young reviewers have their say

Flushing High School. 17 March 2011, final class for Primary Voices. Image: Martha Wade Steketee.

The students provide their comments about and reactions to the play throughout our six sessions together as well as a student matinee on March 3, 2011.  Late in the class I am inspired to create a worksheet for thinking systematically through the elements of a production to support an opinion of the show.  I summarize the questions from that worksheet in a prior post.  During the final class session the students work on completing this worksheet.

Here are some of the comments provided by students in this years Primary Voices session in their worksheets, reflecting on their experience reading Black Tie and seeing its full production at Primary Stages.

Which characters were your favorites, and why?

  • “Curtis’s father is my favorite character because I thought he was funny, he always had a joke or a comment for everything.”
  • “My favorite characters were Teddy and the grandfather.  Teddy because he had a good personality and he was cute.  And the grandfather because he added funny humor to the play on set and in the script.”
  • “The father because I liked the way he made fun of Teddy’s fiancée Maya.”
  • “Mimi because she is sarcastic.”
  • “Curtis’s father is my favorite character because he is the funny guy.”
  • “Teddy was my favorite character because he had more emotion and his character was more realistic than everyone else’s.”
  • “Elsie because she was gorgeous!”

What did you think about the lighting? Who designed it?

  • “The lighting fit the play because it shows how each character felt.”

How did the costumes, lighting, props and furniture hep create mood and atmosphere?

  • “It made the mood seem very at home and family oriented.

What was the set like?  Who designed it?  How did it fit into the story?

  • “Comfortable set design by John Arnone gives the feeling of family.”
  • “The set was old school, retro, designed by John Arnone.  It helped show the controversy that was going on in the hotel room.”

What did you think about the play overall?  Were you surprised by any details you read in the play, when you sw it performed on stage?  Did you enjoy your time in the theatre?

  • “I underestimated how good the play was going to be [performed on stage].”
  • “I liked it a lot.  It was hilarious and made reading the play boring (in retrospect).  I thought Elsie and Mimi were hot!”

session 6: questions to write your review

Another way to build a review is to answer a set of simple questions.  The building blocks of a review can come out of the answers to each of these questions.

These questions are adapted from a project like ours called Student Theatre Goers that was started in 2002 in London, England for students to attend theatre performances regularly for three years and write about their experiences.

Answering these questions will create a kind of review of the play you saw.  And in this case, you know even more that the typical theater-goer because you  read the play before attending the performance.

[Basic Information]

  • What is the name of the play?
  • Who is the playwright?
  • What production company is doing the play and where is it located?


  • Who were the main characters?
  • Who played the parts?
  • Which characters were your favorites, and why?

[Production Design]

  • What did you think about the lighting?   Who designed it?
  • What did you think about the costumes?  Who designed them?
  • How did the costumes, lighting, props and furniture help create mood and atmosphere?
  • What was the set like?  Who designed it?  How did it fit into the story?


  • What did you think about the play overall?  Were you surprised by any details you read in the play, when you saw it performed on stage?  Did you enjoy your time in the theatre?


session 5: preparing to write a review

We have read the play.  We have seen a performance of this particular production.  And now, it is time to capture our feelings about the story, the characters, the set, the emotions, the performances, and to capture those feelings in writing.  The experience of a play is fleeting — it happens in real time and then it is over, unlike a film you can pause and rewind and watch again and again.  Thinking about a play and a performance, the details of light and sound and language and story and acting all come quickly and powerfully.  You need to pay attention to it all as it happens and be able to draw upon those memories and write about your reactions in a  good review.

First, some general comments.

Because the performance of any play is a live experience, writing a play review can be an exciting, though difficult, task. You are both a spectator taking in and enjoying the performance and a critical analyst of the production itself. In your written reaction to the play you will provide:

  1. a very brief summary of the play,
  2. a close objective analysis of elements of the performance you attend, and
  3. an interpretation and evaluation of staging, acting, directing, and other elements that address the selected points of your analysis.

You are asked to be objective not impressionistic. A critic is not someone who simply “criticizes,” but a person who studies, analyzes, and then renders a rational judgment or opinions on what he or she has seen.

This review assignment asks you to analyze some elements you carefully select of one performance of one production: Black Tie at Primary Stages in New York City. You are not going to summarize the plot with all its details, or give an opinion of the text of the play you have read as you were asked to do in an earlier blog post.  Now your next task, this review assignment, is focused on the performance of Black Tie we all saw at the student matinee at Primary Stages 59E59 Theatre on March 3, 2011.

Your job is to describe the production in an accurate but limited way, and then make a  judgment of it based upon what you have seen and what you expected based on what you read. The assignment allows you to share what you learned when you read the play and what you experienced as an observer and critic of the performance you attended.

