Tag Archives: theater

Negative Reviews

“Doesn’t the review bother you?” I was asked following a rather harsh criticism of a musical play that premiered this summer (2014). “It didn’t even explain what the critic disliked very well.”

Yes, the review bothered me, and I certainly agreed with my theater colleague that the review could have been more helpful, but every review is helpful to some extent. Some are simply more helpful than others.

A negative review tell you that something might be wrong with a work. It might not be, but critics at regional and national publications tend to know something about their specialties. In this instance, the reviewer is a playwright, so ignoring his views would be shortsighted. However, critics also have biases, and this critic hasn’t demonstrated the greatest understanding of new work development in our small city. Shoestring theater seldom enables perfection, and even less often provides active development processes.

When you read a review, skip the snark. Reviewers seem to love demonstrating how smart they are, and how cynical they’ve become. Ignore the ego behind the review and focus on a list of concrete positives and negatives. Don’t get lost in the flourishes of someone trying to impress his or her readers.

In this instance, the concrete claims appear to be:
1. Some of the musical numbers (tune and lyrics) were good.
2. The play was too long.
3. The three-act structure was problematic.
4. Direction lacked energy.
5. The play had little new to say.

As a playwright, I can’t do much about any acting or directing issues, even with a new work. Things simply happen. Therefore, item four is beyond my control. Direction can also affect item five because a slow play without energy has no message, no passion. That means item five is likely a mix of problems with the script and the direction.

The length of the work and the structure are a problem. Reducing the snark to the core claim, that the play was long and oddly structured, I would agree that a new work usually needs more editing. As a writer, I tend to overwrite first drafts. Therefore, I can set aside the snark and admit the play needs another revision pass (or more).

I’m not sure I agree that the three-act structure is a problem, but it is if there are two intermissions in a modern play. Audiences want one intermission and quick scene pacing. The structure I wrote was applied literally by the director. I need to change the script — that’s definitely my fault as a writer.

Learning to list the concrete claims made by reviewers is a skill writers and artists need. My final works are better because of this approach to “listening” to the critics.

Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.