The Wesleyan Theater World was thrown into a bit of a tizzy last week when The Argus published something totally unexpected: a slightly negative review of a Second Stage show. While most Argus reviews tend to be nice and complimentary, the piece on “Macbeth” (I can hear all the theater kids mentally hissing at me for not saying “The Scottish Play”) critiqued various aspects of the production, including the actors’ performances. While I am not attacking the writer of that article, as they are completely entitled to their opinion, the un-niceness of their review forced me to think about the purpose that such reviews of student-created theater should have. After discussing the piece with several other theater enthusiasts, I have come to the conclusion that since student theater reviews serve none of the functions that professional reviews serve, negatively criticizing an amateur show has no constructive value. Instead, reviews of student-produced theater should serve more of an archival and celebratory function than a critical one, preserving and highlighting the passion and hard work that went into each show.
One of the main differences between critiques of professional theater and of student theater is that professional reviews serve a commercial function, while student reviews do not. In the real world, reviews exist to help the theater-going community get the most bang for their buck. Since some shows on Broadway can cost hundreds of dollars (which is a whole problem in and of itself), those wishing to see a show want to ensure that their money will be well spent. Well, that’s where people like Ben Brantley from The New York Times come in. By trusting certain individuals with the responsibility of deciding which shows are worth spending money on and which shows are not, the theater-going community can guarantee that they will not blow $150 on something rotten (like “Something Rotten!”). Student theater reviews serve no such function, as amateur theater is often free. Once it has been stripped of its commercial role, what is the purpose of a negative theater review? Furthermore, since Argus reviews of Second Stage performances are often published either the weekend of the show or the week after, there is no time for the production to respond to the reviewer’s feedback and improve, ensuring that the reviews also cannot function as a form of constructive criticism. Therefore, since they don’t help a show become better or more commercially successful, harsh critiques of student theater fail to accomplish anything significant.
In addition to not serving any productive purpose, negative reviews of student theater also incorrectly judge amateur productions based on their quality, unfairly assuming that such shows have the resources necessary to bring the director’s ideal vision to life. When a professional critic of the dramatic arts goes to see a show, they know that the crew is made up of career dramatists, designers, and actors with years of experience and the benefit of this being their full-time job. Therefore, each aspect of the performance is the best that it can be, having likely been workshopped for years before reaching a substantial audience, and can therefore be fairly critiqued as a complete work. Second Stage shows, on the other hand, are put on by students whose full-time job is to learn, and who squeeze their love of theater into the few spare hours that they have saved for hobbies. Furthermore, Second Stage is often made up of first time designers, actors, and directors, ensuring that their creations will likely have some rough edges. When your entire crew has to work within the confines of their class schedules and you only have a single week to rehearse in the playing space, it is a guarantee that there will be problems with diction, with staging, with lights, with sound, and with set. Critiquing the quality of the production is unfair to those involved as it assumes that the final performance given is the optimal one and that the directors wouldn’t have been able to do more had they been given adequate time and money.
Instead of basing reviews upon quality, student newspapers can serve a productive function by creating an archive of student work. As Second Stage shows are not videotaped, once a production ends, it leaves no trace behind. As a chronicler of current events, it falls within the purview of the student newspaper to document student theater and ensure that a record of each show exists for future generations of students. Not only does such a function allow those involved to have something to remember their show by, but it also allows future theater-creators to learn from and build upon the ideas and design choices of their predecessors.
At the end of the day, however, the most important function that a student newspaper can perform is to highlight the hard work done by those in the company. Student theater is a labor of love more than anything, and the most essential role that other students can carry out is to recognize that. Each show was only made possible because dozens of people came together and dedicated their free time to creating something that they are passionate about. As students with hobbies of our own, we should be able to understand the position that our peers are in and support them in their endeavors by emphasizing the hard work that was put in. If someone looked over every Argus article after it was published and went “this sucks” without providing constructive feedback, it would feel pretty bad. Each and every one of us is putting ourselves out there by doing things that we love—we owe it to each other to be supportive of one another’s efforts and to create a nurturing environment instead of a destructive one.
Daniel Knopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daniel is a member of the class of 2022.