The Changing Landscape of Theater Reviewing & Some Questions

Lately I’ve been thinking of the changing landscape of writing theater reviews.

1. Over the past year or two, we have experienced a notable reduction in the number of reviews published in the local daily newspaper.

2. In January I attended a conference where I participated on a panel with the publisher of a dance magazine and we debated the future of print publications.

3. Earlier this week I led a workshop on writing theater reviews with a musical theater class at a local high school and I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of these young artists in training prefer print to digital publications.

What, first of all, is the purpose of a review? Despite what some may think, it is NOT to allow a snarky writer a platform to show off his or her voluminous vocabulary while tearing down the latest stage production. One definition found online describes a theater review as “a subjective and educated response” to a piece of theater. It should help an interested reader know a little, but not too much, about the play and give them an idea of whether it is worth them spending their hard earned money on a ticket.

I also prefer the terms review and reviewer to critic and critique. The latter terms just sound negative – as if the writer goes to the theater with the intent of finding fault. The same online source, WikiHow, indicated that, contrary to my personal preference, a critic is a professional with an educated perspective, whereas anyone can be a reviewer and give their subjective opinion. I thoroughly disagree and stand by my previously stated preferences!

From my personal experience working as a consultant with the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Virginia Council on the Arts, and other funding organizations over several decades, I know that the review is often as close as a panelist gets to seeing a particular theater company or production. So, not only does the review help a potential audience member decide whether to spend their money on a ticket, it also helps potential funding organizations decide whether to spend their money on a company’s general operating expenses or a special project, such as a festival or educational component.

One editor told me that “nobody” reads reviews. But with digital publications, it is, in fact, quite easy to track how many people have read a given review. Also, an online review can be published much faster than a print review – assuming the editor reads it, edits it, and posts it online quickly. A print review can take two to five days or longer to appear in print. For a short run, the production may be over before the review even appears to the public. While most local theater, such as plays and musicals, often runs for two to four weeks or longer, dance productions usually run for a single weekend, so printed reviews are always late from the perspective of a potential audience member. So, online reviews would seem to be the way to go. But. . .

What about those young musical theater students who said they prefer print? Do we need some sort of hybrid system? At the conference with the publisher of a dance magazine, most of those in the audience expressed a desire for some system whereby reviews and articles could be published online in a timely manner, with, perhaps, monthly or quarterly print publications to provide more in-depth discussions. Are reviews even necessary any longer? What, if anything, would happen to the landscape of theater if reviews were no longer published in print or online. Would it matter and if so, how would it matter? I would love to hear your thoughts. I think it is time for a dialogue. Humans are notoriously resistant to change, but change is a sign of life. Living things move and grow – is the reviewer clinging to life or poised for a growth spurt?

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