Now, for our task: write a focused review.

You will concentrate on a few  ideas and aspects of the production and focus on only what you consider the most significant parts of the production itself. For our review of Black Tie for this project, you will not cover the entire wide variety of production elements (for example, the performance of every actor, the look of very costume, the location of every piece of scenery).  In your review, you will give a general sense of the production and then develop a few specific thoughts about your experience of the play on the page and on the stage.  You might choose to focus on one of the characters, or on some of the costumes, or on the set, or on how any of these details surprised you based on what you read of the play on paper.  You will do this in several steps:

  1. an introduction
  2. a statement /thesis
  3. the review (interpret, analyze, evaluate)
  4. the summary and conclusion.

Step One: Write the Introduction

The introduction should include, in logical flowing sentences, information you should be able to find in your Playbill or you will know from your notes taken at the time of seeing the play.

  • The title of the play, the name of the playwright, and any historical information about them you’ve learned and that seems appropriate to mention.  For example: Are there other similar works by this playwright?  Are there other similar works that you’ve seen on television or in movies or read in stories that deal with weddings or young people opposing tradition that are similar to or different from this play’s treatment of those themes?
  • The name of the director, the place and date of the production (and performance) you attended, the name of the production company.
  • The thesis of your review (your general impression of the production, focusing on the limited number of points you want to make)

For example:

Black Tie, the newest play by A.R. Gurney,directed by Mark Lamos at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, tells a story of tradition, celebration, and family.  Middle-aged parents Mimi and Curtis, on the evening of their son Teddy’s wedding in an Adirondacks hotel, discuss and debate their feelings about tradition and family with daughter Elsie, son and groom Teddy, and the memory of Curtis’s father. The humor of the writing, the simple staging of the spirit/ghost of Curtis’s father, and the gentle resolution of this story allow for hope in the evolution of long-held traditions, and allow for a lot of laughter.”

[In other words, in my example, my thesis is that the humor of the play is enchanting and enhances the playwright’s point that traditions change or are at least adapted over time.]

Step Two: Write the Statement and Summary

Include a brief thematic summary (but not a plot summary) of the play, and support that summary with concrete evidence from the text.  You can include this summary in the introduction (as I did in the underlined text in my example above).  Or if you wish to expand the summary, you can include it in a separate paragraph following the introduction.

Step Three:  Write the Review

As briefly and precisely as possible, describe in detail the physical aspects of what you saw performed. Keep in mind that whatever you include here must in some way contribute to the assertion you make in your introduction and thesis. Focus on particular scenes or performances that will provide the evidence for your final evaluation of the play.

For example:

Black Tie provides constant movement in its 90 intermission-less minutes that begins with Curtis and his long-dead father who arrives out of a modest hotel closet in full black tie (and fades on and off stage when Curtis no longer needs him), debating traditions out of Chaucer and Mark Twain and medieval sayings of “below the salt” and formal presentation concepts such as “off the cuff” and ends with Curtis departing to participate in his son’s wedding.  Curtis is the only character who sees this ghost of his father with whom only he converses during the play, yet wife Mimi feels the presence of the long dead father-in-law as long married people do.  Mimi says: you’ve been talking an awful lot about your father … he’s hovering in the room like Hamlet’s Ghost.  Unlike Hamlet’s Ghost in this play, however, our paternal spirit is friendly, advice giving, sometimes a little too traditional, always well-meaning.  Daniel Davis as this hovering spirit provides a beautiful and gently quite hilarious performance as the black-tie suited ghost.”

[In a full review I might examine the pacing of the revelations by Teddy of the surprise guest at the rehearsal dinner — the ex-husband of the bride who expects to do stand-up at the dinner and his gay partner, and how Curtis and the ghost react to these new revelations.  In this example of a focused review, the details are pared down to the illustrations of the humor of the play and the theme of holding onto and then modifying traditions.]

Step Four: Interpret, Analyze, Evaluate

Finally, you will evaluate the elements of the production you have described in the earlier sentences.  If you focused on describing the setting of the play and the design of the hotel room in Black Tie, here is your chance to talk about whether it works or doesn’t work.  Does it look as you expected from reading the play — and if not, why not?

In my example of humor and pacing, I might describe the entrances and exits of the multiple characters, and reflect on whether there were too many of them and whether they all worked similarly well.  For example, in my reading of Black Tie, I thought there were too many appearances and exits of Elsie — in performance, as performed by Elvy Yost and directed by Mark Lamos, those three appearances all seemed quite necessary.  In this case, my reactions from my readings of the play were altered by seeing the play on stage.

