What’s it like to be an arts critic? Seesaw editor and performing arts critic Nina Levy answers your questions about the highs and lows of writing reviews.
How do you manage next day deadlines?
Actually, the pressure to get the piece online as quickly as possible is one of the aspects of reviewing that I enjoy most. As any writer knows, it’s easy for a job to take way more time than it should, as words are pondered then lovingly selected, honed and pruned. Writing reviews for an online publication (or a daily newspaper), however, is a bit like doing an exam – I’ve usually got about three hours to write approximately 500 words so discipline is a necessity. As I flex my typing fingers, I feel a surge of adrenalin. There’s nothing like the thrill of a deadline to sharpen the mind.
Do you watch work differently when you are reviewing, in comparison to when you are an ordinary audience member?
Yes! When I’m not reviewing, I’ll sit back, in a sense, and let the performance wash over me. Maybe the ebb and flow will suck me in, or maybe not… it depends on the work. When I’m reviewing, however, I’m engaged from the start, alert to detail, no matter how I feel about what I am watching.
How do you remember what you’ve seen?
I always take notes while watching work, even though I can’t see what I am writing in the dark of the theatre. Those who’ve seen the resulting scrawl usually also ask, “Can you read what you’ve written?” Sometimes I can’t… but it doesn’t matter because I don’t rely heavily on those notes when I write the response. It’s the simple act of taking notes that helps to transfer scenes into my memory.
Is it hard to write reviews?
Although I love being a critic, it comes with challenges. The hardest review to write is one where I have neither loved nor loathed what I have seen. Indifference can be difficult to describe and justify. Sometimes reviewing something I have absolutely loved is challenging too – finding words that will adequately and eloquently convey the experience to the reader.
What if people don’t agree with your review?
A review is an opinion piece. As such, it’s inevitable that not everyone will agree with the conclusions reached. That’s another challenging aspect of being a critic. Whilst I strive for diplomacy in my writing, I’m not always afforded the same consideration by readers… but I’ve learned to harden up.
That doesn’t sound like fun! Why do you do it?
Reviewing brings me joy! I love writing about performances, especially dance. In the auditorium words begin to bubble in my head. Back at my desk, I string adjectives together like beads; a necklace of words.
Sometimes I will see or hear quotes from my reviews used in other contexts – to promote works, artists or companies. That’s always a lovely moment – to know that a review is serving a purpose beyond the page.
A version of this article was first published in dancewest magazine, March 2015.