With festival season in full swing and Express Media’s Buzzcuts writers working hard reviewing new art from festivals in Western Australia, Adelaide and Melbourne, we thought we’d take a look at the fundamentals of arts reviewing. Jane Howard, one of Australia’s best young arts and culture critics is here to take you through the steps of How to Write an Arts Review.
It’s the endless question that most critics don’t even have a solid answer to: who is a review for? The easiest answer, obviously, is “everyone”, but that’s cheating and we’re not here to do that. Reviews can be used by the artist for personal feedback, for pull-quotes for marketing, and to apply for grants. They can be for the potential audience member deciding what to spend their money on, or the former audience member who saw a show and wants to understand other perspectives. Reviews can create a historical record of a performance for people looking back, and individually can feed into a larger cultural dialogue that helps us understand the world we live in. These categories and readerships overlap, and each writer will have a different opinion on who they write for first.
What it all boils down to is the review as analysis: a capturing of what a work has tried to achieve, and your opinion of how successful it was in that aim. Here, I’m going to look at written reviews, but they can take many forms: audio or video; cat photos or emojis.
Context is Everything
One of the most important things to understand as a critic is where the artists are coming from: a comedy musical in a basement performance space can’t be judged by the same criteria as Wicked – they might both be musicals, but they have different aims and different audiences, they are made by different types of artists, and they have different budgets (and ticket prices!).
There are lots of questions you can ask yourself when approaching work. These might be as broad reaching as:
- Are they fresh graduates who are just starting to make work, or are they older artists with established careers?
- If the work seems misogynistic, is it made by an outspoken feminist artist and are they using this as a technique to make a point?
- Does the artist come from a particular cultural background that is informing their work?
- Is this work a remount of a classic play or musical, and as such does it understand how culture has changed?
From independent fringe work to big musicals, from pub gigs to arena spectaculars, the spectrum of work you will see is broad, and this context needs to be understood. You should demand more in terms of some elements from bigger budget shows, and it makes little sense to critique the lighting of a theatre performance in a converted office block. Saying this, all performances should strive for – and can achieve – the same emotional heights.
Context is particularly important when writing a negative review: a negative review can be more damaging and painful to the young artists, and your tone should reflect this; while a large, big-budget production can be held more accountable for misgivings.
While looking at the artists’ perspective, it’s important to understand your own perspective too. Once upon a time, the critic was an old, white man who kept his job at the one newspaper for decades, and he was considered the absolute arbiter of taste. The internet allows more voices than ever before to respond to work: and this means you can present your opinion as the nuanced take it is.
You might ask yourself:
- How does your gender, sexuality, cultural background or political background alter your reading of this show? Or what parts of this show might you not understand because of your cultural or political background?
- Do you have a science degree that allows you to understand where this drama about nuclear physics was inaccurate?
- Do you have a particular knowledge about this form of clowning?
Structuring Your Work
Even with the longest world count in the world, there will never be enough room to cover all of the elements of a performance – nor should you aim to. There’s never been more information available at our fingertips: if the theatre company’s website, or Wikipedia, recounts the plot, is this something you need to spend your time doing?
What a review should aim to do is capture something of what it felt like to sit in that room on that night. While many critics develop strong and distinctive voices, the best critics will be malleable with this voice, altering it to explore different types of production with the most honest voice for that work.
This malleability seeps through into the structure of reviews, and they are rarely written as topics being marked off on a checklist. But as a general guide a review might develop as:
Opening – setting the scene. Emotionally capturing something of the production; giving context to these artists or show.
What the show is: expanding on context
Specific elements singled out for praise.
Specific elements singled out for critique.
Throughout this, think of the various elements that go into making a work: direction, performances, lighting, set design, and sound. Think of how these things interacted with each other, and how they impacted you in the audience. When faced with limited space, you’ll often need to be selective about what you cover, but remember that leaving out mention of one factor can be used as a deliberate strategy: critique by omission.
Something to Consider
Mostly, the critic removes themselves explicitly from a review, talking in broader definitive statements about a work. The review, though, is still understood to be the single voice and opinion of a work: the “I think” is just left unsaid. But sometimes the best thing for the review is the presence of the critic. This might be because the critic is expressing an opinion that needs to be contextualised by their own experience outside the theatre, sometimes because the work is participatory and the individual’s experience must be spoken about.
Above all, you must always be honest in your reviews. The saying “Would you say it to someone’s face” is a fallacy – many of us act differently as writers than we do in social situations – but you should always be able to defend your position to someone’s face. This defence is borne of honesty.
Its fine to not know things: to not entirely know how a show made you feel or to not know what a show was trying to make you achieve – be honest about your uncertainty. As you continue writing, you’ll look back on early reviews and feel hopelessly embarrassed at your opinions or your expression of ideas, but if you know you were honest you’ll always be able to stand behind them and the person who wrote them, even when you’re not that person any more.
Jane Howard is an arts journalist and critic working throughout Australia and in the UK with a focus on performance. She is a contributing editor at Kill Your Darlings, and her work has appeared in publications including Guardian Australia, Edinburgh’s Fest Magazine, ABC Arts Online, and The Lifted Brow. She tweets as @noplain.
Want to start reviewing? Sign up for Express Media’s e-news, or keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter so you’ll be the first to know when applications for Buzzcuts throughout the year. Otherwise, contact your local street press magazine or student publication, who are usually always on the hunt for new writers.
Photo: Antennen 2, 2008 by Martin Fisch (CC)