You will come up with your own examples, your own favorite moments and themes to address, your own details upon which to focus.  You’ve all had reactions to what you read and observed — now our task is to put some of them on paper.
Some of the text above has been freely adapted from a few paragraphs that appear in the University of Wisconsin Writing Center’Writer’s Handbook section on “How to Review a Play”.
The full original Wisconsin Writing Center Handbook source:

session 4: theatre etiquette

A Little Essay on Theatre Etiquette

We’ve read the play, we begun to analyze it, and now we’re ready to attend the student matinée on March 3, 2011.  There are a few rules of the road to follow to be a considerate audience member.

Talking. Please remember that this is not a movie. The people on the stage can hear and see you.  Your reactions fuel them.  Your negative actions can also affect them.  Although you may never see this reaction, because being performers, they are skilled at hiding them, you are affecting them.  The performers and all those people behind the scenes have worked very hard to create the production you’re about to see.  Please show them the respect they deserve.  Also remember that the people sitting near you did not come to hear your conversation with your buddy, either in the theatre or on the phone.  They did not come to hear you rattle paper or your kid fuss.  They came to enjoy the performance.

No cell phones: Don’t let them ring or buzz during a performance.  Do not speak on them during a performance.  If you must take an emergency call, leave the auditorium and only begin speaking to your caller once you are away from the rest of the audience.

Coming and Going: Please do not enter or leave the auditorium during a performance unless it is an emergency.  Please arrive before the performance begins. The time posted is the time the show actually starts… there are no commercials or previews!  It is the option of the theatre to prevent audience members from entering the auditorium until intermission or at least a scene change.

Noises: You may not notice it, but candy or cough drop wrappers, whether unwrapped quickly or slowly, make a lot of noise!  Please don’t unwrap them during the performance.  If you suspect you will need one, have a supply on hand already unwrapped.

Fidgeting: Please sit still.  Ramming elbows into your neighbor or kicking the seat in front of you is highly annoying.

Sight Lines: Be aware that hats and large hairdos impede sight lines for people behind you.  Take hats off in the theatre.

Pictures: Usually photography of any kind is prohibited during a performance.

But there’s lots of room for responding to the play.

  • Do laugh in the appropriate places.
  • Do applaud with enthusiasm in the appropriate places.
  • Do tell all your friends, after the show, what a great time you had.

[This posting is based on an excellent essay posted by the San Antonio Theatre Coalition:]

sessions 2 and 3 topic: reading the play

The students are provided the unpublished working script that the actors at Primary Stages have used for this play in development. Some pages are quite recently reworked drafts, some pages are small inserts, and they all flow into a story involving five characters, one family event, and several new traditions coming face-to-face.

We talk about some questions about how the story is told as we prepare to see the page on stage in a few weeks, and to write responses to the production as formal reviews.

  • What does the title tell us about the play?  What does the title mean?
  • What is the genre of the play — comedy tragedy, romance? Is the play funny or tragic?
  • Does the setting fit the action and style of the play? How does the setting affect the overall feel of the play?
  • What is the basic plot of the play? Does action build to a climax? Is there a particular rhythm to the action in the play?
  • Who are the characters in the play? How are they related? Do they have distinct ways of speaking? Are they funny or serious or something else?
  • Are the stage directions detailed?  Does reading these descriptions of character movements and sometimes feelings and reactions help to understand the world of the play on stage?
  • When is the action of the play set (today, yesterday, years ago)? Is there historical background you need to understand the action of the play?
  • Are there themes or messages or morals in the play?

The students will be developing answers to these questions in class and in their reviews over the next few weeks.

EDIT (March 18, 2010): The student responses to this blog entry have been updated, some with small edits by their classroom teacher,  and a few have been deleted as incomplete or non responsive.


session 1 topic: why theatre criticism?

During the first session I’m still getting my bearings and, it turns, out, introducing myself to just a portion of the class.  It is Chinese New year this first class day, February 3, 2011, and the Chinese members of the class are out for what is for them a recognized holiday.  About 15 class members and I meet each other, talk about the general flow of the class, talk a bit about the plot of the play Black Tie which we will begin to read next week.  And I take the opportunity to talk a bit about why making theatre and seeing theatre and writing about theatre gets me excited.  And my hope that I am able to get them excited about expressing their own unique impressions in class and on paper and, in the end, on this blog.

I share excerpts with them from an essay published in the Chicago Reader July 5, 2002.  Albert Williams, respected and long time theatre critic for that outlet, adapted notes from his keynote speech to the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association that he gave June 13, 2002 at the Goodman Theatre.  Here I share many of the thoughts expressed by this man who grew up loving theatre, has spent hours in classes and schools and in theatres expressing that love, and sees the opportunity to write about theatre as a privilege, with a purpose.

Albert Williams.  “What Makes A Critic Tick?”.  The Chicago Reader.  July 5, 2002.

