The Basics of Theatre Criticism

The Parking Lot Rule

As a field, theatre criticism finds itself at a pivotal juncture. With the continued trend of print media moving towards skeletal arts criticism, much of the field has migrated to online platforms: blogs of varying types (from organizational to personal), Facebook, Yelp, Google, even Twitter.

The presence of these amateur critique platforms and their ubiquitousness means that the age-old adage is truer now than it has ever been: everyone’s a critic. Ease of access not just to the product of criticism but also to the means of criticism devalues the very notion of well-written, professionally trained critique and empowers every audience member to consider themselves a critic. How is the average theatregoer to sort quality from digital noise and (perhaps more importantly) support those who create high level critiques? Education is key—not just for the would-be theatre critics but for audience members in general.

What’s at Stake

In many ways, professional criticism is the cornerstone of an arts community. As a professional critic, theatre artist, and professor of theatre, I see criticism’s place in theatre as several-fold:

  1. To provide publicity for the considered production.
  2. To trigger conversation about a specific piece of art with the greater theatregoing community.
  3. To provide press clips for the actors and designers as a means to ensure future employment.
  4. To give audiences a sense of the show, its strengths, and its weaknesses, which in turn allows theatregoers to make more educated decisions about how they spend their time and money.
     

Most of these points also provide legitimacy to the considered piece and the company doing it. It is one thing to simply produce a show, but quite another to have the world take notice of it. In April 2015, UK critic Mark Shenton noted: “reviews act as a permanent record of an ephemeral art, and they also encourage people to attend and support it before it passes. We lose that at our peril. And artists are realising it, even if editors and proprietors aren’t.” Shenton’s pontifications highlight a fear that critics feel weightily: the dissolution of professional criticism as a field.

A January 2017 article for the Columbia Journalism Review written by longtime Boston Herald theatre critic Jed Gottlieb outlines this trend and its consequences. Digitization is problematic not just for critics who see danger for the longevity of their vocation, but also for arts organizations that feel the pressures of proving their legitimacy. Even in the digital world, print media still enjoys a privilege that digital media does not, and that privilege has a great deal to do with perception.

The presence of these amateur critique platforms and their ubiquitousness means that the age-old adage is truer now than it has ever been: everyone’s a critic.

In his February 2014 contribution to the International Association of Theatre Critics web journal Critical Stages, managing editor of the Utah Theatre Bloggers Association Russell T. Warne discusses the paradigm of web reviews and the prevalence of amateur critics writing reviews of theatrical productions. In so doing, Warne proposes two categories for such writers: “reviewer” (implying a non-professional author who is not a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, ATCA) and “critic” (implying someone who critiques professionally). Warne’s article also highlights the nuance and complications of web reviews. The major takeaways ring true: it’s not that web reviews are bad—far from it. Online reviewing platforms increase the possibility of critique for productions and allow audience members from many walks of life to participate in the process. There is an important “but” here: serious online theatre reviews must be subject to the same critical scrutiny that print reviews are. This returns to my above-mentioned notion of widespread education: in an age of instant-gratification reviewing, amateur critics (or “reviewers,” as Warne would call them) need careful training to healthfully participate in the system of critique in a useful and productive way.

In my role as a clinical assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, I introduce theatre students in my 101 class to the basics of criticism as it relates to the art of theatremaking. These students are beginners to theatre; some of them have never seen a play before they come to my class. Despite this, they are all avid amateur critics. They have used some form of critical platform before and they are experts in making snap judgments about the things they see, what is “good,” and what is worth anyone’s time. There’s a fundamental tool I introduce them to which I believe could pave the way towards audience education regarding criticism.

The Parking Lot Rule

As a critic, I developed an important basic principle that I always abide by and teach my students to do the same. I call it the parking lot rule. The parking lot rule dictates that when you are seeing a show, you should obey the same general rules of critique that you might use when eating a home-cooked meal as a guest in someone else’s house. While you’re in the theatre itself, you should only say glowing, positive things about the production.

This is not to say that you need to fabricate glowing positive things to say about a lackluster performance, but it is very rare that a show has nothing to speak well of. There are so many parts that go into a finished production—at least one of them will warrant praise of some variety. Hold on to the criticism until you reach the parking lot. This fulfills several important facets of decorum, but also abides by good old-fashioned manners: you would never insult someone’s cooking while sitting at their dinner table. The parking lot rule gives the viewer space and time to process their critique, both the negative and positive. Knee-jerk reactions like “I didn’t like that” can simmer as the reviewer teases out what underlying causes led to their reaction. Additionally, it forces someone to truly think about what’s going well before hammering on what went poorly. Defaulting to the positive encourages unpacking nuance; rather than becoming stuck on large sweeping negative impressions, the viewer is asked to instead pull out the threads that contribute to theatrical production. They are asked to see pieces of the puzzle rather than the finished product as one macrocosm.

The parking lot rule gives the viewer space and time to process their critique, both the negative and positive. Knee-jerk reactions like “I didn’t like that” can simmer as the reviewer teases out what underlying causes led to their reaction.

This is a skill that takes practice. For most, especially those with minimal experience unpacking theatre, it does not come naturally. As a pedagogical practice, it also sensitizes the students to elements of theatrical production: What specific choice are they reacting to? Which member of the design team made that choice? Who might have adjusted to compensate for the choice, or shifted a production element to satisfactorily accommodate it? What might a more effective choice have been? Learning the theatre is about so much more than looking at a finished product with admiration (or disgust), and the parking lot rule can help audiences better understand the cogs in the machine through experiential practice rather than rote memorization.

From a big-picture perspective, the parking lot rule inspires critical thought (truly the key to good criticism). It’s not enough to note that something did not work. If a critic is going to go to lengths to publish, in writing, a negative critique of someone’s hard artistic labor, they should make that critique the work of careful attentiveness rather than spur-of-the-moment judgment. Each artist wants to create something great. If you want them to succeed, you need to be vigilantly aware of your own thoughts and expectations of art.

For undergrads living in the age of instant gratification and snap decision-making, the parking lot rule is a valuable tool in the arsenal of critical thinking. It teaches the amateur critic that it is not okay to dump their negative impressions on a page without digging into the “why.” While feedback is important, there is feedback that is more useful and feedback that is less useful. A well-crafted critique will not only tell the audience what to expect from a piece, but will also tell the theatremakers why the critic saw it the way they did. Additionally, this kind of education helps audiences begin to think about the critiques they take in as well as those they put out. Understanding the thought that goes into a critique is the first step towards recognizing when something is a fair piece of critical prose and when something is slapdash or thoughtless. This, in turn, is the first step towards public recognition of professional criticism as worthwhile and valuable.

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Surely this article is tongue in cheek. We are not here to provide publicity nor add to people resume We do not sugar coat and find the positive. We are arbiters of standards and come to the writing desk with credentials. This article goes against the ethics of every professional critics creed across the globe