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This winter, STC has affectionately poked fun at the figure that all theatre makers at once fear and admire, laud and condemn, pretend to disregard but actually want to take out for drinks—the theatre critic. In both Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, we are able to live out our most ludicrous fantasies about critics—be it that critics gather every morning to compare opinions of last night’s show, or that, well, every once in a while a cheeky critic might have cause to watch his back as he sits in a dark theatre…. However, as we have learned again and again, theatre critics are on the whole good-natured and willing to laugh at themselves and at the fallacies that surround their profession—so long as the person telling the jokes is aware that theatre critics are practiced writers, who are quite capable of using their pens to exact revenge (in an unbiased manner that is within the assigned word count, of course).
In the spirit of these productions, we reached out to our critics to learn a little about them and about theatre criticism. We will share their answers to our survey throughout the run of The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound.
STC QUESTION: As a theatre critic, what are your favorite and least favorite phrases to use and read in reviews? (i.e. “visual feast,” “bold, artistic risk,” “dazzling spectacle,” etc.).
If I’m repeating well-worn phrases in my reviews, then they can no longer be my favorites! I try to vary up my prose so as not to bore the reader with tired writing. Least favorites would be anything you’re naming above, plus “a delight,” “riotously fun,” and referring to performances as “good” or “bad.”
–Andrew Lapin, Freelance Journalist and Arts Critic
Favorite phrases: “trying to determine what this play’s about is as challenging as teaching your dog about Man Ray”; “it puts the boom-shaka-lacka in the standard booty call scene”; “she plays a pillar of salt in a pantsuit”; and “the character’s a ne’er-do-well who ne’er grew up.”
Least favorite phrases: “a Tony-worthy performance,” “scenery-chewing,” “the best thing I’ve ever seen this year/in my life/since time began,” and “he/she is a genius.”
–Jayne Blanchard, DC Theatre Scene
When I see something really good, I like to address my readers as “brothers and sisters.” I like to talk about the “fictive dream” and about actors “inhabiting” their roles. That is because I believe good theatre allows us to leave ourselves behind and join with those who share our experience as part of a fresh creation (even if it is a very old play).
When I hear a critic call something “must-see,” I know he is using the language sloppily. We must eat, drink, breathe, and sleep, and there are a few other functions we must do. Otherwise, we’re on our own.
–Tim Treanor, DC Theatre Scene
I have two simplistic phrases I keep in reserve to describe specific genres of plays. An “affirmation of life” is a play where a leading character dies (i.e., The Diary of Anne Frank). In a “triumph of the human spirit,” a leading character suffers bravely and endures (i.e., The Piano Lesson). Note: The examples are plays I like very much. I’ve also seen these tropes done badly.
–Susan Berlin, TalkinBroadway
I don’t really have any specific phrases that either please me or displease me. I try to make each review a unique experience, if possible.
–Susan Davidson, CurtainUp
I once used the word “eldritch” in a review. I had a very good reason for it, though I can’t remember what that reason was. To my great delight, my editor left the word in. So I guess “eldritch” ranks as a favorite. I am not fond of certain food-related words when used as gushing praise for theatre. When used in a play review, words like “delectable,” “juicy,” “luscious,” “succulent,” etc., give me the shudders. I don’t mind “piquant” and “zesty,” though; I use those regularly. (A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson noted….)
Should be banned: any and all iterations of the word “triumphant.”
–Kate Wingfield, Metro Weekly
One of my favorite phrases comes from Max Beerbohm’s review of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. He called it “Hamlet, Princess of Denmark.”
I personally would like to retire, “Let there be dancing in the streets!” If there was going to be dancing, we should have seen some by now!
Hate things like “bouncy” and “a laugh riot”!
–Susan Galbraith, DC Theatre Scene
“Transcendent” and “brilliant” are my favorite words to use, but I’ve overused them to the point I now consider them annoying.
–Eric Minton, Shakespeareances.com