Throughout my two weeks at the National Critics Institute, I had various daily assignments related to theater criticism and arts journalism. Most were reviews, although they took various forms and involved numerous directives.
For one assignment, I had to craft an entire review without using any adjectives. That was downright painful. I have a monstrous habit of relying all-too-heavily on superfluous descriptive words. Just take a look at this paragraph, and think of all the words I couldn't use in an adjective-free review: entire, monstrous, all-too-heavily, superfluous, descriptive, downright, adjective-free, etc. Oy.
Toward the end of the NCI experience, one of my assignments was to distill my notes from the previous two weeks into a sort of critic's manifesto: a collection of lessons, aphorisms, and watchcries gleaned from the comments and observations of my various critic mentors and fellow critic fellows.
Credit where it's due, the following list came mostly from the collected wit and wisdom of my esteemed critic mentors: Mark Blankenship, Michael Feingold, J. Wynn Rousuk, Michael Phillips, Andy Propst, Leonard Jacobs, Julius Novick, and the redoubtable Dan Sullivan, who is also the director of the NCI.
So, here is the gist, a practical list of dos and don'ts for critics. I print them here to give you a sense of what the discussions were like, as well as what I hope to adopt and adapt as I strive to become a better critic. I will also be including the list as a permanent link in the "pages" section of this blog. I'm asking you, dear reader, to peruse the list and hold me accountable. And feel free to use them in your own critical writing endeavors.
A Critic’s Manifesto
Compiled By: Christopher Caggiano
- I will be both specific and brave.
- I will be fair but tough.
- I will endeavor to start conversations rather than be the final word. “You’re right, and I disagree."
- I will write to serve the reader rather than my ego.
- I will remember that I am a critic, even if it’s “only” for an online venue or a small-town paper.
- I will not strive for “objectivity” but rather “informed subjectivity.”
- I will continually ask and answer Goethe’s three questions:
1. What is the author trying to achieve? (i.e. intent)
2. How successful was the attempt? (i.e. execution)
3. Was it worth doing in the first place? (i.e. value)
- I will put shows into historical, political, and artistic context, but only when necessary.
- I will review the play at hand, not the play I wish I were seeing.
- I will avoid playing show doctor. I’m there to judge whether the show works, not suggest what the authors should do to fix it.
- I will ask whether the play has earned my emotional response, or whether it’s yanking my chain.
- I will focus on the result rather than speculate about intent. This goes for authors, directors, and actors.
- I will avoid adopting the show’s failings in my writing. (e.g. Just because the show is overly emotional…)
- I will “take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.” -- Lewis Carroll (i.e. I will focus on making sense versus sounding smart.)
- I will not impose my own message onto the show.
- I will take out that first paragraph, when appropriate.
- I will focus on supporting my opinion more than stating and repeating it.
- I will show readers something they couldn’t see on their own.
- I will let my review take its own shape rather than following a formula.
- I will remember that plays can ask questions that they don’t necessarily answer.
- I will avoid plot spoilers, using them only when necessary.
- I will eschew meaningless or nonspecific adjectives, such as “interesting,” “brilliant,” “amazing,” “stunning,” “breathtaking,” and “terrific.”
- I will adapt the fashion advice of Coco Chanel. Words are like accessories. “You should take three off before you leave home.”
- I will use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. “Adjectives will cost you a dollar. Adverbs will cost you ten.”
- I will focus on fewer points, but provide more specific support for each.
- I will “kill my darlings” when necessary. (i.e. I will not fall in love with turns of phrase.)
- I will vary my sentence length for readability’s sake.
- I will include enough plot information to make my point clear, but not so much that it dominates the review.
- I will take out phrases or sentences that could apply to any play.
- I will paint the room, then add the furniture. (i.e. I will consider carefully the factual info that the piece really needs.)
- I will experiment with creative leads to induce the reader to read on.
- I will find ways of working the phrase “a bagful of harmonicas” into my prose.
- I will remain open to criticism. There’s always room for improvement. (i.e. I will both “dish it out” and “take it” as well.)
- I will never stop adding to my theatrical knowledge base.
- I will read and reread the theater criticism of George Bernard Shaw. Also Kenneth Tynan, George Jean Nathan, Brooks Atkinson, Walter Kerr, and Harold Clurman.
- I will read John Simon and avoid his pointless cruelty.
- I will not be afraid to be the cheese who stands alone. If I’m the only critic who hated or loved a show, I will make my best case and stick to my guns.
- I will do my research before attending the show.
- I will follow my fear. “Fear points like an arrow into the direction you must go.”
- I will “review the rain.” (i.e. I am there as a reporter as well as a critic. If something unusual happens, it’s fair game for the review.)
- I will watch the actors at curtain call. It’s only polite, and I might learn something.
- I will make myself available to readers, but maintain an independent voice.
- I will not allow friendship or acquaintance to influence my reviews. If the relationship is that important, I will not review the show.
- I will find ways to put a human face on the people I’m writing about.
- I will allow readers to put a human face on me.
- I will be an advocate for the theater, seeking to enhance rather than detract.
- I will heed the words of David Mamet: “You are as much a member of the theater community as anyone else.”