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NYTCriticWatch.com asks

What do we actually want from a theater review?

New York Times Critic Watch is a research project designed to analyse the tone, temper, and trends in theatre reviews of new work from the field’s top cultural print outlet during one calendar year. What do we actually want from a theatre review?

Here's a catalogue of desires from a few sides:

Theatre Producers and Practitioners
Theatre producers and practitioners want more publicity for their production. A picture in the paper. A headline. They want a good review—something that they can excerpt for their e-blasts, websites, or postcards. They want a review that takes their hard work, experience, and specific artistic goals for the production into consideration. They want to help audiences prepare for the show. They want the show's surprises to be kept surprises. They want biases to be fairly aired—if a reviewer has always hated musicals (or the Midwest), that should be noted in their review of Oklahoma! They want individual achievements to be noted—a particular mention of a good performance, design, or score helps individual artists secure further work. They want to keep their jobs and their theatres open. They want to grow their patronage. They want to grow as artists.

Readers
Readers want a sense of what's going on in their community. A picture. A headline. They want to know what they should see and what they shouldn't waste money or time on. They want to know what's cool, what's relevant, and what's going to be fun. They want to know what kind of play it is and what kind of person might like it (is this a play they could take their kids, work friends, or grandparents to?). They also want a sense of bias—they might love musicals (and the Midwest) and wouldn't want to miss a good Oklahoma! because of a biased review.

Reviewers
Reviewers want to tell the truth. They want to communicate their experience accurately. They want to be able to stand by their published review. They want to keep their jobs. They want their opinion to matter to the community. They want to write well and be readable.

 

Do readers actually want to have a reviewer decide if they should go see a show? Or do they just want to know about the artists and stories from an unjudged perspective?

 

Questions We Have
Do theatre producers and practitioners actually want feedback? Do they actually want to be reviewed? Or do they just want free press to sell tickets? Do readers actually want to have a reviewer decide if they should go see a show? Or do they just want to know about the artists and stories from an unjudged perspective? Do they actually want to be a part of the theatre community or outside of it? Are they writing for the theatre community or their readers or both? Do they want their reviews to be considered helpful criticism or simply a thumbs up/down? Do reviewers want feedback for their reviews? These are some of the higher level questions we're trying to answer. If you're interested in helping out, consider taking a few minutes to help us by completing a short survey here. Your participation and answers will be anonymous and used only for mapping trends and systematic analysis.

Thoughts from the curator

A reader-fueled experiment attempting to chart the NYT's effect on American theatre.

New York Times Critic Watch Project

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As a "producer/practitioner" I want to slow the trend of producing plays that don't interest mainstream audiences. Critics can help!

Ignoring good productions of well-written plays keeps potential audiences in the dark (pardon the pun) about shows they might enjoy.

Good reviews of odd shows that will only be interesting to people who write plays/reviews will send audiences to a show they won't enjoy -- and maybe turn audience members off of theatre for good.

Dear Critics, please DON'T

Dismiss classics: Just because you've seen 20 productions of HAMLET, doesn't mean that the 17-year-old next to you has -- to a significant portion of the audience, this classic is brand-new.

Embrace weirdness-for-weirdness's sake: We get it -- you're jaded. But if you are so bored by theatre that only something truly weird will get your attention, perhaps its time to find another profession.

Dismiss entertainment: Remember, ALL art begins as entertainment. Pleasing an audience wasn't beneath Sophocles or Shakespeare, Marlowe or Moliere. Keeping an audience entertained doesn't mean dumb, simplistic plays (note the playwrights I just listed); it means interesting characters in interesting situations.

Review from a political point of view: You and I probably share similar, liberal views. But even an audience that agrees with you politically will be bored by one dimensional agit prop plays. If you find yourself review one of these plays, please be frank about it.

Foist unfinished material on an unsuspecting public: Often I've read reviews that simultaneously praise a play and say it's confusing, badly written and just plain not ready. Bad mistake! Audience members buy tickets, see the show, are disappointed and don't go the the next show. If the show isn't ready, please come right out and say it in the review.

As an actor,I would value a reviewer to have a background of knowledge and love of Theatre . One who encourages a community of dialogue with the audience and gives respect to all with an honest appraisal.

As a consumer, reader, and practitioner, I want reviews to be informed. Do you know the history and have context for the aesthetic of the play you are reviewing? If you are unfamiliar with a particular aesthetic, genre, or style, are you honest in your limitations as a reviewer of that work? I do not want to read a review that is culturally or aesthetically biased without fair warning that I am reading from that very limited perspective. I want reviews to be well-rounded, and specific about the world of the play and not written from a place of un-checked ego or a dismissive attitude. I want reviews to be written and informed by more people of color. The scope and range of perspective in reviews is far too narrow, and seems mostly based on a Euro-centric barometer of theater. That is not the only model for theater in the U.S., and if a work is rooted in another tradition and history, I want the reviewer to be educated about these things or otherwise be transparent about their ignorance. I want to hear how the audiences are responding, so that the scope of the review is broadened. I want a full report of the theatrical experience and not just a narrow opinion (good or bad) of the play. I want to hear opposing thoughts (if the reviewer encountered any) so that I can have context for the reviewer's opinion. Most importantly, I want to read reviews that encourage patronage to the theater. Rather than aiming for one opinion to be God, I'd rather a reviewer intrigue audiences to engage their opinion in further discourse, thereby encouraging a community of dialogue, rather than assume a very elitist approach to the theater.

As a consumer, I want to read reviews that are informative - that tell me something about the playwright, that might put the play in historical contact, and that give me a sense of the play. I do not want to read a long history of the playwright's past plays and what the reviewer thinks of them. I do not want to read a snarky review that sounds more like the critic trying to be clever, and less like a report on the play.

As a theater professional, I want to read intelligent reviews of the play that give ticket buyers an idea of what they will experience. If the critic doesn't like it, but the audience around her is loving it, then I think that should be pointed out. If no one is liking it, I would like to hear thoughts on what is wrong.

Most of all, I want to read a respectful review - one that takes into account the effort, money and passion that went into the production, be it successful or not.