A Theatre Critic Writes to his Subjects

Jay Menard - - Theatre & Film
The London Yodeller

“My role is not to make you happy, it’s to be honest to your potential, new audience”

Jay MenardRecently, I had the pleasure of reviewing a bunch of Fringe plays for Theatre in London. Some great, most good, and a couple of absolutely terrible productions – and it got me thinking about the art of reviewing and criticizing. I hate writing bad reviews. Maybe there are some people out there who live to slam creative content. I’m not one of them. I know how hard you work. I know how much heart and passion you put into a product. And I know how close to the heart your passion can be.

I want you to succeed. But I’m not going to lie about it. Because if I do that, I’m only doing your present and future selves a disservice. I’m also insulting those who have produced something of superior quality. In the simplest terms: If I like Play X and rave about it, I’ve set a benchmark. If I watch Play Y, which is terrible, but I gloss over the overwhelming negative to focus, disproportionately, on the few positives (and there are always a few positives) in my next review, what have I done? I’ve neutered my opinion in the eyes of the readers. “Well, if he thought that piece of crap was good, there’s no way I’m going to see Play X.”

My role is not to make you happy, it’s to be honest to your potential (new) audience. I am your audience. I am not the five per cent. I do not represent the hard-core theatre aficionado who is going to go see every show. I am an average guy, with an interest and education that lends itself to appreciating theatre. I am the guy you are trying to target in your advertising. I am the Average Jay who votes with my wallet.

When I write a review, I purposely avoid coming across as supercilious. I see no need to pepper my prose with insider jargon or to lord it over my readers. I want to answer their main concern: “I have a few extra hard-earned dollars to spend. I have multiple entertainment options before me. Should I actively choose to go see this show with my limited funds? Will I get value for my dollar?”

That’s it. That’s all. When writing reviews, I’m not a “friend of the cast,” I’m not a “friend of the director” or a “friend of a writer.” But I could end up being your best “friend.” Because I’m not the hanger-on, the sycophant, or the person who wants to be nice so that maybe you’ll consider me for a role. Once I was sent a link to an on-line conversation about one of my reviews and it contained what is likely my favourite criticism against me. Instead of discussing the merits of the review, the comment from the principal was to the effect, “Like I care about some guy I’ve never heard about . . . ”

Now, I could say I had interviewed this person a couple of times in print. And had positively reviewed plays in the past and been introduced a couple of times to this person. But it just proves that the echo chamber is preferable to differing opinions. I grew up with a belief in two main things, when it comes to opinion: attack the idea, not the person; and don’t just criticize for criticism’s sake – offer up a way to improve it.

I want you to succeed. I want to see good theatre. After all, it’s an hour or two of my life that I’m investing in your work. So I’m going to be honest. Why? Because I want to reward good theatre; not punish bad. I would love to write flowery reviews of every play I saw, because that means every production merits that praise. But I just can’t. There has to be a line of demarcation. Theatre isn’t about participation badges and “aw shucks, you tried hard so I’ll give you a gold star.” It’s about hard work, growth, and improvement. And when I see work that reflects that, it needs to be highlighted. And for those pieces that don’t reach that threshold, the faults need to be pointed out so that they can be worked on and improved.

Echo chambers – politically, socially, economically – are insidious because one only hears what one already believes. There’s no challenging of ideas, but just artificial inflation. On-line and off, I prefer to surround myself with people whose thoughts, beliefs, and ideas challenge mine. No person, side, or group has a monopoly on “right.” So if I (a socially left-wing white male with a daughter) take a stance to which you have opposing views based on fact and information, I’m going to listen to that. And if I’m wrong (or not totally right), I’ll adjust my thinking. That’s the benefit of constructive criticism. Our views – or our productions – become honed and tempered by being challenged. We grow and learn by reaching outside of our comfortable circles to learn from others’ experiences. We grow up. And we get better.

Free Ebooks and Course

Every other Tuesday we send out our lovely email newsletter with useful tips and techniques, recent articles and upcoming events. Thousands of readers have signed up already. Why don't you sign up, too, and get a free ebook as well?