Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review Squared, March 5, 2013

Short and Sweet
by Valerie Cardinal

We are living in the Age of the Internet. There’s no use denying it when most of you reading this now are doing so on your own laptops, and will probably be checking your Facebook pages right after. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many online publications, such as Toronto’s The Grid, have opted for shorter, 300-words-or-less reviews. But is less really more?
I took a look at two reviews of The San Family, playing this week in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Elissa Barnard at the Chronicle Herald used 570 words, while Kate Watson at the Coast stuck to only 178 words. 

With a short review, being concise is key. A few summers ago, I was part of The Charlebois Post’s team of critics for the Montreal Fringe Festival. Since there were so many productions, we had to turn out reviews in 300 words or less. It was tough, as an unforgiving word count makes you get straight to the point. 

Although shorter reviews are punchier and pithier, there are some definite drawbacks.

There’s no time to get too specific in a short review. In Barnard’s review of The San Family, she goes quite deep into the play’s setting in a sanatorium. Watson doesn’t have the space to do that, instead describing the play as “An interesting story that educators will love for shining a light on the shameful segregation of the past while offering an ultimately hopeful message.” This gives you an enticing view of what the show is about, while not giving you any specific details. 

Although shorter reviews are punchier and pithier, there are some definite drawbacks. Barnard has the space to elaborate about set design, sound design, costumes and lighting, and even fit in a comment about the writer. Meanwhile, the only aspect besides the acting that Watson can elaborate on is the music, which is integral to the plot. 

Towards the end of Barnard’s review, it seems like she’s searching for things to bump up her word count, as she discusses things such as the possibility of the play being turned into a feature film. Watson doesn’t have any time to dilly-dally about that. 

In way, shorter reviews are about telling people what they really want to know, which is whether or not the show is worth seeing. Keeping it short means readers quickly get the feel of the production. 

Of course, there are extremes to short reviews, influenced in particular by Twitter. For example, The Broadway Reporter’s homepage boasts that it’s “home of the two sentence Broadway review.” There are Twitter accounts dedicated to reviewing theatre in 140 characters or less, such as the London-based 140 Theatre Critics. Although I come from a journalistic environment where getting to the point quickly is strongly encouraged, this seems like too much of a good thing. 200 words can give you a good idea of a show. 200 characters probably cannot do that. 

[Publisher's note: The Charlebois Post policy on review length is now: "Write what you need to say, then stop."]

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