Critiquing a theater performance is a way for a writer to evaluate a production’s merit. It’s usually based on how effectively it combined all the aspects of theater, what message it put forward, and how effectively it did that. 

To critique a theater performance, you need to know what kind of performance you will watch and the norms for that genre. Describe and evaluate the significant aspects of the performance in an insightful but objective way. Then explain whether the performance as a whole was effective. 

This article will take an in-depth look at the essential points of a theater performance critique. This includes not only the format of a review but also the proper etiquette to follow when writing one. 

1. Describe the Context of the Performance

Every theater review begins with context, which is a way for the audience to situate themselves and understand the points that the performance is being evaluated.

Before you even step into a theater, you need to know:

  • The name of the performance.
  • The location of the performance. A high school rendition of Romeo and Juliet will be evaluated differently from a professional performance of the same title. 
  • Prior knowledge of the title being performed. Read and understand a title before seeing it performed so you know exactly how it should be interpreted on stage. 
  • Prior knowledge of the genre. If the performance is a comedy, ensure you’re well-versed in comedic standards and norms to offer up valuable criticism

It’s impossible to offer up any valuable commentary on something if you don’t understand it. So you’ll need to arrive at the performance with a checklist of crucial aspects you’d like to discuss in your review.

The review could focus more heavily on how well the actors played their characters or how the set and lighting enhanced the event’s mood. However, this all depends on what you hope to achieve with the review.

Bellevue College lists the main points to remember and comment on before, during, and after a performance, so take note of them to ensure you know what to look for. 

2. Summarize the Plot of the Performance 

Assume that the person reading your review has no prior knowledge of the performance. It’s always safer this way because you don’t know how much information your readers have about the performance or its key themes, and you don’t want anyone left confused. 

Give the audience the same amount of information about a well-known title as you would about a niche or original one. You’ll want to explain what the story is about, who the main characters are, where the story is set, and what the overarching themes and plot devices are.

For example, you might explain that Don Quixote is a parody with an ironic third-person perspective set in La Mancha, Spain. 

His motivation is righteousness and protecting the weak and innocent. 

His deluded ideas of his own knighthood and class struggles lead him into many adventures highlighting the play’s main point, which is a battle between different moral perspectives and ideas of worth vs. class. 

This is just a brief example of the setup you should create for the reader, giving them the facts before they make any judgments on the performance. Audience members may find the play foolish if they don’t know from the offset that it’s supposed to be a parody. 

It’s absolutely crucial to provide context before making an evaluation. 

Summaries need to be concise and informative, devoid of judgment and opinion, and capture the main points of a story. Use this MasterClass article to learn the main elements of a summary and how to write an effective one. 

MasterClass also has an excellent guide to literary themes that will guide you in identifying and applying them to the performance you’re reviewing. This article only lists a few, so be sure to also do thorough research on the piece you’ll be watching. 

3. Comment on Each Main Aspect of the Performance

Take notes on what you see when you arrive and throughout the performance. 

Don’t make any judgments or assumptions about the performance before you arrive or while watching the story unfold. 

Arrive open-minded, and simply write down anything significant you notice, which might be as small as something in the script. Maybe the language has been changed slightly, so take note of this, and reflect on why that might be later.

Take in the lighting, set design, costumes, makeup, stage directions, and the actors’ behavior. Again, reserve judgment for now, and just note the choices made regarding all of these factors. 

BBC has a fantastic explanation of set design, why it matters, and what to look for when analyzing and evaluating a performance’s set design. 

Focus your energy on noting what’s standard in this performance and what deviates from the norm. Ask questions like:

  • Does the production have any critical differences from the original script? 
  • Is that a coincidence, or was it done intentionally?

Now that you’ve jotted down these notes, it’s time to start questioning more deeply. The best method to use in this case is The Five Ws and one H:

  • What?
  • Who?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How? 

Discuss the performance itself based on these questions:

  • Were the actors comfortable and well-suited to their roles? 
  • Did the lighting enhance the mood or make it hard to see what was going on?
  • Did the audience react well to the performance, or were they bored or dissatisfied?
  • Were the changes to the script intentional after all? 
  • Did they add or subtract from the performance and the play’s overall message?

These are all questions you need to ask before making your final evaluation

The final assessment takes every aspect you’ve discussed in your critique and brings it together to offer a final judgment of the performance.

This judgment isn’t a matter of whether you enjoyed the performance but whether it achieved what it was supposed to. If it was a comedy, did it make the audience laugh? Were the script changes more jarring than refreshing?

Etiquette is crucial when reviewing someone else’s work, and there are a few guidelines to remember when reviewing a performance. Decide on how well the play fulfilled its purpose with authority and objectivity. 

Don’t slander or sing its praises too highly, as your opinion is secondary. 

Critiquing a piece too harshly might end up looking unprofessional and stirring up tension and conflict between you and the rest of the theater industry, which is the last thing you want if you want a successful career in it. 

Objective writing can be tricky, especially if you’re new to writing reviews or critiquing professionally. Practice makes perfect, so try and improve your understanding of objective language and practice it before writing a critique.

4. Show Readers Why Your Review Matters

Critiquing a theater performance isn’t a simple task. But anyone with sufficient knowledge of the theatrical arts and a grasp of tone and objectivity can take a stab at writing a critical review.

To make a mark on your audience and possibly even reach a larger demographic of theatrical and reviewing professionals, you should write your descriptions and evaluations in a unique way. 

Cover all your bases and don’t leave out any details on the meaty bits that really matter in a review. You also don’t want to make commentary that people will only understand at a stretch. 

Alongside this, however, take note of things other people wouldn’t consider, and try to connect this piece and other pieces in the same or different genres. 

Reference other reviews and other literature that could be applicable. For example, you could draw comparisons between the acting in a stage performance of The Boys in the Band and its later movie counterparts by the same name. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to take a different stance from other reviews you may have read if you genuinely disagree with their statements and evaluations. Consider using these tips on structural decisions and word choices to write an excellent review without making it inappropriate or unprofessional. 

Conclusion

Critiquing a theater performance isn’t something you can expect to master immediately. It takes practice and a great deal of knowledge of the theatrical arts. Luckily, through a lot of reading, observation, and practice, you can write a brilliant review. 

Categories: Non Fiction

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.