Help me help you: a theater critic’s appeal

Tough love from Simon Cowell (Photo: American Idol promotional image/ Fox)

As much as is a theater journalism blitz, it’s also an experiment. As reporters, we want to figure out how to make our work more useful to those who read/watch/listen to/consume it. Even the toughest critics among us are in it for the love of the game (it certainly isn’t for the big bucks) and just like theater makers, we hope to serve, and maybe even please, our audiences.

And so I ask:




Dear Theater Practitioners:

  • Beyond visibility for your production/work, what should theater journalists provide?
  • What’s the issue we overlook most, or seem to avoid covering?
  • Would you ever consider making changes based on a review?

Dear Audiences:

  • Do you care about reading a review of a show that you haven’t seen, or may never see?
  • When you read a review, are you looking for context, a thumbs up/down, or something more?
  • Are we “biased” about certain subject matter? What would it take to overcome that perception?

And the question all good reporters ask at the end of interviews: What else should I have asked about?

Start the conversation in the comment box below. Speak now or forever hold your peace. Or at least until we post our next review.


  1. good questions all + thanks for asking. i come at them from 2 perspectives: i was in daily newspapers for 25 plus years — many as an arts (theater) journalist. For the past 3, i’ve been lucky enough to help make theater at Synchronicity in atlanta. i ssee both sides of the coin and maybe more. what should journalists provideesides visibility? Context, about the play, about the playwright, about the issues it raises, about the company, about the people making the art and seeing it. Much of what we do at synchro is theater that we want to make part of a bigger discussion in our community. Ex. We closed our season with the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR. It has a spousal abuse theme. We worked with organizations that educate, help, hold conversations about the issues. But we struggle to get that aspect of our work noticed. we got a preview. we got reviews. but nothing that talks about what issue-raising can do to galvanize and mobilize a community. I’m thinking Engine 28 will not necessarily do things this way, but the mainstream press does in Atlanta, where arts are barely covered. long-winded answer sorry. I guess just dig a little bit. don’t go for the obvious preview/review model. that hits 1 + 2. change anything based on a review? unlikely unless it was just a tweak. so many collaborations go into the final process that it would be unfair to the creative process, i think, to do that. i read as many reviews as i can find, whether it’s my company, one i am interested in, what’s in nyc and elsewhere. i want context, again. i want criticism that doesn’t tell me what to think but gives me enough info to let me make up my own mind. a bit of of the consumer-friendly thumbs up/down is ok, but shouldn’t be the bulk. Just 2 more things and i will shut up: i find in atlanta that most reporters who will write a feature/arts/theater story — and esp. their editors — want to be spoon-fed. When i was a reporter, finding a good story was my JOB. these days they want press releases that come with story pitches. i believe in give and take here, but still, they need to do their work. Lastly, what can those of us in the theater DO to EARN your ears, eyes and coverage. That’s my million-dollar question these days. Thanks. Keep up the good work. (hi, sasha … i’ve done as you asked. xoxo)

    • Jenny Lawton says:

      Thanks for your very thoughtful response. Sounds like you’ve done and are doing some interesting work: from journalism, to theater, to social activism… there’s a lot of overlap, no?

      As for what you can do for us: I think we’re often looking for a “way in” — some element of the production or process that would be interesting to non-theater people. Does someone in the creative team have a special, personal connection to the material? What’s innovative about your approach? Is there a fun or interesting way to go behind the scenes? And most of all: what themes does your work address that all of us humans can relate to? (i.e. sibling rivalries; coming home; growing older) And how does your production tackle those themes in a creative ways?

      Again thanks, and best of luck with your work!

    • Suzi Steffen says:

      Jenny, I’d direct you to this recent discussion, a long-winded part of which was from me but with a ton of other participants including Howie’s colleague Wendy Rosenfield, on TheatreFace, started by D.C. playwright Gwydion Suleibhan: Thoughtful post for sure!

      • Thanks, Suzi, for the link to the conversation.

        These are fascinating questions to which I would love to know the answers.

        To the discussion, I can only add this question: what if critics conceived of their jobs in dramaturgical terms? To which I mean: what if the job was to help nurture the story ABOUT the story being told?

        I know that’s vague, and I hope you’ll forgive me. I am still quite thoroughly trying to figure out what I mean… but I offer it here anyway.

