As members of both the student theater and student reviewer communities, we believe in critical student reviews. Critical reviews demonstrate serious engagement with the performance, and—with constructive comments—they can help students working on shows in their future theater endeavors.
“[N]egatively criticizing an amateur show has no constructive value,” he wrote.
Instead, he said, reviews should serve to celebrate the work of students, archiving them rather than providing critical feedback.
As two students who have spent semesters working on Second Stage shows, his points about honoring students’ labors of love hit home. When you spend weeks of your life working on something, it’s hard if your work isn’t understood how you hoped.
But if we’re not critical in our reviews, we fail to engage with productions—not only in their technical and performance elements but also their larger role on student theater. Critical reviews therefore serve as a way to create constructive conversation, giving team members feedback and serving to help shape the future theater community.
A few weeks ago, I, Zoë, offered to review one of the first official Second Stage show of the year, “Macbeth.” As an infamous Shakespeare lover, who’s spending the year writing about Shakespeare for my thesis, I was excited to see and review the production.
Yet also as a member of the student theater community, I was aware of the politics surrounding the performance. After controversy over diversity and inclusion in student theater, Second Stage has made policy changes to curate and produce theater that better represents the Wesleyan community at large. Although I love Shakespeare, his works are centuries old, made for white male actors. “Macbeth” doesn’t seem to fit the bill when we’re thinking of theater that moves away from white narratives and focuses on diversity.
When I sat down to write my review, I was thinking how the production fit into Second Stage’s fall season, which includes everything from works that explicitly deal with race, to bilingual performances, to devised theater. What did it mean for “Macbeth” to be included in this season? If we’re going to reproduce older works, we need to have intention in our adaptations—especially if we’re trying to address larger issues of diversity and representation in theater.
Writing a critical review meant I could engage with this topic, examining how different technical and performance elements contributed to the performance’s meaning overall.
But criticism doesn’t mean the work done was for naught; it means that someone is engaging seriously with the production. I don’t want any team member of “Macbeth” to stop doing theater they love. I don’t want them to get discouraged. Rather, I hope the review serves as a point of reflection, conversation, and intention.
When I, Nathan, was writing a review of “The Wolves” last fall, students of color approached me and asked that I not ignore the fact that the cast was majority white, while the off-Broadway cast was not. Not including their criticism of the casting would not only have been silencing students of color—it would have created an inaccurate portrayal of the show, a false archive. I included criticism of casting into my review. Afterwards, I had a productive conversation with the show’s director about where students of color (myself included) were coming from. Her current show, “Smart People,” now explicitly deals with issues of race in ways her previous show never did.
This is an example of what criticism can hopefully do: allow for conversations that are already happening in private to enter into a public forum, and help artists further develop their craft.
As someone whose Second Stage shows have been reviewed by The Argus, I myself have also grown from criticism. When Tara Joy ’20 critiqued the acting choices in the musical I directed “bloom,” it helped me realize I was more invested in playwriting, and it pushed me to bring in people who could help with acting more heavily in productions I was involved in.
A review with criticism can feel raw in the moment; I’ve felt it. But it pushes us to see a broader picture, to look outside of ourselves, to see how sometimes our intentions or attempts for theater don’t live up to how work is actually received. And that’s not an admission of shame: Being conscious about how my work is being received, positively and negatively, has helped me immensely in creating better art.
Just as student theater creators ask for a generous, open approach for audiences seeing their student shows, we also ask for a generous, open approach for anyone reading student journalism. We should be allowed to be honest about our experiences. Just as every audience member cannot speak personally with directors to understand the intention behind a show’s direction and production choices, not every reviewer has the time or ability to speak personally with a production team. Trying to turn the multi-faceted world of performance into writing is an artist’s act of generosity. Reviewers are trying to take an artist’s work very, very seriously. The time and energy it takes to write cannot be discounted. As theater artists, our dream is that every audience member watching our shows are as engaged, critically and emotionally, as a reviewer is.
Zoë Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @_zoekaplan.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at email@example.com on on Twitter at @nathanpugh_3.