Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thank you, Mr. Waldschmidt

“I liked it. It was gud. I will tell my frunds abut it.”

Every time I sit down to write a review, those sentences go through my head. They were sentences that my high school English teacher frequently wrote on the chalkboard. It was his way of mocking the papers he received that claimed to be book reviews or literature essays.

It is one of those things which has stuck with me as the epitome of how not to write a review. Granted, I would hope that I have enough sophistication as a writer at this point in my career that my writing would be neither so crude nor so poorly spelled. However, each of those sentences represent other temptations that are easy to give in to when I’m not being vigilant.

“I liked it.”

Who cares? Really now, if I’m writing a serious review, it matters not one whit whether I liked the show or not. I hate Heart of Darkness, but that is irrelevant in any serious writing. My likes and dislikes are subject to my personal tastes, my emotions, how I’m feeling on a given day and what my life experiences are. None of those are relevant to other audience members nor to my readers.

For a Facebook status, a conversation with a friend, a blog post or even an informal radio segment, I’ll say whether I liked a show or not. With my friends, they know my biases. They know which of my judgments they share and which they don’t. They can ask me questions about why I liked it. On a recent evening I told a friend of mine how moved I was by a particular production and told him that he absolutely had to go see it. He laughed at me and said, "Yes, but you're a sucker for Greek drama." I agreed and then referred him to my husband for his opinion. 

In the context of a review, my focus must be more on providing those details which will let my readers decide whether they will like the play. I have to provide sufficient information for them to be able to make an informed judgment that is independent of whether it was my kind of show or not.

“It was gud.”

This second sentence gets even trickier. Critics are supposed to make judgments about technique, aesthetics and the emotional power of a production. That includes stating whether something worked, whether it had worth, whether it succeeded in accomplishing what it set out to accomplish—in short, whether a choice was good or bad.

So why is that sentence a no-no when it comes to writing a serious review? It represents an unsupported and unqualified judgment. A critic’s job is not to merely return a verdict of thumbs up or thumbs down. It is to explain why the thumb is pointing in the direction that it is pointing. It is meaningless for me to say a show is good or bad. What is useful to the reader is to provide details that support a critical statement.

One of the questions I constantly ask myself when working on a review is "Why?" Was the choreography good? Why? What made it good and what evidence can I provide to show that it was good? It's not enough to say that something is good or bad. I have to show why.

"I will tell my frunds abut it."

This final sentence serves to remind me who my audience is. I am not writing a letter to send to my friends or an email blast telling those closest to me what I think of a particular show. If I'm doing my job correctly, I'm providing a detailed, well-supported evaluation of a performance based on commonly accepted criteria. 

Those closest to me will tell you that the way I describe a show to them is very different than the content that I put in a review. There are different standards. With my friends, we share a long history of shared likes and peeves. We have a shared vocabulary and certain short-cuts that let us quickly communicate without having to provide detail. 

In a review, on the other hand, the criteria that I use to judge a show is ideally based on wider, more accepted standards. They are those standards that have evolved through centuries of theater criticism and performance. 

Thank you, Mr. Waldschmidt

Mr. Waldschmidt, I know you're no longer living, but if you were, I'd find you and thank you. You drilled those phrases into my head and because of that, made me a more conscious critic. I won't forget.