I Have Only 100, 200, 300 Words. How Do I Write a Fair Review?

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On Performance Monkey, a nifty, jazzy blog by a Londoner named David Jay that I have been following, there is a post about a problem I have often faced myself as a theate critic: insufficient word count to cover everything I’d like to write. Jay, who is freelancing for the Sunday Times in Merrie Olde Elizabethland, says one of his critical “pleasures” is “collecting gemstone performances in smaller roles.” But there’s rarely a chance to include them in his pieces.

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Buster, get in line. At Back Stage, a review is 300 words; during the years I served as first-string critic, I was allowed up to 500 words. For New York Press, I’ve gone as long as 900 words. Both are absolute luxuries if your name doesn’t happen to be John Lahr, Hilton Als, Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood.

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(As a side note, the column inches those gentlemen receive leaves me scratching my head. Not because long-form reviewing is anathama; if you’ve read even a few of my 1,350+ posts on The Clyde Fitch Report, you know I adore the opportunity to pour our 1,000, 3,000, even 5,000 words on a topic. But in this troubling era of drastically shrinking coverage and steadily declining column inches, when I see The New Yorker devoting two pages to one production — virtually never outside of New York — it strikes me as a critical case of cataclysmic myopia. Are they collectively that clueless regarding how much work there is out there? For heaven’s sake, if Peter Schjeldahl can caravan all over God’s green earth in search of great art reviews, how about we help Als rack up some serious frequent flyer miles on behalf of the regional hinterlands? Then again, given the volume of Charles Isherwood’s travels, perhaps I should omit him from my list of the enviably ensconced.)

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But back to Jay’s post, which laments those aforementioned “gemstones” — those performances that seem delightful, delicious, delectable, pick your D, but which simply cannot be included or even touched upon in the final cut. These are the actors, Jay rightly notes, who “may not carry a play” but who nevertheless “nuance it, colour its atmosphere in almost imperceptible ways.”

Without analyzing Jay’s writing skills (I assume his chops are solid), this is where craft trumps art as the engine that powers the critical motorcar to the finish line. In my own reviews, especially when it comes to examining new plays, my definite tendency is to focus overly on the play itself — just the implications of that sentence, by the way, suggests what a sad state of affairs we’re at to begin with.

Performers, however, unquestionably deserve their due, don’t they? And what of that other constituency that few critics consistently or adequately acknowledge — designers? When was the last time you read a mainstream-media or blogger-written theater review and felt to your core, to the root of your instinct, that the analysis of the sound design was insightful or descriptive enough to be memorable, not perfunctory? We don’t teach critics how to cover all bases thoroughly — and let me tell you, as a 2004 Fellow and now as a teacher at the Critics’ Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the idea is to make sure you can analyze something as slippery as sound design with all the might and all the heft and all the quality of how actors are blocked around a stage, or how the playwright devised that conceit.

No doubt one reason critics often fail to adequately cover certain aspects of productions is that in the unlikely event eidtors are paying for a byline, they’ll never have the word count to tend to such subjects anyway. Our contemporary theater criticism is like choosing between food and medicine when there’s only money enough for one or the other. It is no way to write and no way to run our theater.

I do think that one remedy, and it’s not an especially great one, is to master the condensed phrase. There have been times when I took twice as long with a review as would be ordinarily necessarily because I spent a great deal of time determining out how to distill five- and six-word phrases into two- and three-word bits; if you can come up with five or six of those, suddenly you have an extra 20 words, which in Leonardspeak is about a sentence and a half. Or, to use the metaphor I was employing above, you cut back on your calories and swallow half a pill.

Bravo to Jay, though, for holding onto some of his gemstones and articulating them in his blog. That is, after all, what a blog is ideally for. Indeed, it’s paragraphs like this that turn me into an admirer but equally make me gloomy:

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Last week, for example, I loved Becky Hindley in Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba in Southampton. She has done tons of great work on British radio, so it was great to attach a (strong, resolute) face to the name. But there wasn’t room for a mention – she wasn’t playing the terrifying Bernarda or one of her cowed daughters, or even the household’s principal servant, all of whom had apparently more significant roles. But Hindley’s maid, dog tired and raw with resentment, did much to establish the play’s atmosphere of seething entrapment – everyone hates Bernarda, but no one dares defy her. Hindley’s wordless cleaning and pacing before the play proper begins makes this clear.

There’s this paragraph, too:

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Servants often get cut out of short reviews. It perpetuates vile class inequalities, but how do you judge between a supporting role and a set design (I often aim to mention the lighting designer, but there’s another frequently lost cause)? Come the revolution, I’ll be sorry (though on that blessed day, we’ll also remember that the poshest character doesn’t necessarily deserve the greatest stage time and the rewrites will begin). In the meantime, I wish I’d had room to hurrah Stephanie Jacob‘s lovely performance in Burnt by the Sun at the National Theatre: another maid who brought on atmosphere along with the tea, this time as a lachrymose retainer, subject to titters from the genteel family she worked for, her soft face creasing with tears, neglect and shy smiles.

That’s last sentence in particular is really lovely writing, if you ask me. Meantime, pity the poor critic of tomorrow who be forced to microblog The Wild Duck or the Ring Cycle on Twitter. Forget how gifted or clever or passionate a critic is: at a limit of 140 characters, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade is 10 characters over the alloted budget. So Marat/Sade will have to do, as is customary. Or maybe just M/S.

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