Advice to a younger theatre critic

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Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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There are few things more annoying in life than people who presume to speak for you – and feel they know your life and viewpoints better than you do (and also dare to query your use of language, too).

On Monday, I tweeted my dislike of a particular London venue that I've previously written about in this blog, and I was told in no uncertain terms in a public reply, that apparently:

You don’t hate the venue. You have an access requirement that can’t be met and you’re boycotting the theatre because of it.

He then also further advised: "Hate is a strong word Mark and should be used lightly…"

Actually, I have no problem accessing this venue at all; I just don't like going there. It's true that my recent round of hip problems – now happily fixed, but with the pain more unhappily transferred instead to my right, unoperated, side – makes a lot of the grossly inadequate theatre seating in West End and other theatres uncomfortable, and may indeed be a contributory factor in leading to the problems (or their severity) in the first place, given the amount of time I routinely spend in them.

But some theatres are more horrible than others, and the one concerned here is so uniquely horrible, particularly on opening nights when it is over-packed, that yes, I do hate it, however loaded that word is.

It's one of the occupational hazards of the job, of course, but in health and safety terms, most people would protest if their daily working conditions were as ghastly as they are here, or as at the Old Vic Tunnels, where the prevailing damp threatens to bring you down with illness on each visit, and a dancer who appeared there in Penny Arcade's brilliant Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! there last year was known to have slipped and injured himself in the puddles of water everywhere.

That twitter conversation on Monday morning coincidentally preceded an amazing day I then spent on an educational project of Mousetrap Theatre Projects, funded by the John Lyon's Charity, that seeks to enrich young lives through theatre. The project I was taking part in was their Play the Critic initiative, in which – joined by Telegraph opera critic Rupert Christiansen – we led groups of students from two London schools on a day of how to respond critically and journalistically to performances.

Last week they had attended the ENO's current production of The Mikado, which may have been in the rep for longer than any of these students have been alive (it's been the rep since 1986), but still feels as fresh and even radical as any of the ENO's more recent work. And it was fascinating to hear them respond to it with an equal freshness and vivacity; none had seen a previous production of The Mikado, let alone this production before, so unlike all the national reviews we produced to share with them, they were not playing compare and contrast but taking the production entirely on its own terms.

And as part of the day, both Rupert and I offered our young critics some advice on the job we do. I've already begun above by mentioning some of the hazards of the job. But here's some more of what I told them.

 

The first thing to be said straight away is an obvious fact: that there's no right and wrong when it comes to theatre criticism: it's always a matter of opinion. And I also always say that far from being the ultimate word on a production, critics are now only the start of a conversation around it, not the end of it. And that's good news: we aren't the only judges of what is out there.

But certain expectations go with the job: that you turn up, stay awake and don’t leave before the end, and don’t disturb other members of the audience. That's not always as easy as you think; I was once rebuked by an audience member for distracting them by taking notes. But I hope that more often I can help to guide readers, not distract them.

So perhaps another obvious thing to say is don't take a torch to the theatre or use the light of your mobile phone to write your notes by. I once saw a critic taking his notes on his iPhone, so every time he wanted to make one, the screen lit up. That was at a Michael Jackson circus show at the O2 Arena, so it might not have mattered so much; but it was still bad form. It would be equally bad form to start tweeting your opinions before you've seen all of the show; your job as a critic is to see the whole thing before commenting. Some theatres nowadays are having designated tweetzones, where tweeting is allowed; but that's not something critics should think about doing, in my opinion. I do tweet – but only after the show. And that gives me a chance to get my opinion out fast and concisely, and is a channel I now regard as an essential part of my critical responses that may include printed reviews in newspapers, online or broadcast.

So back to the notetaking: you have to learn to take notes in the dark. The danger is that you may not actually be able to read what you write; but I find that the notes themselves aren't what matters, but the fact that you're writing something that helps you to concentrate on the play and distill your thoughts as you are watching it. I find that I very rarely consult my notes while I'm writing the review itself, but I like to have them there in case. But be sure that if you want to quote a line or location or a key plot point, you've written it down accurately.

