Monday, January 9, 2012

So You Want to Be a Theater Critic

I’ve been asked more than once recently for advice about getting started as a theater critic.  Though I feel I’m still getting started as a theater critic (and am also in need of advice!  so please respond with it!), I came up with a few suggestions, which I thought I’d share here:

The way you write should presuppose that both your review and the show matter.  Because they do.  Most artists will care deeply no matter what you write; it’s your job to make everyone else care just as much.  I heard some praise recently of Bernie Weiner, a former SF Chronicle theater critic, who, though he didn’t have gorgeous prose or an extensive theatrical background, could get you excited about theater in every review he wrote.  Often that would mean finding one aspect of a show that transcended the others, but it could also just mean writing with such passion that he got people to talk about it.

Some wonkier tips:
  • If you’re still applying for jobs, have sample clips ready.  If you don't have any reviews already written, go see a couple of shows and write a 400-500-word piece about each; pretty much any editor will want to see clips before s/he lets you write.  Also, be realistic about your financial prospects.  You might have to write many unpaid pieces at first; if you’re making lunch money, you’re doing great.
  • Think carefully about how many big-, medium- and small-budget shows you should cover.  Keep in mind that it's the small-budget shows to whom your reviews matter most; thus it's those artists who may be most likely to respond or comment.  I don’t know how often I succeed, but I try to cover an even mix of the three.  I know other critics, though, who make it a mission to bring attention to as many small-budget shows as possible.  It’s a difficult and personal decision, one that concerns your agenda and aesthetics—and your publication’s.
  • Take the high road in responding to comments.  If the commenter seems to have no interest in being civil, or s/he just thoughtlessly scribbles a one-line, "this review sux!" you probably shouldn't respond.
  • Publicists remember small courtesies like your telling them in advance (as opposed to at the door) if your +1 is bailing, and having a publicist on your side can make a big difference later.  
  • Do what you need to do to make sure that seeing plays doesn’t become a drag.  A burned out reviewer tends to write snarkier (or more boring) reviews.  If you push yourself, you can hit the majority of your month’s quota in one week.
  • Be jealous of your own time.  If you only get paid to write a certain number of reviews in a certain amount of time, place severe limits on the "pro bono" reviews you let yourself write... Otherwise, the exception you make one month, even for some company who "really deserves" coverage, might become the new normal the next, without your getting extra compensation for it.  In other words, learn to say no to publicists!  I’ve found that the less explanation offered, the better.  It's a publicist's job to be a little annoying and bombard you with what-ifs: "Could you come on another night instead?" "Oh, we wouldn't mind getting a smaller article, or even no article at all!"  So often a simple "Sorry, my month is booked," or, "Can't make this one, but very much looking forward to your next," will do the trick.
  • On snark, you might encounter two conflicting imperatives:  Your paper might want more of it—it's funnier, it gets more readers.  But the artists you're covering will definitely want less of it—they’ll find it unnecessarily hurtful.  Yet you have to build long-term relationships with both these groups of people!  Though I feel the average reader (as opposed to the artist) is my most important reader, I try to strike a balance by taking each potential quip on a case-by-case basis:  Is this remark gratuitous?  Unduly personal?  Do I really feel so strongly about a show, or is it possible I’m being affected by something else in my life?  Am I holding the theater to unfair standards—i.e., does the company lack the financial resources to correct the problem I’m noting?  If i'm waffling, I'll sleep on it.  But in the end, I try to remember that some artists will complain about any negative review, no matter how much work I put into being fair and balanced.  So when you get your first review-of-a-review, think of it as being held accountable for what you write, but also keep in mind that artists can't be objective judges of their own shows.  If you and your editor(s) thought a remark didn't go too far, then it's your job to let the artist know his opinion is heard, and to cede legitimate points if you want to, but to explicitly or implicitly stand by your right to your own opinion.