Author, Speaker, Theater Critic

Confessions of a Theater Critic Part 2: The Lessons



The new theater season is upon us, which means life is becoming even busier these days. Yet this annual return to the theater feeds my creative side and teaches me something new about the arts, the world and myself.

With my first review of the season under my belt, I take a deep breath and hang on to my pen and notepad! More productions will be on their way, which not only means a crazier schedule, but more opportunities to experience theater magic.

In honor of this magic, this week I share with you several thoughts generated from past theater experiences.

Lessons from the Footlights

  • An appreciation of farce. I’ve never been a fan of The Three Stooges, most Jim Carrey movies, or silly cartoons. Screams, slamming doors, and general silliness make me cringe. While it’s still not my favorite theater genre, I’ve experienced enough quality performances to develop respect for the razor sharp timing, on-stage chemistry between performers, and daring it takes to make farce work.
  • The show really must go on! Dedication, tenacity, sheer stubbornness – and a love of the stage, enable shows to continue despite a flu bug attacking a third of the cast, equipment failure, wardrobe malfunction, intense fatigue and personal crisis. Usually I hear about these after the fact. Yep, Prince Charming didn’t seem thrilled to kiss Cinderella because he had the flu and didn’t want to share the bug. But she raised her lips to his anyway! That’s commitment to the craft.
  • It’s natural to have favorite actors, but it’s also imperative – and possible – to be objective in a review. Yes, I smile when I see certain names among the cast list because I know they will add certain flair to the production, no matter the genre. But I still look at their performances with a critical eye. These are the actors who proved to me that it’s also possible to dislike the play but still be impressed by specific performances.
  • Don’t discount smaller theaters who manage to stage quality shows – albeit perhaps with less glitz and glamour – without a paid staff, fewer volunteers, and very little money. Often these theaters charge less for tickets, offering an unbeatable entertainment value.
  • Honesty is important. I wish I could give all performances a stellar review, but sometimes criticism is unavoidable. To give a great review to a mediocre performance not only undermines my credibility, but does a disservice to readers who look to reviews when determining where to spend their entertainment dollars.
  • Just as a reviewer won’t be enamored of every show, not all readers or actors will be thrilled with every review. I’ve seen snarky remarks on Facebook and not-so-kind letters to the editor in response to reviews. The silver lining is the thicker skin I’ve developed from reading them.

The “Shoe on the Other Foot” Thing

One particularly negative letter to the editor zinged me for, among other things, focusing only on the lead actors and not mentioning those in smaller roles. Although I did mention the designers in the review, the writer pointed out the importance of the stage manager and other technicians.

Point well taken.

My editor noticed an increase in the length of my reviews after she received that letter. I took a marked notice in smaller but well-played roles and highlighted the efforts of young actors. In musicals, I credited the music director and pit musicians.

Although I took awhile to admit it, I learned a lot from that letter.

It prepared me for life as an author in the Internet Age.

Just as I’m not wild about every performance I see, not everyone appreciates my books.

Negative book reviews can sting, but I don’t take them personally. The reviewer may not like my book, but he or she has no idea who I am as a person. I try to compare the book reviewer to my role as a theater critic: Just because I don’t appreciate an aspect of the play doesn’t invalidate the entire production.

I do, however, use negative book reviews as an opportunity to learn. While I don’t dwell on them, I DO consider negative comments and consider using them as tools to evaluate my writing and make it better.

Writing theater reviews has made me a stronger person, better writer and more appreciative theater patron, and for this I thank everyone who has been a part of a production I’ve reviewed.



1 Comment

  1. Stella Heath, Ritz Theatre

    Great read, Donna. You are always fair in your writings.

    One day, I want to interview you and unlock those many years of knowledge locked inside.

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