Not a rant, but some thoughts on Theatre Criticism

by Lynn on March 27, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

March 27, 2024.

Not a rant, but some thoughts on Theatre Criticism:

There seems to be a lot of confused talk about theatre critics and theatre criticism lately, mostly by those who don’t actually know what the point and purpose is of theatre criticism. There is an effort to make it a ‘them (the artist) vs. us (the critics)’ situation, when in fact it is an us (both together) for the artform of ‘theatre.’  Let me try and help clarify what a review is; who it’s for; and why reviews are important, for those who are confused.  I’m only speaking for myself, as I always do.

I have some experience here for context: I studied theatre history and theatre criticism at York University in a four-year undergraduate honours program, History, Theory and Criticism of Theatre. The basis of the program was the European tradition of theatre, the roots in this case. And from that background one can broaden one’s focus. But also added to that basis were many courses of “Non-traditional Theatre”, which led to studying the Noh and Kabuki Theatre of Japan, which led to Chinese Opera, which lead to South Asian Theatre, puppetry and mask from Indonesia, works from South Africa and Kenya, which led to South America. European theatre was the beginning that led to other cultures.

I took theatre courses in other areas of theatre for a grounding: design, stage management work etc. No desire or talent in that. I learned in a high school production I can’t act. Don’t want to. Moving on. I took courses in other artforms for context (dance history in my case).  I was lucky to have such a wealth of available knowledge in my education. And I discovered my calling of theatre criticism when we had to write an analysis of a character in a play and what the set would look like, in second year. That was enough. I found my passion.

The beauty of a solid, broad-reaching theatre/life education is that we learn the basics of the craft and art, taught by caring, rigorous teachers who then challenge our ideas to see that they are well founded and supported. A critical or positive comment without example is just blather. Further to this comment, in my Theatre Criticism Course we had to write weekly reviews for marking and comment. I recall one in particular: I got the review back marked, with comments. Over the first four paragraphs my Theatre Criticism Professor wrote the word “drivel.” I remember blushing and being embarrassed at the comment. Then I took a breath and looked carefully at the four paragraphs to see what he was talking about. And he was right. It was drivel, self-indulgent, waffly and lacking in the proper rigor needed. Fortunately, I learned life skills to cope with criticism, harsh comments, and learn from it to be a better critic. Life skills—they are important to help one cope with life in all its variations.

I was smitten with the theatre at 12 and have been going steadily to the theatre ever since.  My reviews have been published in various publications since 1972. I did reviews on CBC Radio’s Here and Now for 10 years and since 2011 have done reviews weekly on, first for CIUT Friday Morning and now Critics Circle. I also publish my own theatre blog The Slotkin Letter that contains my reviews of what I see in Toronto, environs, New York, London, and elsewhere.  

I find that writing reviews is the best way of spreading my enthusiasm for theatre. It’s also the best way of informing the reader, and one hopes to create a better, more observant audience. A better, more discerning audience improves the artform.

What is a theatre review?

Ideally, the critic tries to move toward an objective, arm’s length evaluation about a piece of theatre that has affected the critic subjectively. Again, that objectivity should be based on their training and the nature of the work. We all have likes and dislikes. The trick is not to let personal feelings, friendships or animosity get in the way of being fair in the assessment. That’s what I mean by objective.  I review on the basis of merit, not taste. If I have a bias, I say so. How the play affected me emotionally is not what a rigorous review is about. I think of E.B. White’s wonderful poem “THE CRITIC” as the example:

                                    The Critic leaves at curtain fall

                                    To find in starting to review it,

                                    He scarcely saw the play at all

                                    For watching his reaction to it.


The opinions vary according to the critic’s background in the art of theatre, knowledge of theatre history, theory, life experience, theatre-going experience, education, gender, age etc. When watching the work, we try and figure out the intention of the playwright and director (putting ourselves in their shoes, but at a remove) and then assessing if it worked or not in terms of the play.

The opinion is based on sound background in the art of theatre and how to make an assessment about the work based on that background. And a critical assessment of the work is imperative in a review—I don’t mean the opinion has to be negative; I mean the work has to be assessed with rigor to come to an evaluation of the work.

We listen to the playwright tell their story from their point of view, their background etc., but we  hear the story from our point of view, how it references our background, no matter how different, how we apply their story to our experiences. That’s how so many different stories bridge the gap of our differences and join us in our similarities.

Mixed into this is education, life experience, ability to analyze and making comment about the positive aspects of the work followed by constructive suggestions on how to improve or make the work stronger, if necessary. These aren’t complaints, these should be sound constructive criticism. I see my role as telling the truth about the evaluation of the event in a fair-minded, respectful, entertaining way so that the quality, flavour, story, artistry and the many other elements of a show are conveyed to the reader. A review without rigor helps nobody.

The theatre has survived and thrived for 2500 years because of the rigor from the creators and the commentators. To do less and expect less is an invitation to mediocrity.

Involved initially is the story: what is the play about? This does not mean a whole repetition of the play’s events. It’s more a precis, first to get the reader to continue reading the review, but without giving any surprises away. Ideally the review should be the impetus to get the reader to buy a ticket to see the show for themselves, if they haven’t already seen it.

The review states where the play is in the context of the playwright’s work? How does the work reflect the world of the play and the world we live in? What’s the point of the play? Was it worth doing? All these assessments take time, rigor, education (in my case at least), frequent theatre going, and love of the form, endless love, even when disappointed and huge celebration when it’s terrific.

