Congratulations on having found your way to the world of learning about drama, theatre history, directing, playwriting, dramaturgy, and acting. Most likely, you have studied with one or more knowledgeable teachers or professors of theatre arts who have encouraged and inspired you to move forward. In this letter to you, I would like to show you how you can apply what you have learned at your high school, college, or university to writing your first theatre review. Working toward publishing your writing will help you to sharpen your critical eye and expand your theatre-related knowledge base. And, by submitting your articles to various publications, you will have the opportunity not only to make a name for yourself, but also to attract more people to the theatre world.
ALL ABOUT JEWISH THEATRE
Several members of the Association for Jewish Theatre (AJT) are actively involved in the process of reviewing. One of them, Dr. Ellen Schiff, writes in-depth reviews of books on theatre and has co-edited several important drama anthologies , while Dr. Irene Backalenick, who wrote the definitive book on the Jewish Repertory Theatre, has become one of the most prolific Jewish theatre critics of our time
You can find some of their reviews and those of many other theatre critics on All About Jewish Theatre (AAJT), the world’s largest Jewish theatre website, which reaches “150,000 weekly visitors from more than 100 countries, presenting a worldwide audience with the vital history and daily streaming of information on Jewish theatre and performing arts”: .
As the Philadelphia correspondent for AAJT for a number of years, I have been following in the footsteps of my colleagues Backalenick and Schiff by writing as many theatre reviews as my teaching schedule allows. I’ll first share with you the approach I took while writing two different articles on the same subject: the ongoing saga of the Bernie Madoff scandal, as seen through the lens of a theatrical portrayal of Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge at the Hedgerow Theatre in Media, PA. I will then walk you through the practical steps you need to take to get your articles into print.
The first Scrooge/Madoff article was recently published in Tel Aviv by AAJT, whose editor-in-chief, Moti Sandak, seeks out and supports reviewers who write insightful articles about Jewish theatre-related productions. AAJT is also launching the Holocaust Theatre online Collection (HTC), the world’s largest assemblage of theatre arts written and performed in the shtetls, occupied territories, and concentration camps. Those of you who have a strong background or interest in modern history could get actively involved in this important project as well.
BROAD STREET REVIEW
I wrote the second article for the Broad Street Review (BSR), “an arts and culture website for Philadelphians with strong opinions.” Its editor-in-chief, journalist Dan Rottenberg, encourages an almost Hemingway-esque style of writing: short, crisp and to the point, ideally with a controversial angle. His publication aims to stimulate discussion of art, theatre, opera, and dance events in the city of not-always-so-brotherly love. He tends to edit both texts and headlines to create a unified style, often pushing the envelope, as reflected in the often heated responses in the “Letters to the Editor” section: .
ONE PLAY, TWO REVIEWS
Now let’s take a look at two articles on the same subject by the same author to see the dramatic differences between two writing and editing styles. First, the longer, more comprehensive Israeli version:
“‘Haunt me no longer!’: Redemption for Bernie Madoff, the American Scrooge, in 2011?”
And then, its shorter, more compressed American counterpart:
“Redemption for Madoff in 2011? Or: Reflections on the American Scrooge”:
As you can see, the main differences between the Tel Aviv review (“Haunt me no longer”) and the Philadelphia article (“Redemption for Madoff in 2011?”) are the divergent writing styles and the amount of detail. The All About Jewish Theatre version is written in a more literary mode and contains detailed information about Madoff, his son’s suicide, and Dickens’ own readings of A Christmas Carol in the United States, in addition to a comparison between the haunted lives of Madoff and Scrooge.
THEATRE REVIEW à la SUBWAY RESTAURANT
By contrast, the short article written for the Broad Street Review, which targets a hip audience of opinionated Philadelphians, contains only the most telling details that show the similarities between the plot of Dickens’ play and Madoff’s actions. One could almost say that the shorter BSR article is the journalistic equivalent of an enticing, quick bite at a popular Subway restaurant.
