a verdict. I thought this was very effective as he allowed the audience a to participate in the play.
Aha! The play was didactic in form.
Because of the unique staging and unique story about during a major historical moment in the United States of America I would highly recommend this play to both family and friends.
Format: didn’t need to be double spaced, 543 words, submitted as .docx file.