        • Suzi Steffen says:

          Gwydion, that makes TOTAL sense to me though sometimes I think that’s better done in a preview (a REALLY GOOD ONE) or an article about the design or the director or (maybe, but probably less likely) one of the actors. I often think about writing reviews as essays, and those usually mean some of what you’re saying — talking about Ruhl’s EURYDICE as a commentary on the narratives we tell ourselves combined with the Greek myth, talking about a piece of the Oregon Shakespeare Fest’s new American History Cycle along with talking about the Shakespearean history cycle + the demographics of the audience and the area … etc. (A tangly little sentence, oops.)

          Also, many thanks for popping over to e28 to see what’s going on. MUCH appreciated!!

          • Thanks Gwydion — really enjoyed your article.

            I hear you, critics can get tired and jaded. And good art should speak without an interpreter. But I’ve gotta agree with Suzi — if it’s all history/context, it’s a set-up piece not a review. But perhaps more dramaturgy would help make the review itself more accessible to more readers? In other words, perhaps more history/context could benefit both our audiences?

            Thanks again for taking the time to read and write — will continue to follow you on!

  2. What do we want as readers of theater criticism? I’m looking for a good story, something that tells me what’s happening out there. If you can give me a sense of the larger scene, that’s good too. For me, above all, it is about knowing if we can trust you. With a newsweekly or newspaper, we can become familiar with your likes and dislikes. But here, on this site, how I am I going to know where you’re coming from, what your “biases” are, etc.? Giving clues through context is helpful. Reference points and specifics too: why is this play or this scene or troupe worth your time covering it? What does it tell us about anything today? I’m not a theater person per se; I see occasional plays. Somehow I usually make more time for theater when I’m on vacation in NYC or Chicago. But I’m open to persuasion. So, my request as a general audience member is to give me a flavor of the work and tell me, if possible, why we should care. Thanks!

    • Jenny Lawton says:

      Thanks much, D.H. — context — yes, definitely, and can do.

      Question: what if the production is not good and I wouldn’t recommend it — should I still write about it? In other words, is it useful to you as a reader if the “why should we care” aspect is that it should have been better?

  3. It depends. I’d say that it’s worthwhile to write about a less-than-good production if there’s something noteworthy about its ambitions or if it can serve to shed light about a broader topic or cultural trend, etc. (Of course, let’s be honest, negative reviews can be fun too, e.g., “Spiderman,” but that doesn’t make sense with most productions, particularly in emerging theater.)

    The main point is that it doesn’t matter if the production is middling or worse, as long as the critic is engaging, stakes a position, and gives me some bit of insight or knowledge into what-in-the-world is happening in theater today. And hopefully that will make me better informed the next time I venture out. Thanks again for asking.

  4. Thanks so much for this discussion thread.

    I would say that what I’d hope a Theatre journalist could provide is criticism and not a review. The difference for me is a conversation about practice as opposed to taking something that many people have invested their time to create and reducing it to an outsider’s snarky remark(s). A press release, although containing business info a plenty, is an invitation into a conversation. Good bench mark is those more interesting conversations on Top Chef, where there are great ideas but it’s about judge’s conversation evaluating the execution. Sub-section: No back-handed compliments, listing of changes you’d make to design element(s), and lengthy exposition about your day front loading a review and how the play exasperated that.

    The best articles I’ve read usually discuss entry points into the work: ideas the play is putting out there, work of director or ensemble, how the piece exists in the Theatre landscape. There is so much one can say about a production and it always sucks to enjoy a play but then read a review that takes away why that play mattered by focusing on something that wasn’t essential to evaluating what it is. It’s like dating, but rather than trying to evaluate based on total package your end all and be all is the other person’s crooked pinkie. Is it so wrong to mention they might have nice eyes too?

    For me, I read for three things in Theatre journalism. What is the play/playwright trying to do/say? How are the collaborators (Director, Designers) translating/fulfilling/challenging how we receive the play? How are the Actors handling the challenge?

    Think the issue overlooked the most is the degree of care and pursuit of excellence. Where does this production exist in the body of work of the company? Even on shoe string budgets, does the production transcend it’s own restrictions? I’d also say that it would be refreshing to read a journalist write that they didn’t like the play as opposed to not understand it. That there might be a way of offering it up to the public even if it’s something you wouldn’t see personally. There is Theatre for everyone, and although you got stuck in that piece of the pie graph you absolutely despise, don’t be a kid and lick the slice of pie so others are afraid to go near it, let alone try some.

