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Honors College: Write a Review

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Write a Review



by Page R. Laws, Ph.D. (Retired)

 Norfolk State University


As you view a performance, take careful and copious notes with the following questions in mind. The bottom-line question you must answer for your readers is the obvious one: “Is this play / opera / film / ballet, etc. worth seeing?” A related, but slightly different, question you must answer is, “Was it a good decision for this particular arts organization to attempt this particular work?” A good reviewer will always answer these two questions, but most often he or she will do so indirectly or implicitly. If you, the reviewer, answer all or most of the questions below, you will probably find that your overall evaluation of the performance becomes clear.


  • In what context does this work belong?


  • How does it relate to works by the same artist (author, composer, painter, etc.)?


  • How does it compare to works on similar themes by other artists?


  • How does it compare to works of the same genre by other artists?


If your reader needs certain basic facts about the artist’s life and work in order to appreciate the work, it is up to you to pass on these facts. Credit any outside sources, including playbills, appropriately. Also consider the following questions:


  • If the work is an adaptation, is it a successful one?


  • How does this production compare to past productions you may know?


  • Does the performance have unity of effect? Has the director (or curator, in the case of a visual arts exhibit) seen to it that the sets, costumes, music, acting, etc. work in harmony to create an impression? Is it clear to you which particular themes or aspects of the work especially interested the director of this production or show? Do you agree with his/her emphasis on those particular themes?


  • How do individual performances affect the whole? Which actors (singers, dancers, etc.) were standouts and why? Which actors let you down and why? You must be specific in your remarks and cover every performance of an important (main) character. Remember to distinguish carefully between the actor and the character he or she is portraying. Place blame or praise where it most likely belongs (on the playwright, the director, the actor) remembering the difficulty of such assessments when dealing with a collaborative art form.  The first time you mention a character’s name in a review, be certain to place the actor’s name in parentheses right afterwards.


  • Did this performance fulfill your expectations? Did it disturb you or make you think? How long did its impact last? Did this performance make you see something new about a familiar text? Did it make you understand something about life in a new way?


OTHER IMPORTANT HINTS: Write down anything you find striking or unusual during the performance, even if it is a brief line of dialogue or a gesture. If the curtain is raised (assuming there is a curtain at all), use the time before the performance begins to write a description of the set. Note set changes and how they are done. Note lighting changes and the use of music before and/or during the performance. Note the physical qualities of the theater itself, especially if the stage is anything other than a proscenium.


Punctuate the titles of films, plays and operas according to MLA-style rules. The first time you mention a film’s title, you MUST follow it by the year of its release, placed in parentheses. The first time you mention a character’s name (in a film, play or opera) you MUST follow it, in parentheses, with the actor’s name; thereafter, the name is not required.


When you write your final draft, avoid first person; this is important for creating and maintaining an authoritative tone. Use descriptive (also called historical) present and its accompanying sequence of tenses when discussing the special world of the artistic text itself  (e.g. the world within a play, opera or symphony). Use past tense and its accompanying sequence when discussing finite details of the particular production you are reviewing. Remember to give your essay a good title, i.e., one that suggests your thesis idea.


EAVESDROP ON CONVERSATIONS AROUND YOU before, during, and after the performance. It is very important to get a feeling for how other people are reacting, whether you agree with their reactions or not. It is ultimately your opinion, supported by multiple examples and a strong thesis idea that matters.  Avoid reading other critics’ reviews until you have finished your own. If you should read another critic and wish to borrow from him or her, use proper documentation to give credit.


       ONE FINAL NOTE: Since theaters rightly discourage the use of flashlights by critics, practice writing in the dark. Remember to turn the pages of your notebook (quietly) once each is filled up. Otherwise you may write on top of and thereby obliterate your most brilliant insights. Enjoy your power as a mighty critic, but use it wisely and well.









Remember that while some shots are more ‘neutral’ than others, every shot in a film – even a documentary – is planned and executed by one or more human beings and therefore reflects some particular point of view. Here is some terminology useful for training the eye and guiding the speech of film analysis.


Shot -- the length of film created by a single running of the camera. It may entail hundreds of frames (the 'motion' of a motion picture being an optical illusion created by discreet still frames run swiftly past a strong light source and projected two-dimensionally) or many thousands.


Long shot -- the camera is placed a considerable distance from the object or person being photographed. This may convey a feeling of emotional distance from the object or the grandeur of its surroundings.


Medium shot -- the camera is placed so that the object fills the screen in an expected (i.e. conventionally neutral) manner.


Close-up -- the camera is placed so that the object fills more of the screen than expected. There is an emotional charge to any close-up.


Pan -- the camera sweeps across our field of vision, creating a sense of ordinary expected movement or extraordinarily charged movement.


Edit -- the joining of two shots together. Editing creates the structure of a film and can either be intended to be noticed (as in film makers fond of the montage technique) or not. Editing that does not force the viewer to make aesthetic judgments is sometimes called 'invisible'.  All editing, however, creates meanings because our minds must connect separate shots to mentally follow a storyline.


Low angle shot -- camera placement below eye-level. This tends to make us (the viewers) 'look up to' the subject being photographed.


High angle shot -- camera placement above eye-level. This tends to make us 'look down on' the subject being photographed, i.e. to see it (or him or her) as if we were superior in understanding or knowledge. This effect is similar to irony in literature.


POV shot -- point of view shot. The things seen in a film are sometimes supposed to be perceived as if they are being seen through a certain character's eyes. Since the camera is the organ of vision, the pure POV shot would be made by placing the camera exactly 'on top of' the character whose view we are supposedly getting. Since this is impractical, and since it is jarring for actors to look directly into the lens of the camera (that makes them seem to talk directly to the audience) various conventions exist to simulate and suggest we are seeing something from a certain character's point of view. The most common convention is the establishing shot (to locate the character whom the camera is impersonating within the room) followed by a shot from that now-established-as-that-character's spot or a shot over the shoulder of the pertinent 'seeing' character.

prl, rev. 10/20/15