Again, you shouldn't be spotted nodding off – I'm afraid that I've seen this, too, at the end of a tough day, and may have even done it myself once or twice. We're only human, after all, and a critic who was once accused of this famously said that sleep was a form of criticism. But I usually try to have a little afternoon nap if I can before I go to the theatre; it may sound like I'm being an old man, but it's nice to be refreshed before you go to the theatre.

So that's some of the obvious stuff about how to behave at the theatre. What about the review we're going to have to write?

What's the purpose of it? We're hopefully not just writing for ourselves, though we are own first readers, and I do find that the act of writing a review itself makes me come to a conclusion: I may not be sure how I feel about a show when I start writing the review, but by the time I finish it has actually helped me to reach an opinion. And just as I like to surprise my readers, I therefore sometimes find I surprise myself. That's always a good start.

Beyond ourselves, we are serving two main parties: our readers and those we write about. Our first responsibility is to those we are writing for, not about. One of the functions of a critic, I sometimes think, is that we see the shows so you don’t have to; we can guide you not to waste your money, in our opinion, or more rarely, encourage you where to spend it. It’s up to you, though, whether you heed us. Given that it’s largely a matter of whether our tastes coincide with yours, the most reliable guide to any of this is to find a critic you largely agree with and then follow them. Or not. The audiences flocking to We Will Rock You have obviously chosen to ignore the critics, and so the show rocks on.

As for those we write about, theatre shows die when the curtain comes down for the last time – so, apart from living on in the memories of those who saw the show, reviews provide a permanent record of a show having happened, along with the photographs of it. So we are an informal kind of historical archive, offering a long-term and always growing databank of past shows. So another key factor is that our reviews need to be accurate – at least in terms of names, places and so on.

So that's part of our professional role. But in terms of the reviews we write, a lot of what goes in is dictated by the publication we are writing for and the amount of space we're given to do so in. I've written reviews for the US magazine Entertainment Weekly that were commissioned at around 90 to 110 words, on the one hand, but it can go up to 1,000 words or more. Typically you get between 250 and 350 words.

So your review usually needs to be concise and to the point. You need to make every word count. We'll be doing some exercises later in the importance of grabbing your readers attention with a strong opening; but you have a lot to get in, from information to opinion, and you need to find the right balance between those two areas.

And something that may seem a bit intangible but is arguably the most important thing of all: conveying the sense and atmosphere of the event into your review – and why it matters (or doesn't matter). A review needs  to convey some key information, like the genre – it is a play or a musical, and what sort of play or musical is it – a comedy, tragedy or somewhere inbetween.  And if there are some stars or well-known names in it, you will obviously want to draw your readers attention to that.

The question most people always ask you when you're telling them about something they've never heard of is: what it's about? So you also need to be sure to convey a sense of the plot. I prefer not to go into too much detail – I don't like to spoil the surprise and never give away any spoilers, like the identity of a murderer in a thriller – but you need to set out, usually in the opening paragraph or two, something of the plot.

If it's a well-known Shakespeare or other classic, you may be able to get away with a lot less detail; but never assume that your reader knows the play, however well known. There may always be a newcomer to the play reading you. So never make assumptions.

Ultimately, you're being paid for your opinion: is it good or bad? So reach a conclusion and don't sit on the fence. But you mustn't just say something is good or bad – but support it with why you think that.

It also matters who your audience is. In a national paper, you are addressing an audience who may have come to you from lots of different places, but in a trade paper, like The Stage that I write for, I know that the audience is more likely to be a theatre industry one.

I've been consciously trying to stay ahead of the game by adapting along the way to new things. My Stage column is now long established – I've been writing it since 2005, so it has become not only an archive in itself but also a place that's well known in the industry for taking up causes in.

More recently, I took up Twitter, and in a feature in The Times on the best 100 arts tweeters, I am proud to say that they listed me. (The fact that Lady Gaga was number one, though, means we know what their priorities are!) I use it purely as a professional tool: my feed links to theatre news stories as they break, and I also tweet instant reviews the moment I get home about what I see. Of course, there's not an awful lot you can say in 140 characters, but I tend to post multiple tweets to cover a bit of ground; and the amazing thing I've discovered is the degree of interaction I now get, not just online the moment I tweet, but also in the world at large.

And I think that Twitter is a great place to begin your journey as a would-be critic, learning to be concise but also getting your opinions published – and challenged.

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