How To Write a Theatrical Review

Many newspapers and local entertainment websites seek out reviewers to critique local theatrical productions, often as a means to promote quality cultural events in the local area.  These theatrical reviews do not have to be written at a Broadway level, but they should be fair and accurate.  A good theatrical review is a blend of both positive and negative aspects, usually with an eye towards improving future performances by that particular theater company.  Writing a good review of a play doesn't always mean harsh criticism, but rather an insight into what a typical audience member might expect from the production.  Here are some tips for writing a quality theatrical review for a local newspaper or entertainment tabloid.

  1. Before attending the theatrical production itself, do as much research as you can on the play's history.  Obtain a copy of the script from a library or search for it online.  Read a biography on the play's author, which can offer a lot of insight into the subtext of the play itself.  Find older reviews from other critics, especially professional reviewers who may have attended the original production.  All of this information may be in magazine collections at the library.  If a movie version of the play exists, view it several times as well.  The best version to watch, however, is a taping of a live performance.  Movies based on plays often change major plotlines or dialog, so become familiar with both versions.
  2. Contact a local newspaper or entertainment magazine to confirm a need for a theatrical review. You may be asked for samples of your writing style, either from previously published clippings or a mock review of a famous play. Some media outlets may not be interested in local productions, while others welcome the publicity generated by reviews.  Ask if there are complimentary (free) tickets available for the performance or if  you will be responsible for your own expenses.  There is usually a short deadline for reviews, so be prepared to write yours within a day or so of the production.  You might also consider writing a review 'on spec,' which means writing a complete review and then submitting it as an unsolicited article.  Make sure you understand the submission procedure for the newspaper or magazine seeking a review.  Should you send it by fax, email or computer disk?
  3. On the night of the actual show, be sure to carry a notepad and pen to record any thoughts you may have during the performance.  It is easy to forget early details once the play begins.  Your review might start right at the entrance, with thoughts on the venue itself.  Was there anything that made you feel especially comfortable or uncomfortable physically?  A quick note on the condition of the seats or the sound system or room temperature in your review might be helpful for the theater company in the future.  If your assignment is to critique the entire experience, not just the play itself, then you'll be doing future audiences a favor by noting positive and negative experiences.
  4. Learn the names and acting credentials of the performers while you're waiting for the play to begin.  This will make it easier when you begin to write the actual review, since you can attach a name to the face of the characters and use some of their background experiences.  You might mention in your review that the lead actor displayed the same singing and dancing skills as he did when he played Rum Tum Tugger in last year's production of "Cats," for example.  Local theatergoers often appreciate performance comparisons for favored actors.  A good line in a theatrical review might read "The role of Juliet was performed by Lisa Walton, who many of us might remember in her remarkable debut performance as Evita several years ago."  If you know your local theatrical history, make both positive and negative connections to help the audience connect with the performer.
  5. In a theatrical review, all of the elements of a play are fair game.  Acting performances may be the most obvious element, but also pay attention to lighting, costuming, sound, set design and musicianship.  The set designer would really appreciate reading a review which includes a mention of the backdrops or the realism of the sets.  Lighting crews work hard to create special effects, so include a few notes on any scenes that were especially well-lit, or possibly too dim.  Costuming is also a major element for local theatrical productions, since finding professional-level costumes on a small budget can be challenging.   If you noticed any problems with sound quality or other distractions, make a quick note in your review.
  6. Write your review with the idea of balance in mind.  A good review is not simply an opportunity to bash amateur local actors for being, well, amateur and local.  Keep in mind that real people are going to read your review.  Compare individual performances against the standards you researched before the production.  Did the actor capture the same essence of his character as the professional actor did in the filmed version?  Did an actress deliver her dialog the way you heard it in your head as you read the script?  These are the things to note in your review.  "Howard Smith did a wonderful job as the doomed salesman Willy Loman,  capturing the same mixture of false bravado and pathos as Dustin Hoffman did in a recent movie version.  At times, however, Smith's lines were muffled by heavy breathing."  "Newcomer Anna Jones gave a competent reading of Amanda, but her variable Southern accent did not suggest the faded Southern belle Tennessee Williams suggests in the script."

 

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