Writing About Theater

Last month I had an opportunity to attend an evening get-together with a group of volunteers with the League of Cincinnati Theatres who are writing regularly about local productions, providing previews of shows as well as critiques.

Jan 6, 2016 at 1:57 pm

Last month I had an opportunity to attend an evening get-together with a group of volunteers with the League of Cincinnati Theatres who are writing regularly about local productions, providing previews of shows as well as critiques — all of which can be found at LCT’s website, leagueofcincytheatres.info, under the header “2016 Stage Insight Reviews.” There’s less local theater coverage by Cincinnati media than there once was: I’m still writing for CityBeat (thank goodness) and David Lyman provides insightful reviews for The Enquirer, but I believe more opinions are always valuable, so I suggest that you to check out the commentaries written by LCT’s dedicated theater enthusiasts.

Their reviews are the product of an initiative intended to attract audiences to local theaters, so they tend to be positive. That is the point, after all, of a website that promotes theatergoing. But having read many of their commentaries and essays, I will point out that not all writers agree in their assessments of specific shows.

That’s OK by me: Criticism is the process of rendering opinions, and different people react to shows in different ways. What’s more, theater is a live art form with different audiences every time — things can change from one performance to the next. A review is typically a report on a specific performance, often opening night, when things might not go perfectly. A show is likely to evolve if it’s onstage for more than a week.

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of seeing a movie and discussing it afterward with someone else who saw it. Ever wondered if you were at the same film? Maybe you have different tastes or preferences; maybe you were in a good (or bad) mood when you watched. Don’t be surprised if you read reviews by the LCT volunteers — or anyone else — that express differing opinions.

I recommend taking some time to see if you can rely on a reviewer’s insights. Does she or he assess aspects of a show you care about? If you’re unfamiliar with a show, once you’ve read a review, do you think you’d like to see it? Did you get enough information? Maybe too much? Over time you might come to rely on a reviewer’s comments and feel confident that a recommendation is worth pursuing.

I’m not an LCT volunteer, but I do meet with them occasionally to discuss what it means to be a reviewer. I’ve covered Cincinnati theater for three decades, and I’m a past chair of the American Theatre Critics Association — I can speak with some authority about what’s involved in writing about theater in ways that readers appreciate.

I always try to keep my particular readers in mind. CityBeat readers are probably interested in the arts, but they don’t see every production at every theater in town — which I do. They want to know what’s worth seeing — and why. That’s what I try to express in my reviews, offering some description and some evaluation.

No theater company, director or actor sets out to do a poor job. But not everyone succeeds, either. Even if a show has flaws, there are usually aspects worth seeing. I point out those and explain why they worked for me. That’s a “glass-is-half-full” approach to criticism, but I think it works.

Of course, I can’t ignore a problem with a theatrical production. In fact, it’s my duty as a commentator to point out if something doesn’t work or a show isn’t completely satisfying. If someone reads a delicately written review that avoids addressing a problem and then sees a show that’s not working, they are likely to question the reviewer’s credibility. So it’s important to assess a theatrical production comprehensively.

It’s especially important to focus on the show that’s onstage, not on what I expected to see or what’s been done when the show was produced elsewhere. Saying that a musical doesn’t live up to its original Broadway production is an empty observation: Most local theaters don’t have budgets to stage shows on that scale. But our excellent Cincinnati theaters are frequently creative and innovative, using talented performers and crews to present shows that are satisfying.

That’s the kind of theater work that I try to shine a light on. I’m confident that’s what the LCT volunteers are doing, too. I urge you to check out their coverage.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]