What are the important things to keep in mind while critiquing a play?
– Aashka Vayeda, CHRIST (Deemed to be University) Bangalore, India
To be honest, I feel like something of a fraud while writing this. The theatre critics I studied can all claim long careers as appraisers of the performance form. They’ve spent decades watching and contributing to the evolution of theatre in their countries, they’ve written biographies, critical literature. While I’ve spent a few years as an active critic and I continue to follow the scene, I can’t claim a vast breadth of experience. This is my humble prologue to a brief sketch of what I’ve learned about critiquing theatre.
Park yourself at the theatre
When you’re fresh on the scene, there’s a lot of drama to catch up on. In order to write meaningfully about a play, it’s important to have watched a director or playwright or theatre group’s body of work. This takes time, which means that your initial writing will usually be restricted to the particulars of a play. The more drama you watch, the more context you will be able to bring to your work. How have the theatre makers evolved? How does this play differ from other plays by the same makers? How does the play compare with other dramas that have similar ideas? And so on.
Read, read, read
You can’t be a writer without being a reader. The best way to improve your writing is to read the best. I was schooled by the theatre pages of The Guardian and The New York Times. Pay close attention to the nature of analysis and style and make a conscious effort to apply those principles to your writing. This doesn’t mean you should copy, only that you should write intelligently. Though, in terms of style, there’s nothing wrong in emulating the style of a writer you admire and then developing your own. That’s the case with all artists. Take Raza. Before he began painting geometric shapes, he painted Cubist-style landscapes.
In fact, few journalists pay attention to style. The worst (and most common) kind of review is the dhobi list, a template composed of a string of paragraphs, each devoted to an element of drama: summary followed by analysis of narrative followed by appraisal of performance. This is the hallmark of lazy writing and is as painful to read as it is to watch amateurs tackling Shakespeare using folk dance thinking it’s the height of experimentation. Usually such reviews are filled with clichés: “the characterisation was good” (whatever the hell that means), “the performances were on point”, and so on. It’s important to be astute and fair but also to make creative use of words. Avoid clichés like you would Covid hotspots.
Watch, listen and read some more
It’s important to cast your net wide, read beyond the domain of theatre criticism. Reading helps you lend context to your writing and improves your general knowledge in a way that lets you identify references in a play. For instance, how much richer would your review of Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana be if you were familiar with Thomas Mann’s Transposed Heads?
Theatre, like all art, is a response to the world. You need to know what’s going on around you. This might sound obvious and silly but the one thing you should read religiously is the news. Also watch movies, watch performance, listen to music, see art, walk around the city. Engage in cultural activities that interest you. All that you see and do adds to the matrix of experience that fertilises writing.
That’s my do paisa. Khattam shud.