[for the full article see:]

On role:

I can’t define the “role of the critic.” No one can, though many will try. Everyone has an opinion about that role, and those opinions often clash. Well, there can be no drama without conflict–why should drama criticism be any different? I think each critic defines his or her role by the way we each do our jobs.

On review as tool:

At Indiana University I studied opera direction under a teacher named Ross Allen, who taught me an invaluable lesson. Reviews, he said, were a research tool–the best ones were written not just for their own time but for the record.

On range of critic backgrounds (Williams’ sample in 2002 but illustrative):

I also coordinate and assign the theater reviews, spreading them among a team of a dozen writers, each of whom has an individual voice and vision, each of whom probably defines the role of the critic in a different way. Many of them are or have been active in the theater as actors, playwrights, directors, performance artists, singers, and publicists. Most also hold day jobs–bookstore clerk, dot-com marketing manager, editorial assistant, AIDS legal caseworker, teacher. One’s a househusband who’s staying home to raise the baby he and his wife recently brought back from Ukraine.

Critic as teacher:

I said that each of us defines the role of the critic for himself. I define the role of the critic as a teacher. A teacher, ideally, is someone who knows more about the topic at hand than most of the students–someone who’s done his research and isn’t shy about bringing it to bear on the discussion. A teacher is a stickler for accuracy, checking his facts, making sure names are spelled right. A teacher encourages the best by always demanding better. A teacher is interesting to listen to and sensitive to his own use of language.

Writing criticism to get to understanding:

Writing is the process and language the tool with which I organize my jumbled thoughts and communicate my understanding of the art I’ve seen. But I have to be careful not to let the sound of my writing obscure my content or disguise muddled or shallow thinking. Sometimes my editors will question what I’ve said or how I’ve said it and suggest alternatives. Even if I reject their suggestions, their criticism helps me find better solutions.

Critic rules:

Critics signal the standards of excellence they expect from artists by the standards they set in their own work. Why should anyone take the opinion seriously, remembering what Tyrone Guthrie said, of someone who gets facts wrong, misspells names, or uses poor grammar or imprecise words?

Check your language, your facts, your assertions, and your assumptions.

Expect artists to succeed, but respect their right to fail. Theater is about process, about the long-term growth of an artist and the community, about the risks of live performance. And failure is part of that process and that risk–as is the thrill of discovery.

Critic audience:

When people ask me, “Whom do you write for?” I answer, “The future.” … With every review a critic publishes–with every word he writes and rewrites, every draft he throws out and every draft he polishes–he’s building the future. And a personal legacy.

the game plan

Flushing High School 31 January 2011. Image: Martha Wade Steketee.

The class room teacher and I meet a few days before our first meeting with her students to get me oriented to their class routine and how to get around massive Flushing High.  At that time we made a few edits to what I soon finalized as the game plan for the next few weeks — once a week meetings for a few weeks before and after attendance at the planned student matinne — including a week off for a week-long school break of some kind.

Details of particular class sessions may be altered and the last two sessions outlined may be combined.  However, the major flow of the adventure will follow this outline.

Primary Stages Primary Voices on Theatre Criticism
Syllabus Winter 2011

Date Class # Topics / Assignments
2/3 1 Introductions, syllabus review, playbill discussion, introductory remarks on theatre criticism.
2/10 2 Discussion of plot  and character analysis and begin reading Black Tie
2/17 3 Continue reading Black Tie script and discuss
3/3 4 Refine questions to ask at matinee
Review production elements and cast lists and themes
3/3 5 Attend student matinee of Black Tie
3/10 6 Round table reaction to the production, review published reviews of A Free Man of Color, and other samples.  Discuss ideas for their own reviews
3/17 7 Review critiques and edits, prepare for final revisions
3/24 8 Present final reviews in class,  read them on camera, and provide copies to be posted to the project blog

new year new focus

This is a whole new year for Primary Voices, a New York City in-school arts education program run by Primary Stages theatre company.  Primary Stages has provided free student matinees since 1995 and expanded this program to include accompanying in-school arts education in 2007. Primary Voices gets students jazzed about the play before they attend, through reading, analyzing, working with the text and themes, and writing about the experiences afterward.

I am a dramaturg and theatre writer (and blogger about theatre at who enters this program with her own favorite agenda: teaching theatre criticism.  I will be introducing the students to critical writing about live theatre using this year’s production as the focus.  We will read the spanking new play Black Tie, now in previews at  59E59 theatres, dig into its themes and details, attend the play, and write about it critically.

In addition, the student matinée and its talkback session and a final class during which the students will discuss their final reviews will be videotaped by a professional colleague.

I have created this blog to be more about what the students create than what I may think.  I’ll start out with some posts that give my plans for the class and excerpts from some readings that may illustrate the challenge and the wonder and the privilege I believe are part of being a critic in the theatre.