The Nuts and Bolts of Writing Reviews

At the behest of The Companion, I’m holding forth today about my writing process – specifcally, how I write a theater review. The Companion has told me time and time again that she’s amazed (and sometimes baffled) at how easily I crank these out. To which I usually reply that it’s not so easy. There’s always the problem of deciding how much information about the show to include (due to either space limitations or the desire to not spoil anything); how many of the actors to mention; whether or not to even talk about the designers; and how to express one’s feelings about the show.

Despite all of these very common obstacles, I told The Companion that I’d made dealing with them easier for myself over time by adhering to a very strict, but basic, structure every time I write a review.

As a reader and audience member the first two things I always look for in a theater review are:

  • 1. What’s the show about?
  • 2. Did the reviewer like it?

As a reviewer, I use those two questions as my starting points every time. Paragraph 1 is usually reserved for what I call The Thesis Statement, in which I state what I thought of the show and why. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of my review for Theatre of the Expendable’s FringeNYC 2008 production of Mare Cognitum by David McGee (Editor’s Note: this review originally appeared on nytheatre.com and is copyright © The New York Theatre Experience, Inc.):

David McGee’s whimsical new play, Mare Cognitum, asks both its characters and its audience to take big leaps of faith. For the trio of twentysomethings at the center of this poignant dramedy, it’s a matter of believing in the possibility of positive change. Theatergoers, on the other hand, must believe in the magic of the theatre to transport them wherever it wants to. Whether it’s the characters or the audience (maybe—hopefully—it’s both), whoever takes those leaps will be treated to a unique and gratifying experience courtesy of this lovely new production from Theatre of the Expendable.

By starting a review this way, I automatically set myself up to prove (and possibly deepen) The Thesis Statement. So, in that sense, I’ve already given myself a loose structure that must be followed.

But before I do that I feel like I have to tell people what the show’s about. The second, third, and fourth paragraphs of the Mare Cognitum review follow as such:

“Mare Cognitum (the definition of which can be found here) wastes no time establishing its backdrop—a rally protesting some proposed-yet-unspecified government bombing—and its probing protagonists, three roommates who share an apartment. Impulsive Lena attends the protest with idealistic brio, her mantra being, “Think globally. Act locally.” Jeff intends to go but drags his heels and never leaves the house. Thomas, the resident skeptic, skips the rally and goes on a job interview instead. Together, they make up an intellectual triumvirate that debates, among other things, the effectiveness of organized protest, the banality of job interviews, and the therapeutic value of going to confession. (You can tell they’re all recent college graduates because they stretch ideas to their limits.)

“Then, the government starts dropping those bombs and the roommates become fed up with the world. So they build a homemade rocket ship and fly themselves to the moon.”

(For examples of addressing the need to sometimes explain what the show is – in addition to what it’s about – I refer you to the opening paragraphs of my reviews for the recent Off-Broadway productions of Rock of Ages and If You See Something, Say Something.)

Once the plot is laid out, I start talking about the writing, then the directing. In the case of Mare Cognitum, the events of the play rely on both the writer and the director being on the same figurative page, working together to decide how they want the audience to interpret them:

“Wait a minute. Do they really?

“Well, that’s up to the viewer. McGee and director Jesse Edward Rossbrow ingeniously construct the event to be interpreted either way. Whichever way the spectator goes with it hinges on whether one requires a logical explanation or not. (I, personally, found that I did not. I took the leap.) Regardless, Mare Cognitum follows the moon flight with a larger point about the noisy intrusiveness of modern life thwarting all attempts at such big dreaming.”

(Tangential side note: I tend to think of the designers’ work in tandem with the director’s since, for me, they all have to come up with the physical production – and the tangible, visual expression of the play’s themes – together, so oftentimes I will discuss all of these elements together. For an example of what I mean, check out the first paragraph of my review for Rabbit Hole Ensemble’s FringeNYC 2008 production of Big Thick Rod by Stanton Wood.)

Then, it’s on to the acting. Again, the problem of which actors to mention can sometimes be maddening. Other times, as in the case of Mare Cognitum, the cast is small enough that I can mention everyone (you’ll also note that, in this case, I lumped the lighting designer in with the cast – a necessity, I thought, considering the point I make at the top of the paragraph):

“The effectiveness of Theatre of the Expendable’s lovely production lies in the clarity and simplicity of its vision. Flashback events get re-enacted and locations seemingly change with almost no confusion thanks to Solomon Weisbard’s subtle and evocative lighting design, and Rossbrow’s lucid, confident direction. The acting follows suit with a funny and beautifully nuanced performance from Kyle Walters as Jeff. His expert work here, as a young man who wants to participate in life but can never quite find it in himself to join the fray, ought to put him on many a theatergoer’s future watch list. Devon Caraway excels as the spunky Lena, endowing her gung ho optimism with authenticity. As Thomas, Justin Howard brings up the rear with some well-played snarky pragmatism.”

After I’ve covered the writing, directing, design, and acting, I finally conclude with a recap of The Thesis Statement, hopefully giving the review a clean, concise button. Like so:

But, ultimately, Mare Cognitum is about faith and magic, and theatergoers who give in to either/or both will feel as if they’ve left this world for a time and flown to another.

Not every review I write conforms to this formula, nor can they. I bend the structure to the will and the demands of each show I review. These guidelines aren’t written in stone, and I try to keep them as fluid as I need them to be from review to review. But, whenever I get stuck on something they’re a great default because they always get me re-focused and back on track.

So, there you have it! To recap: the elements I use to structure my theater reviews are…

  • 1. An opening Thesis Statement
  • 2. A synopsis of the plot
  • 3. Discussion of the writing
  • 4. Discussion of the directing/production design
  • 5. Discussion of the acting
  • 6. Closing recap of The Thesis Statement

After she heard all of this, The Companion told me that she had no idea my reviews were that methodically regimented. To which I replied, “Good! If you can see the structure, the nuts and bolts of it, that means I’m doing something wrong.” And that, dear reader, is something I try to avoid at all costs.

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3 Responses to The Nuts and Bolts of Writing Reviews

  1. James says:

    This is excellent, sir. And required reading for anyone who wants to write reviews.

  2. Heather says:

    Hmmm… I think of it more like the first paragraph is my first impression/reaction post-play experience, then I explain what the play was about, felt like etc. and where I got that impression from in the middle. In high school I had an English teacher who said your closing paragraph should always answer the question “So what?” so I prefer/endeavor not to re-cap the beginning at the end whenever possible, but to end the journey in a different place than where I was when I started writing/mulling/examining. How is the play relevant? What effect did it have on me that might stick? What did I learn from watching it? Why should anyone care about this piece of theater? So what?

  3. James: thank you for the kind words, sir. You’re a gentleman and a scholar.

    Heather: I agree with you about the “So what?” I grew up with that point of view being strongly advocated by my parents. I guess I think (or at least hope) that by following my tried-and-true structure for writing a review I’ll end up answering that question by happy accident without actually asking it. However, I may borrow your strategy in the future if I hit the writer’s block wall!
    : )

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