To Read or Not to Read

Yesterday, I had a conversation with my editor about the practice of reading scripts ahead of a performance--a performance I'm supposed to review. Lately, I've been trying to make that a regular practice, but also lately I've discovered I'm having trouble bottling a sense of spontaneity in my reviews. Coincidence?

My editor mentioned that another of our critics reads scripts only after seeing the staged production, so as to preserve an audience-eye element of surprise and discovery. Other critics say they always read a script beforehand because, they assert, as critics we're paid to know more about a production than the general public, and part of our research includes some analysis of the playwright's themes and intentions as they appear on the page, as well as tipping us off to any relevant ahead-of-time research.

Hysteria.jpgToday's review, of the Wilma Theater's production of Terry Johnson's Hysteria, begins with a direct comparison between the script and its staged counterpart. In this case, I felt the comparison was absolutely fair. After all, if a play jumps off the page, it ought to similarly jump off the stage. I discussed the issue some more with my editor, who concluded that reading the script beforehand might have caused me to cut the production some extra slack. So what to do?

Obviously, take it to Facebook and Twitter.

I got plenty of responses, some from critics, others from artists and all running the gamut from angry to measured to undecided. The split fell on both sides, with good reasons for both approaches.

On Facebook, Philadelphia artist/director/playwright Robert Smythe begged for an end to text-based reviewing and said, "You are reviewing a production: the sum of its parts. Theater is not a sporting event, where the rules are set before the start and the players are judged as to how well they can play within those rules. It is not the reviewer's job to mine the text for more than the artist found themselves."

On Twitter, Ottowa-based playwright/actor/director @SterlingLynch said reading a script beforehand is "often a good idea, so long as one doesn't 'decide' how the show should work in advance." @subfab who describes himself on the site as a "poet, savior, village idiot," says, "What is the first and most important impression a show should have? Experience or a script? IMHO theatre's should be experience." [BTW, for the uninitiated, IMHO stands for "in my humble opinion." And BTW, for "by the way."]

But what of Romeo and Juliet? Clearly, if you're a critic going to see that for the fourth or seventh or hundredth time, you've not only lost the element of surprise, but ought to be fired if you haven't read it. Same goes for Ibsen, or Chekov, or Beckett and whomever else would fill the pages of your personal anthology of great dramatists. And what of the lesser plays and musicals that happen to have hit town more than once? Why do they get the benefit of extended pre-curtain analysis? Sure, in some cases, say movement-based or improv-based shows, or work that inherently allows some flexibility, a script-based reading is innapropriate. But other than that? 

I'd be inclined to say why not get comfy with a script--not the night before, but maybe a week or so ahead of time so it has a chance to sink in--if only it weren't for that spontaneity issue. Thorny. 

I'm still undecided. How about you?

May 21, 2009 12:15 PM | | Comments (6)


You know, initially, based on the actor's comments in Howie Shapiro's preview for Hysteria, I thought all that pausing was deliberate. Now that he left the cast, I'm not so sure. Have to say though, I loved the script.

I can see how reading the script might help. I, for example, really thought that Freud was having trouble remembering his lines.

On the other hand, considering the serious structural issues that pervade the script, I probably wouldn't even have gone to see it if I'd read it before hand.

A huge issue. In the best of all worlds, a critic would indeed know the text. And much of the time we do. But there is also a lot of pleasure in excountering a work for the first time, on stage, fresh -- which is how most people encounter it. I agree that a critic should know more about the play than (most of) his readers -- a critic should engage more fully with, and have more interesting responses to, even a bad play than most audiences do with a very good one -- but an experienced critic ought usually to meet that goal even if he doesn't know the text. And since of the c.170 shows I review in a year, many, many (most?) are shows I already know, sometimes even too well, and since (with all the other work and writing associated with a full-time critic job) it's pretty near impossible to find time to curl up with the script a week ahead, I make a virtue out of necessilty and revel in my ignorance, enjoying the play fresh off the stage. It's a special treat NOT to know the play in advance.
Ideally you would then read the script AFTER seeing it, before writing the review. But with deadlines and all the other pressures, that's a distant ideal. Ideally, Poe said, you should see a show a dozen or 20 times before reviewing it . . . .
Yes, of course, if your object is to review the director's work, you need to know the script. But if that's your focus, you're writing for a specialized publication, not for a newspaper. Newspaper reviews are for general readers who want to know what's happening in the world -- theater people are welcome to listen in, but they aren't the target audience. If they are, you're taking your publisher's money under false pretenses.
So I say, read the script if you can, and if you can't, try to get your hands on one so your quotes will be accurate (though I think I trust my notes at least as much as I trust a script that might have been changed). But beware of the danger of reviewing the script, not the show. Our job is to review what's on the stage.

It's hard to add much to Sterling's wonderful comments. All that I would say is that if I were running the PR shop at a theater I'd send scripts out freely. It's a great way to ensure that things are quoted properly and that details in set/nuances in dialogue are not inadvertently missed.

Thanks for the discussion. This topic has come up among my writers' circle. IMHO regardless of whether it's before or after attending the performance, read the script. Working directly with the text is the only way to distinguish between the playwright's intent and the director's concept. And let's face it, these visions can, and often are, quite different.

Great post and great use of all the different media.

Actors (the whole production team really) spend an incredible amount of time and energy to make sure each show each night seems like it were being produced for the first time ever that night for that audience only. That's a crucial part of their job: to make every performance seem like a moment of pure spontaneity.

It seems to me that a critic has a similar responsibility. S/he should be able to undertake lot of advanced research and analysis and still be able to sit in the theatre and experience the performance as if she were experiencing it for the first time ever. After all, as you rightly point out, s/he is going to see many classics over and over again.

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