March 14, 2014, by Eve

The Commoners Guide To How to Be An Impact Reviewer

People often ask me, people sometimes ask me… somebody asked me once: so how do you write a theatre review for a student magazine?

Step One: Pop along to whichever Nottingham theatre you are reviewing at, maybe bring along a friend for company or maybe just a large bag of chocolate buttons will suffice. March up to the reception and pronounce the words ‘Hi, I’m from Impact Magazine’ with as much gusto and pomp as you can muster. The name itself will cause them to shiver and stutter! The Great Judgmental One, the reviewer, has just arrived! They will then, shaking from top to toe, hand you your complimentary ticket and bow you on your way.

Step Two: Enter the auditorium, take a superior look around at the common theatre punters and take your well-positioned seat with an air of authority. The theatre curtain, on the stages of Nottingham at least, is no longer fashionable and you will thus be presented with the set, pre-performance. As far as the reviewer is concerned, the show has now begun. Nothing on stage is ever accidental – what did the director want to achieve from orchestrating the set as they have? If there are actors of stage why is it important for us to see them now? What is the effect? To extenuate the realism of the piece? – have we sat down and peered into another world, living and breathing even before we enter the theatre? Or are we reminded of the theatricality of the piece? Is the stage being prepared before us? What are your initial impressions? (without looking at the programme – cheeky!) is this a comedy? Tragedy? Imp-Kit-Sik-Com? (Improvised Kitchen Sink Comedy – which are rather rare). The impressions and expectations which are formulated in the audiences mind from this initial pre-show set have a tremendous effect on their satisfaction during the production.

Step Three: The show begins. Turn off all phones, ipads, ipods, alarm clocks and metronomes. As monotonous as it is, reviewers must have a basic check list of theatrical elements – acting, design, script, direction- it does not mean that a review should necessarily be ordered in such a strict manner. Interestingly, many student reviewers forget the ‘direction’ as an element to be judged, and sometimes blame the actors for poor blocking or proxemics; someone has spent ages decided who should stand where, when someone should shout, why a chair should represent a bus stop. A couple of further elements, which are sometimes mislaid, are pace, energy, atmosphere and meaning – what’s going on and why is it going on? And this relates to both theatrical techniques and plot points.

A word on taking notes: I personally do not like taking notes during the performance, I may jot down a couple lines in the interval, but on the whole I look on note taking as rather counterproductive – firstly, it prevents you from watching the stage (generally the main focus for the reviewer) and, secondly, it eliminates any assessment on ‘what stood out’ which, by its nature, means ‘what did you remember most’. If only remember a couple of features from the production than it stands to reason that ‘not a lot stood out’, for either you or the general audience member.

Step Four: You rush home, bubbling with ideas, and sit down at your type-writer (or laptop) and start plonking away. But don’t plonk too much – the word count is only 400-700. Try and describe (but without giving away too much) but try also to analyse and judge as you describe. Remember you are always trying to answer just two main questions ‘did I like it?’ and ‘would I recommend someone to see it’? Reviews are personal – you are not trying to tap into the collective mind of the audience, for one thing there is no such thing, and for another you might as well write ‘from all of us’ at the end! I am a loud supporter of the ‘I’ – be bold with your opinions, but be fair. Always remember to acknowledge, even you didn’t like the play at all, the kind of person it would appeal to: ‘if you like happy endings, don’t see this play!’ or ‘if you like peanut butter and jam sandwiches – this is the play for you!’ (I am yet to see a play which falls into this second category). And finally, be an entertaining and engaging writer – theatre is entertainment and a theatre review should reflect this- give your writing a bit of spirit, a bit of spunk, no one wants to read a dull review.

Step Five: Exhausted, feeling like you can never face an adjective again, you email the review by 10am the next day– with a handy little star rating, adhering, as is our new custom, to the necessary specifications:

1 star = dreadful, wanted to walk out in the interval

2 stars = acceptable, but boring

3 stars =a promising work-in-progress

4 stars =excellent, highly enjoyable

5 stars = unmissable

And sit back and relax, awaiting the usual messages from colleges and friends – ‘great review – I’ll see the play!’ or ‘swell review – you slaughtered them!’ – and the theatrical array – ‘you’ve ruined my career!’ and ‘you’ve made my career!’ – and enjoy the self-fulfilling, smug-natured feeling of being a certified, Impact Reviewer.

Posted in Eve