    I think it’s important to note that we might not know how to receive something challenging (that might be original but we not know it) and find a way to communicate that. Storytelling is stretching with ideas about non-traditional/non-Western ways of putting up a production and to search for the kind of vocabulary that can touch on the experience of the piece.

    It would be great if you gave Love to the companies doing interesting work but only getting a chance to run two to three weekends–or even showing up in the first week of a regular run. Also, finding those other unique places, nooks, galleries, college closet where a group of artists is trying to work through their new wrinkle to what they want to see on stage.

    I’d love to have a Critic walk up to me or someone associated with the production and have a brief conversation. Articles are devoted to bigger theater productions, but just checking in can probably help frame the conversation. Such as when you’re doing Fringe and your Preview is actually your first time getting the chance to run the show in the space. It’s nice to see when there is some consideration paid to the recognition of when things go awry just as a great reminder of the presence of the Theatre Gods and their fickle ways.

    I know part of the gig is to evaluate as the first audience for a work or without having the script if it’s a new work. But think there is some middle ground here–especially for artists newly forming companies or trying to do work outside the box–and how do we all become part of the macrocosm that is the shifting tense version of Theatre and not the noun which never changes.

    If I’m deep in my Process with a play, a good idea is a good idea. In the same way I’d respect it if it came from the rehearsal room, I’d totally steal it if you put it in a review. In fact, I’d even credit you during the Talkbacks. Everyone gets credited in my process.

    I’m fairly poor, but I get to experience a lot of cool productions via your efforts. I can’t afford the tickets for a number of productions and vicariously will live through what is captured in a review–or even better the multi-media component or slide show that accompanies a production. Think this is why it’s so key to find a way to transmit the essentialism of plays–whether judged good or bad–because that adds to the conversation and to the greater body of work that is Theatre.

    Finally, I’d say that there is something to going and putting yourself through the paces of what the folks who put up plays are dealing with. What was the passion that got you interested in Theatre in the first place and how can you write from that? Much like how war journalists about to be embedded go through mini Boot Camps to get them prepared, I always respect those that do or live in another way in the community. Sometimes it is absolutely not about where you got your writing training or advanced degree, but the little artist collective you were part of and the storefront theater you called home and having the lens of what producing at that level entails and how it informs you when writing about the clip on lights failing…yet how that troupe raged valiantly against the Theatre Gods. I’d probably cut out and pin up that story.

    I was dreaming when I wrote this, so forgive me if I went astray…

    • prince reference FTW. always.

    • Thanks so much for your very thorough response – it’s really helpful for me/us.

      You cover a lot of ground, but I wanted to respond to a couple of things that caught my eye.

      I agree, snarkiness for snarkiness sake is unproductive. It also sounds like you feel some critics belittle the efforts of those producing the work when reviewing. As a former theater person myself, I can relate: months of back-breaking preparation, often with/for little or no money, all reduced to a few cranky paragraphs. The theater’s work is seen by hundreds; the reviewer’s work is seen by hundreds of thousands (and archived online). It’s imbalanced. And many of us critics are eager to have conversations with practitioners and write about them – after all, characters and process make for great stories. Yet, speaking for myself here, it gets complicated when I like the people and I like the process, but I don’t like the work. I feel it’s my responsibility to my audience to tell it like it is, even if it feels bad. And if I can’t do that, I shouldn’t write a review. Ultimately, although I advocate for theater, I’m not a theater advocate – I’m a journalist.

      Also, I think writing reviews midway through a run, as you suggest, would be less beneficial for us both: the article has less immediacy as news, and has less time to make an impact on your ticket sales.

      As you say, it’s the critic’s job to communicate complicated things — as it is the theater-maker’s. And while we review your efforts, you rarely get a chance to review ours. So again, thank you for taking the time to write. And best of luck at the Fringe!

      “Dreams from a Dead City” produced by Company of Strangers

      • Thanks for your thoughtful response.

        Think one of the most immediate responses is how we’re engaged in a dialogue or conversation, which generally is not something that gets to happen in the practitioner and critic relationship.

        For my money, it’s okay to like the people and like the process, yet not like the work and you must be able to articulate in your review why in the same ways I can articulate where it came from. No matter what, it is one person’s opinion, but when you can speak to a company’s past body of work or give context as to what you know of how they put shows together, this very well might be something we as artists need to hear. You can rant and rave at the note, but in the end, a good note is always something that you will have to respond to and address.