A review is a record of the theatrical event citing all the details of the play, performance and creative aspects of it. A heart emoji or the word “Awesome” on a tweet just doesn’t cover the attention a work of theatre deserves. People worked hard in creating the work. It deserves diligence and fairmindedness in the assessment. It’s possible to nurture the creators and still be constructively praising and critical.

Who is the review for?

It’s for the audience.

The audience—seemingly the most maligned, disparaged, disrespected, insulted, forgotten group in the theatre these days. Someone has to speak for them. For me, that’s the critic. As an example, the audience shows up ready to be attentive to the work and often an artist comes into the audience’s safe space without asking consent. Consent applies to the audience as much as it does to individuals in other instances.   

The review is not to explain the theory and analysis to the playwright, director or any of the creatives, of their story, ritual, ceremony, celebration, culture, ethnicity or any other thing that get confused in the review. It’s for the audience. That’s where the critic/reviewer is sitting, ‘imbedded’ if you will. And for me, sitting in the audience is the only place the critic should be imbedded. (If the critic is observing from anywhere else and close to the creative process of the playmakers for example, then it’s more like “in-bedded” or even “in-breded”). The critic conveys what it was/is like to be in the audience observing the play; to explain the meaning/point of the play from their point of view; who’s in it and how successful everybody was in their respective parts.

Understood, is that the review should serve the artform. Or at least should be understood, since so many seem to forget that.  

How to prepare.

Ideally the critic has the education of theatre history as background. I try and read the text of the play if it’s available. I research the playwright, director, history of the play, context, actors, and the theatre it’s in.

I’m finding that some companies want to ‘educate’ the critic by having us go to a lecture on the background of the play; the context of its creation; the story behind the creation; the culture of the playwright. This is very well intentioned and totally inappropriate, and a conflict of interest, to say the least.  In these instances, one is being told the intention of the creators instead of discovering them, without influence, on one’s own, by watching the play. If the play can’t convey all that was intended by the creators, then they have failed. If I can help it, I don’t go to talk-backs for the same reason (unless trapped in the row and the talk-back happens immediately after the show without letting people leave). The audience might want to know the creators/playwright’s/actors’ intention, but for the critic, that is the job of the play. And if I can’t figure out the intension of the playwright by watching the play, I should say so.

Advice from theatre makers:

When I was a student I interviewed actors/theatre makers etc. on their opinions of critics and criticism. It was a great education. Here are the questions and answers of Sada Thompson, theatre/tv actress, doing a show on tour at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in the 1970s. It still stands up after all these years.

  1. Do you read reviews?

“I do not read reviews when they first come out. Usually after the show closes. Tho I did read a good many on the road. I’m inclined to believe descriptions of what you do, how you look etc. make most actors self-conscious”.

  • Do you have a favourite critic?

“I have no favorite (She was American) contemporary critics—since I don’t know the bulk of any critic’s work—who is writing today. I love to read criticism of the past—Hazlitt, Shaw, Beerbohm, Stark Young, Agate, Henry James.”

  • What’s the critic’s purpose?

“The critic’s purpose generally is to encourage or discourage people about seeing a play or performance or both. But there are critics who not only discuss immediate impressions—but have a sense of where creative work stands in its own time and in relation to the past and to the future. Who know something about all the arts and can appreciate and discuss how they are used in theatre.”

  • What’s the critic’s responsibility?

“The responsibility of the critic is to tell the truth, to give the work they judge their full attention, to try to be fair as far and they are able, to ignore fashion. To have a love of the theatre and some vision about its possibilities. To find the art in themselves and not themselves in the art.”

  • Final words of advice.

Educate yourself. Read about and see as much theatre as you can. And if you get jaded by it all, quit.”

Sound advice to this day.

Happy World Theatre Day.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mary Kerr March 27, 2024 at 8:14 pm

‘In these instances, one is being told the intention of the creators instead of discovering them, without influence, on one’s own, by watching the play. If the play can’t convey all that was intended by the creators, then they have failed’

Wow is this true.. Wonderful discussion Lynn.. It was needed.

Many current reviewers do not realize that they need to be educated in art and culture (as well as the extensive training you underwent..) In re-reading certain reviews I’m shocked with the hindsight of history to see how visually..ignorant most critics were. ”
I love how you have a separate section usually to discuss the production itself and not just the script.
Keep going Lynn…You are needed.


2 Lorna wilson March 28, 2024 at 12:38 am

Loved this Lynne
Perceptive and helpful


3 Robert Girvan March 28, 2024 at 10:22 am

Dear Lynn,

You should be proud of this strong and sharp statement. It has depth, thoroughness, rigour, fairness, and humanity. In our extreme times, those with knowledge and subtlety must dare to speak. And so you have. This fine statement will be greatly respected among those who remember how to think and feel honestly, despite our bad times. It is not only an artistic statement generally, and that of the critic, but it is a well-deserved indictment of a certain narrow but loud trend in the artistic world, and the broader cultural world. It stands eye to eye with fine statements in the European tradition, and, no doubt, in some essential way, with such statements in other traditions as well. After all, underneath our diversity is our common humanity. And theatre, at its best, seeks both. Bravo! Keep going… Best, Robert Girvan