Theatre Reviewing and Theatre Bristol Writers

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For the past few months I have been one of a team of people reviewing theatre shows in Bristol as part of Theatre Bristol’s Writing in Residence project.

We recently had our first public meeting to talk about all things performance-related in the city.  There was some good discussion and debate.  I first became involved in theatre through watching work and writing about it. As with most things you often ask the question: Why bother? So here’s a bit more about what was discussed at the meeting, what theatre reviewing is and why I think it’s a good thing.

Why review?

Reviewers are writers. Writing starts from a place of personal passion –  this could be about the theatre work being made, writing itself and/or the city that it is situated in. Regardless of the approach of the writer, reviewing is a creative process.

Theatre reviews start and connect conversations and people- they can build bridges between audience, makers, theatre communities and venues.  They raise awareness and provide a written response to the work, acting as a source of feedback for artists, companies and makers as to how their shows have been received. All artists need feedback on their work, and reviews can extend the conversation beyond the performance – whether this is about the performance, the process behind it or the themes and issues of each particular show. Reviews via social media can create an open platform for debate and discussion about theatre to which anyone can contribute – from enthusiastic audience member to the professional performer. They can also serve to strengthen the existing theatre community.

Reviews have an afterlife providing a historical account of the performance as it was experienced. They can be read as a source of contextual information such as a reaction to the cultural or political issues/ideologies at the time revealing broader information about the show, how it was received and how it was programmed by the venue. They can also be used as an indicator when making decisions to program future work or used by makers for quotes about the show to promote to audiences.

Theatre reviews are also valuable to theatre practice and practioners as they can be helpful in determining where their work sits in the world and can help situate the work in the wider artistic landscape. They can inform the development of a piece of art/theatre and all responses may be complicit in the shaping and sculpting of new and existing work.

Another advantage is learning. Following an individual artist or companies work can provide shared knowledge on both sides as the work and the writing develop. Certainly for me critical writing is also a way for the writer to articulate their own response and thinking around a work. In-depth reviews or critical writing pieces can also serve to widen perspectives and open people up to new possibilities, whether that’s considering how things can be interpreted or encouraging and promoting more interest in theatre and theatre-going.

What is a review?

The traditional theatre reviews have been associated with a specific format and published in broadsheet newspapers. Social media means this format is changing, and it can often be down to the individual writer as to how they position their own writing… it could be – theatre criticism, critical writing, review, response, praise, feedback, judgment, reflection, assessment, analysis, entertainment, art –  even a tweet can be a review.

Ultimately, I think a review should be the start of a conversation between a range of different people about a piece of work. In the case of  specialist websites or professional publications, it’s also worth remembering that the type of review written will often be indicative of who it is being produced for i.e what type of publication, where it is published and the specific publication/commission requirements.  This also will have on an influence as to how it is received and its ‘reach’. Reviews can happen instantly via blogs and Twitter etc which is a format that can have greater influence with the general public and possibly be more accessible to non theatre going audiences or people outside of the theatre community.

Who is the reviewer?

There are several existing established theatre critics whose work have a national following and whose influence/review can impact on the future life of a show. However anyone can join the conversation as social media has given an open platform to anyone that wants to comment on or review work.  The established experts are now situated within a multiplicity of voices.

Ultimately a reviewer is someone who has responsibility for the feedback they give. They have the opportunity to be transparent, authentic, engaged and deliver critique or response that is considered, analytical, constructive and which acknowledges its own subjectivity as far as possible. The review is as much a reflection of the attitude of the writer as it is about the work being reviewed.

I really feel that there are equally many benefits to reading personal perspectives blogs or tweets from new writers/theatre goers, or hearing opinions of those from different backgrounds or with no knowledge of theatre as there are to receiving critique from an expert and experienced peers.  I think every response has value in it in different ways.

I’m learning all the time and as my own writing has developed I’ve obviously experienced some of the problems that inexperienced writers can encounter.  It’s all a learning process though.  If I was going to give advice to new writers, some good writing advice I heard recently that I think is worth sharing went something like this:  ‘It is essential to write in the way that you want and from your own perspective, whatever that is. Not to be afraid of your own experience and background as it will be valuable in informing your writing and how you see the world’.

So. That’s a bit of information about theatre reviewing, why it’s important and what’s been happening over at Theatre Bristol Writers. If you want to get involved you can join the facebook group.  Or contact tomw@theatrebristol.net

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