Writing About An Elusive Art – Part 1

One topic that keeps coming up over here at nytheatre.com HQ is how to write about a director’s contribution to a given show in a review. My colleagues and I continue to scratch our heads over this one. Writing about the art of directing can be one of the hardest and most elusive things about theatre reviewing. Even those of us who have directed struggle with it. Personally, I know what goes into directing a show, but it differs from person to person and from show to show. How I do it won’t be the same as how someone else does it. And one’s level of involvement with certain elements can sometimes vary from one project to the next, as well as one’s level of personal and emotional investment. As a reviewer, there’s really no way of knowing who came up with that piece of blocking, or whose decision it was to make the set do that cool little thing, without actually being in the rehearsal room. I can only draw conclusions based on what’s on stage. By that time, it should all theoretically be flowing into one seamless whole.

So, I decided to look at this issue from a different point of view: what do directors want to get out of a review? Constructive artistic criticism? Good blurb copy? Both? Neither? I thought I’d get a director’s take on it, and asked Isaac Butler for his two cents.  Isaac is a gifted and inventive director who has helmed such projects as Clay McLeod Chapman’s volume of smoke, and In Private/In Public by George Hunka. Isaac also writes a passionate and thought-provoking blog of his own called Parabasis (which can be found on the ol’ blogroll).

Isaac was good enough to answer a couple of questions about this, but prefaced them with some preliminary thoughts that called for a blog entry of their own. Here’s what he had to say:


These are surprisingly tough questions, given how basic they are. Part of the problem is that the director’s contribution/role in the whole thing is in general almost completely disregarded, not out of malice or anything. Generally, I think it comes from a lack of understanding. Andre Bishop once told the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab something that I quote on my blog a lot, namely, Look, a lot of people don’t understand what you do. They think if the actors spoke quickly and articulated well and the set changes were pretty that a play was well-directed. When I was at Playwrights Horizons, we’d see reviews of plays that had been remounted, that had been panned in their original production, and the reviewers would talk about how great the rewrites were. The script hadn’t changed. The director had. (That’s obviously paraphrasing.)

Unfortuantely in reviews now, I think we’re moving even further in the same direction. Now we’re not just disregarding directors, we’re disregarding basically everything other than the script. So a review’s entire focus (unless the play has a real star turn in it) is on the script. The reviewer critiques the script as if he or she were reading it. And then what you get is a series of one-offs that look like the following (Tell me if this looks familiar or not, maybe you’ve even written them yourself!):

The cast is uniformly excellent/good.

The actors try valiantly to save Martin Crumblebottom’s script. The stand-out in this effort is Melissa Fakelastname.

Briskly directed by…

The set, by XYZ draws on ABC to evoke TYL.

And on and on and on. These one sentence mentions, where the rest reads like a book report.

This is a problem. I think even our dear, beleaguered writers would like the focus to be more on the production as a whole. Acting, writing, design, directing, they all affect each other.

Interesting stuff. And, yes, such one-offs as he mentions do look familiar. However, whether or not I have ever indulged in the use of any, only the nytheatre.com review archive knows for sure.

I’ll have more with Isaac tomorrow. But, don’t let that stop you from adding your two cents on this subject right now.


One Response to Writing About An Elusive Art – Part 1

  1. Martin says:


    You will probably get this link elsewhere, but just in case, see Matt Johnston’s post today on this subject:
    It’s very interesting and right to the point.

    One thing to keep in mind is that a review does not need to be, in my opinion, an assessment of how good a job everyone did. The reviews I like to read are the ones that react to the content of a play or musical. If a director and all his/her collaborators do their work really well, that’s what they’ll leave the audience with.

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