Although the Philadelphia article appears short and almost terse, it contains a great deal of relevant information. Each detail makes a point that a reader in a hurry could take home, almost like a fresh Subway sandwich on Broad Street with crisp lettuce, biting onions, and the almost-obligatory hot peppers that leave a burning on one’s literary tongue. Rottenberg tends to edit articles that he accepts to make sure that they contain these spicy, attention-grabbing ingredients.
THEATRE REVIEW à la KOSHER RESTAURANT
Compare this very American approach to the Israeli version, geared toward a different audience which includes scholars and supporters of Jewish theatre arts who tend to spend a bit more time enjoying their theatrical meals, more akin to the experience at a modern, international, kosher restaurant in Tel Aviv.
In this case, the gentle editor-chef served my article in the form of a multi-course meal with a number of rich, creamy details, decorated with many images and photos about the main characters and actors, including Dickens himself, who attracted large numbers of spectators to his dramatic readings in America—a kind of lettered hors d'œuvre. The main course of the article reads like a sumptuous entrée, a dish of similarities and differences between Scrooge and Madoff, insights into their individual personalities, and the actual performance at the Hedgerow Theatre.
This supplementary information, like a dessert after a full meal, sets out to create a rounded picture—not only of the controversy surrounding Madoff, the billionaire crook in jail, and his son who hanged himself, but also of the broader effect that Madoff and Ebenezer Scrooge had on the world around them. By providing a fuller picture of the damage that Madoff has caused and the miraculous nature of Scrooge’s redemption, this method of writing sets out to elicit an emotional response in the readers. The article concludes with a cup of strong coffee: the hope of the redemptive features of Christmas and New Year’s.
WRITING TO DIFFERENT AUDIENCES
In some cases, you, as a future reviewer, may wish to stress the life of an author or the entertainment value of a particular performance, while for another publication you may want to explore the philosophy and underlying values of a particular play. You will have available to you a wide range of angles: from the political to the apolitical; from a literary to a technical approach; from capturing the larger cultural zeitgeist, to a very personal, even private, perspective.
Comparing these two reviews of the same subject, you can see that speaking to audiences with a different angle or a different style of writing can expand not only the entries in your resume but, more importantly, help you to reach a much wider readership, especially as the Internet makes all of these articles easily accessible.
HINTS ON GETTING STARTED WITH YOUR FIRST REVIEW
When considering specific outlets for your articles, make sure to check out their guidelines, listed on most publications’ websites. Don’t despair if you have trouble finding submission information at first. Many websites require you to do a little digging to find their guidelines. If all else fails, you can send an inquiry to the journal or website about the required format and word range. Also make sure to read recent reviews in those publications for which you would like to write to increase your chance of getting your review accepted.
Few publications have presented guidelines for young writers as thoroughly and as concisely as BSR’s Rottenberg. Reading his guidelines might be helpful not only for new critics who hope to write for his online publication, but for many budding writers.
Below, a paraphrase of some of the guidelines that he considers to be of benefit to writers of theatre reviews:
1. BSR articles tend to follow the model of the New York Review of Books: or, as Rottenberg puts it, “use the play, concert, opera or event as a jumping-off point to expound on some broader issue.” He, like many good editors, looks for articles that do more than to simply summarize a play’s plot and provide a few comments about the production. Present not only hard facts, but also “original insights.”
2. Addressing the importance of tone, the editor encourages potential writers to “Think of yourself as sitting in my living room with a group of friends. Better still, write as if you’re sending me a personal letter.”
3. Writing a good review can help you move forward in a number of ways, providing you with “(a) an outlet in which to express yourself, (b) the benefit of a professional editor, (c) a showcase before a highly sophisticated audience, (d) a laboratory where you can experiment with new material before sending it off to a book or magazine publisher [. . .].”
For instance, after having read the guidelines and some of the pieces on the Broad Street Review website, I sliced my article “Reflections on the American Scrooge” with a matter-of-fact, straightforward style-knife, concentrating on only one point per paragraph. The editor pared it down further, and even gave it an additional title. As a young writer, you must get used to the idea that editors are like chefs, who have the right to cut, rearrange, and even redecorate the meal you have prepared.