        There is a reason why there are theaters named after some critics and in the face of the continued devaluing of print media, Criticism, and informed conversation, the only thing we have to rely upon is the relationship of both critic and practitioner to the work. In the end it is all about our work, whatever the script/play/production may be alongside the body of criticism that gives the piece context. We’re not parasitic to each other but are very much brothers in arms.

        Hope to continue the conversation.

  5. Context. Context. Context. Shows, and performers and companies come and go, the hope is that the collective Critical View will provide context and create a narrative around a scene that eases broader entrance into that scene.

    To be THAT guy, I wrote about it at more length here:

    • Suzi Steffen says:

      Best THAT GUY ever.

      Yes, context context context. That means an editor who allows a reviewer some space to write context pieces and to write about the different theaters in the town and still to understand and develop and understanding about what theaters are trying to do, etc. So you need space, you need to do more than review — you need to be able to read 990s and understand mission statements and etc., but it takes a lot of time to learn all of that stuff.

      This reminds me, well, all writing about criticism reminds me, of this piece by one of my favorite critics/writers/inspirations, Barry Johnson of Arts Dispatch:

      Barry’s so smart about articulating what arts journalists and critics do and could do better and work on doing, and what a difference a good/bad editor makes. It’s my hope that the Fellows of Engine28 really get some quality editing time with the marvelously talented writer/editors here, and that they learn from each other about writing reviews and writing features and dealing with a world that’s actually far smaller than the theater world. Y’all have other theater people to talk to; arts journalists are lucky if there are three or four of them in a town, and then they’re usually The Competition and Verboten To Talk To. Ugh.

      Um, wandered off my point there. Yes, context.

      • Colin Dabkowski says:


        Thanks for posting Barry Johnson’s post on the uses of criticism. It started off with an intriguing premise but quickly devolved into an argument that attempts to strip criticism of its basic power.

        The best critic can insert a definite value judgment about a work while also putting it in the context of the art form’s history and trajectory as well as the social issues it confronts (or attempts to confront). Barry Johnson, in his attempt to make an argument against reviews as “either/or” propositions, winds up making a pretty simplistic either/or proposition himself. In his theory, you can either make a value judgment or you can be “taken” somewhere. Apparently you can’t have both.

        In the world of the arts, there’s an overwhelming amount of mediocre stuff, and quite a bit of “bulldozing” (as Kenneth Tynan put it) to be done. But there’s no reason you can’t do the bulldozing politely, while elevating your readership’s understanding of the art form you’re critiquing — “taking” them somewhere, as Johnson would have it. See, for example, Scott Brown in New York Magazine or Charles Isherwood in The New York Times.

        (Even Christgau –he of the letter grades — is a pretty good example of that approach, so it’s kind of baffling that Johnson cites him as an exemplar for his patched-together theory.)

        The view of most critics worth their salt is that, by holding theater (or painting, or dance) up to rigorous standards, by bringing your measuring stick along with your compassion and your wealth of knowledge about the world at large, you ARE advocating for the theater. You’re doing that by insisting that it be better, which in the end benefits everyone — companies, audiences and critics alike.

    • Great post/call to action, Travis. I like how you see criticism as a form of advocating for theater — and that it’s a form anyone can practice.

      And thanks for sharing Barry Johnson’s piece, Suzi — will keep it in mind when I face my next tough review. And I’ll talk to you any time!

  6. There’s only a few things I expect from a reviewer/critic…whether it’s as a theatre audience member or as a theatre practitioner. One, that he describe HIS evening in the theatre, his experience, his reactions, his thoughts. I don’t want him speculating on the audience around him or the audiences yet to come. (such as: “I loved it, but it might be too esoteric for a general audience.”). Secondly, I want him to own his own opinion, tell it to me straight and don’t apologize or equivocate. Lastly, keep it professional not personal. Critique the show and the actors on production and performance (No “Such a fat cow should never be allowed on stage again”. None of that.)

    It’s the critics job to figure out what the production and performers are trying to do and how well they did it.

    • “It’s the critics job to figure out what the production and performers are trying to do and how well they did it.”

      Yes. That one goes on the cubicle wall.

      Thanks for writing, Charles!