Last week I judged a school student theatre review competition.
It was run by a company which specialises in high quality issues-inspired plays performed mostly in secondary schools. The company had invited teenagers who’d seen a specific production to submit a review for the competition. I was asked to judge from a final shortlist of five.
It was an interesting task which left me reflecting on how reviews should be written — and how you learn to do them.
Here are some thoughts for anyone else thinking of entering a reviews competition or trying to get work in the foothills of reviewing:
1. The best possible training for any sort of writing is to read as many examples of the genre written by experienced people as you can.
That way you absorb the conventions and possible approaches. You won’t write, say, a decent novel, play or poem unless you’ve read plenty of novels, plays or poems. And exactly the same principle applies to theatre reviewing. So get reading. My colleague Mark Shenton writes some wonderful ones for The Stage. Or read Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, Michael Billington in The Guardian or Libby Purves in The Times and there are many others. Another very useful exercise is to read several reviews of the same play to see how different reviewers tackle it.
2. As a reviewer, your first task is to assess it as a piece of theatre.
That means commenting on directorial decisions, quality of acting, sets and other designs and how well it hangs together and tells a story. Every good play deals with ‘issues’ and makes you think, but you really shouldn’t use nine tenths of your space in a review of King Lear for your thoughts and feelings about dementia and abuse of the elderly. Neither would it be appropriate in a review of Death of a Salesman to discourse at length about family values and failed ambition. So don’t get distracted. Write about what you see and hear in the theatre and how effective it is — or otherwise.
3. Reviewing is a form of journalism.
Like all the best journalism, a review is almost always better written in concise sentences and arranged in paragraphs which can be quite short. Unparagraphed writing gives the impression of random thoughts hurled down on paper in any old order.
4. Never use a long word if a short one will do.
Do not write ‘commence’ instead of ‘start’, ‘stated’ instead of ‘said’, or ‘residence’ instead of ‘house’, ‘flat’ or ‘home’. It won’t make your writing sound more formal or posh, but risks turning it into something horrible, murky and convoluted. You also run the risk of misusing words whose meaning you only half know and accidentally turning yourself into Mrs Malaprop. Every good writer has a dictionary within reach. (I have one in every room in the house but that may be a bit excessive…)
5. Get your punctuation right.
End sentences with full stops and be sparing with commas. There are plenty of good how-to-punctuate books about. Keep one by your side if you’re not a confident and accurate grammarian.
Editor’s note: At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe The Stage will once again be partnering with The U-Review’s Student Reviewing Scheme. The U-Review is looking for six writers to join the 2012 scheme. For more details and to submit an application, go to www.the-u-review.co.uk.