If there is a theatrical production in your area that impacted you, I encourage you to write a review, following the guidelines of the publications to which you relate the most. You might want to start by writing a review for your university or college paper. Then, once you have broken the ice, consider writing some articles for one of the local papers in your area. Who knows? One day, you might even write for a wide range of national and international publications.
In fact, like you, Irene Backalenick started out as a student (at Pembroke College, now part of Brown University). To read about how she became a successful theatre critic against all odds, feel free to check out my biographical article of the woman who is now considered the doyenne of Jewish theatre reviews in the United States.
CONNECT WITH THEATRE PROFESSIONALS
To connect with colleagues in your field, you’ll want to join professional organizations, which you can access through the Encyclopedia of Associations, available in most libraries. If you talk to your librarian, you might even gain access to the online version of this invaluable guide. Once you have become a member of some of these professional, theatre-related organizations, you’ll be able to meet many of the bright and creative people in the field. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask them for advice. You might be surprised at how many experienced professionals value the interest, enthusiasm, and support of theatre arts students.
Feel encouraged to go a step further and ask your drama teachers and professors—many of whom have outstanding connections to the theatre world—for advice. They may help you to get in touch with a writer or theatre critic so that you can conduct an informational interview. Such networking might even lead to an internship with one of those experts, or a referral to other critics associated with the theatre. Those personal contacts can make a huge difference. While I learned a great deal studying drama at universities in Europe and the U.S., I learned more about the practical aspects of the field from people in the theatre world, including critics.
PITCHING, PERSERVERING, AND PRODUCING
Keep on going to the theatre; read plays, drama histories, biographies of playwrights, and contemporary theatre reviews; interview actors, directors, and playwrights; reach out to editors; and draft your own reviews. Before you submit any article, send a letter of inquiry to the editor, also known as “pitching” your idea—just a short but meaningful note outlining what distinguishes your article, bearing in mind the editorial guidelines and the publication’s audience.
If you receive a rejection, send a friendly thank-you note, and either reconceptualize your article or take it to another publication. “Pitching” your article first can therefore help you avoid many days or weeks of waiting in vain for a response. If your first pitch doesn’t lead to an invitation to submit your article, consider tailoring your next article even more closely to the needs of the newspaper, magazine, or website—provided you feel connected to the content and philosophy of the publication. In the long run, you want to build a network of editors with whom you can correspond to more effectively tie in your future articles to their mission.
If you keep at it, sooner or later you will have the opportunity to move forward in your career as a theatre professional, whether as an actor, director, playwright, dramaturg, or theatre critic. Don’t be surprised if one day you find yourself writing thought-provoking reviews at the same high level as Irene Backalenick, Ellen Schiff, and other accomplished theatre reviewers.
Whenever one of your reviews gets published, you may want to share the good news with your friends and professional contacts, including the members of the AJT and other listservs that specialize in theatre. In short, gather your insights and an ounce of chutzpah and send out your first review. Don’t be afraid of rejection notes.
OPEN THE TREASURE CHEST OF THEATRE REVIEWS AND WRITE
After writing your first review, keep building the momentum by seeing more plays and drafting more articles. Steep yourself in thought-provoking theatre reviews by regularly checking out the Broad Street Review, the international All About Jewish Theatre website, and other publications. At the end of most reviews on both sites, you will find a link to many of the other reviews by that same author–a real treasure-trove of theatre articles that might encourage you to learn from one or more of the amazingly wide range of contemporary critics, such as the writers for AAJT:
Judi Herman and a few other London critics
Lisa Traiger in Washington, DC
Debra Cash in Boston
Henrik Eger in Philadelphia:
Also, check out the various critics writing for the BSR:
NO MORE EXCUSES
Right now, you may be busy with countless projects and exams, but if you really want to make a breakthrough as a theatre reviewer, you must make a commitment to writing your first review. Get a hold of a list of the productions in your area, pick at least one play that you could review, and put your pen to paper—or your fingers to the keyboard. Those first few steps could change your life.